Richmond Read-along 97
Welcome back to the Richmond Read-along! Today we are reading a short story from Aldous Huxley, best known for his dystopian novel “Brave New World.” Born in Godalming to a family of scientific and literary intellectuals, Huxley’s early traumas in the loss of his mother, his brother and most of his vision contributed to a pessimism evident beneath the satire and wit of much of his work. This combined with his interest in science and human psychology to produce a bibliography teeming with insight and brilliance but marked by a sense of despair. Huxley’s became more optimistic in his later years, marked by his mysticism, experiments with mescaline and ever-increasing social awareness. This gives his later work an eagerness and youthfulness that is ironically sometimes lacking in his earliest writing. Since his death, his already impressive reputation has – if anything – increased, helped by the accuracy of his prophetic writings and a following more willing to discuss his work as a cohesive whole than critics at the time of his death, who separated his early work from his later Californian years.
“In the Italian gardens of the thirteenth century….” Mr. Buzzacott interrupted himself to take another helping of the risotto which was being offered him. “Excellent risotto this,” he observed. “Nobody who was not born in Milan can make it properly. So they say.”
“So they say,” Mr. Topes repeated in his sad, apologetic voice, and helped himself in his turn.
“Personally,” said Mrs. Topes, with decision, “I find all Italian cooking abominable. I don’t like the oil—especially hot. No, thank you.” She recoiled from the proffered dish.
After the first mouthful Mr. Buzzacott put down his fork. “In the Italian gardens of the thirteenth century,” he began again, making with his long, pale hand a curved and flowery gesture that ended with a clutch at his beard, “a frequent and most felicitous use was made of green tunnels.”
“Green tunnels?” Barbara woke up suddenly from her tranced silence. “Green tunnels?”
“Yes, my dear,” said her father. “Green tunnels. Arched alleys covered with vines or other creeping plants. Their length was often very considerable.”
But Barbara had once more ceased to pay attention to what he was saying. Green tunnels—the word had floated down to her, through profound depths of reverie, across great spaces of abstraction, startling her like the sound of a strange-voiced bell. Green tunnels—what a wonderful idea. She would not listen to her father explaining the phrase into dullness. He made everything dull; an inverted alchemist, turning gold into lead. She pictured caverns in a great aquarium, long vistas between rocks and scarcely swaying weeds and pale, discoloured corals; endless dim green corridors with huge lazy fishes loitering aimlessly along them. Green-faced monsters with goggling eyes and mouths that slowly opened and shut. Green tunnels….
“I have seen them illustrated in illuminated manuscripts of the period,” Mr. Buzzacott went on; once more he clutched his pointed brown beard—clutched and combed it with his long fingers.
Mr. Topes looked up. The glasses of his round owlish spectacles flashed as he moved his head. “I know what you mean,” he said.
“I have a very good mind to have one, planted in my garden here.”
“It will take a long time to grow,” said Mr. Topes. “In this sand, so close to the sea, you will only be able to plant vines. And they come up very slowly very slowly indeed.” He shook his head and the points of light danced wildly in his spectacles. His voice drooped hopelessly, his grey moustache drooped, his whole person drooped. Then, suddenly, he pulled himself up. A shy, apologetic smile appeared on his face. He wriggled uncomfortably. Then, with a final rapid shake of the head, he gave vent to a quotation:
“But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.”
He spoke deliberately, and his voice trembled a little. He always found it painfully difficult to say something choice and out of the ordinary; and yet what a wealth of remembered phrase, what apt new coinages were always surging through his mind!
“They don’t grow so slowly as all that,” said Mr. Buzzacott confidently. He was only just over fifty, and looked a handsome thirty-five. He gave himself at least another forty years; indeed, he had not yet begun to contemplate the possibility of ever concluding.
“Miss Barbara will enjoy it, perhaps—your green tunnel.” Mr. Topes sighed and looked across the table at his host’s daughter.
