The sun was rising. Very slowly it came up over the horizon shaking out light. But the sky was so vast, so cloudless, that to fill it with light took time. Very gradually the clouds turned blue; leaves on forest trees sparkled; down below a flower shone; eyes of beasts — tigers, monkeys, birds — sparkled. Slowly the world emerged from darkness. The sea became like the skin of an innumerable scaled fish, glittering gold. Here in the South of France the furrowed vineyards caught the light; the little vines turned purple and yellow; and the sun coming through the slats of the blinds striped the white walls. Maggie, standing at the window, looked down on the courtyard, and saw her husband’s book cracked across with shadow from the vine above; and the glass that stood beside him glowed yellow. Cries of peasants working came through the open window.
The sun, crossing the Channel, beat vainly on the blanket of thick sea mist. Light slowly permeated the haze over London; struck on the statues in Parliament Square, and on the Palace where the flag flew though the King, borne under a white and blue Union Jack, lay in the caverns at Frogmore. It was hotter than ever. Horses’ noses hissed as they drank from the troughs; their hoofs made ridges hard and brittle as plaster on the country roads. Fires tearing over the moors left charcoal twigs behind them. It was August, the holiday season. The glass roofs of the great railway stations were globes incandescent with light. Travellers watched the hands of the round yellow clocks as they followed porters, wheeling portmanteaus, with dogs on leashes. In all the stations trains were ready to bore their way through England; to the North, to the South, to the West. Now the guard standing with his hand raised dropped his flag and the tea-urn slid past. Off the trains swung through the public gardens with asphalt paths; past the factories; into open country. Men standing on bridges fishing looked up; horses cantered; women came to doors and shaded their eyes; the shadow of the smoke floated over the corn, looped down and caught a tree. And on they passed.
In the station yard at Wittering, Mrs Chinnery’s old victoria stood waiting. The train was late; it was very hot. William the gardener sat on the box in his buff-coloured coat with the plated buttons flicking the flies off. The flies were troublesome. They had gathered in little brown clusters on the horses’ ears. He flicked his whip; the old mare stamped her hoofs; and shook her ears, for the flies had settled again. It was very hot. The sun beat down on the station yard, on the carts and flies and traps waiting for the train. At last the signal dropped; a puff of smoke blew over the hedge; and in a minute people came streaming out into the yard, and here was Miss Pargiter carrying her bag in her hand and a white umbrella. William touched his hat.
“Sorry to be so late,” said Eleanor, smiling up at him, for she knew him; she came every year.
She put her bag on the seat and sat back under the shade of her white umbrella. The leather of the carriage was hot behind her back; it was very hot — hotter even than Toledo. They turned into the High Street; the heat seemed to make everything drowsy and silent. The broad street was full of traps and carts with the reins hanging loose and the horses’ heads drooping. But after the din of the foreign market-places how quiet it seemed! Men in gaiters were leaning against the walls; the shops had their awnings out; the pavement was barred with shadow. They had parcels to fetch. At the fishmonger’s they stopped; and a damp white parcel was handed out to them. At the ironmonger’s they stopped; and William came back with a scythe. Then they stopped at the chemist’s; but there they had to wait, because the lotion was not yet ready.
Eleanor sat back under the shade of her white umbrella. The air seemed to hum with the heat. The air seemed to smell of soap and chemicals. How thoroughly people wash in England, she thought, looking at the yellow soap, the green soap, and the pink soap in the chemist’s window. In Spain she had hardly washed at all; she had dried herself with a pocket handkerchief standing among the white dry stones of the Guadalquivir. In Spain it was all parched and shrivelled. But here — she looked down the High Street — every shop was full of vegetables; of shining silver fish; of yellow- clawed, soft-breasted chickens; of buckets, rakes and wheel- barrows. And how friendly people were!
She noticed how often hats were touched; hands were grasped; people stopped, talking, in the middle of the road. But now the chemist came out with a large bottle wrapped in tissue paper. It was stowed away under the scythe.
