It was a brilliant spring; the day was radiant. Even the air seemed to have a burr in it as it touched the tree tops; it vibrated, it rippled. The leaves were sharp and green. In the country old church clocks rasped out the hour; the rusty sound went over fields that were red with clover, and up went the rooks as if flung by the bells. Round they wheeled; then settled on the tree tops.
In London all was gallant and strident; the season was beginning; horns hooted; the traffic roared; flags flew taut as trout in a stream. And from all the spires of all the London churches — the fashionable saints of Mayfair, the dowdy saints of Kensington, the hoary saints of the city — the hour was proclaimed. The air over London seemed a rough sea of sound through which circles travelled. But the clocks were irregular, as if the saints themselves were divided. There were pauses, silences. . . . Then the clocks struck again.
Here in Ebury Street some distant frail-voiced clock was striking. It was eleven. Martin, standing at his window, looked down on the narrow street. The sun was bright; he was in the best of spirits; he was going to visit his stockbroker in the city. His affairs were turning out well. At one time, he was thinking, his father had made a lot of money; then he lost it; then he made it; but in the end he had done very well.
He stood at the window for a moment admiring a lady of fashion in a charming hat who was looking at a pot in the curiosity shop opposite. It was a blue pot on a Chinese stand with green brocade behind it. The sloping symmetrical body, the depth of blue, the little cracks in the glaze pleased him. And the lady looking at the pot was also charming.
He took his hat and stick and went out into the street. He would walk part of the way to the City. “The King of Spain’s daughter” he hummed as he turned up Sloane Street, “came to visit me. All for the sake of. . . . ” He looked into the shop windows as he passed. They were full of summer dresses; charming confections of green and gauze, and there were flights of hats stuck on little rods. “ . . . all for the sake of” he hummed as he walked on, “my silver nutmeg tree.” But what was a silver nutmeg tree he wondered? An organ was fluting its merry little jig further down the street. The organ moved round and round, shifted this way and that, as if the old man who played it were half dancing to the tune. A pretty servant girl ran up the area steps and gave him a penny. His supple Italian face wrinkled all over as he whipped off his cap and bowed to her. The girl smiled and slipped back into the kitchen.
“ . . . all for the sake of my silver nutmeg tree” Martin hummed, peering down through the area railings into the kitchen where they were sitting. They looked very snug, with teapots and bread and butter on the kitchen table. His stick swung from side to side like the tail of a cheerful dog. Everybody seemed light-hearted and irresponsible, sallying out of their houses, flaunting along the streets with pennies for the organ-grinders and pennies for the beggars. Everybody seemed to have money to spend. Women clustered round the plate-glass windows. He too stopped, looked at the model of a toy boat; at dressing-cases, shining yellow with rows of silver bottles. But who wrote that song, he wondered, as he strolled on, about the King of Spain’s daughter, the song that Pippy used to sing him, as she wiped his ears with a piece of slimy flannel? She used to take him on her knee and croak out in her wheezy rattle of a voice, “The King of Spain’s daughter came to visit me, all for the sake of. . . . ” And then suddenly her knee gave, and down he was tumbled onto the floor.
Here he was at Hyde Park Corner. The scene was extremely animated. Vans, motor-cars, motor omnibuses were streaming down the hill. The trees in the Park had little green leaves on them. Cars with gay ladies in pale dresses were already passing in at the gates. Everybody was going about their business. And somebody, he observed, had written the words “God is Love” in pink chalk on the gates of Apsley House. That must need some pluck, he thought, to write “God is love” on the gates of Apsley House when at any moment a policeman might nab you. But here came his bus; and he climbed on top.
“To St. Paul’s,” he said, handing the conductor his coppers.
The omnibuses swirled and circled in a perpetual current round the steps of St. Paul’s. The statue of Queen Anne seemed to preside over the chaos and to supply it with a centre, like the hub of a wheel. It seemed as if the white lady ruled the traffic with her sceptre; directed the activities of the little men in bowler hats and round coats; of the women carrying attaché cases; of the vans, the lorries and the motor omnibuses. Now and then single figures broke off from the rest and went up the steps into the church. The doors of the Cathedral kept opening and shutting. Now and again a blast of faint organ music was blown out into the air. The pigeons waddled; the sparrows fluttered. Soon after midday a little old man carrying a paper bag took up his station half-way up the steps and proceeded to feed the birds. He held out a slice of bread. His lips moved. He seemed to be wheedling and coaxing them. Soon he was haloed by a circle of fluttering wings. Sparrows perched on his head and his hands. Pigeons waddled close to his feet. A little crowd gathered to watch him feeding the sparrows. He tossed his bread round him in a circle. Then there was a ripple in the air. The great clock, all the clocks of the city, seemed to be gathering their forces together; they seemed to be whirring a preliminary warning. Then the stroke struck. “One” blared out. All the sparrows fluttered up into the air; even the pigeons were frightened; some of them made a little flight round the head of Queen Anne.
As the last ripple of the stroke died away, Martin came out in the open space in front of the Cathedral.
He crossed over and stood with his back against a shop window looking up at the great dome. All the weights in his body seemed to shift. He had a curious sense of something moving in his body in harmony with the building; it righted itself: it came to a full stop. It was exciting — this change of proportion. He wished he had been an architect. He stood with his back pressed against the shop trying to get the whole of the cathedral clear. But it was difficult with so many people passing. They knocked against him and brushed in front of him. It was the rush hour, of course, when City men were making for their luncheons. They were taking short cuts across the steps. The pigeons were swirling up and then settling down again. The doors were opening and shutting as he mounted the steps. The pigeons were a nuisance, he thought, making a mess on the steps. He climbed up slowly.
“And who’s that?” he thought, looking at someone who was standing against one of the pillars. “Don’t I know her?”
Her lips were moving. She was talking to herself.
“It’s Sally!” he thought. He hesitated; should he speak to her, or should he not? But she was company; and he was tired of his own.
“A penny for your thoughts, Sal!” he said, tapping her on the shoulder.
She turned; her expression changed instantly. “Just as I was thinking of you, Martin!” she exclaimed.
“What a lie!” he said, shaking hands.
“When I think of people, I always see them,” she said. She gave her queer little shuffle as if she were a bird, a somewhat dishevelled fowl, for her cloak was not in the fashion. They stood for a moment on the steps, looking down at the crowded street beneath. A gust of organ music came out from the Cathedral behind them as the doors opened and shut. The faint ecclesiastical murmur was vaguely impressive, and the dark space of the Cathedral seen through the door.
“What were you thinking . . .?” he began. But he broke off. “Come and lunch,” he said. “I’ll take you to a City chop house,” and he shepherded her down the steps, along a narrow alley, blocked by carts, into which packages were being shot from the warehouses. They pushed through the swing doors into the chop house.
“Very full today, Alfred,” said Martin affably, as the waiter took his coat and hat and hung them on the rack. He knew the waiter; he often lunched there; the waiter knew him too.
“Very full, Captain,” he said.
“Now,” he said, sitting down, “what shall we have?”
A vast brownish-yellow joint was being trundled from table to table on a lorry.
“That,” said Sara, waving her hand at it.
“And drink?” said Martin. He took the wine-list and consulted it.
“Drink —” said Sara, “drink, I leave to you.” She took off her gloves and laid them on a small reddish-brown book that was obviously a prayer-book.
“Drink you leave to me,” said Martin. Why, he wondered, do prayer- books always have their leaves gilt with red and gold? He chose the wine.
“And what were you doing,” he said, dismissing the waiter, “at St. Paul’s?”
“Listening to the service,” she said. She looked round her. The room was very hot and crowded. The walls were covered with gold leaves encrusted on a brown surface. People were passing them and coming in and out all the time. The waiter brought the wine. Martin poured her out a glass.
“I didn’t know you went to services,” he said, looking at her prayer-book.
She did not answer. She kept looking round her, watching the people come in and go out. She sipped her wine. The colour was coming into her cheeks. She took up her knife and fork and began to eat the admirable mutton. They ate in silence for a moment.
He wanted to make her talk.
“And what, Sal,” he said, touching the little book, “d’you make of it?”
She opened the prayer-book at random and began to read:
“The father incomprehensible; the son incomprehensible —” she spoke in her ordinary voice.
“Hush!” he stopped her. “Somebody’s listening.”
In deference to him she assumed the manner of a lady lunching with a gentleman in a City restaurant.
“And what were you doing,” she asked, “at St. Paul’s?”
“Wishing I’d been an architect,” he said. “But they sent me into the Army instead, which I loathed.” He spoke emphatically.
“Hush,” she whispered. “Somebody’s listening.”
He looked round quickly; then he laughed. The waiter was setting their tart in front of them. They ate in silence. He filled her glass again. Her cheeks were flushed; her eyes were bright. He envied her the generalised sensation of universal wellbeing that he used to get from a glass of wine. Wine was good — it broke down barriers. He wanted to make her talk.
“I didn’t know you went to services,” he said, looking at her prayer-book. “And what do you think of it?” She looked at it too. Then she tapped it with her fork.
“What do they think of it, Martin?” she asked. “The woman praying and the man with a long white beard?”
“Much what Crosby thinks when she comes to see me,” he said. He thought of the old woman standing at the door of his room with the pyjama jacket over her arm, and the devout look on her face.
“I’m Crosby’s God,” he said, helping her to brussels sprouts.
“Crosby’s God! Almighty, all-powerful Mr Martin!” She laughed.
She raised her glass to him. Was she laughing at him? he wondered. He hoped she did not think him very old. “You remember Crosby, don’t you?” he said. “She’s retired, and her dog’s dead.”
“Retired and her dog’s dead?” she repeated. She looked again over her shoulder. Conversation in a restaurant was impossible; it was broken into little fragments. City men in their neat striped suits and bowler hats were brushing past them all the time.
“It’s a fine church,” she said, turning round. She had hopped back to St. Paul’s, he supposed.