Barbara was sitting with her elbows on the table, her chin in her hands, staring in front of her. The sound of her own name reached her faintly. She turned her head in Mr. Topes’s direction and found herself confronted by the glitter of his round, convex spectacles. At the end of the green tunnel—she stared at the shining circles—hung the eyes of a goggling fish. They approached, floating, closer and closer, along the dim submarine corridor.
Confronted by this fixed regard, Mr. Topes looked away. What thoughtful eyes! He couldn’t remember ever to have seen eyes so full of thought. There were certain Madonnas of Montagna, he reflected, very like hen mild little blonde Madonnas with slightly snub noses and very, very young. But he was old; it would be many years, in spite of Buzzacott, before the vines grew up into a green tunnel. He took a sip of wine; then, mechanically, sucked his drooping grey moustache.
At the sound of his wife’s voice Mr. Topes started, raised his napkin to his mouth. Mrs. Topes did not permit the sucking of moustaches. It was only in moments of absent-mindedness that he ever offended, now.
“The Marchese Prampolini is coming here to take coffee,” said Mr. Buzzacott suddenly. “I almost forgot to tell you.”
“One of these Italian marquises, I suppose,” said Mrs. Topes, who was no snob, except in England. She raised her chin with a little jerk.
Mr. Buzzacott executed an upward curve of the hand in her direction. “I assure you, Mrs. Topes, he belongs to a very old and distinguished family. They are Genoese in origin. You remember their palace, Barbara? Built by Alessi.”
Barbara looked up. “Oh yes,” she said vaguely. “Alessi. I know.” Alessi: Aleppo—where a malignant and a turbaned Turk. And a turbaned; that had always seemed to her very funny.
“Several of his ancestors,” Mr. Buzzacott went on, “distinguished themselves as vice-roys of Corsica. They did good work in the suppression of rebellion. Strange, isn’t it”—he turned parenthetically to Mr. Topes—”the way in which sympathy is always on the side of rebels? What a fuss people made of Corsica! That ridiculous book of Gregorovius, for example. And the Irish, and the Poles, and all the rest of them. It always seems to me very superfluous and absurd.”
“Isn’t it, perhaps, a little natural?” Mr. Topes began timorously and tentatively, but his host went on without listening.
“The present marquis,” he said, “is the head of the local Fascisti. They have done no end of good work in this district in the way of preserving law and order and keeping the lower classes in their place.”
“Ah, the Fascisti,” Mrs. Topes repeated approvingly. “One would like to see something of the kind in England. What with all these strikes….”
“He has asked me for a subscription to the funds of the organisation. I shall give him one, of course.”
“Of course.” Mrs. Topes nodded. “My nephew, the one who was a major during the war, volunteered in the last coal strike. He was sorry, I know, that it didn’t come to a fight. ‘Aunt Annie,’ he said to me, when I saw him last, ‘if there had been a fight we should have knocked them out completely—completely.'”
In Aleppo, the Fascisti, malignant and turbaned, were fighting, under the palm trees. Weren’t they palm trees, those tufted green plumes?
“What, no ice to-day? Niente gelato?” inquired Mr. Buzzacott as the maid put down the compote of peaches on the table.
Concetta apologised. The ice-making machine in the village had broken down. There would be no ice till to-morrow.
“Too bad,” said Mr. Buzzacott. “Troppo male, Concetta.”
Under the palm trees, Barbara saw them: they pranced about, fighting. They were mounted on big dogs, and in the trees were enormous many-coloured birds.
“Goodness me, the child’s asleep.” Mrs. Topes was proffering the dish of peaches. “How much longer am I to hold this in front of your nose, Barbara?”
Barbara felt herself blushing. “I’m so sorry,” she mumbled, and took the dish clumsily.
“Day-dreaming. It’s a bad habit.”
“It’s one we all succumb to sometimes,” put in Mr. Topes deprecatingly, with a little nervous tremble of the head.
“You may, my dear,” said his wife. “I do not.”
Mr. Topes lowered his eyes to his plate and went on eating.
“The marchese should be here at any moment now,” said Mr. Buzzacott, looking at his watch. “I hope he won’t be late. I find I suffer so much from any postponement of my siesta. This Italian heat,” he added, with growing plaintiveness, “one can’t be too careful.”