“Midges very bad this year, William?” she asked, recognising the lotion.
“Tarrible bad, miss, tarrible,” he said, touching his hat. There hadn’t been such a drought since the Jubilee she understood him to say; but his accent, his singsong and Dorsetshire rhythm, made it difficult to catch what he said. Then he flicked his whip and they drove on; past the market cross; past the red brick town hall, with the arches under it; along a street of bow-windowed eighteenth- century houses, the residences of doctors and solicitors; past the pond with chains linking white posts together and a horse drinking; and so out into the country. The road was laid with soft white dust; the hedges, hung with wreaths of travellers’ joy, seemed also thick with dust. The old horse settled down into his mechanical jog-trot, and Eleanor lay back under her white umbrella.
Every summer she came to visit Morris at his mother-in-law’s house. Seven times, eight times she had come she counted; but this year it was different. This year everything was different. Her father was dead; her house was shut up; she had no attachment at the moment anywhere. As she jolted through the hot lanes she thought drowsily, What shall I do now? Live there? she asked herself, as she passed a very respectable Georgian villa in the middle of a street. No, not in a village she said to herself; and they jogged through the village. What about that house then, she said to herself, looking at a house with a verandah among some trees. But then she thought, I should turn into a grey-haired lady cutting flowers with a pair of scissors and tapping at cottage doors. She did not want to tap at cottage doors. And the clergyman — a clergyman was wheeling his bicycle up the hill — would come to tea with her. But she did not want the clergyman to come to tea with her. How spick and span it all is she thought; for they were passing through the village. The little gardens were bright with red and yellow flowers. Then they began to meet village people; a procession. Some of the women carried parcels; there was a gleaming silver object on the quilt of a perambulator; and one old man clasped a hairy-headed coco-nut to his breast. There had been a Fête she supposed; here it was, returning. They drew to the side of the road as the carriage trotted past, and cast steady curious looks at the lady sitting under her green and white umbrella. Now they came to a white gate; trotted briskly down a short avenue; and drew up with a flourish of the whip in front of two slender columns; door-scrapers like bristling hedgehogs; and a wide open hall door.
She waited for a moment in the hall. Her eyes were dimmed after the glare of the road. Everything seemed pale and frail and friendly. The rugs were faded; the pictures were faded. Even the Admiral in his cocked hat over the fireplace wore a curious look of faded urbanity. In Greece one was always going back two thousand years. Here it was always the eighteenth century. Like everything English, she thought, laying down her umbrella on the refectory table beside the china bowl, with dried rose leaves in it, the past seemed near, domestic, friendly.
The door opened. “Oh Eleanor!” her sister-in-law exclaimed, running into the hall in her fly-away summer clothes, “How nice to see you! How brown you look! Come into the cool!”
She led her into the drawing-room. The drawing-room piano was strewn with white baby-linen; pink and green fruit glimmered in glass bottles.
“We’re in such a mess,” said Celia, sinking onto the sofa. “Lady St. Austell has only just this minute gone, and the Bishop.”
She fanned herself with a sheet of paper.
“But it’s been a great success. We had the bazaar in the garden. They acted.” It was a programme with which she was fanning herself.
“A play?” said Eleanor.
“Yes, a scene from Shakespeare,” said Celia. “Midsummer-Night? As You Like It? I forget which. Miss Green got it up. Happily it was so fine. Last year it poured. But how my feet are aching!” The long window opened onto the lawn. Eleanor could see people dragging tables.
“What an undertaking!” she said.
“It was!” Celia panted. “We had Lady St. Austell and the Bishop, coco-nut shies and a pig; but I think it all went off very well. They enjoyed it.”
“For the Church?” Eleanor asked.
“Yes. The new steeple,” said Celia.
“What a business!” said Eleanor again. She looked out onto the lawn. The grass was already scorched and yellow; the laurel bushes looked shrivelled. Tables were standing against the laurel bushes. Morris passed, dragging a table.
“Was it nice in Spain?” Celia was asking. “Did you see wonderful things?”