“Magnificent,” he replied. “Were you looking at the monuments?”
Somebody had come in whom he recognised: Erridge, the stockbroker. He raised a finger and beckoned. Martin rose and went to speak to him. When he came back she had filled her glass again. She was sitting there, looking at the people, as if she were a child that he had taken to a pantomime.
“And what are you doing this afternoon?” he asked.
“The Round Pond at four,” she said. She drummed on the table “The Round Pond at four.” Now she had passed, he guessed, into the drowsy benevolence which waits on a good dinner and a glass of wine.
“Meeting somebody?” he asked.
“Yes. Maggie,” she said.
They ate in silence. Fragments of other people’s talk reached them in broken sentences. Then the man to whom Martin had spoken touched him on the shoulder as he went out.
“Wednesday at eight,” he said.
“Right you are,” said Martin. He made a note in his pocket-book.
“And what are you doing this afternoon?” she asked.
“Ought to see my sister in prison,” he said, lighting a cigarette.
“In prison?” she asked.
“Rose. For throwing a brick,” he said.
“Red Rose, tawny Rose,” she began, reaching out her hand for the wine again, “wild Rose, thorny Rose —”
“No,” he said, putting his hand over the mouth of the bottle, “you’ve had enough.” A little excited her. He must damp her excitement. There were people listening.
“A damned unpleasant thing,” he said, “being in prison.”
She drew back her glass and sat gazing at it, as if the engine of the brain were suddenly cut off. She was very like her mother — except when she laughed.
He would have liked to talk to her about her mother. But it was impossible to talk. Too many people were listening, and they were smoking. Smoke mixed with the smell of meat made the air heavy. He was thinking of the past when she exclaimed:
“Sitting on a three-legged stool having meat crammed down her throat!”
He roused himself. She was thinking of Rose, was she?
“Crash came a brick!” she laughed, flourishing her fork.
“‘Roll up the map of Europe,’ said the man to the flunkey. ‘I don’t believe in force’!” She brought down her fork. A plum-stone jumped. Martin looked round. People were listening. He got up.
“Shall we go?” he said, “— if you’ve had enough?”
She got up and looked for her cloak.
“Well, I’ve enjoyed it,” she said, taking her cloak. “Thanks, Martin, for my good lunch.”
He beckoned to the waiter who came with alacrity and totted up the bill. Martin laid a sovereign on the plate. Sara began to thrust her arms into the sleeves of her cloak.
“Shall I come with you,” he said, helping her, “to the Round Pond at four?”
“Yes!” she said, spinning round on her heel. “To the Round Pond at four!”
She walked off, a little unsteadily he observed, past the City men who were still eating.
Here the waiter came up with the change and Martin began to slip it in his pocket. He kept back one coin for the tip. But as he was about to give it, he was struck by something shifty in Alfred’s expression. He flicked up the flap of the bill; a two-shilling piece lay beneath. It was the usual trick. He lost his temper.
“What’s this?” he said angrily.
“Didn’t know it was there, sir,” the waiter stammered.
Martin felt his blood rise to his ears. He felt exactly like his father in a rage; as if he had white spots above his temples. He pocketed the coin that he had been going to give the waiter; and marched past him, brushing aside his hand. The man slunk back with a murmur.
“Let’s be off,” he said, hustling Sara along the crowded room. “Let’s get out of this.”
He hurried her into the street. The fug, the warm meaty smell of the City chop-house, had suddenly become intolerable.
“How I hate being cheated!” he said as he put on his hat.
“Sorry, Sara,” he apologised. “I oughtn’t to have taken you there. It’s a beastly hole.”
He drew in a breath of fresh air. The street noises, the unconcerned, business-like look of things, were refreshing after the hot steamy room. There were the carts waiting, drawn up along the street; and the packages sliding down into them from the warehouses. Again they came out in front of St. Paul’s. He looked up. There was the same old man still feeding the sparrows. And there was the Cathedral. He wished he could feel again the sense of weights changing in his body and coming to a stop; but the queer thrill of some correspondence between his own body and the stone no longer came to him. He felt nothing except anger. Also, Sara distracted him. She was about to cross the crowded road. He put out his hand to stop her. “Take care,” he said. Then they crossed.
“Shall we walk?” he asked. She nodded. They began to walk along Fleet Street. Conversation was impossible. The pavement was so narrow that he had to step on and off in order to keep beside her. He still felt the discomfort of anger, but the anger itself was cooling. What ought I to have done? he thought, seeing himself brush past the waiter without giving him a tip. Not that; he thought, no, not that. People pressing against him made him step off the pavement. After all, the poor devil had to make a living. He liked being generous: he liked to leave people smiling; and two shillings meant nothing to him. But what’s the use, he thought, now it’s done? He began to hum his little song — and then stopped, remembering that he was with someone.
“Look at that, Sal,” he said, clutching at her arm. “Look at that!”
He pointed at the splayed-out figure at Temple Bar; it looked as ridiculous as usual — something between a serpent and a fowl.
“Look at that!” he repeated laughing. They paused for a moment to look at the little flattened figures lodged so uncomfortably against the pediment of Temple Bar: Queen Victoria: King Edward. Then they walked on. It was impossible to talk because of the crowd. Men in wigs and gowns hurried across the street: some carried red bags, others blue bags.
“The Law Courts,” he said, pointing at the cold mass of decorated stone. It looked very gloomy and funereal, “ . . . where Morris spends his time,” he said aloud.
He still felt uncomfortable at having lost his temper. But the feeling was passing. Only a little ridge of roughness remained in his mind.
“D’you think I ought to have been . . . ” he began, a barrister he meant; but also Ought I to have done that — lost his temper with the waiter.
“Ought to have been — ought to have done?” she asked, bending towards him. She had not caught his meaning in the roar of the traffic. It was impossible to talk; but at any rate the feeling that he had lost his temper was diminishing. That little sting was being successfully smoothed over. Then back it came because he saw a beggar selling violets. And that poor devil, he thought, had to go without his tip because he cheated me. . . . He fixed his eyes on a pillar-box. Then he looked at a car. It was odd how soon one got used to cars without horses, he thought. They used to look ridiculous. They passed the woman selling violets. She wore a hat over her face. He dropped a sixpence in her tray to make amends to the waiter. He shook his head. No violets, he meant; and indeed they were faded. But he caught sight of her face. She had no nose; her face was seamed with white patches; there were red rims for nostrils. She had no nose — she had pulled her hat down to hide that fact.
“Let’s cross,” he said, abruptly. He took Sara’s arm and made her cross between the omnibuses. She must have seen such sights often; he had, often; but not together — that made a difference. He hurried her on to the further pavement.
“We’ll get a bus,” he said, “Come along.”
He took her by the elbow to make her step out briskly. But it was impossible; a cart blocked the way; there were people passing. They were approaching Charing Cross. It was like the piers of a bridge; men and women were sucked in instead of water. They had to stop. Newspaper boys held placards against their legs. Men were buying papers: some loitered; others snatched them. Martin bought one and held it in his hand.
“We’ll wait here,” he said. “The bus’ll come.” An old straw hat with a purple ribbon round it, he thought opening his paper. The sight persisted. He looked up. The station clock’s always fast, he assured a man who was hurrying to catch a train. Always fast, he said to himself as he opened the paper. But there was no clock. He turned to read the news from Ireland. Omnibus after omnibus stopped, then swooped off again. It was difficult to concentrate on the news from Ireland; he looked up.
“This is ours,” he said, as the right bus came. They climbed on top and sat side by side overlooking the driver.
“Two to Hyde Park Corner,” he said, producing a handful of silver, and looked through the pages of the evening paper; but it was only an early edition.
“Nothing in it,” he said, stuffing the paper under the seat. “And now —” he began, filling his pipe. They were running smoothly down the incline of Piccadilly. “— where my old father used to sit,” he broke off, waving his pipe at Club windows. “ . . . and now”— he lit a match, “— and now, Sally, you can say whatever you like. Nobody’s listening. Say something,” he added, throwing his match overboard, “very profound.”
He turned to her. He wanted her to speak. Down they dipped; up they swooped again. He wanted her to speak; or he must speak himself. And what could he say? He had buried his feeling. But some emotion remained. He wanted her to speak it: but she was silent. No, he thought, biting the stem of his pipe. I won’t say it. If I did she’d think me . . .
He looked at her. The sun was blazing on the windows of St. George’s Hospital. She was looking at it with rapture. But why with rapture? he wondered, as the bus stopped and he got down.
The scene since the morning had changed slightly. Clocks in the distance were just striking three. There were more cars; more women in pale summer dresses; more men in tail-coats and grey top- hats. The procession through the gates into the park was beginning. Everyone looked festive. Even the little dressmakers’ apprentices with band-boxes looked as if they were taking part in some ceremonial. Green chairs were drawn up at the edge of the Row. They were full of people looking about them as if they had taken seats at a play. Riders cantered to the end of the Row; pulled up their horses; turned and cantered the other way. The wind, coming from the west, moved white clouds grained with gold across the sky. The windows of Park Lane shone with blue and gold reflections.
Martin stepped out briskly.
“Come along,” he said; “come — come!” He walked on. I’m young, he thought; I’m in the prime of life. There was a tang of earth in the air; even in the Park there was some faint smell of spring, of the country.
“How I like —” he said aloud. He looked round. He had spoken to the empty air. Sara had lagged behind; there she was, tying her shoe-lace. But he felt as if he had missed a step going downstairs.
“What a fool one feels when one talks aloud to oneself,” he said as she came up. She pointed.
“But look,” she said, “they all do it.”
A middle-aged woman was coming towards them. She was talking to herself. Her lips moved; she was gesticulating with her hand.
“It’s the spring,” he said, as she passed them.
“No. Once in winter I came here,” she said, “and there was a negro, laughing aloud in the snow.”
