Among the promises which Mrs. Ambrose had made her niece should she stay was a room cut off from the rest of the house, large, private-- a room in which she could play, read, think, defy the world, a fortress as well as a sanctuary. Rooms, she knew, became more like worlds than rooms at the age of twenty-four. Her judgment was correct, and when she shut the door Rachel entered an enchanted place, where the poets sang and things fell into their right proportions. Some days after the vision of the hotel by night she was sitting alone, sunk in an arm-chair, reading a brightly-covered red volume lettered on the back Works of Henrik Ibsen. Music was open on the piano, and books of music rose in two jagged pillars on the floor; but for the moment music was deserted.
Far from looking bored or absent-minded, her eyes were concentrated almost sternly upon the page, and from her breathing, which was slow but repressed, it could be seen that her whole body was constrained by the working of her mind. At last she shut the book sharply, lay back, and drew a deep breath, expressive of the wonder which always marks the transition from the imaginary world to the real world.
"What I want to know," she said aloud, "is this: What is the truth? What's the truth of it all?" She was speaking partly as herself, and partly as the heroine of the play she had just read. The landscape outside, because she had seen nothing but print for the space of two hours, now appeared amazingly solid and clear, but although there were men on the hill washing the trunks of olive trees with a white liquid, for the moment she herself was the most vivid thing in it--an heroic statue in the middle of the foreground, dominating the view. Ibsen's plays always left her in that condition. She acted them for days at a time, greatly to Helen's amusement; and then it would be Meredith's turn and she became Diana of the Crossways. But Helen was aware that it was not all acting, and that some sort of change was taking place in the human being. When Rachel became tired of the rigidity of her pose on the back of the chair, she turned round, slid comfortably down into it, and gazed out over the furniture through the window opposite which opened on the garden. (Her mind wandered away from Nora, but she went on thinking of things that the book suggested to her, of women and life.)
During the three months she had been here she had made up considerably, as Helen meant she should, for time spent in interminable walks round sheltered gardens, and the household gossip of her aunts. But Mrs. Ambrose would have been the first to disclaim any influence, or indeed any belief that to influence was within her power. She saw her less shy, and less serious, which was all to the good, and the violent leaps and the interminable mazes which had led to that result were usually not even guessed at by her. Talk was the medicine she trusted to, talk about everything, talk that was free, unguarded, and as candid as a habit of talking with men made natural in her own case. Nor did she encourage those habits of unselfishness and amiability founded upon insincerity which are put at so high a value in mixed households of men and women. She desired that Rachel should think, and for this reason offered books and discouraged too entire a dependence upon Bach and Beethoven and Wagner. But when Mrs. Ambrose would have suggested Defoe, Maupassant, or some spacious chronicle of family life, Rachel chose modern books, books in shiny yellow covers, books with a great deal of gilding on the back, which were tokens in her aunt's eyes of harsh wrangling and disputes about facts which had no such importance as the moderns claimed for them. But she did not interfere. Rachel read what she chose, reading with the curious literalness of one to whom written sentences are unfamiliar, and handling words as though they were made of wood, separately of great importance, and possessed of shapes like tables or chairs. In this way she came to conclusions, which had to be remodelled according to the adventures of the day, and were indeed recast as liberally as any one could desire, leaving always a small grain of belief behind them.
Ibsen was succeeded by a novel such as Mrs. Ambrose detested, whose purpose was to distribute the guilt of a woman's downfall upon the right shoulders; a purpose which was achieved, if the reader's discomfort were any proof of it. She threw the book down, looked out of the window, turned away from the window, and relapsed into an arm-chair.
The morning was hot, and the exercise of reading left her mind contracting and expanding like the main-spring of a clock, and the small noises of midday, which one can ascribe to no definite cause, in a regular rhythm. It was all very real, very big, very impersonal, and after a moment or two she began to raise her first finger and to let it fall on the arm of her chair so as to bring back to herself some consciousness of her own existence. She was next overcome by the unspeakable queerness of the fact that she should be sitting in an arm-chair, in the morning, in the middle of the world. Who were the people moving in the house-- moving things from one place to another? And life, what was that? It was only a light passing over the surface and vanishing, as in time she would vanish, though the furniture in the room would remain. Her dissolution became so complete that she could not raise her finger any more, and sat perfectly still, listening and looking always at the same spot. It became stranger and stranger. She was overcome with awe that things should exist at all. . . . She forgot that she had any fingers to raise. . . . The things that existed were so immense and so desolate. . . . She continued to be conscious of these vast masses of substance for a long stretch of time, the clock still ticking in the midst of the universal silence.