“Oh yes!” Eleanor exclaimed. “I saw . . . ” She stopped. She had seen wonderful things — buildings, mountains, a red city in a plain. But how could she describe it?
“You must tell me all about it afterwards,” said Celia getting up. “It’s time we got ready. But I’m afraid,” she said, toiling rather painfully up the broad staircase, “I must ask you to be careful, because we’re very short of water. The well. . . . ” she stopped. The well, Eleanor remembered, always gave out in a hot summer. They walked together down the broad passage, past the old yellow globe which stood under the pleasant eighteenth-century picture of all the little Chinnerys in long drawers and nankeen trousers standing round their father and mother in the garden. Celia paused with her hand on the bedroom door. The sound of doves cooing came in through the open window.
“We’re putting you in the Blue room this time,” she said. Generally Eleanor had the Pink room. She glanced in. “I hope you’ve got everything —” she began.
“Yes, I’m sure I’ve got everything,” said Eleanor, and Celia left her.
The maid had already unpacked her things. There they were — laid on the bed. Eleanor took off her dress, and stood in her white petticoat washing herself, methodically but carefully, since they were short of water. The English sun still made her face prickle all over where the Spanish sun had burnt it. Her neck had been cut off from her chest as if it had been painted brown, she thought, as she slipped on her evening dress in front of the looking-glass. She twisted her thick hair, with the grey strand in it, rapidly into a coil; hung the jewel, a red blob like congealed raspberry jam with a gold seed in the centre, round her neck; and gave one glance at the woman who had been for fifty-five years so familiar that she no longer saw her — Eleanor Pargiter. That she was getting old was obvious; there were wrinkles across her forehead; hollows and creases where the flesh used to be firm.
And what was my good point? she asked herself, running the comb once more through her hair. My eyes? Her eyes laughed back at her as she looked at them. My eyes, yes, she thought. Somebody had once praised her eyes. She made herself open them instead of screwing them together. Round each eye were several little white strokes, where she had crinkled them up to avoid the glare on the Acropolis, at Naples, at Granada and Toledo. But that’s over, she thought, people praising my eyes, and finished her dressing.
She stood for a moment looking at the burnt, dry lawn. The grass was almost yellow; the elm trees were beginning to turn brown; red- and-white cows were munching on the far side of the sunk hedge. But England was disappointing, she thought; it was small; it was pretty; she felt no affection for her native land — none whatever. Then she went down, for she wanted if possible to see Morris alone.
But he was not alone. He got up as she came in and introduced her to a stoutish, white-haired old man in a dinner-jacket.
“You know each other, don’t you?” said Morris.
“Eleanor — Sir William Whatney.” He put a little stress humorously upon the “Sir” which for a moment confused Eleanor.
“We used to know each other,” said Sir William, coming forward and smiling as he took her hand.
She looked at him. Could it be William Whatney — old Dubbin — who used to come to Abercorn Terrace years ago? It was. She had not seen him since he went to India.
But are we all like that? she asked herself, looking from the grisled, crumpled red-and-yellow face of the boy she had known — he was almost hairless — at her own brother Morris. He looked bald and thin; but surely he was in the prime of life, as she was herself? Or had they all suddenly become old fogies like Sir William? Then her nephew North and her niece Peggy came in with their mother and they went in to dinner. Old Mrs Chinnery dined upstairs.
How has Dubbin become Sir William Whatney? she wondered, glancing at him as they ate the fish that had been brought up in the damp parcel. She had last seen him — in a boat on the river. They had gone for a picnic; they had supped on an island in the middle of the river. Maidenhead, was it?
They were talking about the Fête. Craster had won the pig; Mrs Grice had won the silver-plated salver.
“That’s what I saw on the perambulator,” said Eleanor. “I met the Fête coming back,” she explained. She described the procession. And they talked about the Fête.
“Don’t you envy my sister-in-law?” said Celia, turning to Sir William. “She’s just back from a tour in Greece.”
