**T** he great cloud which hung, not only over London, but over the whole o_he British Isles on the first day of the nineteenth century stayed, o_ather, did not stay, for it was buffeted about constantly by blusterin_ales, long enough to have extraordinary consequences upon those who live_eneath its shadow. A change seemed to have come over the climate of England.
Rain fell frequently, but only in fitful gusts, which were no sooner over tha_hey began again. The sun shone, of course, but it was so girt about wit_louds and the air was so saturated with water, that its beams wer_iscoloured and purples, oranges, and reds of a dull sort took the place o_he more positive landscapes of the eighteenth century. Under this bruised an_ullen canopy the green of the cabbages was less intense, and the white of th_now was muddied. But what was worse, damp now began to make its way int_very house — damp, which is the most insidious of all enemies, for while th_un can be shut out by blinds, and the frost roasted by a hot fire, dam_teals in while we sleep; damp is silent, imperceptible, ubiquitous. Dam_wells the wood, furs the kettle, rusts the iron, rots the stone. So gradua_s the process, that it is not until we pick up some chest of drawers, or coa_cuttle, and the whole thing drops to pieces in our hands, that we suspec_ven that the disease is at work.
Thus, stealthily and imperceptibly, none marking the exact day or hour of th_hange, the constitution of England was altered and nobody knew it. Everywher_he effects were felt. The hardy country gentleman, who had sat down gladly t_ meal of ale and beef in a room designed, perhaps by the brothers Adam, wit_lassic dignity, now felt chilly. Rugs appeared; beards were grown; trouser_ere fastened tight under the instep. The chill which he felt in his legs th_ountry gentleman soon transferred to his house; furniture was muffled; wall_nd tables were covered; nothing was left bare. Then a change of diet becam_ssential. The muffin was invented and the crumpet. Coffee supplanted th_fter-dinner port, and, as coffee led to a drawing-room in which to drink it, and a drawing-room to glass cases, and glass cases to artificial flowers, an_rtificial flowers to mantelpieces, and mantelpieces to pianofortes, an_ianofortes to drawing-room ballads, and drawing-room ballads (skipping _tage or two) to innumerable little dogs, mats, and china ornaments, the home — which had become extremely important — was completely altered.
Outside the house — it was another effect of the damp — ivy grew i_nparalleled profusion. Houses that had been of bare stone were smothered i_reenery. No garden, however formal its original design, lacked a shrubbery, _ilderness, a maze. What light penetrated to the bedrooms where children wer_orn was naturally of an obfusc green, and what light penetrated to th_rawing-rooms where grown men and women lived came through curtains of brow_nd purple plush. But the change did not stop at outward things. The dam_truck within. Men felt the chill in their hearts; the damp in their minds. I_ desperate effort to snuggle their feelings into some sort of warmth on_ubterfuge was tried after another. Love, birth, and death were all swaddle_n a variety of fine phrases. The sexes drew further and further apart. N_pen conversation was tolerated. Evasions and concealments were sedulousl_ractised on both sides. And just as the ivy and the evergreen rioted in th_amp earth outside, so did the same fertility show itself within. The life o_he average woman was a succession of childbirths. She married at nineteen an_ad fifteen or eighteen children by the time she was thirty; for twin_bounded. Thus the British Empire came into existence; and thus — for there i_o stopping damp; it gets into the inkpot as it gets into the woodwork — sentences swelled, adjectives multiplied, lyrics became epics, and littl_rifles that had been essays a column long were now encyclopaedias in ten o_wenty volumes. But Eusebius Chubb shall be our witness to the effect this al_ad upon the mind of a sensitive man who could do nothing to stop it. There i_ passage towards the end of his memoirs where he describes how, after writin_hirty-five folio pages one morning ‘all about nothing’ he screwed the lid o_is inkpot and went for a turn in his garden. Soon he found himself involve_n the shrubbery. Innumerable leaves creaked and glistened above his head. H_eemed to himself ‘to crush the mould of a million more under his feet’. Thic_moke exuded from a damp bonfire at the end of the garden. He reflected tha_o fire on earth could ever hope to consume that vast vegetable encumbrance.
Wherever he looked, vegetation was rampant. Cucumbers ‘came scrolloping acros_he grass to his feet’. Giant cauliflowers towered deck above deck till the_ivalled, to his disordered imagination, the elm trees themselves. Hens lai_ncessantly eggs of no special tint. Then, remembering with a sigh his ow_ecundity and his poor wife Jane, now in the throes of her fifteent_onfinement indoors, how, he asked himself, could he blame the fowls? H_ooked upwards into the sky. Did not heaven itself, or that great frontispiec_f heaven, which is the sky, indicate the assent, indeed, the instigation o_he heavenly hierarchy? For there, winter or summer, year in year out, th_louds turned and tumbled, like whales, he pondered, or elephants rather; bu_o, there was no escaping the simile which was pressed upon him from _housand airy acres; the whole sky itself as it spread wide above the Britis_sles was nothing but a vast feather bed; and the undistinguished fecundity o_he garden, the bedroom and the henroost was copied there. He went indoors, wrote the passage quoted above, laid his head in a gas oven, and when the_ound him later he was past revival.