“In the snow,” said Martin. “A negro.” The sun was bright on the grass; they were passing a bed in which the many-coloured hyacinths were curled and glossy.
“Don’t let’s think of the snow,” he said. “Let’s think —” A young woman was wheeling a perambulator; a sudden thought came into his head. “Maggie,” he said. “Tell me. I haven’t seen her since her baby was born. And I’ve never met the Frenchman — what d’you call him? — René?”
“Renny,” she said. She was still under the influence of the wine; of the wandering airs; of the people passing. He too felt the same distraction; but he wanted to end it.
“Yes. What’s he like, this man René; Renny?”
He pronounced the word first in the French way; then as she did, in the English. He wanted to wake her. He took her arm.
“Renny!” Sara repeated. She threw her head back and laughed. “Let me see,” she said. “He wears a red tie with white spots. And has dark eyes. And he takes an orange — suppose we’re at dinner, and says, looking straight at you, ‘This orange, Sara —’” She rolled her r’s. She paused.
“There’s another person talking to himself,” she broke off. A young man came past them in a closely buttoned-up coat as if he had no shirt. He was muttering as he walked. He scowled at them as he passed them.
“But Renny?” said Martin.
“We were talking about Renny,” he reminded her. “He takes an orange —”
“ . . . and pours himself out a glass of wine,” she resumed. “‘Science is the religion of the future!’” she exclaimed, waving her hand as if she held a glass of wine.
“Of wine?” said Martin. Half listening, he had visualised an earnest French professor — a little picture to which now he must add inappropriately a glass of wine.
“Yes, wine,” she repeated. “His father was a merchant,” she continued. “A man with a black beard; a merchant at Bordeaux. And one day,” she continued, “when he was a little boy, playing in the garden, there was a tap on the window. ‘Don’t make so much noise. Play further away,’ said a woman in a white cap. His mother was dead. . . . And he was afraid to tell his father that the horse was too big to ride . . . and they sent him to England. . . . ”
She was skipping over railings.
“And then what happened?” said Martin, joining her. “They became engaged?”
She was silent. He waited for her to explain — why they had married — Maggie and Renny. He waited, but she said no more. Well, she married him and they’re happy he thought. He was jealous for a moment. The Park was full of couples walking together. Everything seemed fresh and full of sweetness. The air puffed soft in their faces. It was laden with murmurs; with the stir of branches; the rush of wheels; dogs barking, and now and again the intermittent song of a thrush.
Here a lady passed them, talking to herself. As they looked at her she turned and whistled, as if to her dog. But the dog she had whistled was another person’s dog. It bounded off in the opposite direction. The lady hurried on pursing her lips together.
“People don’t like being looked at,” said Sara, “when they’re talking to themselves.” Martin roused himself.
“Look here,” he said. “We’ve gone the wrong way.” Voices floated out to them.
They had been walking in the wrong direction. They were near the bald rubbed space where the speakers congregate. Meetings were in full swing. Groups had gathered round the different orators. Mounted on their platforms, or sometimes only on boxes, the speakers were holding forth. The voices became louder, louder and louder as they approached.
“Let’s listen,” said Martin. A thin man was leaning forward holding a slate in his hand. They could hear him say, “Ladies and gentlemen . . . ” They stopped in front of him. “Fix your eyes on me,” he said. They fixed their eyes on him. “Don’t be afraid,” he said, crooking his finger. He had an ingratiating manner. He turned his slate over. “Do I look like a Jew?” he asked. Then he turned his slate and looked on the other side. And they heard him say that his mother was born in Bermondsey, as they strolled on, and his father in the Isle of — The voice died away.
“What about this chap?” said Martin. Here was a large man, banging on the rail of his platform.
“Fellow citizens!” he was shouting. They stopped. The crowd of loafers, errand-boys and nursemaids gaped up at him with their mouths falling open and their eyes gazing blankly. His hand raked in the line of cars that was passing with a superb gesture of scorn. His shirt appeared under his waistcoat.
“Joostice and liberty,” said Martin, repeating his words, as the fist thumped on the railing. They waited. Then it all came over again.
“But he’s a jolly good speaker,” said Martin, turning. The voice died away. “And now, what’s the old lady saying?” They strolled on.
The old lady’s audience was extremely small. Her voice was hardly audible. She held a little book in her hand and she was saying something about sparrows. But her voice tapered off into a thin frail pipe. A chorus of little boys imitated her.
They listened for a moment. Then Martin turned again. “Come along, Sall,” he said, putting his hand on her shoulder.
The voices grew fainter, fainter and fainter. Soon they ceased altogether. They strolled on across the smooth slope that rose and fell like a breadth of green cloth striped with straight brown paths in front of them. Great white dogs were gambolling; through the trees shone the waters of the Serpentine, set here and there with little boats. The urbanity of the Park, the gleam of the water, the sweep and curve and composition of the scene, as if somebody had designed it, affected Martin agreeably.
“Joostice and liberty,” he said half to himself, as they came to the water’s edge and stood a moment, watching the gulls cut the air into sharp white patterns with their wings.
“Did you agree with him?” he asked, taking Sara’s arm to rouse her; for her lips were moving; she was talking to herself. “That fat man,” he explained, “who flung his arm out.” She started.
“Oi, oi, oi!” she exclaimed, imitating his cockney accent.
Yes, thought Martin, as they walked on. Oi, oi, oi, oi, oi, oi. It’s always that. There wouldn’t be much justice or liberty for the likes of him if the fat man had his way — or beauty either.
“And the poor old lady whom nobody listened to?” he said, “talking about the sparrows. . . . ”
He could still see in his mind’s eye the thin man persuasively crooking his finger; the fat man who flung his arms out so that his braces showed; and the little old lady who tried to make her voice heard above the cat-calls and whistles. There was a mixture of comedy and tragedy in the scene.
But they had reached the gate into Kensington Gardens. A long row of cars and carriages was drawn up by the kerb. Striped umbrellas were open over the little round tables where people were already sitting, waiting for their tea. Waitresses were hurrying in and out with trays; the season had begun. The scene was very gay.
A lady, fashionably dressed with a purple feather dipping down on one side of her hat, sat there sipping an ice. The sun dappled the table and gave her a curious look of transparency, as if she were caught in a net of light; as if she were composed of lozenges of floating colours. Martin half thought that he knew her; he half raised his hat. But she sat there looking in front of her; sipping her ice. No, he thought; he did not know her, and he stopped for a moment to light his pipe. What would the world be, he said to himself — he was still thinking of the fat man brandishing his arm — without “I” in it? He lit the match. He looked at the flame that had become almost invisible in the sun. He stood for a second drawing at his pipe. Sara had walked on. She too was netted with floating lights from between the leaves. A primal innocence seemed to brood over the scene. The birds made a fitful sweet chirping in the branches; the roar of London encircled the open space in a ring of distant but complete sound. The pink and white chestnut blossoms rode up and down as the branches moved in the breeze. The sun dappling the leaves gave everything a curious look of insubstantiality as if it were broken into separate points of light. He too, himself, seemed dispersed. His mind for a moment was a blank. Then he roused himself, threw away his match, and caught up Sally.
“Come along!” he said. “Come along. . . . The Round Pond at four!”
They walked on arm in arm in silence, down the long avenue with the Palace and the phantom church at the end of its vista. The size of the human figure seemed to have shrunk. Instead of full-grown people, children were now in the majority. Dogs of all sorts abounded. The air was full of barking and sudden shrill cries. Coveys of nursemaids pushed perambulators along the paths. Babies lay fast asleep in them like images of faintly tinted wax; their perfectly smooth eyelids fitted over their eyes as if they sealed them completely. He looked down; he liked children. Sally had looked like that the first time he saw her, asleep in her perambulator in the hall in Browne Street.
He stopped short. They had reached the Pond.
“Where’s Maggie?” he said. “There — is that her?” He pointed to a young woman who was lifting a baby out of its perambulator under a tree.
“Where?” said Sara. She looked in the wrong direction.
“There, under that tree.”
“Yes,” she said, “that’s Maggie.”
They walked in that direction.
“But is it?” said Martin. He was suddenly doubtful; for she had the unconsciousness of a person who is unaware that she is being looked at. It made her unfamiliar. With one hand she held the child; with the other she arranged the pillows of the perambulator. She too was dappled with lozenges of floating light.
“Yes,” he said, noticing something about her gesture, “that’s Maggie.”
She turned and saw them.
She held up her hand as if to warn them to approach quietly. She put a finger to her lips. They approached silently. As they reached her, the distant sound of a clock striking was wafted on the breeze. One, two, three, four it struck. . . . Then it ceased.
“We met at St. Paul’s,” said Martin in a whisper. He dragged up two chairs and sat down. They were silent for a moment. The child was not asleep. Then Maggie bent over and looked at the child.
“You needn’t talk in a whisper,” she said aloud. “He’s asleep.”
“We met at St. Paul’s,” Martin repeated in his ordinary voice. “I’d been seeing my stockbroker.” He took off his hat and laid it on the grass. “And when I came out,” he resumed, “there was Sally. . . . ” He looked at her. She had never told him, he remembered, what it was that she was thinking, as she stood there, with her lips moving, on the steps of St. Paul’s.
Now she was yawning. Instead of taking the little hard green chair which he had pulled up for her, she had thrown herself down on the grass. She had folded herself like a grasshopper with her back against the tree. The prayer-book, with its red and gold leaves, was lying on the ground tented over with trembling blades of grass. She yawned; she stretched. She was already half asleep.
He drew his chair beside Maggie’s; and looked at the scene in front of them.
It was admirably composed. There was the white figure of Queen Victoria against a green bank; beyond, was the red brick of the old palace; the phantom Church raised its spire, and the Round Pond made a pool of blue. A race of yachts was going forward. The boats leant on their sides so that the sails touched the water. There was a nice little breeze.
“And what did you talk about?” said Maggie.