“Indeed!” said Sir William. “Which part of Greece?”
“We went to Athens, then to Olympia, then to Delphi,” Eleanor began, reciting the usual formula. They were on purely formal terms evidently — she and Dubbin.
“My brother-in-law, Edward,” Celia explained, “takes these delightful tours.”
“You remember Edward?” said Morris. “Weren’t you up with him?”
“No, he was junior to me,” said Sir William. “But I’ve heard of him, of course. He’s — let me think — what is he — a great swell, isn’t he?”
“Oh, he’s at the top of his tree,” said Morris.
He was not jealous of Edward, Eleanor thought; but there was a certain note in his voice which told her that he was comparing his career with Edward’s.
“They loved him,” she said. She smiled; she saw Edward lecturing troops of devout school mistresses on the Acropolis. Out came their notebooks and down they scribbled every word he said. But he had been very generous; very kind; he had looked after her all the time.
“Did you meet anyone at the Embassy?” Sir William asked her. Then he corrected himself. “Not an Embassy though, is it?”
“No. Athens is not an Embassy,” said Morris. Here there was a diversion; what was the difference between an Embassy and a Legation? Then they began to discuss the situation in the Balkans.
“There’s going to be trouble there in the near future,” Sir William was saying. He turned to Morris; they discussed the situation in the Balkans.
Eleanor’s attention wandered. What’s he done? she wondered. Certain words and gestures brought him back to her as he had been thirty years ago. There were relics of the old Dubbin if one half- shut one’s eyes. She half-shut her eyes. Suddenly she remembered — it was he who had praised her eyes. “Your sister has the brightest eyes I ever saw,” he had said. Morris had told her. And she had hidden her face behind a newspaper in the train going home to conceal her pleasure. She looked at him again. He was talking. She listened. He seemed too big for the quiet, English dining- room; his voice boomed out. He wanted an audience.
He was telling a story. He spoke in clipped, nervous sentences as if there were a ring round them — a style she admired, but she had missed the beginning. His glass was empty.
“Give Sir William some more wine,” Celia whispered to the nervous parlour-maid. There was some juggling with decanters on the sideboard. Celia frowned nervously. A girl from the village who doesn’t know her job, Eleanor reflected. The story was reaching its climax; but she had missed several links.
“ . . . and I found myself in an old pair of riding-breeches standing under a peacock umbrella; and all the good people were crouching with their heads to the ground. ‘Good Lord,’ I said to myself, ‘if they only knew what a bally ass I feel!’” He held out his glass to be filled. “That’s how we were taught our job in those days,” he added.
He was boasting, of course; that was natural. He came back to England after ruling a district “about the size of Ireland,” as they always said; and nobody had ever heard of him. She had a feeling that she would hear a great many more stories that sailed serenely to his own advantage, during the week-end. But he talked very well. He had done a great many interesting things. She wished that Morris would tell stories too. She wished that he would assert himself instead of leaning back and passing his hand — the hand with the cut on it — over his forehead.
Ought I to have urged him to go to the Bar? she thought. Her father had been against it. But once it’s done there it is; he married; the children came; he had to go on, whether he wanted to or not. How irrevocable things are, she thought. We make our experiments, then they make theirs. She looked at her nephew North and at her niece Peggy. They sat opposite her with the sun on their faces. Their perfectly healthy egg-shell faces looked extraordinarily young. Peggy’s blue dress stuck out like a child’s muslin frock; North was still a brown-eyed cricketing boy. He was listening intently; Peggy was looking down at her plate. She had the non-committal look which well brought up children have when they listen to the talk of their elders. She might be amused; or bored? Eleanor could not be sure which it was.
“There he goes,” Peggy said, suddenly looking up. “The owl . . . ” she said, catching Eleanor’s eye. Eleanor turned to look out of the window behind her. She missed the owl; she saw the heavy trees, gold in the setting sun; and the cows slowly moving as they munched their way across the meadow.
“You can time him,” said Peggy, “he’s so regular.” Then Celia made a move.