“Ah, but when I was with my father in India,” began Mrs. Topes in a tone of superiority: “he was an Indian civilian, you know….”
Aleppo, India—always the palm trees. Cavalcades of big dogs, and tigers too.
Concetta ushered in the marquis. Delighted. Pleased to meet. Speak English? Yés, yéss. Pocchino. Mrs. Topes: and Mr. Topes, the distinguished antiquarian. Ah, of course; know his name very well. My daughter. Charmed. Often seen the signorina bathing. Admired the way she dives. Beautiful—the hand made a long, caressing gesture. These athletic English signorine. The teeth flashed astonishingly white in the brown face, the dark eyes glittered. She felt herself blushing again, looked away, smiled foolishly. The marquis had already turned back to Mr. Buzzacott.
“So you have decided to settle in our Carrarese.”
Well, not settled exactly; Mr. Buzzacott wouldn’t go so far as to say settled. A villine for the summer months. The winter in Rome. One was forced to live abroad. Taxation in England…. Soon they were all talking. Barbara looked at them. Beside the marquis they all seemed half dead. His face flashed as he talked; he seemed to be boiling with life. Her father was limp and pale, like something long buried from the light; and Mr. Topes was all dry and shrivelled; and Mrs. Topes looked more than ever like something worked by clockwork. They were talking about Socialism and Fascisti, and all that. Barbara did not listen to what they were saying; but she looked at them, absorbed.
Good-bye, good-bye. The animated face with its flash of a smile was turned like a lamp from one to another. Now it was turned on her. Perhaps one evening she would come, with her father, and the Signora Topes. He and his sister gave little dances sometimes. Only the gramophone, of course. But that was better than nothing, and the signorina must dance divinely—another flash—he could see that. He pressed her hand again. Good-bye.
It was time for the siesta.
“Don’t forget to pull down the mosquito netting, my dear,” Mr. Buzzacott exhorted. “There is always a danger of anophylines.”
“All right, father.” She moved towards the door without turning round to answer him. He was always terribly tiresome about mosquito nets. Once they had driven through the Campagna in a hired cab, completely enclosed in an improvised tent of netting. The monuments along the Appian Way had loomed up mistily as through bridal veils. And how everyone had laughed. But her father, of course, hadn’t so much as noticed it. He never noticed anything.
“Is it at Berlin, that charming little Madonna of Montagna’s?” Mr. Topes abruptly asked. “The one with the Donor kneeling in the left-hand corner as if about to kiss the foot of the Child.” His spectacles flashed in Mr. Buzzacott’s direction.
“Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know. I was just thinking of it.”
“I think you must mean the one in the Mond Collection.”
“Ah yes; very probably. In the Mond….”
Barbara opened the door and walked into the twilight of her shuttered room. It was hot even here; for another three hours it would hardly be possible to stir. And that old idiot, Mrs. Topes, always made a fuss if one came in to lunch with bare legs and one’s after-bathing tunic. “In India we always made a point of being properly and adequately dressed. An Englishwoman must keep up her position with natives, and to all intents and purposes Italians are natives.” And so she always had to put on shoes and stockings and a regular frock just at the hottest hour of the day. What an old ass that woman was! She slipped off her clothes as fast as she could. That was a little better.
Standing in front of the long mirror in the wardrobe door she came to the humiliating conclusion that she looked like a piece of badly toasted bread. Brown face, brown neck and shoulders, brown arms, brown legs from the knee downwards; but all the rest of her was white, silly, effeminate, townish white. If only one could run about with no clothes on till one was like those little coppery children who rolled and tumbled in the burning sand! Now she was just underdone, half-baked, and wholly ridiculous. For a long time she looked at her pale image. She saw herself running, bronzed all over, along the sand; or through a field of flowers, narcissus and wild tulips; or in soft grass under grey olive trees. She turned round with a sudden start. There, in the shadows behind her…. No, of course there was nothing.