While this went on in every part of England, it was all very well for Orland_o mew herself in her house at Blackfriars and pretend that the climate wa_he same; that one could still say what one liked and wear knee-breeches o_kirts as the fancy took one. Even she, at length, was forced to acknowledg_hat times were changed. One afternoon in the early part of the century sh_as driving through St James’s Park in her old panelled coach when one o_hose sunbeams, which occasionally, though not often, managed to come t_arth, struggled through, marbling the clouds with strange prismatic colour_s it passed. Such a sight was sufficiently strange after the clear an_niform skies of the eighteenth century to cause her to pull the window dow_nd look at it. The puce and flamingo clouds made her think with a pleasurabl_nguish, which proves that she was insensibly afflicted with the damp already, of dolphins dying in Ionian seas. But what was her surprise when, as it struc_he earth, the sunbeam seemed to call forth, or to light up, a pyramid, hecatomb, or trophy (for it had something of a banquet-table air)— _onglomeration at any rate of the most heterogeneous and ill-assorted objects, piled higgledy-piggledy in a vast mound where the statue of Queen Victoria no_tands! Draped about a vast cross of fretted and floriated gold were widow’_eeds and bridal veils; hooked on to other excrescences were crystal palaces, bassinettes, military helmets, memorial wreaths, trousers, whiskers, weddin_akes, cannon, Christmas trees, telescopes, extinct monsters, globes, maps, elephants, and mathematical instruments — the whole supported like a giganti_oat of arms on the right side by a female figure clothed in flowing white; o_he left by a portly gentleman wearing a frock-coat and sponge-bag trousers.
The incongruity of the objects, the association of the fully clothed and th_artly draped, the garishness of the different colours and their plaid-lik_uxtapositions afflicted Orlando with the most profound dismay. She had never, in all her life, seen anything at once so indecent, so hideous, and s_onumental. It might, and indeed it must be, the effect of the sun on th_ater-logged air; it would vanish with the first breeze that blew; but for al_hat, it looked, as she drove past, as if it were destined to endure for ever.
Nothing, she felt, sinking back into the corner of her coach, no wind, rain, sun, or thunder, could ever demolish that garish erection. Only the nose_ould mottle and the trumpets would rust; but there they would remain, pointing east, west, south, and north, eternally. She looked back as her coac_wept up Constitution Hill. Yes, there it was, still beaming placidly in _ight which — she pulled her watch out of her fob — was, of course, the ligh_f twelve o’clock mid-day. None other could be so prosaic, so matter-of-fact, so impervious to any hint of dawn or sunset, so seemingly calculated to las_or ever. She was determined not to look again. Already she felt the tides o_er blood run sluggishly. But what was more peculiar a blush, vivid an_ingular, overspread her cheeks as she passed Buckingham Palace and her eye_eemed forced by a superior power down upon her knees. Suddenly she saw with _tart that she was wearing black breeches. She never ceased blushing till sh_ad reached her country house, which, considering the time it takes fou_orses to trot thirty miles, will be taken, we hope, as a signal proof of he_hastity.
Once there, she followed what had now become the most imperious need of he_ature and wrapped herself as well as she could in a damask quilt which sh_natched from her bed. She explained to the Widow Bartholomew (who ha_ucceeded good old Grimsditch as housekeeper) that she felt chilly.
‘So do we all, m’lady,’ said the Widow, heaving a profound sigh. ‘The walls i_weating,’ she said, with a curious, lugubrious complacency, and sure enough, she had only to lay her hand on the oak panels for the finger-prints to b_arked there. The ivy had grown so profusely that many windows were now seale_p. The kitchen was so dark that they could scarcely tell a kettle from _ullender. A poor black cat had been mistaken for coals and shovelled on th_ire. Most of the maids were already wearing three or four red-flanne_etticoats, though the month was August.
‘But is it true, m’lady,’ the good woman asked, hugging herself, while th_olden crucifix heaved on her bosom, ‘that the Queen, bless her, is wearing _hat d’you call it, a — ’ the good woman hesitated and blushed.
‘A crinoline,’ Orlando helped her out with it (for the word had reache_lackfriars). Mrs Bartholomew nodded. The tears were already running down he_heeks, but as she wept she smiled. For it was pleasant to weep. Were they no_ll of them weak women? wearing crinolines the better to conceal the fact; th_reat fact; the only fact; but, nevertheless, the deplorable fact; which ever_odest woman did her best to deny until denial was impossible; the fact tha_he was about to bear a child? to bear fifteen or twenty children indeed, s_hat most of a modest woman’s life was spent, after all, in denying what, o_ne day at least of every year, was made obvious.
‘The muffins is keepin’ ‘ot,’ said Mrs Bartholomew, mopping up her tears, ‘i_he liberry.’
And wrapped in a damask bed quilt, to a dish of muffins Orlando now sat down.
‘The muffins is keepin’ ‘ot in the liberry’— Orlando minced out the horri_ockney phrase in Mrs Bartholomew’s refined cockney accents as she drank — bu_o, she detested the mild fluid — her tea. It was in this very room, sh_emembered, that Queen Elizabeth had stood astride the fireplace with a flago_f beer in her hand, which she suddenly dashed on the table when Lord Burghle_actlessly used the imperative instead of the subjunctive. ‘Little man, littl_an,’— Orlando could hear her say —’is “must” a word to be addressed t_rinces?’ And down came the flagon on the table: there was the mark of i_till.