Martin could not remember. “She was tipsy,” he said, pointing to Sara. “And now she’s going to sleep.” He felt sleepy himself. The sun for the first time was almost hot on his head.
Then he answered her question.
“The whole world,” he said, “Politics; religion; morality.” He yawned. Gulls were screaming as they rose and sank over a lady who was feeding them. Maggie was watching them. He looked at her.
“I haven’t seen you,” he said, “since your baby was born.” It’s changed her, having a child, he thought. It’s improved her, he thought. But she was watching the gulls; the lady had thrown a handful of fish. The gulls swooped round and round her head.
“D’you like having a child?” he said.
“Yes,” she said, rousing herself to answer him. “It’s a tie though.”
“But it’s nice having ties, isn’t it?” he enquired. He was fond of children. He looked at the sleeping baby with its eyes sealed and its thumb in its mouth.
“D’you want them?” she asked.
“Just what I was asking myself,” he said, “before —”
Here Sara made a click at the back of her throat; he dropped his voice to a whisper. “Before I met her at St. Paul’s,” he said. They were silent. The baby was asleep; Sara was asleep; the presence of the two sleepers seemed to enclose them in a circle of privacy. Two of the racing yachts were coming together as if they must collide; but one passed just ahead of the other. Martin watched them. Life had resumed its ordinary proportions. Everything once more was back in its place. The boats were sailing; the men walking; the little boys dabbled in the pond for minnows; the waters of the pond rippled bright blue. Everything was full of the stir, the potency, the fecundity of spring.
Suddenly he said aloud:
“Possessiveness is the devil.”
Maggie looked at him. Did he mean herself — herself and the baby? No. There was a tone in his voice that told her he was thinking not of her.
“What are you thinking?” she asked.
“About the woman I’m in love with,” he said. “Love ought to stop on both sides, don’t you think, simultaneously?” He spoke without any stress on the words, so as not to wake the sleepers. “But it won’t — that’s the devil,” he added in the same undertone.
“Bored, are you?” she murmured.
“Stiff,” he said. “Bored stiff.” He stooped and disinterred a pebble in the grass.
“And jealous?” she murmured. Her voice was very low and soft.
“Horribly,” he whispered. It was true, now that she referred to it. Here the baby half woke and stretched out its hand. Maggie rocked the perambulator. Sara stirred. Their privacy was imperilled. It would be destroyed at any moment, he felt; and he wanted to talk.
He glanced at the sleepers. The baby’s eyes were shut, and Sara’s too. Still they seemed encircled in a ring of solitude. Speaking in a low voice without accent, he told her his story; the story of the lady; how she wanted to keep him, and he wanted to be free. It was an ordinary story, but painful — mixed. As he told it, however, the sting was drawn. They sat silent, looking in front of them.
Another race was starting; men crouched at the edge of the pond, each with his stick resting on a toy boat. It was a charming scene, gay, innocent and a trifle ridiculous. The signal was given; off the boats went. And will he, Martin thought, looking at the sleeping baby, go through the same thing too? He was thinking of himself — of his jealousy.
“My father,” he said suddenly, but softly, “had a lady. . . . She called him ‘Bogy’.” And he told her the story of the lady who kept a boarding house at Putney — the very respectable lady, grown stout, who wanted help with her roof. Maggie laughed, but very gently, so as not to wake the sleepers. Both were still sleeping soundly.
“Was he in love,” Martin asked her, “with your mother?”
She was looking at the gulls, cutting patterns on the blue distance with their wings. His question seemed to sink through what she was seeing; then suddenly it reached her.
“Are we brother and sister?” she asked; and laughed out loud. The child opened its eyes, and uncurled its fingers.
“We’ve woken him,” said Martin. He began to cry. Maggie had to soothe him. Their privacy was over. The child cried; and the clocks began striking. The sound came wafted gently towards them on the breeze. One, two, three, four, five. . . .
“It’s time to go,” said Maggie, as the last stroke died away. She laid the baby back on its pillow, and turned. Sara was still asleep. She lay crumpled up with her back to the tree. Martin stooped and threw a twig at her. She opened her eyes but shut them again.
“No, no,” she protested, stretching her arms over her head.
“It’s time,” said Maggie. She pulled herself up. “Time is it?” she sighed. “How strange . . .!” she murmured. She sat up and rubbed her eyes.
“Martin!” she exclaimed. She looked at him as he stood over her in his blue suit holding his stick in his hand. She looked at him as if she were bringing him back to the field of vision.
“Martin!” she said again.
“Yes, Martin!” he replied. “Did you hear what we’ve been saying?” he asked her.
“Voices,” she yawned, shaking her head. “Only voices.”
He paused for a moment, looking down at her. “Well, I’m off,” he said, taking up his hat, “to dine with a cousin in Grosvenor Square,” he added. He turned and left them.
He looked back at them after he had gone a little distance. They were still sitting by the perambulator under the trees. He walked on. Then he looked back again. The ground sloped, and the trees were hidden. A very stout lady was being tugged along the path by a small dog on a chain. He could see them no longer.
The sun was setting as he drove across the Park, an hour or two later. He was thinking that he had forgotten something; but what, he did not know. Scene passed over scene; one obliterated another. Now he was crossing the bridge over the Serpentine. The water glowed with sunset light; twisted poles of lamp light lay on the water, and there, at the end the white bridge composed the scene. The cab entered the shadow of the trees, and joined the long line of cabs that was streaming towards the Marble Arch. People in evening dress were going to plays and parties. The light became yellower and yellower. The road was beaten to a metallic silver. Everything looked festive.
But I’m going to be late, he thought, for the cab was held up in a block by the Marble Arch. He looked at his watch — it was just on eight-thirty. But eight-thirty means eight-forty-five he thought, as the cab moved on. Indeed as it turned into the square there was a car at the door, and a man getting out. So I’m just on time, he thought, and paid the driver.
The door opened almost before he touched the bell, as if he had trod on a spring. The door opened, and two footmen started forward to take his things directly he entered the black-and-white paved hall. He followed another man up the imposing staircase of white marble, sweeping in a curve. A succession of large, dark pictures hung on the wall, and at the top outside the door was a yellow-and- blue picture of Venetian palaces and pale green canals.
“Canaletto or the school of?” he thought, pausing to let the other man precede him. Then he gave his name to the footman.
“Captain Pargiter,” the man boomed out; and there was Kitty standing at the door. She was formal; fashionable; with a dash of red on her lips. She gave him her hand; but he moved on for other guests were arriving. “A saloon?” he said to himself, for the room with its chandeliers, yellow panels, and sofas and chairs dotted about had the air of a grandiose waiting-room. Seven or eight people were already there. It’s not going to work this time, he said to himself as he chatted with his host, who had been racing. His face shone as if it had only that moment been taken out of the sun. One almost expected, Martin thought, as he stood talking, to see a pair of glasses slung round his shoulders, just as there was a red mark across his forehead where his hat had been. No, it’s not going to work, Martin thought as they talked about horses. He heard a paper boy calling in the street below, and the hooting of horns. He preserved clearly his sense of the identity of different objects, and their differences. When a party worked all things, all sounds merged into one. He looked at an old lady with a wedge- shaped stone-coloured face sitting ensconced on a sofa. He glanced at Kitty’s portrait by a fashionable portrait painter as he chatted, standing first on this foot, then on that, to the grizzled man with the bloodhound eyes and the urbane manner whom Kitty had married instead of Edward. Then she came up and introduced him to a girl all in white who was standing alone with her hand on the back of a chair.
“Miss Ann Hillier,” she said. “My cousin, Captain Pargiter.”
She stood for a moment beside them as if to facilitate their introduction. But she was a little stiff always; she did nothing but flick her fan up and down.
“Been to the races, Kitty?” Martin said, because he knew that she hated racing, and he always felt a wish to tease her.
“I? No; I don’t go to races,” she replied rather shortly. She turned away because somebody else had come in — a man in gold lace, with a star.
I should have been better off, Martin thought, reading my book.
“Have you been to the races?” he said aloud to the girl whom he was to take down to dinner. She shook her head. She had white arms; a white dress; and a pearl necklace. Purely virginal, he said to himself; and only an hour ago I was lying stark naked in my bath in Ebury Street, he thought.
“I’ve been watching polo,” she said. He looked down at his shoes, and noticed that they had creases across them; they were old; he had meant to buy a new pair, but had forgotten. That was what he had forgotten, he thought, seeing himself again in the cab, crossing the bridge over the Serpentine.
But they were going down to dinner. He gave her his arm. As they went down the stairs, and he watched the ladies’ dresses in front of them trail from step to step, he thought, What on earth am I going to say to her? Then they crossed the black-and-white squares and went into the dining-room. It was harmoniously shrouded; pictures with hooded bars of light under them shone out; and the dinner table glowed; but no light shone directly on their faces. If this doesn’t work, he thought, looking at the portrait of a nobleman with a crimson cloak and a star that hung luminous in front of him, I’ll never do it again. Then he braced himself to talk to the virginal girl who sat beside him. But he had to reject almost everything that occurred to him — she was so young.
“I’ve thought of three subjects to talk about,” he began straight off, without thinking how the sentence was to end. “Racing; the Russian ballet; and”— he hesitated for a moment —“Ireland. Which interests you?” He unfolded his napkin.
“Please,” she said, bending slightly towards him, “say that again.”
He laughed. She had a charming way of putting her head on one side and bending towards him.
“Don’t let’s talk of any of them,” he said. “Let’s talk of something interesting. Do you enjoy parties?” he asked her. She was dipping her spoon in her soup. She looked up at him as she lifted it with eyes that seemed like bright stones under a film of water. They’re like drops of glass under water, he thought. She was extraordinarily pretty.
“But I’ve only been to three parties in my life!” she said. She gave a charming little laugh.
“You don’t say so!” he exclaimed. “This is the third, then; or is it the fourth?”