“Shall we leave the gentlemen to their politics,” she said, “and have our coffee on the terrace?” and they shut the door upon the gentlemen and their politics.
“I’ll fetch my glasses,” said Eleanor, and she went upstairs.
She wanted to see the owl before it got too dark. She was becoming more and more interested in birds. It was a sign of old age, she supposed, as she went into her bedroom. An old maid who washes and watches birds, she said to herself as she looked in the glass. There were her eyes — they still seemed to her rather bright, in spite of the lines round them — the eyes she had shaded in the railway carriage because Dubbin praised them. But now I’m labelled, she thought — an old maid who washes and watches birds. That’s what they think I am. But I’m not — I’m not in the least like that, she said. She shook her head, and turned away from the glass. It was a nice room; shady, civilised, cool after the bedrooms in foreign inns, with marks on the wall where someone had squashed bugs and men brawling under the window. But where were her glasses? Put away in some drawer? She turned to look for them.
“Did father say Sir William was in love with her?” Peggy asked as they waited on the terrace.
“Oh I don’t know about that,” said Celia. “But I wish they could have married. I wish she had children of her own. And then they could have settled here,” she added. “He’s such a delightful man.”
Peggy was silent. There was a pause.
“I hope you were polite to the Robinsons this afternoon, dreadful as they are. . . . ”
“They give ripping parties anyhow,” said Peggy.
“‘Ripping, ripping,’” her mother complained half laughing. “I wish you wouldn’t pick up all North’s slang, my dear. . . . Oh, here’s Eleanor,” she broke off.
Eleanor came out onto the terrace with her glasses, and sat down beside Celia. It was still very warm; it was still light enough to see the hills in the distance.
“He’ll be back in a minute,” said Peggy, drawing up a chair. “He’ll come along that hedge.”
She pointed to the dark line of hedge that went across the meadow. Eleanor focussed her glasses and waited.
“Now,” said Celia, pouring out the coffee. “There are so many things I want to ask you.” She paused. She always had a hoard of questions to ask; she had not seen Eleanor since April. In four months questions accumulated. Out they came drop by drop.
“In the first place,” she began. “No. . . . ” She rejected that question in favour of another.
“What’s all this about Rose?” she asked.
“What?” said Eleanor absentmindedly, altering the focus of her glasses. “It’s getting too dark,” she said; the field was blurred.
“Morris says she’s been had up in a police-court,” said Celia. She dropped her voice slightly though they were alone.
“She threw a brick —” said Eleanor. She focused her glasses on the hedge again. She held them poised in case the owl should come that way again.
“Will she be put in prison?” Peggy asked quickly.
“Not this time,” said Eleanor. “Next time — Ah, here he comes!” she broke off. The blunt-headed bird came swinging along the hedge. He looked almost white in the dusk. Eleanor got him within the circle of her lens. He held a little black spot in front of him.
“He’s got a mouse in his claws!” she exclaimed. “He’s got a nest in the steeple,” said Peggy. The owl swooped out of the field of vision.
“Now I can’t see him any more,” said Eleanor. She lowered her glasses. They were silent for a moment, sipping their coffee. Celia was thinking of her next question; Eleanor anticipated her.
“Tell me about William Whatney,” she said. “When I last saw him he was a slim young man in a boat.” Peggy burst out laughing.
“That must have been ages ago!” she said.
“Not so very long,” said Eleanor. She felt rather nettled. “Well —” she reflected, “twenty years — twenty-five years perhaps.”
It seemed a very short time to her; but then, she thought, it was before Peggy was born. She could only be sixteen or seventeen.
“Isn’t he a delightful man?” Celia exclaimed. “He was in India, you know. Now he’s retired, and we do hope he’ll take a house here; but Morris thinks he’d find it too dull.”
They sat silent for a moment, looking out over the meadow. The cows coughed now and then as they munched and moved a step further through the grass. A sweet scent of cows and grass was wafted up to them.