But when Orlando leapt to her feet, as the mere thought of that great Quee_ommanded, the bed quilt tripped her up, and she fell back in her arm-chai_ith a curse. Tomorrow she would have to buy twenty yards or more of blac_ombazine, she supposed, to make a skirt. And then (here she blushed), sh_ould have to buy a crinoline, and then (here she blushed) a bassinette, an_hen another crinoline, and so on… The blushes came and went with the mos_xquisite iteration of modesty and shame imaginable. One might see the spiri_f the age blowing, now hot, now cold, upon her cheeks. And if the spirit o_he age blew a little unequally, the crinoline being blushed for before th_usband, her ambiguous position must excuse her (even her sex was still i_ispute) and the irregular life she had lived before.
At length the colour on her cheeks resumed its stability and it seemed as i_he spirit of the age — if such indeed it were — lay dormant for a time. The_rlando felt in the bosom of her shirt as if for some locket or relic of los_ffection, and drew out no such thing, but a roll of paper, sea-stained, blood-stained, travel-stained — the manuscript of her poem, ‘The Oak Tree’.
She had carried this about with her for so many years now, and in suc_azardous circumstances, that many of the pages were stained, some were torn, while the straits she had been in for writing paper when with the gipsies, ha_orced her to overscore the margins and cross the lines till the manuscrip_ooked like a piece of darning most conscientiously carried out. She turne_ack to the first page and read the date, 1586, written in her own boyis_and. She had been working at it for close three hundred years now. It wa_ime to make an end. Meanwhile she began turning and dipping and reading an_kipping and thinking as she read, how very little she had changed all thes_ears. She had been a gloomy boy, in love with death, as boys are; and the_he had been amorous and florid; and then she had been sprightly an_atirical; and sometimes she had tried prose and sometimes she had trie_rama. Yet through all these changes she had remained, she reflected, fundamentally the same. She had the same brooding meditative temper, the sam_ove of animals and nature, the same passion for the country and the seasons.
‘After all,’ she thought, getting up and going to the window, ‘nothing ha_hanged. The house, the garden are precisely as they were. Not a chair ha_een moved, not a trinket sold. There are the same walks, the same lawns, th_ame trees, and the same pool, which, I dare say, has the same carp in it.
True, Queen Victoria is on the throne and not Queen Elizabeth, but wha_ifference… ’
No sooner had the thought taken shape, than, as if to rebuke it, the door wa_lung wide and in marched Basket, the butler, followed by Bartholomew, th_ousekeeper, to clear away tea. Orlando, who had just dipped her pen in th_nk, and was about to indite some reflection upon the eternity of all things, was much annoyed to be impeded by a blot, which spread and meandered round he_en. It was some infirmity of the quill, she supposed; it was split or dirty.
She dipped it again. The blot increased. She tried to go on with what she wa_aying; no words came. Next she began to decorate the blot with wings an_hiskers, till it became a round-headed monster, something between a bat and _ombat. But as for writing poetry with Basket and Bartholomew in the room, i_as impossible. No sooner had she said ‘Impossible’ than, to her astonishmen_nd alarm, the pen began to curve and caracole with the smoothest possibl_luency. Her page was written in the neatest sloping Italian hand with th_ost insipid verse she had ever read in her life:
I am myself but a vile link
Amid life’s weary chain,
But I have spoken hallow’d words,
Oh, do not say in vain!
Will the young maiden, when her tears,
Alone in moonlight shine,
Tears for the absent and the loved,
she wrote without a stop as Bartholomew and Basket grunted and groaned abou_he room, mending the fire, picking up the muffins.
Again she dipped her pen and off it went:—
She was so changed, the soft carnation cloud
Once mantling o’er her cheek like that which eve
Hangs o’er the sky, glowing with roseate hue,
Had faded into paleness, broken by
Bright burning blushes, torches of the tomb,
but here, by an abrupt movement she spilt the ink ever the page and blotted i_rom human sight she hoped for ever. She was all of a quiver, all of a stew.
Nothing more repulsive could be imagined than to feel the ink flowing thus i_ascades of involuntary inspiration. What had happened to her? Was it th_amp, was it Bartholomew, was it Basket, what was it? she demanded. But th_oom was empty. No one answered her, unless the dripping of the rain in th_vy could be taken for an answer.
Meanwhile, she became conscious, as she stood at the window, of a_xtraordinary tingling and vibration all over her, as if she were made of _housand wires upon which some breeze or errant fingers were playing scales.
Now her toes tingled; now her marrow. She had the queerest sensations abou_he thigh bones. Her hairs seemed to erect themselves. Her arms sang an_wanged as the telegraph wires would be singing and twanging in twenty year_r so. But all this agitation seemed at length to concentrate in her hands; and then in one hand, and then in one finger of that hand, and then finally t_ontract itself so that it made a ring of quivering sensibility about th_econd finger of the left hand. And when she raised it to see what caused thi_gitation, she saw nothing — nothing but the vast solitary emerald which Quee_lizabeth had given her. And was that not enough? she asked. It was of th_inest water. It was worth ten thousand pounds at least. The vibration seemed, in the oddest way (but remember we are dealing with some of the darkes_anifestations of the human soul) to say No, that is not enough; and, further, to assume a note of interrogation, as though it were asking, what did it mean, this hiatus, this strange oversight? till poor Orlando felt positively ashame_f the second finger of her left hand without in the least knowing why. A_his moment, Bartholomew came in to ask which dress she should lay out fo_inner, and Orlando, whose senses were much quickened, instantly glanced a_artholomew’s left hand, and instantly perceived what she had never notice_efore — a thick ring of rather jaundiced yellow circling the third finge_here her own was bare.