He listened to the sounds in the street. He could just hear the cars hooting; but they had gone far away; they made a continuous rushing noise. It was beginning to work. He held out his glass. He would like her to say, he thought, as his glass was filled, “What a charming man I sat next!” when she went to bed that night.
“This is my third real party,” she said, stressing the word “real” in a way that seemed to him slightly pathetic. She must have been in the nursery three months ago, he thought, eating bread and butter.
“And I was thinking as I shaved,” he said, “that I would never go to a party again.” It was true; he had seen a hole in the bookcase. Who’s taken my life of Wren? he had thought, holding his razor out; and had wanted to stay and read, alone. But now — what little piece of his vast experience could he break off and give to her, he wondered?
“Do you live in London?” she asked.
“Ebury Street,” he told her. And she knew Ebury Street, because it was on the way to Victoria; she often went to Victoria, because they had a house in Sussex.
“And now tell me,” he said, feeling that they had broken the ice — when she turned her head to answer some remark of the man on the other side. He was annoyed. The whole fabric that he had been building, like a game of spillikins in which one frail little bone is hooked on top of another, was dashed to the ground. Ann was talking as if she had known the other man all her life; he had hair that looked as if a rake had been drawn through it; he was very young. Martin sat silent. He looked at the great portrait opposite. A footman was standing beneath it; a row of decanters obscured the folds of the cloak on the floor. That’s the third Earl, or the fourth? he asked himself. He knew his eighteenth century; it was the fourth Earl who had made the great marriage. But after all, he thought, looking at Kitty at the head of the table, the Rigbys are a better family than they are. He smiled; he checked himself. I only think of “better families” when I dine in this sort of place, he thought. He looked at another picture; a lady in sea green; the famous Gainsborough. But here Lady Margaret, the woman on his left, turned to him.
“I’m sure you’ll agree with me,” she said, “Captain Pargiter”— he noticed that she swept her eyes over the name on his card before she spoke it, although they had met often before —“that it’s a devilish thing to have done?”
She spoke so pouncingly that the fork she held upright seemed like a weapon with which she was about to pinion him. He threw himself into their conversation. It was about politics of course, about Ireland. “Tell me — what’s your opinion?” she asked, with her fork poised. For a moment he had the illusion that he too was behind the scenes. The screen was down; the lights were up; and he too was behind the scenes. It was an illusion of course; they were only throwing him scraps from their larder; but it was an agreeable sensation while it lasted. He listened. Now she was holding forth to a distinguished old man at the end of the table. He watched him. He had let down a mask of infinitely wise tolerance over his face as she harangued them. He was arranging three crusts of bread by the side of his plate as if he were playing a mysterious little game of profound significance. “So,” he seemed to be saying, “So,” as if they were fragments of human destiny, not crusts, that he held in his fingers. The mask might conceal anything — or nothing? Anyhow it was a mask of great distinction. But here Lady Margaret pinioned him too with her fork; and he raised his eyebrows and moved one of the crusts a little to one side before he spoke. Martin leant forward to listen.
“When I was in Ireland,” he began, “in 1880 . . . ” He spoke very simply; he was offering them a memory; he told his story perfectly; it held its meaning without spilling a single drop. And he had played a great part. Martin listened attentively. Yes, it was absorbing. Here we are, he thought, going on and on and on. . . . He leant forward trying to catch every word. But he was conscious of some interruption; Ann had turned to him.
“Do tell me”— she was asking him —“who he is?” She bent her head to the right. She was under the impression that he knew everybody, apparently. He was flattered. He looked along the table. Who was it? Somebody he had met; somebody, he guessed, who was not quite at his ease.
“I know him,” he said. “I know him —” He had a rather white, fat face; he was talking away at a great rate. And the young married woman to whom he was talking was saying “I see; I see,” with little nods of her head. But there was a slight look of strain on her face. You needn’t put yourself to all that trouble, my good fellow, Martin felt inclined to say to him. She doesn’t understand a word you’re saying.
“I can’t put a name to him,” he said aloud. “But I’ve met him — let me see — where? In Oxford or Cambridge?”
A faint look of amusement came into Ann’s eyes. She had spotted the difference. She coupled them together. They were not her world — no.
“Have you seen the Russian dancers?” she was saying. She had been there with her young man, it seemed. And what’s your world, Martin thought, as she rapped out her slender stock of adjectives — “heavenly,” “amazing,” “marvellous,” and so on. Is it “the” world? he mused. He looked down the table. Anyhow no other world had a chance against it, he thought. And it’s a good world too, he added; large; generous; hospitable. And very nice-looking. He glanced from face to face. Dinner was drawing to an end. They all looked as if they had been rubbed with wash leather, like precious stones; yet the bloom seemed ingrained; it went through the stone. And the stone was clear-cut; there was no blur, no indecision. Here a footman’s white-gloved hand removing dishes knocked over a glass of wine. A red splash trickled onto the lady’s dress. But she did not move a muscle; she went on talking. Then she straightened the clean napkin that had been brought her, nonchalantly, over the stain.
That’s what I like, Martin thought. He admired that. She would have blown her fingers on her nose like an applewoman if she wanted to, he thought. But Ann was talking.
“And when he gives that leap!” she exclaimed — she raised her hand with a lovely gesture in the air —“and then comes down!” She let her hand fall in her lap.
“Marvellous!” Martin agreed. He had got the very accent, he thought; he had got it from the young man whose hair looked as if a rake had gone through it.
“Yes: Nijinsky’s marvellous,” he agreed. “Marvellous,” he repeated.
“And my aunt has asked me to meet him at a party,” said Ann.
“Your aunt?” he said aloud.
She mentioned a well-known name.
“Oh, she’s your aunt, is she?” he said. He placed her. So that was her world. He wanted to ask her — for he found her charming in her youth, her simplicity — but it was too late. Ann was rising.
“I hope —” he began. She bent her head towards him as if she longed to stay, catch his last word, his least word; but could not, since Lady Lasswade had risen; and it was time for her to go.
Lady Lasswade had risen; everybody rose. All the pink, grey, sea- coloured dresses lengthened themselves, and for a moment the tall women standing by the table looked like the famous Gainsborough hanging on the wall. The table, strewn with napkins and wine- glasses, had a derelict air as they left it. For a moment the ladies clustered at the door; then the little old woman in black hobbled past them with remarkable dignity; and Kitty, coming last, put her arm round Ann’s shoulder and led her out. The door shut on the ladies.
Kitty paused for a moment.
“I hope you liked my old cousin?” she said to Ann as they walked upstairs together. She put her hand to her dress and straightened something as they passed a looking-glass.
“I thought him charming!” Ann exclaimed. “And what a lovely tree!” She spoke of Martin and the tree in exactly the same tone. They paused for a moment to look at a tree that was covered with pink blossoms in a china tub standing at the door. Some of the flowers were fully out; others were still unopened. As they looked a petal dropped.
“It’s cruel to keep it here,” said Kitty, “in this hot air.”
They went in. While they dined the servants had opened the folding doors and lit lights in a further room so that it seemed as if they came into another room freshly made ready for them. There was a great fire blazing between two stately fire-dogs; but it seemed cordial and decorative rather than hot. Two or three of the ladies stood before it, opening and shutting their fingers as they spread them to the blaze; but they turned to make room for their hostess.
“How I love that picture of you, Kitty!” said Mrs Aislabie, looking up at the portrait of Lady Lasswade as a young woman. Her hair had been very red in those days; she was toying with a basket of roses. Fiery but tender, she looked, emerging from a cloud of white muslin.
Kitty glanced at it and then turned away.
“One never likes one’s own picture,” she said.
“But it’s the image of you!” said another lady.
“Not now,” said Kitty, laughing off the compliment rather awkwardly. Always after dinner women paid each other compliments about their clothes or their looks, she thought. She did not like being alone with women after dinner; it made her shy. She stood there, upright among them, while footmen went round with trays of coffee.
“By the way, I hope the wine —” she paused and helped herself to coffee, “the wine didn’t stain your frock, Cynthia?” she said to the young married woman who had taken the disaster so coolly.
“And such a lovely frock,” said Lady Margaret, fondling the folds of golden satin between her finger and thumb.
“D’you like it?” said the young woman.
“It’s perfectly lovely! I’ve been looking at it the whole evening!” said Mrs Treyer, an Oriental-looking woman, with a feather floating back from her head in harmony with her nose, which was Jewish.
Kitty looked at them admiring the lovely frock. Eleanor would have found herself out of it, she thought. She had refused her invitation to dinner. That annoyed her.
“Do tell me,” Lady Cynthia interrupted, “who was the man I sat next? One always meets such interesting people at your house,” she added.
“The man you sat next?” said Kitty. She considered a moment. “Tony Ashton,” she said.
“Is that the man who’s been lecturing on French poetry at Mortimer House?” chimed in Mrs Aislabie. “I longed to go to those lectures. I heard they were wonderfully interesting.”
“Mildred went,” said Mrs Treyer.
“Why should we all stand?” said Kitty. She made a movement with her hands towards the seats. She did things like that so abruptly that they called her, behind her back, “The Grenadier.” They all moved this way and that, and she herself, after seeing how the couples sorted themselves, sat down by old Aunt Warburton, who was enthroned in the great chair.
“Tell me about my delightful godson,” the old lady began. She meant Kitty’s second son, who was with the fleet at Malta.
“He’s at Malta —” she began. She sat down on a low chair and began answering her questions. But the fire was too hot for Aunt Warburton. She raised her knobbed old hand.
“Priestley wants to roast us all alive,” said Kitty. She got up and went to the window. The ladies smiled as she strode across the room and jerked up the top of the long window. Just for a moment, as the curtains hung apart, she looked at the square outside. There was a spatter of leaf-shadow and lamplight on the pavement; the usual policeman was balancing himself as he patrolled; the usual little men and women, foreshortened from this height, hurried along by the railings. So she saw them hurrying, the other way, when she brushed her teeth in the morning. Then she came back and sat down on a low stool beside old Aunt Warburton. The worldly old woman was honest, in her way.