“It’s going to be another hot day tomorrow,” said Peggy. The sky was perfectly smooth; it seemed made of innumerable grey-blue atoms the colour of an Italian officer’s cloak; until it reached the horizon where there was a long bar of pure green. Everything looked very settled; very still; very pure. There was not a single cloud, and the stars were not yet showing.
It was small; it was smug; it was petty after Spain, but still, now that the sun had sunk and the trees were massed together without separate leaves it had its beauty, Eleanor thought. The downs were becoming larger and simpler; they were becoming part of the sky.
“How lovely it is!” she exclaimed, as if she were making amends to England after Spain.
“If only Mr Robinson doesn’t build!” sighed Celia; and Eleanor remembered — they were the local scourge; rich people who threatened to build. “I did my best to be polite to them at the bazaar today,” Celia continued. “Some people won’t ask them; but I say one must be polite to neighbours in the country. . . . ”
Then she paused. “There are so many things I want to ask you,” she said. The bottle was tilted on its end again. Eleanor waited obediently.
“Have you had an offer for Abercorn Terrace yet?” Celia demanded. Drop, drop, drop, out her questions came.
“Not yet,” said Eleanor. “The agent wants me to cut it up into flats.”
Celia pondered. Then she hopped on again.
“And now about Maggie — when’s her baby going to be born?”
“In November, I think,” said Eleanor. “In Paris,” she added.
“I hope it’ll be all right,” said Celia. “But I do wish it could have been born in England.” She reflected again. “Her children will be French, I suppose?” she said.
“Yes; French, I suppose,” said Eleanor. She was looking at the green bar; it was fading; it was turning blue. It was becoming night.
“Everybody says he’s a very nice fellow,” said Celia. “But René— René,” her accent was bad, “— it doesn’t sound like a man’s name.”
“You can call him Renny,” said Peggy, pronouncing it in the English way.
“But that reminds me of Ronny; and I don’t like Ronny. We had a stable-boy called Ronny.”
“Who stole the hay,” said Peggy. They were silent again, “It’s such a pity —” Celia began. Then she stopped. The maid had come to clear away the coffee.
“It’s a wonderful night, isn’t it?” said Celia, adapting her voice to the presence of servants. “It looks as if it would never rain again. In which case I don’t know. . . . ” And she went on prattling about the drought; about the lack of water. The well always ran dry. Eleanor, looking at the hills, hardly listened. “Oh, but there’s quite enough for everybody at present,” she heard Celia saying. And for some reason she held the sentence suspended without a meaning in her mind’s ear, “— quite enough for everybody at present,” she repeated. After all the foreign languages she had been hearing, it sounded to her pure English. What a lovely language, she thought, saying over to herself again the commonplace words, spoken by Celia quite simply, but with some indescribable burr in the r’s, for the Chinnerys had lived in Dorsetshire since the beginning of time.
The maid had gone.
“What was I saying?” Celia resumed. “I was saying, It’s such a pity. Yes. . . . ” But there was a sound of voices; a scent of cigar smoke; the gentlemen were upon them. “Oh, here they are!” she broke off. And the chairs were pulled up and re-arranged.
They sat in a semicircle looking across the meadows at the fading hills. The broad bar of green that lay across the horizon had vanished. Only a tinge was left in the sky. It had become peaceful and cool; in them too something seemed to be smoothed out. There was no need to talk. The owl flew down the meadow again; they could just see the white of his wing against the dark of the hedge.
“There he goes,” said North, puffing at a cigar which was his first, Eleanor guessed, Sir William’s gift. The elm trees had become dead black against the sky. Their leaves hung in a fretted pattern like black lace with holes in it. Through a hole Eleanor saw the point of a star. She looked up. There was another.
“It’s going to be a fine day tomorrow,” said Morris, knocking out his pipe against his shoe. Far away on a distant road there was a rattle of cart-wheels; then a chorus of voices singing — country people going home. This is England, Eleanor thought to herself; she felt as if she were slowly sinking into some fine mesh made of branches shaking, hills growing dark, and leaves hanging like black lace with stars among them. But a bat swooped low over their heads.