It was that awful picture in a magazine she had looked at, so many years ago, when she was a child. There was a lady sitting at her dressing-table, doing her hair in front of the glass; and a huge, hairy black monkey creeping up behind her. She always got the creeps when she looked at herself in a mirror. It was very silly. But still. She turned away from the mirror, crossed the room, and, without lowering the mosquito curtains, lay down on her bed. The flies buzzed about her, settled incessantly on her face. She shook her head, flapped at them angrily with her hands. There would be peace if she let down the netting. But she thought of the Appian Way seen mistily through the bridal veil and preferred to suffer the flies. In the end she had to surrender; the brutes were too much for her. But, at any rate, it wasn’t the fear of anophylines that made her lower the netting.
Undisturbed now and motionless, she lay stretched stiffly out under the transparent bell of gauze. A specimen under a glass case. The fancy possessed her mind. She saw a huge museum with thousands of glass cases, full of fossils and butterflies and stuffed birds and mediæval spoons and armour and Florentine jewellery and mummies and carved ivory and illuminated manuscripts. But in one of the cases was a human being, shut up there alive.
All of a sudden she became horribly miserable. “Boring, boring, boring,” she whispered, formulating the words aloud. Would it never stop being boring? The tears came into her eyes. How awful everything was! And perhaps it would go on being as bad as this all her life. Seventeen from seventy was fifty three. Fifty three years of it. And if she lived to a hundred there would be more than eighty.
The thought depressed her all the evening. Even her bath after tea did her no good. Swimming far out, far out, she lay there, floating on the warm water. Sometimes she looked at the sky, sometimes she turned her head towards the shore. Framed in their pinewoods, the villas looked as small and smug as the advertisement of a seaside resort. But behind them, across the level plain, were the mountains. Sharp, bare peaks of limestone, green woodland slopes and grey-green expanses of terraced olive trees—they seemed marvellously close and clear in this evening light. And beautiful, beautiful beyond words. But that, somehow, only made things worse. And Shelley had lived a few miles farther up the coast, there, behind the headland guarding the Gulf of Spezia. Shelley had been drowned in this milk-warm sea. That made it worse too.
The sun was getting very low and red over the sea. She swam slowly in. On the beach Mrs. Topes waited, disapprovingly. She had known somebody, a strong man, who had caught cramp from staying in too long. He sank like a stone. Like a stone. The queer people Mrs. Topes had known! And the funny things they did, the odd things that happened to them.
Dinner that evening was duller than ever. Barbara went early to bed. All night long the same old irritating cicada scraped and scraped among the pine trees, monotonous and regular as clockwork. Zip zip, zip zip zip. Boring, boring. Was the animal never bored by its own noise? It seemed odd that it shouldn’t be. But, when she came to think of it, nobody ever did get bored with their own noise. Mrs. Topes, for example; she never seemed to get bored. Zip zip, zip zip zip. The cicada went on without pause.
Concetta knocked at the door at half-past seven. The morning was as bright and cloudless as all the mornings were. Barbara jumped up, looked from one window at the mountains, from the other at the sea; all seemed to be well with them. All was well with her, too, this morning. Seated at the mirror, she did not so much as think of the big monkey in the far obscure corner of the room. A bathing dress and a bath-gown, sandals, a handkerchief round her head, and she was ready. Sleep had left no recollection of last night’s mortal boredom. She ran downstairs.
“Good morning, Mr. Topes.”
Mr. Topes was walking in the garden among the vines. He turned round, took off his hat, smiled a greeting.
“Good morning, Miss Barbara.” He paused. Then, with an embarrassed wriggle of introduction he went on; a queer little falter came into his voice. “A real Chaucerian morning, Miss Barbara. A May-day morning—only it happens to be September. Nature is fresh and bright, and there is at least one specimen in this dream garden”—he wriggled more uncomfortably than ever, and there was a tremulous glitter in his round spectacle lenses of the poet’s ‘yonge fresshe folkes.’ He bowed in her direction, smiled deprecatingly, and was silent. The remark, it seemed to him, now that he had finished speaking, was somehow not as good as he had thought it would be.
Barbara laughed. “Chaucer! They used to make us read the Canterbury Tales at school. But they always bored me. Are you going to bathe?”
