Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting. From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure — a ghostly couple.
“Here we left it,” she said. And he added, “Oh, but here too!” “It’s upstairs,” she murmured. “And in the garden,” he whispered. “Quietly,” they said, “or we shall wake them.”
But it wasn’t that you woke us. Oh, no. “They’re looking for it; they’re drawing the curtain,” one might say, and so read on a page or two. “Now they’ve found it,” one would be certain, stopping the pencil on the margin. And then, tired of reading, one might rise and see for oneself, the house all empty, the doors standing open, only the wood pigeons bubbling with content and the hum of the threshing machine sounding from the farm. “What did I come in here for? What did I want to find?” My hands were empty. “Perhaps it’s upstairs then?” The apples were in the loft. And so down again, the garden still as ever, only the book had slipped into the grass.
But they had found it in the drawing room. Not that one could ever see them. The window panes reflected apples, reflected roses; all the leaves were green in the glass. If they moved in the drawing room, the apple only turned its yellow side. Yet, the moment after, if the door was opened, spread about the floor, hung upon the walls, pendant from the ceiling — what? My hands were empty. The shadow of a thrush crossed the carpet; from the deepest wells of silence the wood pigeon drew its bubble of sound. “Safe, safe, safe,” the pulse of the house beat softly. “The treasure buried; the room …” the pulse stopped short. Oh, was that the buried treasure?
A moment later the light had faded. Out in the garden then? But the trees spun darkness for a wandering beam of sun. So fine, so rare, coolly sunk beneath the surface the beam I sought always burnt behind the glass. Death was the glass; death was between us; coming to the woman first, hundreds of years ago, leaving the house, sealing all the windows; the rooms were darkened. He left it, left her, went North, went East, saw the stars turned in the Southern sky; sought the house, found it dropped beneath the Downs. “Safe, safe, safe,” the pulse of the house beat gladly. “The Treasure yours.”
The wind roars up the avenue. Trees stoop and bend this way and that. Moonbeams splash and spill wildly in the rain. But the beam of the lamp falls straight from the window. The candle burns stiff and still. Wandering through the house, opening the windows, whispering not to wake us, the ghostly couple seek their joy.
“Here we slept,” she says. And he adds, “Kisses without number.” “Waking in the morning — ” “Silver between the trees — ” “Upstairs — ” “In the garden — ” “When summer came — ” “In winter snowtime — ” The doors go shutting far in the distance, gently knocking like the pulse of a heart.
Nearer they come; cease at the doorway. The wind falls, the rain slides silver down the glass. Our eyes darken; we hear no steps beside us; we see no lady spread her ghostly cloak. His hands shield the lantern. “Look,” he breathes. “Sound asleep. Love upon their lips.”
Stooping, holding their silver lamp above us, long they look and deeply. Long they pause. The wind drives straightly; the flame stoops slightly. Wild beams of moonlight cross both floor and wall, and, meeting, stain the faces bent; the faces pondering; the faces that search the sleepers and seek their hidden joy.
“Safe, safe, safe,” the heart of the house beats proudly. “Long years — ” he sighs. “Again you found me.” “Here,” she murmurs, “sleeping; in the garden reading; laughing, rolling apples in the loft. Here we left our treasure — ” Stooping, their light lifts the lids upon my eyes. “Safe! safe! safe!” the pulse of the house beats wildly. Waking, I cry “Oh, is this your buried treasure? The light in the heart.”