‘Let me look at your ring, Bartholomew,’ she said, stretching her hand to tak_t.
At this, Bartholomew made as if she had been struck in the breast by a rogue.
She started back a pace or two, clenched her hand and flung it away from he_ith a gesture that was noble in the extreme. ‘No,’ she said, with resolut_ignity, her Ladyship might look if she pleased, but as for taking off he_edding ring, not the Archbishop nor the Pope nor Queen Victoria on her thron_ould force her to do that. Her Thomas had put it on her finger twenty-fiv_ears, six months, three weeks ago; she had slept in it; worked in it; washe_n it; prayed in it; and proposed to be buried in it. In fact, Orland_nderstood her to say, but her voice was much broken with emotion; that it wa_y the gleam on her wedding ring that she would be assigned her station amon_he angels and its lustre would be tarnished for ever if she let it out of he_eeping for a second.
‘Heaven help us,’ said Orlando, standing at the window and watching th_igeons at their pranks, ‘what a world we live in! What a world to be sure!’ Its complexities amazed her. It now seemed to her that the whole world wa_inged with gold. She went in to dinner. Wedding rings abounded. She went t_hurch. Wedding rings were everywhere. She drove out. Gold, or pinchbeck, thin, thick, plain, smooth, they glowed dully on every hand. Rings filled th_ewellers’ shops, not the flashing pastes and diamonds of Orlando’_ecollection, but simple bands without a stone in them. At the same time, sh_egan to notice a new habit among the town people. In the old days, one woul_eet a boy trifling with a girl under a hawthorn hedge frequently enough.
Orlando had flicked many a couple with the tip of her whip and laughed an_assed on. Now, all that was changed. Couples trudged and plodded in th_iddle of the road indissolubly linked together. The woman’s right hand wa_nvariably passed through the man’s left and her fingers were firmly grippe_y his. Often it was not till the horses’ noses were on them that they budged, and then, though they moved it was all in one piece, heavily, to the side o_he road. Orlando could only suppose that some new discovery had been mad_bout the race; that they were somehow stuck together, couple after couple, but who had made it and when, she could not guess. It did not seem to b_ature. She looked at the doves and the rabbits and the elk-hounds and sh_ould not see that Nature had changed her ways or mended them, since the tim_f Elizabeth at least. There was no indissoluble alliance among the brute_hat she could see. Could it be Queen Victoria then, or Lord Melbourne? Was i_rom them that the great discovery of marriage proceeded? Yet the Queen, sh_ondered, was said to be fond of dogs, and Lord Melbourne, she had heard, wa_aid to be fond of women. It was strange — it was distasteful; indeed, ther_as something in this indissolubility of bodies which was repugnant to he_ense of decency and sanitation. Her ruminations, however, were accompanied b_uch a tingling and twanging of the afflicted finger that she could scarcel_eep her ideas in order. They were languishing and ogling like a housemaid’_ancies. They made her blush. There was nothing for it but to buy one of thos_gly bands and wear it like the rest. This she did, slipping it, overcome wit_hame, upon her finger in the shadow of a curtain; but without avail. Th_ingling persisted more violently, more indignantly than ever. She did no_leep a wink that night. Next morning when she took up the pen to write, either she could think of nothing, and the pen made one large lachrymose blo_fter another, or it ambled off, more alarmingly still, into mellifluou_luencies about early death and corruption, which were worse than no thinkin_t all. For it would seem — her case proved it — that we write, not with th_ingers, but with the whole person. The nerve which controls the pen wind_tself about every fibre of our being, threads the heart, pierces the liver.
Though the seat of her trouble seemed to be the left hand, she could fee_erself poisoned through and through, and was forced at length to consider th_ost desperate of remedies, which was to yield completely and submissively t_he spirit of the age, and take a husband.
That this was much against her natural temperament has been sufficiently mad_lain. When the sound of the Archduke’s chariot wheels died away, the cry tha_ose to her lips was ‘Life! A Lover!’ not ‘Life! A Husband!’ and it was i_ursuit of this aim that she had gone to town and run about the world as ha_een shown in the previous chapter. Such is the indomitable nature of th_pirit of the age, however, that it batters down anyone who tries to mak_tand against it far more effectually than those who bend its own way. Orland_ad inclined herself naturally to the Elizabethan spirit, to the Restoratio_pirit, to the spirit of the eighteenth century, and had in consequenc_carcely been aware of the change from one age to the other. But the spirit o_he nineteenth century was antipathetic to her in the extreme, and thus i_ook her and broke her, and she was aware of her defeat at its hands as sh_ad never been before. For it is probable that the human spirit has its plac_n time assigned to it; some are born of this age, some of that; and now tha_rlando was grown a woman, a year or two past thirty indeed, the lines of he_haracter were fixed, and to bend them the wrong way was intolerable.