“Not before breakfast.” Mr. Topes shook his head. “One is getting a little too old for that.”
“Is one?” Why did the silly old man always say ‘one’ when he meant ‘I’? She couldn’t help laughing at him. “Well, I must hurry, or else I shall be late for breakfast again, and you know how I catch it.”
She ran out, through the gate in the garden wall, across the beach, to the striped red-and-white bathing cabin that stood before the house. Fifty yards away she saw the Marchese Prampolini, still dripping from the sea, running up towards his bathing hut. Catching sight of her, he flashed a smile in her direction, gave a military salute. Barbara waved her hand, then thought that the gesture had been too familiar—but at this hour of the morning it was difficult not to have bad jolly manners—and added the corrective of a stiff bow. After all, she had only met him yesterday. Soon she was swimming out to sea, and, ugh! what a lot of horrible huge jelly-fish there were.
Mr. Topes had followed her slowly through the gate and across the sand. He watched her running down from the cabin, slender as a boy, with long, bounding strides. He watched her go jumping with great splashes through the deepening water, then throw herself forward and begin to swim. He watched her till she was no more than a small dark dot far out.
Emerging from his cabin, the marquis met him walking slowly along the beach, his head bent down and his lips slightly moving as though he were repeating something, a prayer or a poem, to himself.
“Good morning, signore.” The marquis shook him by the hand with a more than English cordiality.
“Good morning,” replied Mr. Topes, allowing his hand to be shaken. He resented this interruption of his thoughts.
“She swims very well, Miss Buzzacott.”
“Very,” assented Mr. Topes, and smiled to himself to think what beautiful, poetical things he might have said, if he had chosen.
“Well, so, so,” said the marquis, too colloquial by half. He shook hands again, and the two men went their respective ways.
Barbara was still a hundred yards from the shore when she heard the crescendo and dying boom of the gong floating out from the villa. Damn! she’d be late again. She quickened her stroke and came splashing out through the shallows, flushed and breathless.
She’d be ten minutes late, she calculated; it would take her at least that to do her hair and dress. Mrs. Topes would be on the war-path again; though what business that old woman had to lecture her as she did, goodness only knew. She always succeeded in making herself horribly offensive and unpleasant.
The beach was quite deserted as she trotted, panting, across it, empty to right and left as far as she could see. If only she had a horse to go galloping at the water’s edge, miles and miles. Right away down to Bocca d’Arno she’d go, swim the river—she saw herself crouching on the horse’s back, as he swam, with legs tucked up on the saddle, trying not to get her feet wet—and gallop on again, goodness only knew where.
In front of the cabin she suddenly halted. There in the ruffled sand she had seen a writing. Big letters, faintly legible, sprawled across her path.
O CLARA D’ELLÉBEUSE.
She pieced the dim letters together. They hadn’t been there when she started out to bathe. Who?… She looked round. The beach was quite empty. And what was the meaning? “O Clara d’Ellébeuse.” She took her bath-gown from the cabin, slipped on her sandals, and ran back towards the house as fast as she could. She felt most horribly frightened.
It was a sultry, headachey sort of morning, with a hot sirocco that stirred the bunting on the flagstaffs. By midday the thunderclouds had covered half the sky. The sun still blazed on the sea, but over the mountains all was black and indigo. The storm broke noisily overhead just as they were drinking their after-luncheon coffee.
“Arthur,” said Mrs. Topes, painfully calm, “shut the shutters, please.”
She was not frightened, no. But she preferred not to see the lightning. When the room was darkened, she began to talk, suavely and incessantly.
Lying back in her deep arm-chair, Barbara was thinking of Clara d’Ellébeuse. What did it mean and who was Clara d’Ellébeuse? And why had he written it there for her to see? He—for there could be no doubt who had written it. The flash of teeth and eyes, the military salute; she knew she oughtn’t to have waved to him. He had written it there while she was swimming out. Written it and then run away. She rather liked that—just an extraordinary word on the sand, like the footprint in Robinson Crusoe.
“Personally,” Mrs. Topes was saying, “I prefer Harrod’s.”