This is how it all came about. Six or seven of us were sitting one day after tea. Some were gazing across the street into the windows of a milliner’s shop where the light still shone brightly upon scarlet feathers and golden slippers. Others were idly occupied in building little towers of sugar upon the edge of the tea tray. After a time, so far as I can remember, we drew round the fire and began as usual to praise men — how strong, how noble, how brilliant, how courageous, how beautiful they were — how we envied those who by hook or by crook managed to get attached to one for life — when Poll, who had said nothing, burst into tears. Poll, I must tell you, has always been queer. For one thing her father was a strange man. He left her a fortune in his will, but on condition that she read all the books in the London Library. We comforted her as best we could; but we knew in our hearts how vain it was. For though we like her, Poll is no beauty; leaves her shoe laces untied; and must have been thinking, while we praised men, that not one of them would ever wish to marry her. At last she dried her tears. For some time we could make nothing of what she said. Strange enough it was in all conscience. She told us that, as we knew, she spent most of her time in the London Library, reading. She had begun, she said, with English literature on the top floor; and was steadily working her way down to the Times on the bottom. And now half, or perhaps only a quarter, way through a terrible thing had happened. She could read no more. Books were not what we thought them. “Books,” she cried, rising to her feet and speaking with an intensity of desolation which I shall never forget, “are for the most part unutterably bad!”
Of course we cried out that Shakespeare wrote books, and Milton and Shelley.
“Oh, yes,” she interrupted us. “You’ve been well taught, I can see. But you are not members of the London Library.” Here her sobs broke forth anew. At length, recovering a little, she opened one of the pile of books which she always carried about with her — “From a Window” or “In a Garden,” or some such name as that it was called, and it was written by a man called Benton or Henson, or something of that kind. She read the first few pages. We listened in silence. “But that’s not a book,” someone said. So she chose another. This time it was a history, but I have forgotten the writer’s name. Our trepidation increased as she went on. Not a word of it seemed to be true, and the style in which it was written was execrable.
“Poetry! Poetry!” we cried, impatiently. “Read us poetry!” I cannot describe the desolation which fell upon us as she opened a little volume and mouthed out the verbose, sentimental foolery which it contained.
“It must have been written by a woman,” one of us urged. But no. She told us that it was written by a young man, one of the most famous poets of the day. I leave you to imagine what the shock of the discovery was. Though we all cried and begged her to read no more, she persisted and read us extracts from the Lives of the Lord Chancellors. When she had finished, Jane, the eldest and wisest of us, rose to her feet and said that she for one was not convinced.
“Why,” she asked, “if men write such rubbish as this, should our mothers have wasted their youth in bringing them into the world?”
We were all silent; and, in the silence, poor Poll could be heard sobbing out, “Why, why did my father teach me to read?”
Clorinda was the first to come to her senses. “It’s all our fault,” she said. “Every one of us knows how to read. But no one, save Poll, has ever taken the trouble to do it. I, for one, have taken it for granted that it was a woman’s duty to spend her youth in bearing children. I venerated my mother for bearing ten; still more my grandmother for bearing fifteen; it was, I confess, my own ambition to bear twenty. We have gone on all these ages supposing that men were equally industrious, and that their works were of equal merit. While we have borne the children, they, we supposed, have borne the books and the pictures. We have populated the world. They have civilized it. But now that we can read, what prevents us from judging the results? Before we bring another child into the world we must swear that we will find out what the world is like.”
So we made ourselves into a society for asking questions. One of us was to visit a man-of-war; another was to hide herself in a scholar’s study; another was to attend a meeting of business men; while all were to read books, look at pictures, go to concerts, keep our eyes open in the streets, and ask questions perpetually. We were very young. You can judge of our simplicity when I tell you that before parting that night we agreed that the objects of life were to produce good people and good books. Our questions were to be directed to finding out how far these objects were now attained by men. We vowed solemnly that we would not bear a single child until we were satisfied.