So she stood mournfully at the drawing-room window (Bartholomew had s_hristened the library) dragged down by the weight of the crinoline which sh_ad submissively adopted. It was heavier and more drab than any dress she ha_et worn. None had ever so impeded her movements. No longer could she strid_hrough the garden with her dogs, or run lightly to the high mound and flin_erself beneath the oak tree. Her skirts collected damp leaves and straw. Th_lumed hat tossed on the breeze. The thin shoes were quickly soaked and mud- caked. Her muscles had lost their pliancy. She became nervous lest ther_hould be robbers behind the wainscot and afraid, for the first time in he_ife, of ghosts in the corridors. All these things inclined her, step by step, to submit to the new discovery, whether Queen Victoria’s or another’s, tha_ach man and each woman has another allotted to it for life, whom it supports, by whom it is supported, till death them do part. It would be a comfort, sh_elt, to lean; to sit down; yes, to lie down; never, never, never to get u_gain. Thus did the spirit work upon her, for all her past pride, and as sh_ame sloping down the scale of emotion to this lowly and unaccustomed lodging- place, those twangings and tinglings which had been so captious and s_nterrogative modulated into the sweetest melodies, till it seemed as i_ngels were plucking harp-strings with white fingers and her whole being wa_ervaded by a seraphic harmony.
But whom could she lean upon? She asked that question of the wild autum_inds. For it was now October, and wet as usual. Not the Archduke; he ha_arried a very great lady and had hunted hares in Roumania these many year_ow; nor Mr M.; he was become a Catholic; nor the Marquis of C.; he made sack_n Botany Bay; nor the Lord O.; he had long been food for fishes. One way o_nother, all her old cronies were gone now, and the Nells and the Kits o_rury Lane, much though she favoured them, scarcely did to lean upon.
‘Whom’, she asked, casting her eyes upon the revolving clouds, clasping he_ands as she knelt on the window-sill, and looking the very image of appealin_omanhood as she did so, ‘can I lean upon?’ Her words formed themselves, he_ands clasped themselves, involuntarily, just as her pen had written of it_wn accord. It was not Orlando who spoke, but the spirit of the age. Bu_hichever it was, nobody answered it. The rooks were tumbling pell-mell amon_he violet clouds of autumn. The rain had stopped at last and there was a_ridescence in the sky which tempted her to put on her plumed hat and he_ittle stringed shoes and stroll out before dinner.
‘Everyone is mated except myself,’ she mused, as she trailed disconsolatel_cross the courtyard. There were the rooks; Canute and Pippin even — transitory as their alliances were, still each this evening seemed to have _artner. ‘Whereas, I, who am mistress of it all,’ Orlando thought, glancing a_he passed at the innumerable emblazoned windows of the hall, ‘am single, a_ateless, am alone.’
Such thoughts had never entered her head before. Now they bore her dow_nescapably. Instead of thrusting the gate open, she tapped with a gloved han_or the porter to unfasten it for her. One must lean on someone, she thought, if it is only on a porter; and half wished to stay behind and help him t_rill his chop on a bucket of fiery coals, but was too timid to ask it. So sh_trayed out into the park alone, faltering at first and apprehensive les_here might be poachers or gamekeepers or even errand-boys to marvel that _reat lady should walk alone.
At every step she glanced nervously lest some male form should be hidin_ehind a furze bush or some savage cow be lowering its horns to toss her. Bu_here were only the rooks flaunting in the sky. A steel-blue plume from one o_hem fell among the heather. She loved wild birds’ feathers. She had used t_ollect them as a boy. She picked it up and stuck it in her hat. The air ble_pon her spirit somewhat and revived it. As the rooks went whirling an_heeling above her head and feather after feather fell gleaming through th_urplish air, she followed them, her long cloak floating behind her, over th_oor, up the hill. She had not walked so far for years. Six feathers had sh_icked from the grass and drawn between her fingers and pressed to her lips t_eel their smooth, glinting plumage, when she saw, gleaming on the hill-side, a silver pool, mysterious as the lake into which Sir Bedivere flung the swor_f Arthur. A single feather quivered in the air and fell into the middle o_t. Then, some strange ecstasy came over her. Some wild notion she had o_ollowing the birds to the rim of the world and flinging herself on the spong_urf and there drinking forgetfulness, while the rooks’ hoarse laughte_ounded over her. She quickened her pace; she ran; she tripped; the toug_eather roots flung her to the ground. Her ankle was broken. She could no_ise. But there she lay content. The scent of the bog myrtle and the meadow- sweet was in her nostrils. The rooks’ hoarse laughter was in her ears. ‘I hav_ound my mate,’ she murmured. ‘It is the moor. I am nature’s bride,’ sh_hispered, giving herself in rapture to the cold embraces of the grass as sh_ay folded in her cloak in the hollow by the pool. ‘Here will I lie. (_eather fell upon her brow.) I have found a greener laurel than the bay. M_orehead will be cool always. These are wild birds’ feathers — the owl’s, th_ightjar’s. I shall dream wild dreams. My hands shall wear no wedding ring,’ she continued, slipping it from her finger. ‘The roots shall twine about them.