“I hate bats!” Celia exclaimed, raising her hand to her head nervously.
“Do you?” said Sir William. “I rather like them.” His voice was quiet and almost melancholy. Now Celia will say, They get into one’s hair, Eleanor thought.
“They get into one’s hair,” Celia said.
“But I haven’t any hair,” said Sir William. His bald head, his large face gleamed out in the darkness.
The bat swooped again, skimming the ground at their feet. A little cool air stirred at their ankles. The trees had become part of the sky. There was no moon, but the stars were coming out. There’s another, Eleanor thought, gazing at a twinkling light ahead of her. But it was too low; too yellow; it was another house she realised, not a star. And then Celia began talking to Sir William, whom she wanted to settle near them; and Lady St. Austell had told her that the Grange was to let. Was that the Grange, Eleanor wondered, looking at a light, or a star? And they went on talking.
Tired of her own company, old Mrs Chinnery had come down early. There she sat in the drawing-room waiting. She had made a formal entry, but there was nobody there. Arrayed in her old lady’s dress of black satin, with a lace cap on her head, she sat waiting. Her hawk-like nose was curved in her shrivelled cheeks; a little red rim showed on one of her drooping eyelids.
“Why don’t they come in?” she said peevishly to Ellen, the discreet black maid who stood behind her. Ellen went to the window and tapped on the pane.
Celia stopped talking and turned round. “That’s Mama,” she said. “We must go in.” She got up and pushed back her chair.
After the dark, the drawing-room with its lamps lit had the effect of a stage. Old Mrs Chinnery sitting in her wheeled chair with her ear trumpet seemed to sit there awaiting homage. She looked exactly the same; not a day older; as vigorous as ever. As Eleanor bent to give her the customary kiss, life once more took on its familiar proportions. So she had bent, night after night, over her father. She was glad to stoop down; it made her feel younger herself. She knew the whole procedure by heart. They, the middle- aged, deferred to the very old; the very old were courteous to them; and then came the usual pause. They had nothing to say to her; she had nothing to say to them. What happened next? Eleanor saw the old lady’s eyes suddenly brighten. What made the eyes of an old woman of ninety turn blue? Cards? Yes. Celia had fetched the green baize table; Mrs Chinnery had a passion for whist. But she too had her ceremony; she too had her manners.
“Not tonight,” she said, making a little gesture as if to push away the table. “I am sure it will bore Sir William?” She gave a nod in the direction of the large man who stood there seeming a little outside the family party.
“Not at all. Not at all,” he said with alacrity. “Nothing would please me more,” he assured her.
You’re a good fellow, Dubbin, Eleanor thought. And they drew up the chairs; and dealt the cards; and Morris chaffed his mother-in- law down her ear-trumpet and they played rubber after rubber. North read a book; Peggy strummed on the piano; and Celia, dozing over her embroidery, now and then gave a sudden start and put her hand over her mouth. At last the door opened stealthily. Ellen, the discreet black maid stood behind Mrs Chinnery’s chair, waiting. Mrs Chinnery pretended to ignore her, but the others were glad to stop. Ellen stepped forward and Mrs Chinnery, submitting, was wheeled off to the mysterious upper chamber of extreme old age. Her pleasure was over.
Celia yawned openly.
“The bazaar,” she said, rolling up her embroidery. “I shall go to bed. Come, Peggy. Come, Eleanor.”
North jumped up with alacrity to open the door. Celia lit the brass candlesticks and began, rather heavily, to climb the stairs. Eleanor followed after. But Peggy lagged behind. Eleanor heard her whispering with her brother in the hall.
“Come along, Peggy,” Celia called back over the banister as she toiled upstairs. When she got to the landing at the top she stopped under the picture of the little Chinnerys and called back again rather sharply:
“Come, Peggy.” There was a pause. Then Peggy came, reluctantly. She kissed her mother obediently; but she did not look in the least sleepy. She looked extremely pretty and rather flushed. She did not mean to go to bed, Eleanor felt sure.