The thunder crashed and rattled. It was rather exhilarating, Barbara thought; one felt, at any rate, that something was happening for a change. She remembered the little room half-way up the stairs at Lady Thingumy’s house, with the bookshelves and the green curtains and the orange shade on the light; and that awful young man like a white slug who had tried to kiss her there, at the dance last year. But that was different—not at all serious; and the young man had been so horribly ugly. She saw the marquis running up the beach, quick and alert. Copper coloured all over, with black hair. He was certainly very handsome. But as for being in love, well … what did that exactly mean? Perhaps when she knew him better. Even now she fancied she detected something. O Clara d’Ellébeuse. What an extraordinary thing it was.
With his long fingers Mr. Buzzacott combed his beard. This winter, he was thinking, he would put another thousand into Italian money when the exchange was favourable. In the spring it always seemed to drop back again. One could clear three hundred pounds on one’s capital if the exchange went down to seventy. The income on three hundred was fifteen pounds a year, and fifteen pounds was now fifteen hundred lire. And fifteen hundred lire, when you came to think of it, was really sixty pounds. That was to say that one would make an addition of more than one pound a week to one’s income by this simple little speculation. He became aware that Mrs. Topes had asked him a question.
“Yes, yes, perfectly,” he said.
Mrs. Topes talked on; she was keeping up her morale. Was she right in believing that the thunder sounded a little less alarmingly loud and near?
Mr. Topes sat, polishing his spectacles with a white silk handkerchief. Vague and myopic between their puckered lids, his eyes seemed lost, homeless, unhappy. He was thinking about beauty. There were certain relations between the eyelids and the temples, between the breast and the shoulder; there were certain successions of sounds. But what about them? Ah, that was the problem—that was the problem. And there was youth, there was innocence. But it was all very obscure, and there were so many phrases, so many remembered pictures and melodies; he seemed to get himself entangled among them. And he was after all so old and so ineffective. He put on his spectacles again, and definition came into the foggy world beyond his eyes. The shuttered room was very dark. He could distinguish the Renaissance profile of Mr. Buzzacott, bearded and delicately featured. In her deep arm-chair Barbara appeared, faintly white, in an attitude relaxed and brooding. And Mrs. Topes was nothing more than a voice in the darkness. She had got on to the marriage of the Prince of Wales. Who would they eventually find for him?
Clara d’Ellébeuse, Clara d’Ellébeuse. She saw herself so clearly as the marchesa. They would have a house in Rome, a palace. She saw herself in the Palazzo Spada—it had such a lovely vaulted passage leading from the courtyard to the gardens at the back. “MARCHESA PRAMPOLINI, PALAZZO SPADA, ROMA”—a great big visiting-card beautifully engraved. And she would go riding every day in the Pincio. “Mi porta il mio cavallo” she would say to the footman, who answered the bell. Porta? Would that be quite correct? Hardly. She’d have to take some proper Italian lessons to talk to the servants. One must never be ridiculous before servants. “Voglio il mio cavallo. Haughtily one would say it sitting at one’s writing-table in a riding-habit, without turning round. It would be a green riding-habit, with a black tricorne hat, braided with silver.
“Prendero la mia collazzione al letto.” Was that right for breakfast in bed? Because she would have breakfast in bed, always. And when she got up there would be lovely looking glasses with three panels where one could see oneself sideface. She saw herself leaning forward, powdering her nose, carefully, scientifically. With the monkey creeping up behind? Ooh. Horrible! Ho paura di questa scimmia, questo scimmione.
She would come back to lunch after her ride. Perhaps Prampolini would be there; she had rather left him out of the picture so far. “Dov’ è il Marchese?” “Nella sala di pranza, signora.” I began without you, I was so hungry. Pasta asciutta. Where have you been, my love? Riding, my dove. She supposed they’d get into the habit of saying that sort of thing. Everyone seemed to. And you? I have been out with the Fascisti.
Oh, these Fascisti! Would life be worth living when he was always going out with pistols and bombs and things? They would bring him back one day on a stretcher. She saw it. Pale, pale, with blood on him. Il signore è ferito. Nel petto. Gruvamente. E morto.