Ah!’ she sighed, pressing her head luxuriously on its spongy pillow, ‘I hav_ought happiness through many ages and not found it; fame and missed it; lov_nd not known it; life — and behold, death is better. I have known many me_nd many women,’ she continued; ‘none have I understood. It is better that _hould lie at peace here with only the sky above me — as the gipsy told m_ears ago. That was in Turkey.’ And she looked straight up into the marvellou_olden foam into which the clouds had churned themselves, and saw next momen_ track in it, and camels passing in single file through the rocky deser_mong clouds of red dust; and then, when the camels had passed, there wer_nly mountains, very high and full of clefts and with pinnacles of rock, an_he fancied she heard goat bells ringing in their passes, and in their fold_ere fields of irises and gentian. So the sky changed and her eyes slowl_owered themselves down and down till they came to the rain-darkened earth an_aw the great hump of the South Downs, flowing in one wave along the coast; and where the land parted, there was the sea, the sea with ships passing; an_he fancied she heard a gun far out at sea, and thought at first, ‘That’s th_rmada,’ and then thought ‘No, it’s Nelson’, and then remembered how thos_ars were over and the ships were busy merchant ships; and the sails on th_inding river were those of pleasure boats. She saw, too, cattle sprinkled o_he dark fields, sheep and cows, and she saw the lights coming here and ther_n farm-house windows, and lanterns moving among the cattle as the shepher_ent his rounds and the cowman; and then the lights went out and the star_ose and tangled themselves about the sky. Indeed, she was falling asleep wit_he wet feathers on her face and her ear pressed to the ground when she heard, deep within, some hammer on an anvil, or was it a heart beating? Tick-tock, tick-tock, so it hammered, so it beat, the anvil, or the heart in the middl_f the earth; until, as she listened, she thought it changed to the trot of _orse’s hoofs; one, two, three, four, she counted; then she heard a stumble; then, as it came nearer and nearer, she could hear the crack of a twig and th_uck of the wet bog in its hoofs. The horse was almost on her. She sa_pright. Towering dark against the yellow-slashed sky of dawn, with th_lovers rising and falling about him, she saw a man on horseback. He started.
The horse stopped.
‘Madam,’ the man cried, leaping to the ground, ‘you’re hurt!’
‘I’m dead, sir!’ she replied.
A few minutes later, they became engaged.
The morning after, as they sat at breakfast, he told her his name. It wa_armaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, Esquire.
‘I knew it!’ she said, for there was something romantic and chivalrous, passionate, melancholy, yet determined about him which went with the wild, dark-plumed name — a name which had, in her mind, the steel-blue gleam o_ooks’ wings, the hoarse laughter of their caws, the snake-like twistin_escent of their feathers in a silver pool, and a thousand other things whic_ill be described presently.
‘Mine is Orlando,’ she said. He had guessed it. For if you see a ship in ful_ail coming with the sun on it proudly sweeping across the Mediterranean fro_he South Seas, one says at once, ‘Orlando’, he explained.
In fact, though their acquaintance had been so short, they had guessed, a_lways happens between lovers, everything of any importance about each othe_n two seconds at the utmost, and it now remained only to fill in suc_nimportant details as what they were called; where they lived; and whethe_hey were beggars or people of substance. He had a castle in the Hebrides, bu_t was ruined, he told her. Gannets feasted in the banqueting hall. He ha_een a soldier and a sailor, and had explored the East. He was on his way no_o join his brig at Falmouth, but the wind had fallen and it was only when th_ale blew from the South-west that he could put out to sea. Orlando looke_astily from the breakfast-room window at the gilt leopard on the weathe_ane. Mercifully its tail pointed due east and was steady as a rock. ‘Oh!
Shel, don’t leave me!’ she cried. ‘I’m passionately in love with you,’ sh_aid. No sooner had the words left her mouth than an awful suspicion rushe_nto both their minds simultaneously.
‘You’re a woman, Shel!’ she cried.
‘You’re a man, Orlando!’ he cried.
Never was there such a scene of protestation and demonstration as then too_lace since the world began. When it was over and they were seated again sh_sked him, what was this talk of a South-west gale? Where was he bound for?
‘For the Horn,’ he said briefly, and blushed. (For a man had to blush as _oman had, only at rather different things.) It was only by dint of grea_ressure on her side and the use of much intuition that she gathered that hi_ife was spent in the most desperate and splendid of adventures — which is t_oyage round Cape Horn in the teeth of a gale. Masts had been snapped off; sails torn to ribbons (she had to drag the admission from him). Sometimes th_hip had sunk, and he had been left the only survivor on a raft with _iscuit.
‘It’s about all a fellow can do nowadays,’ he said sheepishly, and helpe_imself to great spoonfuls of strawberry jam. The vision which she ha_hereupon of this boy (for he was little more) sucking peppermints, for whic_e had a passion, while the masts snapped and the stars reeled and he roare_rief orders to cut this adrift, to heave that overboard, brought the tears t_er eyes, tears, she noted, of a finer flavour than any she had cried before: ‘I am a woman,’ she thought, ‘a real woman, at last.’ She thanked Bonthro_rom the bottom of her heart for having given her this rare and unexpecte_elight. Had she not been lame in the left foot, she would have sat upon hi_nee.
‘Shel, my darling,’ she began again, ‘tell me… ’ and so they talked two hour_r more, perhaps about Cape Horn, perhaps not, and really it would profi_ittle to write down what they said, for they knew each other so well tha_hey could say anything, which is tantamount to saying nothing, or saying suc_tupid, prosy things as how to cook an omelette, or where to buy the bes_oots in London, things which have no lustre taken from their setting, yet ar_ositively of amazing beauty within it. For it has come about, by the wis_conomy of nature, that our modern spirit can almost dispense with language; the commonest expressions do, since no expressions do; hence the most ordinar_onversation is often the most poetic, and the most poetic is precisely tha_hich cannot be written down. For which reasons we leave a great blank here, which must be taken to indicate that the space is filled to repletion.
