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.