"Come in," she said mechanically, for a string in her brain seemed to be pulled by a persistent knocking at the door. With great slowness the door opened and a tall human being came towards her, holding out her arm and saying:
"What am I to say to this?"
The utter absurdity of a woman coming into a room with a piece of paper in her hand amazed Rachel.
"I don't know what to answer, or who Terence Hewet is," Helen continued, in the toneless voice of a ghost. She put a paper before Rachel on which were written the incredible words:
DEAR MRS. AMBROSE--I am getting up a picnic for next Friday, when we propose to start at eleven-thirty if the weather is fine, and to make the ascent of Monte Rosa. It will take some time, but the view should be magnificent. It would give me great pleasure if you and Miss Vinrace would consent to be of the party.--
Yours sincerely, TERENCE HEWET
Rachel read the words aloud to make herself believe in them. For the same reason she put her hand on Helen's shoulder.
"Books--books--books," said Helen, in her absent-minded way. "More new books--I wonder what you find in them. . . ."
For the second time Rachel read the letter, but to herself. This time, instead of seeming vague as ghosts, each word was astonishingly prominent; they came out as the tops of mountains come through a mist. Friday--eleven-thirty--Miss Vinrace. The blood began to run in her veins; she felt her eyes brighten.
"We must go," she said, rather surprising Helen by her decision. "We must certainly go"--such was the relief of finding that things still happened, and indeed they appeared the brighter for the mist surrounding them.
"Monte Rosa--that's the mountain over there, isn't it?" said Helen; "but Hewet--who's he? One of the young men Ridley met, I suppose. Shall I say yes, then? It may be dreadfully dull."
She took the letter back and went, for the messenger was waiting for her answer.
The party which had been suggested a few nights ago in Mr. Hirst's bedroom had taken shape and was the source of great satisfaction to Mr. Hewet, who had seldom used his practical abilities, and was pleased to find them equal to the strain. His invitations had been universally accepted, which was the more encouraging as they had been issued against Hirst's advice to people who were very dull, not at all suited to each other, and sure not to come.
"Undoubtedly," he said, as he twirled and untwirled a note signed Helen Ambrose, "the gifts needed to make a great commander have been absurdly overrated. About half the intellectual effort which is needed to review a book of modern poetry has enabled me to get together seven or eight people, of opposite sexes, at the same spot at the same hour on the same day. What else is generalship, Hirst? What more did Wellington do on the field of Waterloo? It's like counting the number of pebbles of a path, tedious but not difficult."
He was sitting in his bedroom, one leg over the arm of the chair, and Hirst was writing a letter opposite. Hirst was quick to point out that all the difficulties remained.
"For instance, here are two women you've never seen. Suppose one of them suffers from mountain-sickness, as my sister does, and the other--"
"Oh, the women are for you," Hewet interrupted. "I asked them solely for your benefit. What you want, Hirst, you know, is the society of young women of your own age. You don't know how to get on with women, which is a great defect, considering that half the world consists of women."
Hirst groaned that he was quite aware of that.
But Hewet's complacency was a little chilled as he walked with Hirst to the place where a general meeting had been appointed. He wondered why on earth he had asked these people, and what one really expected to get from bunching human beings up together.
"Cows," he reflected, "draw together in a field; ships in a calm; and we're just the same when we've nothing else to do. But why do we do it?--is it to prevent ourselves from seeing to the bottom of things" (he stopped by a stream and began stirring it with his walking-stick and clouding the water with mud), "making cities and mountains and whole universes out of nothing, or do we really love each other, or do we, on the other hand, live in a state of perpetual uncertainty, knowing nothing, leaping from moment to moment as from world to world?-- which is, on the whole, the view I incline to."
He jumped over the stream; Hirst went round and joined him, remarking that he had long ceased to look for the reason of any human action.
Half a mile further, they came to a group of plane trees and the salmon-pink farmhouse standing by the stream which had been chosen as meeting-place. It was a shady spot, lying conveniently just where the hill sprung out from the flat. Between the thin stems of the plane trees the young men could see little knots of donkeys pasturing, and a tall woman rubbing the nose of one of them, while another woman was kneeling by the stream lapping water out of her palms.
As they entered the shady place, Helen looked up and then held out her hand.
"I must introduce myself," she said. "I am Mrs. Ambrose."