“And the little red-haired ruffian whom I love?” she asked. He was her favourite; the little boy at Eton.
“He’s been in trouble,” said Kitty. “He’s been swished.” She smiled. He was her favourite too.
The old lady grinned. She liked boys who got into trouble. She had a wedge-shaped yellow face with an occasional bristle on her chin; she was over eighty; but she sat as if she were riding a hunter, Kitty thought, glancing at her hands. They were coarse hands, with big finger-joints; red and white sparks flashed from her rings as she moved them.
“And you, my dear,” said the old lady, looking at her shrewdly under her bushy eyebrows, “busy as usual?”
“Yes. Much as usual,” said Kitty, evading the shrewd old eyes; for she did things on the sly that they — the ladies over there — did not approve.
They were chattering together. Yet animated as it sounded, to Kitty’s ear the talk lacked substance. It was a battledore and shuttlecock talk, to be kept going until the door opened and the gentlemen came in. Then it would stop. They were talking about a by-election. She could hear Lady Margaret telling some story that was rather coarse presumably, in the eighteenth-century way, since she dropped her voice.
“— turned her upside down and slapped her,” she could hear her say. There was a twitter of laughter.
“I’m so delighted he got in in spite of them,” said Mrs Treyer. They dropped their voices.
“I’m a tiresome old woman,” said Aunt Warburton, raising one of her knobbed hands to her shoulder. “But now I’m going to ask you to shut that window.” The draught was getting at her rheumatic joint.
Kitty strode to the window. “Damn these women!” she said to herself. She laid hold of the long stick with a beak at the end that stood in the window and poked; but the window stuck. She would have liked to fleece them of their clothes, of their jewels, of their intrigues, of their gossip. The window went up with a jerk. There was Ann standing about with nobody to talk to.
“Come and talk to us, Ann,” she said, beckoning to her. Ann drew up a footstool and sat down at Aunt Warburton’s feet. There was a pause. Old Aunt Warburton disliked young girls; but they had relations in common.
“Where’s Timmy, Ann?” she asked.
“Harrow,” said Ann.
“Ah, you’ve always been to Harrow,” said Aunt Warburton. And then the old lady, with the beautiful breeding that simulated at least human charity, flattered the girl, likening her to her grandmother, a famous beauty.
“How I should love to have known her!” Ann exclaimed. “Do tell me — what was she like?”
The old lady began making a selection from her memoirs; it was only a selection; an edition with asterisks; for it was a story that could hardly be told to a girl in white satin. Kitty’s mind wandered. If Charles stayed much longer downstairs, she thought, glancing at the clock, she would miss her train. Could Priestley be trusted to whisper a message in his ears? She would give them another ten minutes; she turned to Aunt Warburton again.
“She must have been wonderful!” Ann was saying. She sat with her hands clasped round her knees looking up into the face of the hairy old dowager. Kitty felt a moment’s pity. Her face will be like their faces, she thought, looking at the little group at the other side of the room. Their faces looked harassed, worried; their hands moved restlessly. Yet they’re brave, she thought; and generous. They gave as much as they took. Had Eleanor after all any right to despise them? Had she done more with her life than Margaret Marrable? And I? she thought. And I? . . . Who’s right? she thought. Who’s wrong? . . . Here mercifully the door opened.
The gentlemen came in. They came in reluctantly, rather slowly, as if they had just stopped talking, and had to get their bearings in the drawing-room. They were a little flushed and still laughing, as if they had stopped in the middle of what they were saying. They filed in; and the distinguished old man moved across the room with the air of a ship making port, and all the ladies stirred without rising. The game was over; the battledores and shuttlecocks put away. They were like gulls settling on fish, Kitty thought. There was a rising and a fluttering. The great man let himself slowly down into a chair beside his old friend Lady Warburton. He put the tips of his fingers together and began “Well . . .?” as if he were continuing a conversation left unfinished the night before. Yes, she thought, there was something — was it human? civilised? she could not find the word she wanted — about the old couple, talking, as they had talked for the past fifty years. . . . They were all talking. They had all settled in to add another sentence to the story that was just ending, or in the middle, or about to begin.
But there was Tony Ashton standing by himself without a sentence to add to the story. She went up to him therefore.
“Have you seen Edward lately?” he asked her as usual.
“Yes, today,” she said. “I lunched with him. We walked in the Park. . . . ” She stopped. They had walked in the Park. A thrush had been singing; they had stopped to listen. “That’s the wise thrush that sings each song twice over . . . ” he had said. “Does he?” she had asked innocently. And it had been a quotation.
She had felt foolish; Oxford always made her feel foolish. She disliked Oxford; yet she respected Edward and Tony too, she thought looking at him. A snob on the surface; underneath a scholar. . . . They had a standard. . . . But she roused herself.
He would like to talk to some smart woman — Mrs Aislabie, or Margaret Marrable. But they were both engaged — both were adding sentences with considerable vivacity. There was a pause. She was not a good hostess, she reflected; this sort of hitch always happened at her parties. There was Ann; Ann about to be captured by a youth she knew. But Kitty beckoned. Ann came instantly and submissively.
“Come and be introduced,” she said, “to Mr Ashton. He’s been lecturing at Mortimer House,” she explained, “about —” She hesitated.
“Mallarmé,” he said with his odd little squeak, as if his voice had been pinched off.
Kitty turned away. Martin came up to her.
“A very brilliant party, Lady Lasswade,” he said with his usual tiresome irony.
“This? Oh, not at all,” she said brusquely. This wasn’t a party. Her parties were never brilliant. Martin was trying to tease her as usual. She looked down and saw his shabby shoes.
“Come and talk to me,” she said, feeling the old family affection return. She noticed with amusement that he was a little flushed, a little, as the nurses used to say, “above himself”. How many “parties” would it need, she wondered, to turn her satirical, uncompromising cousin into an obedient member of society?
“Let’s sit down and talk sense,” she said, sinking on to a little sofa. He sat down beside her.
“Tell me, what’s Nell doing?” she asked.
“She sent her love,” said Martin. “She told me to say how much she wanted to see you.”
“Then why wouldn’t she come tonight?” said Kitty. She felt hurt. She could not help it.
“She hasn’t the right kind of hairpin,” he said with a laugh, looking down at his shoes. Kitty looked down at them too.
“My shoes, you see, don’t matter,” he said. “But then I’m a man.”
“It’s such nonsense . . . ” Kitty began. “What does it matter . . . ”
But he was looking round him at the groups of beautifully dressed women; then at the picture.
“That’s a horrid daub of you over the mantelpiece,” he said, looking at the red-haired girl. “Who did it?”
“I forget . . . Don’t let’s look at it,” she said.
“Let’s talk . . . ” Then she stopped.
He was looking round the room. It was crowded; there were little tables with photographs; ornate cabinets with vases of flowers; and panels of yellow brocade let into the walls. She felt that he was criticising the room and herself too.
“I always want to take a knife and scrape it all off,” she said. But what’s the use, she thought? If she moved a picture, “Where’s Uncle Bill on the old cob?” her husband would say, and back it had to go again.
“Like a hotel, isn’t it?” she continued.
“A saloon,” he remarked. He did not know why he always wanted to hurt her; but he did; it was a fact.
“I was asking myself,” he dropped his voice, “Why have a picture like that”— he nodded his head at the portrait —“when they’ve a Gainsborough . . . ”
“And why,” she dropped her voice, imitating his tone that was half sneering, half humorous, “come and eat their food when you despise them?”
“I don’t! Not a bit!” he exclaimed. “I’m enjoying myself immensely. I like seeing you, Kitty,” he added. It was true — he always liked her. “You haven’t dropped your poor relations. That’s very nice of you.”
“It’s they who’ve dropped me,” she said.
“Oh, Eleanor,” he said. “She’s a queer old bird.”
“It’s all so . . . ” Kitty began. But there was something wrong about the disposition of her party; she stopped in the middle of her sentence. “You’ve got to come and talk to Mrs Treyer,” she said getting up.
Why does one do it? he wondered as he followed her. He had wanted to talk to Kitty; he had nothing to say to that Oriental-looking harpy with a pheasant’s feather floating at the back of her head. Still, if you drink the good wine of the noble countess, he said bowing, you have to entertain her less desirable friends. He led her off.
Kitty went back to the fireplace. She dealt the coal a blow, and the sparks went volleying up the chimney. She was irritable; she was restless. Time was passing; if they stayed much longer she would miss her train. Surreptitiously she noted that the hands of the clock were close on eleven. The party was bound to break up soon; it was only the prelude to another party. Yet they were all talking, and talking, as if they would never go.
She glanced at the groups that seemed immovable. Then the clock chimed a succession of petulant little strokes, on the last of which the door opened and Priestley advanced. With his inscrutable butler’s eyes and crooked forefinger he summoned Ann Hillier.
“That’s Mama fetching me,” said Ann, advancing down the room with a little flutter.
“She’s taking you on?” said Kitty. She held her hand for a moment. Why? she asked herself, looking at the lovely face, empty of meaning, or character, like a page on which nothing has been written but youth. She held her hand for a moment.
“Must you go?” she said.
“I’m afraid I must,” said Ann, withdrawing her hand.
There was a general rising and movement, like the flutter of white- winged gulls.
“Coming with us?” Martin heard Ann say to the youth through whose hair the rake seemed to have been passed. They turned to leave together. As she passed Martin, who stood with his hand out, Ann gave him the least bend of her head, as if his image had been already swept from her mind. He was dashed; his feeling was out of all proportion to its object. He felt a strong desire to go with them, wherever it was. But he had not been asked; Ashton had; he was following in their wake.