How could she bear it? It was too awful; too, too terrible. Her breath came in a kind of sob; she shuddered as though she had been hurt. E morto, E morto. The tears came into her eyes.
She was roused suddenly by a dazzling light. The storm had receded far enough into the distance to permit of Mrs. Topes’s opening the shutters.
“It’s quite stopped raining.”
To be disturbed in one’s intimate sorrow and self-abandonment at a death-bed by a stranger’s intrusion, an alien voice…. Barbara turned her face away from the light and surreptitiously wiped her eyes. They might see and ask her why she had been crying. She hated Mrs. Topes for opening the shutters; at the inrush of the light something beautiful had flown, an emotion had vanished, irrecoverably. It was a sacrilege.
Mr. Buzzacott looked at his watch. “Too late, I fear, for a siesta now,” he said. “Suppose we ring for an early tea.”
“An endless succession of meals,” said Mr. Topes, with a tremolo and a sigh. “That’s what life seems to be—real life.”
“I have been calculating”—Mr. Buzzacott turned his pale green eyes towards his guest—”that I may be able to afford that pretty little cinque cassone, after all. It would be a bit of a squeeze.” He played with his beard. “But still….”
After tea, Barbara and Mr. Topes went for a walk along the beach. She didn’t much want to go, but Mrs. Topes thought it would be good for her; so she had to. The storm had passed and the sky over the sea was clear. But the waves were still breaking with an incessant clamour on the outer shallows, driving wide sheets of water high up the beach, twenty or thirty yards above the line where, on a day of calm, the ripples ordinarily expired. Smooth, shining expanses of water advanced and receded like steel surfaces moved out and back by a huge machine. Through the rain-washed air the mountains appeared with an incredible clarity. Above them hung huge masses of cloud.
“Clouds over Carrara,” said Mr. Topes, deprecating his remark with a little shake of the head and a movement of the shoulders. “I like to fancy sometimes that the spirits of the great sculptors lodge among these marble hills, and that it is their unseen hands that carve the clouds into these enormous splendid shapes. I imagine their ghosts”—his voice trembled—”feeling about among superhuman conceptions, planning huge groups and friezes and monumental figures with blowing draperies; planning, conceiving, but never quite achieving. Look, there’s something of Michelangelo in that white cloud with the dark shadows underneath it.” Mr. Topes pointed, and Barbara, nodded and said, “Yes, yes,” though she wasn’t quite sure which cloud he meant. “It’s like Night on the Medici tomb; all the power and passion are brooding inside it, pent up. And there, in that sweeping, gesticulating piece of vapour—you see the one I mean—there’s a Bernini. All the passion’s on the surface, expressed; the gesture’s caught at its most violent. And that sleek, smug white fellow over there, that’s a delicious absurd Canova.” Mr. Topes chuckled.
“Why do you always talk about art?” said Barbara. “You bring these dead people into everything. What do I know about Canova or whoever it is?” They were none of them alive. She thought of that dark face, bright as a lamp with life. He at least wasn’t dead. She wondered whether the letters were still there in the sand before the cabin. No, of course not; the rain and the wind would have blotted them out.
Mr. Topes was silent; he walked with slightly bent knees and his eyes were fixed on the ground; he wore a speckled black-and-white straw hat. He always thought of art; that was what was wrong with him. Like an old tree he was; built up of dead wood, with only a few fibres of life to keep him from rotting away. They walked on for a long time in silence.
“Here’s the river,” said Mr. Topes at last.
A few steps more and they were on the bank of a wide stream that came down slowly through the plain to the sea. Just inland from the beach it was fringed with pine trees; beyond the trees one could see the plain, and beyond the plain were the mountains. In this calm light after the storm everything looked strange. The colours seemed deeper and more intense than at ordinary times. And though all was so clear, there was a mysterious air of remoteness about the whole scene. There was no sound except the continuous breathing of the sea. They stood for a little while, looking; then turned back.
Far away along the beach two figures were slowly approaching. White flannel trousers, a pink skirt.