Having shaken hands, she said, "That's my niece."
Rachel approached awkwardly. She held out her hand, but withdrew it. "It's all wet," she said.
Scarcely had they spoken, when the first carriage drew up.
The donkeys were quickly jerked into attention, and the second carriage arrived. By degrees the grove filled with people-- the Elliots, the Thornburys, Mr. Venning and Susan, Miss Allan, Evelyn Murgatroyd, and Mr. Perrott. Mr. Hirst acted the part of hoarse energetic sheep-dog. By means of a few words of caustic Latin he had the animals marshalled, and by inclining a sharp shoulder he lifted the ladies. "What Hewet fails to understand," he remarked, "is that we must break the back of the ascent before midday." He was assisting a young lady, by name Evelyn Murgatroyd, as he spoke. She rose light as a bubble to her seat. With a feather drooping from a broad-brimmed hat, in white from top to toe, she looked like a gallant lady of the time of Charles the First leading royalist troops into action.
"Ride with me," she commanded; and, as soon as Hirst had swung himself across a mule, the two started, leading the cavalcade.
"You're not to call me Miss Murgatroyd. I hate it," she said. "My name's Evelyn. What's yours?"
"St. John," he said.
"I like that," said Evelyn. "And what's your friend's name?"
"His initials being R. S. T., we call him Monk," said Hirst.
"Oh, you're all too clever," she said. "Which way?" Pick me a branch. Let's canter."
She gave her donkey a sharp cut with a switch and started forward. The full and romantic career of Evelyn Murgatroyd is best hit off by her own words, "Call me Evelyn and I'll call you St. John." She said that on very slight provocation--her surname was enough-- but although a great many young men had answered her already with considerable spirit she went on saying it and making choice of none. But her donkey stumbled to a jog-trot, and she had to ride in advance alone, for the path when it began to ascend one of the spines of the hill became narrow and scattered with stones. The cavalcade wound on like a jointed caterpillar, tufted with the white parasols of the ladies, and the panama hats of the gentlemen. At one point where the ground rose sharply, Evelyn M. jumped off, threw her reins to the native boy, and adjured St. John Hirst to dismount too. Their example was followed by those who felt the need of stretching.
"I don't see any need to get off," said Miss Allan to Mrs. Elliot just behind her, "considering the difficulty I had getting on."
"These little donkeys stand anything, n'est-ce pas?" Mrs. Elliot addressed the guide, who obligingly bowed his head.
"Flowers," said Helen, stooping to pick the lovely little bright flowers which grew separately here and there. "You pinch their leaves and then they smell," she said, laying one on Miss Allan's knee.
"Haven't we met before?" asked Miss Allan, looking at her.
"I was taking it for granted," Helen laughed, for in the confusion of meeting they had not been introduced.
"How sensible!" chirped Mrs. Elliot. "That's just what one would always like--only unfortunately it's not possible." "Not possible?" said Helen. "Everything's possible. Who knows what mayn't happen before night-fall?" she continued, mocking the poor lady's timidity, who depended implicitly upon one thing following another that the mere glimpse of a world where dinner could be disregarded, or the table moved one inch from its accustomed place, filled her with fears for her own stability.
Higher and higher they went, becoming separated from the world. The world, when they turned to look back, flattened itself out, and was marked with squares of thin green and grey.
"Towns are very small," Rachel remarked, obscuring the whole of Santa Marina and its suburbs with one hand. The sea filled in all the angles of the coast smoothly, breaking in a white frill, and here and there ships were set firmly in the blue. The sea was stained with purple and green blots, and there was a glittering line upon the rim where it met the sky. The air was very clear and silent save for the sharp noise of grasshoppers and the hum of bees, which sounded loud in the ear as they shot past and vanished. The party halted and sat for a time in a quarry on the hillside.
"Amazingly clear," exclaimed St. John, identifying one cleft in the land after another.
Evelyn M. sat beside him, propping her chin on her hand. She surveyed the view with a certain look of triumph.
"D'you think Garibaldi was ever up here?" she asked Mr. Hirst. Oh, if she had been his bride! If, instead of a picnic party, this was a party of patriots, and she, red-shirted like the rest, had lain among grim men, flat on the turf, aiming her gun at the white turrets beneath them, screening her eyes to pierce through the smoke! So thinking, her foot stirred restlessly, and she exclaimed:
"I don't call this life, do you?"
"What do you call life?" said St. John.
"Fighting--revolution," she said, still gazing at the doomed city. "You only care for books, I know."