“What a toady!” he thought to himself with a bitterness that surprised him. It was odd how jealous he felt for a moment. They were all “going on,” it seemed. He hung about a little awkwardly. Only the old fogies were left — no, even the great man was going on, it seemed. Only the old lady was left. She was hobbling across the room on Lasswade’s arm. She wanted to confirm something that she had been saying about a miniature. Lasswade had taken it off the wall; he held it under a lamp so that she could pronounce her verdict. Was it Grandpapa on the cob, or was it Uncle William?
“Sit down, Martin, and let us talk,” said Kitty. He sat down: but he had a feeling that she wanted him to go. He had seen her glance at the clock. They chatted for a moment. Now the old lady came back; she was proving, beyond a doubt, from her unexampled store of anecdotes, that it must be Uncle William on the cob; not Grandpapa. She was going. But she took her time. Martin waited till she was fairly in the doorway, leaning on her nephew’s arm. He hesitated; they were alone now; should he stay, or should he go? But Kitty was standing up. She was holding out her hand.
“Come again soon and see me alone,” she said. She had dismissed him, he felt.
That’s what people always say, he said to himself as he made his way slowly downstairs behind Lady Warburton. Come again: but I don’t know that I shall. . . . Lady Warburton went downstairs like a crab, holding on to the banisters with one hand, to Lasswade’s arm with the other. He lingered behind her. He looked at the Canaletto once more. A nice picture: but a copy, he said to himself. He peered over the banisters and saw the black-and-white slabs on the hall beneath.
It did work, he said to himself, descending step by step into the hall. Off and on; by fits and starts. But was it worth it? he asked himself, letting the footman help him into his coat. The double doors stood wide open into the street. One or two people were passing; they peered in curiously, looking at the footmen, at the bright big hall; and at the old lady who paused for a moment on the black-and-white squares. She was robing herself. Now she was accepting her cloak with a violet slash in it; now her furs. A bag dangled from her wrist. She was hung about with chains; her fingers were knobbed with rings. Her sharp stone-coloured face, riddled with lines and wrinkled into creases, looked out from its soft nest of fur and laces. The eyes were still bright.
The nineteenth century going to bed, Martin said to himself as he watched her hobble down the steps on the arm of her footman. She was helped into her carriage. Then he shook hands with that good fellow his host, who had had quite as much wine as was good for him, and walked off through Grosvenor Square.
Upstairs in the bedroom at the top of the house Kitty’s maid Baxter was looking out of the window, watching the guests drive off. There — that was the old lady going. She wished they would hurry; if the party went on much longer her own little jaunt would be done for. She was going up the river tomorrow with her young man. She turned and looked round her. She had everything ready — her ladyship’s coat, skirt, and the bag with the ticket in it. It was long past eleven. She stood at the dressing-table waiting. The three-folded mirror reflected silver pots, powder puffs, combs and brushes. Baxter stooped down and smirked at herself in the glass — that was how she would look when she went up the river — then she drew herself up; she heard footsteps in the passage. Her ladyship was coming. Here she was.
Lady Lasswade came in, slipping the rings from her fingers. “Sorry to be so late, Baxter,” she said. “Now I must hurry.”
Baxter, without speaking, unhooked her dress; slipped it dexterously to her feet, and bore it away. Kitty sat down at her dressing-table and kicked off her shoes. Satin shoes were always too tight. She glanced at the clock on her dressing-table. She just had time.
Baxter was handing her coat. Now she was handing her bag.
“The ticket’s in there, m’lady,” she said, touching the bag.
“Now my hat,” said Kitty. She stooped to settle it in front of the mirror. The little tweed travelling-hat poised on the top of her hair made her look quite a different person; the person she liked being. She stood in her travelling-dress, wondering if she had forgotten anything. Her mind was a perfect blank for a moment. Where am I? she wondered. What am I doing? Where am I going? Her eyes fixed themselves on the dressing-table; vaguely she remembered some other room, and some other time when she was a girl. At Oxford was it?
“The ticket, Baxter?” she said perfunctorily.
“In your bag, m’lady,” Baxter reminded her. She was holding it in her hand.
“So that’s everything,” said Kitty, glancing round her.
She felt a moment’s compunction.
“Thanks, Baxter,” she said. “I hope you’ll enjoy your . . . ”— she hesitated: she did not know what Baxter did on her day off —” . . . your play,” she said at a venture. Baxter gave a queer little bitten-off smile. Maids bothered Kitty with their demure politeness; with their inscrutable, pursed-up faces. But they were very useful.
“Good-night!” she said to Baxter at the door of the bedroom; for there Baxter turned back as if her responsibility for her mistress ended. Somebody else had charge of the stairs.
Kitty looked in at the drawing-room, in case her husband should be there. But the room was empty. The fire was still blazing; the chairs, drawn out in a circle, still seemed to hold the skeleton of the party in their empty arms. But the car was waiting for her at the door.
“Plenty of time?” she said to the chauffeur as he laid the rug across her knees. Off they started.
It was a clear still night and every tree in the square was visible; some were black, others were sprinkled with strange patches of green artificial light. Above the arc lamps rose shafts of darkness. Although it was close on midnight, it scarcely seemed to be night; but rather some ethereal disembodied day, for there were so many lamps in the streets; cars passing; men in white mufflers with their light overcoats open walking along the clean dry pavements, and many houses were still lit up, for everyone was giving parties. The town changed as they drew smoothly through Mayfair. The public houses were closing; here was a group clustered round a lamp-post at the corner. A drunken man was bawling out some loud song; a tipsy girl with a feather bobbing in her eyes was swaying as she clung to the lamp-post . . . but Kitty’s eyes alone registered what she saw. After the talk, the effort and the hurry, she could add nothing to what she saw. And they swept on quickly. Now they had turned, and the car was gliding at full speed up a long bright avenue of great shuttered shops. The streets were almost empty. The yellow station clock showed that they had five minutes to spare.
Just in time, she said to herself. The usual exhilaration mounted in her as she walked along the platform. Diffused light poured down from a great height. Men’s cries and the clangour of shunting carriages echoed in the immense vacancy. The train was waiting; travellers were making ready to start. Some were standing with one foot on the step of the carriage drinking out of thick cups as if they were afraid to go far from their seats. She looked down the length of the train and saw the engine sucking water from a hose. It seemed all body, all muscle; even the neck had been consumed into the smooth barrel of the body. This was “the” train; the others were toys in comparison. She snuffed up the sulphurous air, which left a slight tinge of acid at the back of the throat, as if it already had a tang of the north.
The guard had seen her and was coming towards her with his whistle in his hand.
“Good evening, m’lady,” he said.
“Good evening, Purvis. Run it rather fine,” she said as he unlocked the door of her carriage.
“Yes, m’lady. Only just in time,” he replied.
He locked the door. Kitty turned and looked round the small lighted room in which she was to spend the night. Everything was ready; the bed was made; the sheets were turned down; her bag was on the seat. The guard passed the window, holding his flag in his hand.
A man who had only just caught the train ran across the platform with his arms spread out. A door slammed.
“Just in time,” Kitty said to herself as she stood there. Then the train gave a gentle tug. She could hardly believe that so great a monster could start so gently on so long a journey. Then she saw the tea-urn sliding past.
“We’re off,” she said to herself, sinking back onto the seat. “We’re off!”
All the tension went out of her body. She was alone; and the train was moving. The last lamp on the platform slid away. The last figure on the platform vanished.
“What fun!” she said to herself, as if she were a little girl who had run away from her nurse and escaped. “We’re off!”
She sat still for a moment in her brightly lit compartment; then she tugged the blind and it sprang up with a jerk. Elongated lights slid past; lights in factories and warehouses; lights in obscure back streets. Then there were asphalt paths; more lights in public gardens; and then bushes and a hedge in a field. They were leaving London behind them; leaving that blaze of light which seemed, as the train rushed into the darkness, to contract itself into one fiery circle. The train rushed with a roar through a tunnel. It seemed to perform an act of amputation; now she was cut off from that circle of light.
She looked round the narrow little compartment in which she was isolated. Everything shook slightly. There was a perpetual faint vibration. She seemed to be passing from one world to another; this was the moment of transition. She sat still for a moment; then undressed and paused with her hand on the blind. The train had got into its stride now; it was rushing at full speed through the country. A few distant lights twinkled here and there. Black clumps of trees stood in the grey summer fields; the fields were full of summer grasses. The light from the engine lit up a quiet group of cows; and a hedge of hawthorn. They were in open country now.
She pulled down the blind and climbed into her bed. She laid herself out on the rather hard shelf with her back to the carriage wall, so that she felt a faint vibration against her head. She lay listening to the humming noise which the train made, now that it had got into its stride. Smoothly and powerfully she was being drawn through England to the north. I need do nothing, she thought, nothing, nothing, but let myself be drawn on. She turned and pulled the blue shade over the lamp. The sound of the train became louder in the darkness; its roar, its vibration, seemed to fall into a regular rhythm of sound, raking through her mind, rolling out her thoughts.
Ah, but not all of them, she thought, turning restlessly on her shelf. Some still jutted up. One’s not a child, she thought, staring at the light under the blue shade, any longer. The years changed things; destroyed things; heaped things up — worries and bothers; here they were again. Fragments of talk kept coming back to her; sights came before her. She saw herself raise the window with a jerk; and the bristles on Aunt Warburton’s chin. She saw the women rising, and the men filing in. She sighed as she turned on her ledge. All their clothes are the same, she thought; all their lives are the same. And which is right? she thought, turning restlessly on her shelf. Which is wrong? She turned again.
The train rushed her on. The sound had deepened; it had become a continuous roar. How could she sleep? How could she prevent herself from thinking? She turned away from the light. Now where are we? she said to herself. Where is the train at this moment? now, she murmured, shutting her eyes, we are passing the white house on the hill; now we are going through the tunnel; now we are crossing the bridge over the river. . . . A blank intervened; her thoughts became spaced; they became muddled. Past and present became jumbled together. She saw Margaret Marrable pinching the dress in her fingers, but she was leading a bull with a ring through its nose. . . . This is sleep, she said to herself, half opening her eyes; thank goodness, she said to herself, shutting them again, this is sleep. And she resigned herself to the charge of the train, whose roar now became dulled and distant.