Off we went then, some to the British Museum; others to the King’s Navy; some to Oxford; others to Cambridge; we visited the Royal Academy and the Tate; heard modern music in concert rooms, went to the Law Courts, and saw new plays. No one dined out without asking her partner certain questions and carefully noting his replies. At intervals we met together and compared our observations. Oh, those were merry meetings! Never have I laughed so much as I did when Rose read her notes upon “Honour” and described how she had dressed herself as an Æthiopian Prince and gone aboard one of His Majesty’s ships. Discovering the hoax, the Captain visited her (now disguised as a private gentleman) and demanded that honour should be satisfied. “But how?” she asked. “How?” he bellowed. “With the cane of course!” Seeing that he was beside himself with rage and expecting that her last moment had come, she bent over and received, to her amazement, six light taps upon the behind. “The honour of the British Navy is avenged!” he cried, and, raising herself, she saw him with the sweat pouring down his face holding out a trembling right hand. “Away!” she exclaimed, striking an attitude and imitating the ferocity of his own expression, “My honour has still to be satisfied!” “Spoken like a gentleman!” he returned, and fell into profound thought. “If six strokes avenge the honour of the King’s Navy,” he mused, “how many avenge the honour of a private gentleman?” He said he would prefer to lay the case before his brother officers. She replied haughtily that she could not wait. He praised her sensibility. “Let me see,” he cried suddenly, “did your father keep a carriage?” “No,” she said. “Or a riding horse!” “We had a donkey,” she bethought her, “which drew the mowing machine.” At this his face lighted. “My mother’s name — ” she added. “For God’s sake, man, don’t mention your mother’s name!” he shrieked, trembling like an aspen and flushing to the roots of his hair, and it was ten minutes at least before she could induce him to proceed. At length he decreed that if she gave him four strokes and a half in the small of the back at a spot indicated by himself (the half conceded, he said, in recognition of the fact that her great grandmother’s uncle was killed at Trafalgar) it was his opinion that her honour would be as good as new. This was done; they retired to a restaurant; drank two bottles of wine for which he insisted upon paying; and parted with protestations of eternal friendship.
Then we had Fanny’s account of her visit to the Law Courts. At her first visit she had come to the conclusion that the Judges were either made of wood or were impersonated by large animals resembling man who had been trained to move with extreme dignity, mumble and nod their heads. To test her theory she had liberated a handkerchief of bluebottles at the critical moment of a trial, but was unable to judge whether the creatures gave signs of humanity for the buzzing of the flies induced so sound a sleep that she only woke in time to see the prisoners led into the cells below. But from the evidence she brought we voted that it is unfair to suppose that the Judges are men.
Helen went to the Royal Academy, but when asked to deliver her report upon the pictures she began to recite from a pale blue volume, “O! for the touch of a vanished hand and the sound of a voice that is still. Home is the hunter, home from the hill. He gave his bridle reins a shake. Love is sweet, love is brief. Spring, the fair spring, is the year’s pleasant King. O! to be in England now that April’s there. Men must work and women must weep. The path of duty is the way to glory — ” We could listen to no more of this gibberish.
“We want no more poetry!” we cried.
“Daughters of England!” she began, but here we pulled her down, a vase of water getting spilt over her in the scuffle.
“Thank God!” she exclaimed, shaking herself like a dog. “Now I’ll roll on the carpet and see if I can’t brush off what remains of the Union Jack. Then perhaps — ” here she rolled energetically. Getting up she began to explain to us what modern pictures are like when Castalia stopped her.
“What is the average size of a picture?” she asked. “Perhaps two feet by two and a half,” she said. Castalia made notes while Helen spoke, and when she had done, and we were trying not to meet each other’s eyes, rose and said, “At your wish I spent last week at Oxbridge, disguised as a charwoman. I thus had access to the rooms of several Professors and will now attempt to give you some idea — only,” she broke off, “I can’t think how to do it. It’s all so queer. These Professors,” she went on, “live in large houses built round grass plots each in a kind of cell by himself. Yet they have every convenience and comfort. You have only to press a button or light a little lamp. Their papers are beautifully filed. Books abound. There are no children or animals, save half a dozen stray cats and one aged bullfinch — a cock. I remember,” she broke off, “an Aunt of mine who lived at Dulwich and kept cactuses. You reached the conservatory through the double drawing-room, and there, on the hot pipes, were dozens of them, ugly, squat, bristly little plants each in a separate pot. Once in a hundred years the Aloe flowered, so my Aunt said. But she died before that happened — ” We told her to keep to the point. “Well,” she resumed, “when Professor Hobkin was out, I examined his life work, an edition of Sappho. It’s a queer looking book, six or seven inches thick, not all by Sappho. Oh, no. Most of it is a defence of Sappho’s chastity, which some German had denied, and I can assure you the passion with which these two gentlemen argued, the learning they displayed, the prodigious ingenuity with which they disputed the use of some implement which looked to me for all the world like a hairpin astounded me; especially when the door opened and Professor Hobkin himself appeared. A very nice, mild, old gentleman, but what could he know about chastity?” We misunderstood her.
