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Chapter 8

  • The next few months passed away, as many years can pass away, without definit_vents, and yet, if suddenly disturbed, it would be seen that such months o_ears had a character unlike others. The three months which had passed ha_rought them to the beginning of March. The climate had kept its promise, an_he change of season from winter to spring had made very little difference, s_hat Helen, who was sitting in the drawing-room with a pen in her hand, coul_eep the windows open though a great fire of logs burnt on one side of her.
  • Below, the sea was still blue and the roofs still brown and white, though th_ay was fading rapidly. It was dusk in the room, which, large and empty at al_imes, now appeared larger and emptier than usual. Her own figure, as she sa_riting with a pad on her knee, shared the general effect of size and lack o_etail, for the flames which ran along the branches, suddenly devouring littl_reen tufts, burnt intermittently and sent irregular illuminations across he_ace and the plaster walls. There were no pictures on the walls but here an_here boughs laden with heavy-petalled flowers spread widely against them. O_he books fallen on the bare floor and heaped upon the large table, it wa_nly possible in this light to trace the outline.
  • Mrs. Ambrose was writing a very long letter. Beginning "Dear Bernard," it wen_n to describe what had been happening in the Villa San Gervasio during th_ast three months, as, for instance, that they had had the British Consul t_inner, and had been taken over a Spanish man-of-war, and had seen a grea_any processions and religious festivals, which were so beautiful that Mrs.
  • Ambrose couldn't conceive why, if people must have a religion, they didn't al_ecome Roman Catholics. They had made several expeditions though none of an_ength. It was worth coming if only for the sake of the flowering trees whic_rew wild quite near the house, and the amazing colours of sea and earth. Th_arth, instead of being brown, was red, purple, green. "You won't believe me,"
  • she added, "there is no colour like it in England." She adopted, indeed, _ondescending tone towards that poor island, which was now advancing chill_rocuses and nipped violets in nooks, in copses, in cosy corners, tended b_osy old gardeners in mufflers, who were always touching their hats an_obbing obsequiously. She went on to deride the islanders themselves. Rumour_f London all in a ferment over a General Election had reached them even ou_ere. "It seems incredible," she went on, "that people should care whethe_squith is in or Austen Chamberlin out, and while you scream yourselves hoars_bout politics you let the only people who are trying for something goo_tarve or simply laugh at them. When have you ever encouraged a living artist?
  • Or bought his best work? Why are you all so ugly and so servile? Here th_ervants are human beings. They talk to one as if they were equals. As far a_ can tell there are no aristocrats."
  • Perhaps it was the mention of aristocrats that reminded her of Richar_alloway and Rachel, for she ran on with the same penful to describe he_iece.
  • "It's an odd fate that has put me in charge of a girl," she wrote,
  • "considering that I have never got on well with women, or had much to do wit_hem. However, I must retract some of the things that I have said agains_hem. If they were properly educated I don't see why they shouldn't be muc_he same as men—as satisfactory I mean; though, of course, very different. Th_uestion is, how should one educate them. The present method seems to m_bominable. This girl, though twenty-four, had never heard that men desire_omen, and, until I explained it, did not know how children were born. He_gnorance upon other matters as important" (here Mrs. Ambrose's letter may no_e quoted) … "was complete. It seems to me not merely foolish but criminal t_ring people up like that. Let alone the suffering to them, it explains wh_omen are what they are—the wonder is they're no worse. I have taken it upo_yself to enlighten her, and now, though still a good deal prejudiced an_iable to exaggerate, she is more or less a reasonable human being. Keepin_hem ignorant, of course, defeats its own object, and when they begin t_nderstand they take it all much too seriously. My brother-in-law reall_eserved a catastrophe—which he won't get. I now pray for a young man to com_o my help; some one, I mean, who would talk to her openly, and prove ho_bsurd most of her ideas about life are. Unluckily such men seem almost a_are as the women. The English colony certainly doesn't provide one; artists, merchants, cultivated people—they are stupid, conventional, and flirtatious… ." She ceased, and with her pen in her hand sat looking into the fire, makin_he logs into caves and mountains, for it had grown too dark to go on writing.
  • Moreover, the house began to stir as the hour of dinner approached; she coul_ear the plates being chinked in the dining-room next door, and Chaile_nstructing the Spanish girl where to put things down in vigorous English. Th_ell rang; she rose, met Ridley and Rachel outside, and they all went in t_inner.
  • Three months had made but little difference in the appearance either of Ridle_r Rachel; yet a keen observer might have thought that the girl was mor_efinite and self-confident in her manner than before. Her skin was brown, he_yes certainly brighter, and she attended to what was said as though she migh_e going to contradict it. The meal began with the comfortable silence o_eople who are quite at their ease together. Then Ridley, leaning on his elbo_nd looking out of the window, observed that it was a lovely night.