There was a tap at her door. She lay for a moment, wondering why the room shook so; then the scene settled itself; she was in the train; she was in the country; they were nearing the station. She got up.
She dressed rapidly and stood in the corridor. It was still early. She watched the fields galloping past. They were the bare fields, the angular fields of the north. The spring was late here; the trees were not fully out yet. The smoke looped down and caught a tree in its white cloud. When it lifted, she thought how fine the light was; clear and sharp, white and grey. The land had none of the softness, none of the greenness of the land in the south. But here was the junction; here was the gasometer; they were running into the station. The train slowed down, and all the lamp-posts on the platform gradually came to a standstill.
She got out and drew in a deep breath of the cold raw air. The car was waiting for her; and directly she saw it she remembered — it was the new car; a birthday present from her husband. She had never driven in it yet. Cole touched his hat.
“Let’s have it open, Cole,” she said, and he opened the stiff new hood, and she got in beside him. Very slowly, for the engine seemed to beat intermittently, starting and stopping and then starting again, they moved off. They drove through the town; all the shops were still shut; women were on their knees scrubbing doorsteps; blinds were still drawn in bedrooms and sitting-rooms; there was very little traffic about. Only milk-carts rattled past. Dogs roamed down the middle of the street on private errands of their own. Cole had to hoot again and again.
“They’ll learn in time, m’lady,” he said as a great brindled cur slunk out of their way. In the town he drove carefully; but once they were outside he speeded up. Kitty watched the needle jump forward on the speedometer.
“She does it easily?” she asked, listening to the soft purr of the engine.
Cole lifted his foot to show how lightly it touched the accelerator. Then he touched it again and the car sped on. They were driving too fast, Kitty thought; but the road — she kept her eye on it — was still empty. Only two or three lumbering farm waggons passed them; the men went to the horses’ heads and held them as they went by. The road stretched pearl-white in front of them; the hedges were decked with the little pointed leaves of early spring.
“Spring’s very late up here,” said Kitty; “cold winds I suppose?”
Cole nodded. He had none of the servile ways of the London flunkey; she was at her ease with him; she could be silent. The air seemed to have different grades of warmth and chill in it; now sweet; now — they were passing a farmyard — strong-smelling, acrid from the sour smell of manure. She leant back, holding her hat to her head as they rushed a hill. “You won’t get her up this on top, Cole,” she said. The pace slackened a little; they were climbing the familiar Crabbs hill, with the yellow streaks where carters had put on their brakes. In the old days, when she drove horses, they used to get out here and walk. Cole said nothing. He was going to show off his engine, she suspected. The car swept up finely. But the hill was long; there was a level stretch; then the road mounted again. The car faltered. Cole coaxed her on. Kitty saw him jerk his body slightly backwards and forwards as if he were encouraging horses. She felt the tension of his muscles. They slowed — they almost stopped. No, now they were on the crest of the hill. She had done it on top!
“Well done!” she exclaimed. He said nothing; but he was very proud, she knew.
“We couldn’t have done that on the old car,” she said.
“Ah, but it wasn’t her fault,” said Cole.
He was a very humane man; the kind of man she liked, she reflected — silent, reserved. On they swept again. Now they were passing the grey stone house where the mad lady lived alone with her peacocks and her bloodhounds. They had passed it. Now the woods were on their right hand and the air came singing through them. It was like the sea, Kitty thought, looking, as they passed, down a dark green drive patched with yellow sunlight. On they went again. Now heaps of ruddy brown leaves lay by the roadside staining the puddles red.
“It’s been raining?” she said. He nodded. They came out on the high ridge with woods beneath and there, in a clearing among the trees, was the grey tower of the Castle. She always looked for it and greeted it as if she were raising a hand to a friend. They were on their own land now. Gateposts were branded with their initials; their arms swung above the doorways of inns; their crest was mounted over cottage doors. Cole looked at the clock. The needle leapt again.
Too fast, too fast! Kitty said to herself. But she liked the rush of the wind in her face. Now they reached the Lodge gate; Mrs Preedy was holding it open with a white-haired child on her arm. They rushed through the Park. The deer looked up and hopped away lightly through the fern.
“Two minutes under the quarter, m’lady,” said Cole as they swept in a circle and drew up at the door. Kitty stood for a moment looking at the car. She laid her hand on the bonnet. It was hot. She gave it a little pat. “She did it beautifully, Cole,” she said. “I’ll tell his Lordship.” Cole smiled; he was happy.
She went in. Nobody was about; they had arrived earlier than was expected. She crossed the great stone-flagged hall, with the armour and the busts, and went into the morning-room where breakfast was laid.
The green light dazzled her as she went in. It was as if she stood in the hollow of an emerald. All was green outside. The statues of grey French ladies stood on the terrace, holding their baskets; but the baskets were empty. In summer flowers would burn there. Green turf fell down in broad swaths between clipped yews; dipped to the river; and then rose again to the hill that was crested with woods. There was a curl of mist on the woods now — the light mist of early morning. As she gazed a bee buzzed in her ear; she thought she heard the murmur of the river over the stones; pigeons crooned in the tree tops. It was the voice of early morning, the voice of summer. But the door opened. Here was breakfast.
She breakfasted; she felt warm, stored, and comfortable as she lay back in her chair. And she had nothing to do — nothing whatever. The whole day was hers. It was fine too. The sunlight suddenly quickened in the room, and laid a broad bar of light across the floor. The sun was on the flowers outside. A tortoiseshell butterfly flaunted across the window; she saw it settle on a leaf, and there it sat, opening its wings and shutting them, opening and shutting them, as if it feasted on the sunlight. She watched it. The down was soft rust-red on its wings. Off it flaunted again. Then, admitted by an invisible hand, the chow stalked in; came straight up to her; sniffed at her skirt, and flung himself down in a bright patch of sunlight.
Heartless brute! she thought, but his indifference pleased her. He asked nothing of her either. She stretched her hand for a cigarette. And what would Martin say, she wondered, as she took the enamel box that turned from green to blue, as she opened it. Hideous? Vulgar? Possibly — but what did it matter what people said? Criticism seemed light as smoke this morning. What did it matter what he said, what they said, what anybody said, since she had a whole day to herself? — since she was alone? And there they are, still asleep, in their houses, she thought, standing at the window, looking at the green-grey grass, after their dances, after their parties . . . The thought pleased her. She threw away her cigarette and went upstairs to change her clothes.
The sun was much stronger when she came down again. The garden had already lost its look of purity; the mist was off the woods. She could hear the squeak of the lawn mower as she stepped out of the window. The rubber-shoed pony was pacing up and down the lawns leaving a pale wake in the grass behind him. The birds were singing in their scattered way. The starlings in their bright mail were feeding on the grass. Dew shone, red, violet, gold on the trembling tips of the grass blades. It was a perfect May morning.
She sauntered slowly along the terrace. As she passed she glanced in at the long windows of the library. Everything was shrouded and shut up. But the long room looked more than usually stately, its proportions seemly; and the brown books in their long rows seemed to exist silently, with dignity, by themselves, for themselves. She left the terrace and strolled down the long grass path. The garden was still empty; only a man in his shirt sleeves was doing something to a tree; but she need speak to nobody. The chow stalked after her; he too was silent. She walked on past the flower-beds to the river. There she always stopped, on the bridge, with the cannon-balls at intervals. The water always fascinated her. The quick northern river came down from the moors; it was never smooth and green, never deep and placid like southern rivers. It raced; it hurried. It splayed itself, red, yellow and clear brown, over the pebbles on the bed. Resting her elbows on the balustrade, she watched it eddy round the arches; she watched it make diamonds and sharp arrow streaks over the stones. She listened. She knew the different sounds it made in summer and winter; now it hurried, it raced.
But the chow was bored; he marched on. She followed him. She went up the green ride towards the snuffer-shaped monument on the crest of the hill. Every path through the woods had its name. There was Keepers’ Path, Lovers’ Walk, Ladies’ Mile, and here was the Earl’s Ride. But before she went into the woods, she stopped and looked back at the house. Times out of number she had stopped here; the Castle looked grey and stately; asleep this morning, with the blinds drawn, and no flag on the flagstaff. Very noble it looked, and ancient, and enduring. Then she went on into the woods.
The wind seemed to rise as she walked under the trees. It sang in their tops, but it was silent beneath. The dead leaves crackled under foot; among them sprang up the pale spring flowers, the loveliest of the year — blue flowers and white flowers, trembling on cushions of green moss. Spring was sad always, she thought; it brought back memories. All passes, all changes, she thought, as she climbed up the little path between the trees. Nothing of this belonged to her; her son would inherit; his wife would walk here after her. She broke off a twig; she picked a flower and put it to her lips. But she was in the prime of life; she was vigorous. She strode on. The ground rose sharply; her muscles felt strong and flexible as she pressed her thick-soled shoes to the ground. She threw away her flower. The trees thinned as she strode higher and higher. Suddenly she saw the sky between two striped tree trunks extraordinarily blue. She came out on the top. The wind ceased; the country spread wide all round her. Her body seemed to shrink; her eyes to widen. She threw herself on the ground, and looked over the billowing land that went rising and falling, away and away, until somewhere far off it reached the sea. Uncultivated, uninhabited, existing by itself, for itself, without towns or houses it looked from this height. Dark wedges of shadow, bright breadths of light lay side by side. Then, as she watched, light moved and dark moved; light and shadow went travelling over the hills and over the valleys. A deep murmur sang in her ears — the land itself, singing to itself, a chorus, alone. She lay there listening. She was happy, completely. Time had ceased.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01