She went into her room and undressed. All the windows were open and she heard the trees rustling in the garden. It was so hot still that she lay in her nightgown on top of the bed with only the sheet over her. The candle burnt its little pear-shaped flame on the table by her side. She lay listening vaguely to the trees in the garden; and watched the shadow of a moth that dashed round and round the room. Either I must get up and shut the window or blow out the candle, she thought drowsily. She did not want to do either. She wanted to lie still. It was a relief to lie in the semi-darkness after the talk, after the cards. She could still see the cards falling; black, red and yellow; kings, queens and knaves; on a green baize table. She looked drowsily round her. A nice vase of flowers stood on the dressing-table; there was the polished wardrobe and a china box by her bedside. She lifted the lid. Yes; four biscuits and a pale piece of chocolate — in case she should be hungry in the night. Celia had provided books too, The Diary of a Nobody, Ruff’s Tour in Northumberland and an odd volume of Dante, in case she should wish to read in the night. She took one of the books and laid it on the counterpane beside her. Perhaps because she had been travelling, it seemed as if the ship were still padding softly through the sea; as if the train were still swinging from side to side as it rattled across France. She felt as if things were moving past her as she lay stretched on the bed under the single sheet. But it’s not the landscape any longer, she thought; it’s people’s lives, their changing lives.
The door of the pink bedroom shut. William Whatney coughed next door. She heard him cross the room. Now he was standing by the window, smoking a last cigar. What’s he thinking, she wondered — about India? — how he stood under a peacock umbrella? Then he began moving about the room, undressing. She could hear him take up a brush and put it down again on his dressing-table. And it’s to him, she thought, remembering the wide sweep of his chin and the floating stains of pink and yellow that lay underneath it, that I owe that moment, which had been more than pleasure, when she hid her face behind the newspaper in the corner of the third-class railway carriage.
Now there were three moths dashing round the ceiling. They made a little tapping noise as they dashed round and round from corner to corner. If she left the window open much longer the room would be full of moths. A board creaked in the passage outside. She listened. Peggy, was it, escaping, to join her brother? She felt sure there was some scheme on foot. But she could only hear the heavy-laden branches moving up and down in the garden; a cow lowing; a bird chirping, and then, to her delight, the liquid call of an owl going from tree to tree looping them with silver.
She lay looking at the ceiling. A faint water mark appeared there. It was like a hill. It reminded her of one of the great desolate mountains in Greece or in Spain, which looked as if nobody had ever set foot there since the beginning of time.
She opened the book that lay on the counterpane. She hoped it was Ruff’s Tour, or the Diary of a Nobody; but it was Dante, and she was too lazy to change it. She read a few lines, here and there. But her Italian was rusty; the meaning escaped her. There was a meaning however; a hook seemed to scratch the surface of her mind.
chè per quanti si dice più lì nostro
tanto possiede più di ben ciascuno.
What did that mean? She read the English translation.
For by so many more there are who say ‘ours’
So much the more of good doth each possess.
Brushed lightly by her mind that was watching the moths on the ceiling, and listening to the call of the owl as it looped from tree to tree with its liquid cry, the words did not give out their full meaning, but seemed to hold something furled up in the hard shell of the archaic Italian. I’ll read it one of these days, she thought, shutting the book. When I’ve pensioned Crosby off, when. . . . Should she take another house? Should she travel? Should she go to India, at last? Sir William was getting into bed next door, his life was over; hers was beginning. No, I don’t mean to take another house, not another house, she thought, looking at the stain on the ceiling. Again the sense came to her of a ship padding softly through the waves; of a train swinging from side to side down a railway-line. Things can’t go on for ever, she thought. Things pass, things change, she thought, looking up at the ceiling. And where are we going? Where? Where? . . . The moths were dashing round the ceiling; the book slipped on to the floor. Craster won the pig, but who was it won the silver salver? she mused; made an effort; turned round, and blew out the candle. Darkness reigned.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01