  • "Yes," said Helen. She added, "The season's begun," looking at the light_eneath them. She asked Maria in Spanish whether the hotel was not filling u_ith visitors. Maria informed her with pride that there would come a time whe_t was positively difficult to buy eggs—the shopkeepers would not mind wha_rices they asked; they would get them, at any rate, from the English.
  • "That's an English steamer in the bay," said Rachel, looking at a triangle o_ights below. "She came in early this morning."
  • "Then we may hope for some letters and send ours back," said Helen.
  • For some reason the mention of letters always made Ridley groan, and the res_f the meal passed in a brisk argument between husband and wife as to whethe_e was or was not wholly ignored by the entire civilised world.
  • "Considering the last batch," said Helen, "you deserve beating. You were aske_o lecture, you were offered a degree, and some silly woman praised not onl_our books but your beauty—she said he was what Shelley would have been i_helley had lived to fifty-five and grown a beard. Really, Ridley, I thin_ou're the vainest man I know," she ended, rising from the table, "which I ma_ell you is saying a good deal."
  • Finding her letter lying before the fire she added a few lines to it, and the_nnounced that she was going to take the letters now—Ridley must bring his—an_achel?
  • "I hope you've written to your Aunts? It's high time."
  • The women put on cloaks and hats, and after inviting Ridley to come with them, which he emphatically refused to do, exclaiming that Rachel he expected to b_ fool, but Helen surely knew better, they turned to go. He stood over th_ire gazing into the depths of the looking-glass, and compressing his fac_nto the likeness of a commander surveying a field of battle, or a marty_atching the flames lick his toes, rather than that of a secluded Professor.
  • Helen laid hold of his beard.
  • "Am I a fool?" she said.
  • "Let me go, Helen."
  • "Am I a fool?" she repeated.
  • "Vile woman!" he exclaimed, and kissed her.
  • "We'll leave you to your vanities," she called back as they went out of th_oor.
  • It was a beautiful evening, still light enough to see a long way down th_oad, though the stars were coming out. The pillar-box was let into a hig_ellow wall where the lane met the road, and having dropped the letters int_t, Helen was for turning back.
  • "No, no," said Rachel, taking her by the wrist. "We're going to see life. Yo_romised."
  • "Seeing life" was the phrase they used for their habit of strolling throug_he town after dark. The social life of Santa Marina was carried on almos_ntirely by lamp-light, which the warmth of the nights and the scents culle_rom flowers made pleasant enough. The young women, with their hai_agnificently swept in coils, a red flower behind the ear, sat on th_oorsteps, or issued out on to balconies, while the young men ranged up an_own beneath, shouting up a greeting from time to time and stopping here an_here to enter into amorous talk. At the open windows merchants could be see_aking up the day's account, and older women lifting jars from shelf to shelf.
  • The streets were full of people, men for the most part, who interchanged thei_iews of the world as they walked, or gathered round the wine-tables at th_treet corner, where an old cripple was twanging his guitar strings, while _oor girl cried her passionate song in the gutter. The two Englishwome_xcited some friendly curiosity, but no one molested them.
  • Helen sauntered on, observing the different people in their shabby clothes, who seemed so careless and so natural, with satisfaction.
  • "Just think of the Mall to-night!" she exclaimed at length. "It's th_ifteenth of March. Perhaps there's a Court." She thought of the crowd waitin_n the cold spring air to see the grand carriages go by. "It's very cold, i_t's not raining," she said. "First there are men selling picture postcards; then there are wretched little shop-girls with round bandboxes; then there ar_ank clerks in tail coats; and then—any number of dressmakers. People fro_outh Kensington drive up in a hired fly; officials have a pair of bays; earls, on the other hand, are allowed one footman to stand up behind; duke_ave two, royal dukes—so I was told—have three; the king, I suppose, can hav_s many as he likes. And the people believe in it!"
  • Out here it seemed as though the people of England must be shaped in the bod_ike the kings and queens, knights and pawns of the chessboard, so strang_ere their differences, so marked and so implicitly believed in.
  • They had to part in order to circumvent a crowd.
  • "They believe in God," said Rachel as they regained each other. She meant tha_he people in the crowd believed in Him; for she remembered the crosses wit_leeding plaster figures that stood where foot-paths joined, and th_nexplicable mystery of a service in a Roman Catholic church.
  • "We shall never understand!" she sighed.
  • They had walked some way and it was now night, but they could see a large iro_ate a little way farther down the road on their left.
  • "Do you mean to go right up to the hotel?" Helen asked.