“No, no,” she protested, “he’s the soul of honour I’m sure — not that he resembles Rose’s sea captain in the least. I was thinking rather of my Aunt’s cactuses. What could they know about chastity?”
Again we told her not to wander from the point, — did the Oxbridge professors help to produce good people and good books? — the objects of life.
“There!” she exclaimed. “It never struck me to ask. It never occurred to me that they could possibly produce anything.”
“I believe,” said Sue, “that you made some mistake. Probably Professor Hobkin was a gynæcologist. A scholar is a very different sort of man. A scholar is overflowing with humour and invention — perhaps addicted to wine, but what of that? — a delightful companion, generous, subtle, imaginative — as stands to reason. For he spends his life in company with the finest human beings that have ever existed.”
“Hum,” said Castalia. “Perhaps I’d better go back and try again.”
Some three months later it happened that I was sitting alone when Castalia entered. I don’t know what it was in the look of her that so moved me; but I could not restrain myself, and, dashing across the room, I clasped her in my arms. Not only was she very beautiful; she seemed also in the highest spirits. “How happy you look!” I exclaimed, as she sat down.
“I’ve been at Oxbridge,” she said.
“Answering them,” she replied.
“You have not broken our vow?” I said anxiously, noticing something about her figure.
“Oh, the vow,” she said casually. “I’m going to have a baby, if that’s what you mean. You can’t imagine,” she burst out, “how exciting, how beautiful, how satisfying — ”
“What is?” I asked.
“To — to — answer questions,” she replied in some confusion. Whereupon she told me the whole of her story. But in the middle of an account which interested and excited me more than anything I had ever heard, she gave the strangest cry, half whoop, half holloa —
“Chastity! Chastity! Where’s my chastity!” she cried. “Help Ho! The scent bottle!”
There was nothing in the room but a cruet containing mustard, which I was about to administer when she recovered her composure.
“You should have thought of that three months ago,” I said severely.
“True,” she replied. “There’s not much good in thinking of it now. It was unfortunate, by the way, that my mother had me called Castalia.”
“Oh, Castalia, your mother — ” I was beginning when she reached for the mustard pot.
“No, no, no,” she said, shaking her head. “If you’d been a chaste woman yourself you would have screamed at the sight of me — instead of which you rushed across the room and took me in your arms. No, Cassandra. We are neither of us chaste.” So we went on talking.
Meanwhile the room was filling up, for it was the day appointed to discuss the results of our observations. Everyone, I thought, felt as I did about Castalia. They kissed her and said how glad they were to see her again. At length, when we were all assembled, Jane rose and said that it was time to begin. She began by saying that we had now asked questions for over five years, and that though the results were bound to be inconclusive — here Castalia nudged me and whispered that she was not so sure about that. Then she got up, and, interrupting Jane in the middle of a sentence, said:
“Before you say any more, I want to know — am I to stay in the room? Because,” she added, “I have to confess that I am an impure woman.”
Everyone looked at her in astonishment.
“You are going to have a baby?” asked Jane.
She nodded her head.
It was extraordinary to see the different expressions on their faces. A sort of hum went through the room, in which I could catch the words “impure,” “baby,” “Castalia,” and so on. Jane, who was herself considerably moved, put it to us:
“Shall she go? Is she impure?”
Such a roar filled the room as might have been heard in the street outside.