After some days more of this kind of talk,
‘Orlando, my dearest,’ Shel was beginning, when there was a scuffling outside, and Basket the butler entered with the information that there was a couple o_eelers downstairs with a warrant from the Queen.
‘Show ‘em up,’ said Shelmerdine briefly, as if on his own quarter-deck, takin_p, by instinct, a stand with his hands behind him in front of the fireplace.
Two officers in bottlegreen uniforms with truncheons at their hips the_ntered the room and stood at attention. Formalities being over, they gav_nto Orlando’s own hands, as their commission was, a legal document of som_ery impressive sort; judging by the blobs of sealing wax, the ribbons, th_aths, and the signatures, which were all of the highest importance.
Orlando ran her eyes through it and then, using the first finger of her righ_and as pointer, read out the following facts as being most germane to th_atter.
‘The lawsuits are settled,’ she read out… ’some in my favour, as for example… others not. Turkish marriage annulled (I was ambassador in Constantinople, Shel,’ she explained) ‘Children pronounced illegitimate, (they said I ha_hree sons by Pepita, a Spanish dancer). So they don’t inherit, which is al_o the good… Sex? Ah! what about sex? My sex’, she read out with som_olemnity, ‘is pronounced indisputably, and beyond the shadow of a doubt (wha_ was telling you a moment ago, Shel?), female. The estates which are no_esequestrated in perpetuity descend and are tailed and entailed upon th_eirs male of my body, or in default of marriage’— but here she grew impatien_ith this legal verbiage, and said, ‘but there won’t be any default o_arriage, nor of heirs either, so the rest can be taken as read.’ Whereupo_he appended her own signature beneath Lord Palmerston’s and entered from tha_oment into the undisturbed possession of her titles, her house, and he_state — which was now so much shrunk, for the cost of the lawsuits had bee_rodigious, that, though she was infinitely noble again, she was als_xcessively poor.
When the result of the lawsuit was made known (and rumour flew much quicke_han the telegraph which has supplanted it), the whole town was filled wit_ejoicings.
[Horses were put into carriages for the sole purpose of being taken out. Empt_arouches and landaus were trundled up and down the High Street incessantly.
Addresses were read from the Bull. Replies were made from the Stag. The tow_as illuminated. Gold caskets were securely sealed in glass cases. Coins wer_ell and duly laid under stones. Hospitals were founded. Rat and Sparrow club_ere inaugurated. Turkish women by the dozen were burnt in effigy in th_arket-place, together with scores of peasant boys with the label ‘I am a bas_retender’, lolling from their mouths. The Queen’s cream-coloured ponies wer_oon seen trotting up the avenue with a command to Orlando to dine and slee_t the Castle, that very same night. Her table, as on a previous occasion, wa_nowed under with invitations from the Countess if R., Lady Q., Lad_almerston, the Marchioness of P., Mrs W.E. Gladstone and others, beseechin_he pleasure of her company, reminding her of ancient alliances between thei_amily and her own, etc.]— all of which is properly enclosed in squar_rackets, as above, for the good reason that a parenthesis it was without an_mportance in Orlando’s life. She skipped it, to get on with the text. Fo_hen the bonfires were blazing in the marketplace, she was in the dark wood_ith Shelmerdine alone. So fine was the weather that the trees stretched thei_ranches motionless above them, and if a leaf fell, it fell, spotted red an_old, so slowly that one could watch it for half an hour fluttering an_alling till it came to rest at last, on Orlando’s foot.
‘Tell me, Mar,’ she would say (and here it must be explained, that when sh_alled him by the first syllable of his first name, she was in a dreamy, amorous, acquiescent mood, domestic, languid a little, as if spiced logs wer_urning, and it was evening, yet not time to dress, and a thought wet perhap_utside, enough to make the leaves glisten, but a nightingale might be singin_ven so among the azaleas, two or three dogs barking at distant farms, a coc_rowing — all of which the reader should imagine in her voice)—’Tell me, Mar,’ she would say, ‘about Cape Horn.’ Then Shelmerdine would make a little mode_n the ground of the Cape with twigs and dead leaves and an empty snail shel_r two.
‘Here’s the north,’ he would say. ‘There’s the south. The wind’s coming fro_ereabouts. Now the brig is sailing due west; we’ve just lowered the top-boo_izzen: and so you see — here, where this bit of grass is, she enters th_urrent which you’ll find marked — where’s my map and compasses, Bo’sun? Ah!
thanks, that’ll do, where the snail shell is. The current catches her on th_tarboard side, so we must rig the jib-boom or we shall be carried to th_arboard, which is where that beech leaf is — for you must understand my dear —’ and so he would go on, and she would listen to every word; interpretin_hem rightly, so as to see, that is to say, without his having to tell her, the phosphorescence on the waves; the icicles clanking in the shrouds; how h_ent to the top of the mast in a gale; there reflected on the destiny of man; came down again; had a whisky and soda; went on shore; was trapped by a blac_oman; repented; reasoned it out; read Pascal; determined to write philosophy; bought a monkey; debated the true end of life; decided in favour of Cape Horn, and so on. All this and a thousand other things she understood him to say, an_o when she replied, Yes, negresses are seductive, aren’t they? he having tol_er that the supply of biscuits now gave out, he was surprised and delighte_o find how well she had taken his meaning.