"You're quite wrong," said St. John.
"Explain," she urged, for there were no guns to be aimed at bodies, and she turned to another kind of warfare.
"What do I care for? People," he said.
"Well, I am surprised!" she exclaimed. "You look so awfully serious. Do let's be friends and tell each other what we're like. I hate being cautious, don't you?"
But St. John was decidedly cautious, as she could see by the sudden constriction of his lips, and had no intention of revealing his soul to a young lady. "The ass is eating my hat," he remarked, and stretched out for it instead of answering her. Evelyn blushed very slightly and then turned with some impetuosity upon Mr. Perrott, and when they mounted again it was Mr. Perrott who lifted her to her seat.
"When one has laid the eggs one eats the omelette," said Hughling Elliot, exquisitely in French, a hint to the rest of them that it was time to ride on again.
The midday sun which Hirst had foretold was beginning to beat down hotly. The higher they got the more of the sky appeared, until the mountain was only a small tent of earth against an enormous blue background. The English fell silent; the natives who walked beside the donkeys broke into queer wavering songs and tossed jokes from one to the other. The way grew very steep, and each rider kept his eyes fixed on the hobbling curved form of the rider and donkey directly in front of him. Rather more strain was being put upon their bodies than is quite legitimate in a party of pleasure, and Hewet overheard one or two slightly grumbling remarks.
"Expeditions in such heat are perhaps a little unwise," Mrs. Elliot murmured to Miss Allan.
But Miss Allan returned, "I always like to get to the top"; and it was true, although she was a big woman, stiff in the joints, and unused to donkey-riding, but as her holidays were few she made the most of them.
The vivacious white figure rode well in front; she had somehow possessed herself of a leafy branch and wore it round her hat like a garland. They went on for a few minutes in silence.
"The view will be wonderful," Hewet assured them, turning round in his saddle and smiling encouragement. Rachel caught his eye and smiled too. They struggled on for some time longer, nothing being heard but the clatter of hooves striving on the loose stones. Then they saw that Evelyn was off her ass, and that Mr. Perrott was standing in the attitude of a statesman in Parliament Square, stretching an arm of stone towards the view. A little to the left of them was a low ruined wall, the stump of an Elizabethan watch-tower.
"I couldn't have stood it much longer," Mrs. Elliot confided to Mrs. Thornbury, but the excitement of being at the top in another moment and seeing the view prevented any one from answering her. One after another they came out on the flat space at the top and stood overcome with wonder. Before them they beheld an immense space-- grey sands running into forest, and forest merging in mountains, and mountains washed by air, the infinite distances of South America. A river ran across the plain, as flat as the land, and appearing quite as stationary. The effect of so much space was at first rather chilling. They felt themselves very small, and for some time no one said anything. Then Evelyn exclaimed, "Splendid!" She took hold of the hand that was next her; it chanced to be Miss Allan's hand.
"North--South--East--West," said Miss Allan, jerking her head slightly towards the points of the compass.
Hewet, who had gone a little in front, looked up at his guests as if to justify himself for having brought them. He observed how strangely the people standing in a row with their figures bent slightly forward and their clothes plastered by the wind to the shape of their bodies resembled naked statues. On their pedestal of earth they looked unfamiliar and noble, but in another moment they had broken their rank, and he had to see to the laying out of food. Hirst came to his help, and they handed packets of chicken and bread from one to another.
As St. John gave Helen her packet she looked him full in the face and said:
"Do you remember--two women?"
He looked at her sharply.
"I do," he answered.
"So you're the two women!" Hewet exclaimed, looking from Helen to Rachel.
"Your lights tempted us," said Helen. "We watched you playing cards, but we never knew that we were being watched."
"It was like a thing in a play," Rachel added.
"And Hirst couldn't describe you," said Hewet.
It was certainly odd to have seen Helen and to find nothing to say about her.
Hughling Elliot put up his eyeglass and grasped the situation.
"I don't know of anything more dreadful," he said, pulling at the joint of a chicken's leg, "than being seen when one isn't conscious of it. One feels sure one has been caught doing something ridiculous-- looking at one's tongue in a hansom, for instance."
Now the others ceased to look at the view, and drawing together sat down in a circle round the baskets.
"And yet those little looking-glasses in hansoms have a fascination of their own," said Mrs. Thornbury. "One's features look so different when one can only see a bit of them."
"There will soon be very few hansom cabs left," said Mrs. Elliot. "And four-wheeled cabs--I assure you even at Oxford it's almost impossible to get a four-wheeled cab."