  • Rachel gave the gate a push; it swung open, and, seeing no one about an_udging that nothing was private in this country, they walked straight on. A_venue of trees ran along the road, which was completely straight. The tree_uddenly came to an end; the road turned a corner, and they found themselve_onfronted by a large square building. They had come out upon the broa_errace which ran round the hotel and were only a few feet distant from th_indows. A row of long windows opened almost to the ground. They were all o_hem uncurtained, and all brilliantly lighted, so that they could se_verything inside. Each window revealed a different section of the life of th_otel. They drew into one of the broad columns of shadow which separated th_indows and gazed in. They found themselves just outside the dining-room. I_as being swept; a waiter was eating a bunch of grapes with his leg across th_orner of a table. Next door was the kitchen, where they were washing up; white cooks were dipping their arms into cauldrons, while the waiters mad_heir meal voraciously off broken meats, sopping up the gravy with bits o_rumb. Moving on, they became lost in a plantation of bushes, and the_uddenly found themselves outside the drawing-room, where the ladies an_entlemen, having dined well, lay back in deep arm-chairs, occasionall_peaking or turning over the pages of magazines. A thin woman was flourishin_p and down the piano.
  • "What is a dahabeeyah, Charles?" the distinct voice of a widow, seated in a_rm-chair by the window, asked her son.
  • It was the end of the piece, and his answer was lost in the general clearin_f throats and tapping of knees.
  • "They're all old in this room," Rachel whispered.
  • Creeping on, they found that the next window revealed two men in shirt-sleeve_laying billiards with two young ladies.
  • "He pinched my arm!" the plump young woman cried, as she missed her stroke.
  • "Now you two—no ragging," the young man with the red face reproved them, wh_as marking.
  • "Take care or we shall be seen," whispered Helen, plucking Rachel by the arm.
  • Incautiously her head had risen to the middle of the window.
  • Turning the corner they came to the largest room in the hotel, which wa_upplied with four windows, and was called the Lounge, although it was reall_ hall. Hung with armour and native embroideries, furnished with divans an_creens, which shut off convenient corners, the room was less formal than th_thers, and was evidently the haunt of youth. Signor Rodriguez, whom they kne_o be the manager of the hotel, stood quite near them in the doorway surveyin_he scene—the gentlemen lounging in chairs, the couples leaning over coffee- cups, the game of cards in the centre under profuse clusters of electri_ight. He was congratulating himself upon the enterprise which had turned th_efectory, a cold stone room with pots on trestles, into the most comfortabl_oom in the house. The hotel was very full, and proved his wisdom in decreein_hat no hotel can flourish without a lounge.
  • The people were scattered about in couples or parties of four, and either the_ere actually better acquainted, or the informal room made their manner_asier. Through the open window came an uneven humming sound like that whic_ises from a flock of sheep pent within hurdles at dusk. The card-part_ccupied the centre of the foreground.
  • Helen and Rachel watched them play for some minutes without being able t_istinguish a word. Helen was observing one of the men intently. He was _ean, somewhat cadaverous man of about her own age, whose profile was turne_o them, and he was the partner of a highly-coloured girl, obviously Englis_y birth.
  • Suddenly, in the strange way in which some words detach themselves from th_est, they heard him say quite distinctly:—
  • "All you want is practice, Miss Warrington; courage and practice—one's no goo_ithout the other."
  • "Hughling Elliot! Of course!" Helen exclaimed. She ducked her hea_mmediately, for at the sound of his name he looked up. The game went on for _ew minutes, and was then broken up by the approach of a wheeled chair, containing a voluminous old lady who paused by the table and said:—
  • "Better luck to-night, Susan?"
  • "All the luck's on our side," said a young man who until now had kept his bac_urned to the window. He appeared to be rather stout, and had a thick crop o_air.
  • "Luck, Mr. Hewet?" said his partner, a middle-aged lady with spectacles. "_ssure you, Mrs. Paley, our success is due solely to our brilliant play."
  • "Unless I go to bed early I get practically no sleep at all," Mrs. Paley wa_eard to explain, as if to justify her seizure of Susan, who got up an_roceeded to wheel the chair to the door.
  • "They'll get some one else to take my place," she said cheerfully. But she wa_rong. No attempt was made to find another player, and after the young man ha_uilt three stories of a card-house, which fell down, the players strolled of_n different directions.
  • Mr. Hewet turned his full face towards the window. They could see that he ha_arge eyes obscured by glasses; his complexion was rosy, his lips clean- shaven; and, seen among ordinary people, it appeared to be an interestin_ace. He came straight towards them, but his eyes were fixed not upon th_avesdroppers but upon a spot where the curtain hung in folds.
  • "Asleep?" he said.
  • Helen and Rachel started to think that some one had been sitting near to the_nobserved all the time. There were legs in the shadow. A melancholy voic_ssued from above them.
  • "Two women," it said.
  • A scuffling was heard on the gravel. The women had fled. They did not sto_unning until they felt certain that no eye could penetrate the darkness an_he hotel was only a square shadow in the distance, with red holes regularl_ut in it.