‘Are you positive you aren’t a man?’ he would ask anxiously, and she woul_cho,
‘Can it be possible you’re not a woman?’ and then they must put it to th_roof without more ado. For each was so surprised at the quickness of th_ther’s sympathy, and it was to each such a revelation that a woman could b_s tolerant and free-spoken as a man, and a man as strange and subtle as _oman, that they had to put the matter to the proof at once.
And so they would go on talking or rather, understanding, which has become th_ain art of speech in an age when words are growing daily so scanty i_omparison with ideas that ‘the biscuits ran out’ has to stand for kissing _egress in the dark when one has just read Bishop Berkeley’s philosophy fo_he tenth time. (And from this it follows that only the most profound master_f style can tell the truth, and when one meets a simple one-syllable writer, one may conclude, without any doubt at all, that the poor man is lying.)
So they would talk; and then, when her feet were fairly covered with spotte_utumn leaves, Orlando would rise and stroll away into the heart of the wood_n solitude, leaving Bonthrop sitting there among the snail shells, makin_odels of Cape Horn. ‘Bonthrop,’ she would say, ‘I’m off,’ and when she calle_im by his second name, ‘Bonthrop’, it should signify to the reader that sh_as in a solitary mood, felt them both as specks on a desert, was desirou_nly of meeting death by herself, for people die daily, die at dinner tables, or like this, out of doors in the autumn woods; and with the bonfires blazin_nd Lady Palmerston or Lady Derby asking her out every night to dinner, th_esire for death would overcome her, and so saying ‘Bonthrop’, she said i_ffect, ‘I’m dead’, and pushed her way as a spirit might through the spectre- pale beech trees, and so oared herself deep into solitude as if the littl_licker of noise and movement were over and she were free now to take her way — all of which the reader should hear in her voice when she said ‘Bonthrop,’ and should also add, the better to illumine the word, that for him too th_ame word signified, mystically, separation and isolation and the disembodie_acing the deck of his brig in unfathomable seas.
After some hours of death, suddenly a jay shrieked ‘Shelmerdine’, an_tooping, she picked up one of those autumn crocuses which to some peopl_ignify that very word, and put it with the jay’s feather that came tumblin_lue through the beech woods, in her breast. Then she called ‘Shelmerdine’ an_he word went shooting this way and that way through the woods and struck hi_here he sat, making models out of snail shells in the grass. He saw her, an_eard her coming to him with the crocus and the jay’s feather in her breast, and cried ‘Orlando’, which meant (and it must be remembered that when brigh_olours like blue and yellow mix themselves in our eyes, some of it rubs of_n our thoughts) first the bowing and swaying of bracken as if something wer_reaking through; which proved to be a ship in full sail, heaving and tossin_ little dreamily, rather as if she had a whole year of summer days to mak_er voyage in; and so the ship bears down, heaving this way, heaving that way, nobly, indolently, and rides over the crest of this wave and sinks into th_ollow of that one, and so, suddenly stands over you (who are in a littl_ockle shell of a boat, looking up at her) with all her sails quivering, an_hen, behold, they drop all of a heap on deck — as Orlando dropped now int_he grass beside him.
Eight or nine days had been spent thus, but on the tenth, which was the 26t_f October, Orlando was lying in the bracken, while Shelmerdine recite_helley (whose entire works he had by heart), when a leaf which had started t_all slowly enough from a treetop whipped briskly across Orlando’s foot. _econd leaf followed and then a third. Orlando shivered and turned pale. I_as the wind. Shelmerdine — but it would be more proper now to call hi_onthrop — leapt to his feet.
‘The wind!’ he cried.
Together they ran through the woods, the wind plastering them with leaves a_hey ran, to the great court and through it and the little courts, frightene_ervants leaving their brooms and their saucepans to follow after till the_eached the Chapel, and there a scattering of lights was lit as fast as coul_e, one knocking over this bench, another snuffing out that taper. Bells wer_ung. People were summoned. At length there was Mr Dupper catching at the end_f his white tie and asking where was the prayer book. And they thrust Quee_ary’s prayer book in his hands and he searched, hastily fluttering the pages, and said, ‘Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, and Lady Orlando, kneel down’; an_hey knelt down, and now they were bright and now they were dark as the ligh_nd shadow came flying helter-skelter through the painted windows; and amon_he banging of innumerable doors and a sound like brass pots beating, th_rgan sounded, its growl coming loud and faint alternately, and Mr Dupper, wh_as grown a very old man, tried now to raise his voice above the uproar an_ould not be heard and then all was quiet for a moment, and one word — i_ight be ‘the jaws of death’— rang out clear, while all the estate servant_ept pressing in with rakes and whips still in their hands to listen, and som_ang loud and others prayed, and now a bird was dashed against the pane, an_ow there was a clap of thunder, so that no one heard the word Obey spoken o_aw, except as a golden flash, the ring pass from hand to hand. All wa_ovement and confusion. And up they rose with the organ booming and th_ightning playing and the rain pouring, and the Lady Orlando, with her ring o_er finger, went out into the court in her thin dress and held the swingin_tirrup, for the horse was bitted and bridled and the foam was still on hi_lank, for her husband to mount, which he did with one bound, and the hors_eapt forward and Orlando, standing there, cried out Marmaduke Bonthro_helmerdine! and he answered her Orlando! and the words went dashing an_ircling like wild hawks together among the belfries and higher and higher, further and further, faster and faster they circled, till they crashed an_ell in a shower of fragments to the ground; and she went in.