“Nature,” Mr. Topes enunciated, with a shake of the head. “One always comes back to nature. At a moment such as this, in surroundings like these, one realises it. One lives now—more quietly, perhaps, but more profoundly. Deep watery. Deep waters….”
The figures drew closer. Wasn’t it the marquis? And who was with him? Barbara strained her eyes to see.
“Most of one’s life,” Mr. Topes went on, “is one prolonged effort to prevent oneself thinking. Your father and I, we collect pictures and read about the dead. Other people achieve the same results by drinking, or breeding rabbits, or doing amateur carpentry. Anything rather than think calmly about the important things.”
Mr. Topes was silent. He looked about him, at the sea, at the mountains, at the great clouds, at his companion. A frail Montagna madonna, with the sea and the westering sun, the mountains and the storm, all eternity as a background. And he was sixty, with all a life, immensely long and yet timelessly short, behind him, an empty life. He thought of death and the miracles of beauty; behind his round, glittering spectacles he felt inclined to weep.
The approaching couple were quite near now.
“What a funny old walrus,” said the lady.
“Walrus? Your natural history is quite wrong.” The marquis laughed. “He’s much too dry to be a walrus. I should suggest some sort of an old cat.”
“Well, whatever he is, I’m sorry for that poor little girl. Think of having nobody better to go about with!”
“Pretty, isn’t she?”
“Yes, but too young, of course.”
“I like the innocence.”
“Innocence? Cher ami! These English girls. Oh, la la! They may look innocent But, believe me….”
“Sh, sh. They’ll hear you.”
“Pooh, they don’t understand Italian.”
The marquis raised his hand. “The old walrus….” he whispered; then addressed himself loudly and jovially to the newcomers.
“Good evening, signorina. Good evening, Mr. Topes. After a storm the air is always the purest, don’t you find, eh?”
Barbara nodded, leaving Mr. Topes to answer. It wasn’t his sister. It was the Russian woman, the one of whom Mrs. Topes used to say that it was a disgrace she should be allowed to stay at the hotel. She had turned away, dissociating herself from the conversation; Barbara looked at the line of her averted face. Mr. Topes was saying something about the Pastoral Symphony. Purple face powder in the daylight; it looked hideous.
“Well, au revoir.”
The flash of the marquis’s smile was directed at them. The Russian woman turned back from the sea, slightly bowed, smiled languidly. Her heavy white eyelids were almost closed; she seemed the prey of an enormous ennui.
“They jar a little,” said Mr. Topes when they were out of earshot—”they jar on the time, on the place, on the emotion. They haven’t the innocence for this … this….”—he wriggled and tremoloed out the just, the all too precious word—”this prelapsarian landscape.”
He looked sideways at Barbara and wondered what she was so thoughtfully frowning over. Oh, lovely and delicate young creature! What could he adequately say of death and beauty and tenderness? Tenderness….
“All this,” he went on desperately, and waved his hand to indicate the sky, the sea, the mountains, “this scene is like something remembered, clear and utterly calm; remembered across great gulfs of intervening time.”
But that was not really what he wanted to say.
“You see what I mean?” he asked dubiously. She made no reply. How could she see? “This scene is so clear and pure and remote; you need the corresponding emotion. Those people were out of harmony. They weren’t clear and pure enough.” He seemed to be getting more muddled than ever. “It’s an emotion of the young and of the old. You could feel it, I could feel it. Those people couldn’t.” He was feeling his way through obscurities. Where would he finally arrive? “Certain poems express it. You know Francis Jammes? I have thought so much of his work lately. Art instead of life, as usual; but then I’m made that way. I can’t help thinking of Jammes. Those delicate, exquisite things he wrote about Clara d’Ellébeuse.”
“Clara d’Ellébeuse?” She stopped and stared at him.
“You know the lines?” Mr. Topes smiled delightedly. “This makes me think, you make me think of them. ‘F’aime dans les temps Clara d’Ellébeuse….’ But, my dear Barbara, what is the matter?”
She had started crying, for no reason whatever.
Join us tomorrow for the next Richmond Read-along!