"I wonder what happens to the horses," said Susan.
"Veal pie," said Arthur.
"It's high time that horses should become extinct anyhow," said Hirst. "They're distressingly ugly, besides being vicious."
But Susan, who had been brought up to understand that the horse is the noblest of God's creatures, could not agree, and Venning thought Hirst an unspeakable ass, but was too polite not to continue the conversation.
"When they see us falling out of aeroplanes they get some of their own back, I expect," he remarked.
"You fly?" said old Mr. Thornbury, putting on his spectacles to look at him.
"I hope to, some day," said Arthur.
Here flying was discussed at length, and Mrs. Thornbury delivered an opinion which was almost a speech to the effect that it would be quite necessary in time of war, and in England we were terribly behind-hand. "If I were a young fellow," she concluded, "I should certainly qualify." It was odd to look at the little elderly lady, in her grey coat and skirt, with a sandwich in her hand, her eyes lighting up with zeal as she imagined herself a young man in an aeroplane. For some reason, however, the talk did not run easily after this, and all they said was about drink and salt and the view. Suddenly Miss Allan, who was seated with her back to the ruined wall, put down her sandwich, picked something off her neck, and remarked, "I'm covered with little creatures." It was true, and the discovery was very welcome. The ants were pouring down a glacier of loose earth heaped between the stones of the ruin--large brown ants with polished bodies. She held out one on the back of her hand for Helen to look at.
"Suppose they sting?" said Helen.
"They will not sting, but they may infest the victuals," said Miss Allan, and measures were taken at once to divert the ants from their course. At Hewet's suggestion it was decided to adopt the methods of modern warfare against an invading army. The table-cloth represented the invaded country, and round it they built barricades of baskets, set up the wine bottles in a rampart, made fortifications of bread and dug fosses of salt. When an ant got through it was exposed to a fire of bread-crumbs, until Susan pronounced that that was cruel, and rewarded those brave spirits with spoil in the shape of tongue. Playing this game they lost their stiffness, and even became unusually daring, for Mr. Perrott, who was very shy, said, "Permit me," and removed an ant from Evelyn's neck.
"It would be no laughing matter really," said Mrs. Elliot confidentially to Mrs. Thornbury, "if an ant did get between the vest and the skin."
The noise grew suddenly more clamorous, for it was discovered that a long line of ants had found their way on to the table-cloth by a back entrance, and if success could be gauged by noise, Hewet had every reason to think his party a success. Nevertheless he became, for no reason at all, profoundly depressed.
"They are not satisfactory; they are ignoble," he thought, surveying his guests from a little distance, where he was gathering together the plates. He glanced at them all, stooping and swaying and gesticulating round the table-cloth. Amiable and modest, respectable in many ways, lovable even in their contentment and desire to be kind, how mediocre they all were, and capable of what insipid cruelty to one another! There was Mrs. Thornbury, sweet but trivial in her maternal egoism; Mrs. Elliot, perpetually complaining of her lot; her husband a mere pea in a pod; and Susan--she had no self, and counted neither one way nor the other; Venning was as honest and as brutal as a schoolboy; poor old Thornbury merely trod his round like a horse in a mill; and the less one examined into Evelyn's character the better, he suspected. Yet these were the people with money, and to them rather than to others was given the management of the world. Put among them some one more vital, who cared for life or for beauty, and what an agony, what a waste would they inflict on him if he tried to share with them and not to scourge!
"There's Hirst," he concluded, coming to the figure of his friend; with his usual little frown of concentration upon his forehead he was peeling the skin off a banana. "And he's as ugly as sin." For the ugliness of St. John Hirst, and the limitations that went with it, he made the rest in some way responsible. It was their fault that he had to live alone. Then he came to Helen, attracted to her by the sound of her laugh. She was laughing at Miss Allan. "You wear combinations in this heat?" she said in a voice which was meant to be private. He liked the look of her immensely, not so much her beauty, but her largeness and simplicity, which made her stand out from the rest like a great stone woman, and he passed on in a gentler mood. His eye fell upon Rachel. She was lying back rather behind the others resting on one elbow; she might have been thinking precisely the same thoughts as Hewet himself. Her eyes were fixed rather sadly but not intently upon the row of people opposite her. Hewet crawled up to her on his knees, with a piece of bread in his hand.
"What are you looking at?" he asked.
She was a little startled, but answered directly, "Human beings."