The String Quartet by Virginia Woolf
An Extract From
WELL, HERE WE are, and if you cast your eye over the room you will
see that Tubes and trams and omnibuses, private carriages not a few,
even, I venture to believe, landaus with bays in them, have been busy
at it, weaving threads from one end of London to the other. Yet I begin
to have my doubts?
If indeed it's true, as they're saying, that Regent Street is up,
and the Treaty signed, and the weather not cold for the time of year,
and even at that rent not a flat to be had, and the worst of influenza
its after effects; if I bethink me of having forgotten to write about
the leak in the larder, and left my glove in the train; if the ties of
blood require me, leaning forward, to accept cordially the hand which
is perhaps offered hesitatingly?
"Seven years since we met!"
"The last time in Venice."
"And where are you living now?"
"Well, the late afternoon suits me the best, though, if it weren't
asking too much?"
"But I knew you at once!"
"Still, the war made a break?"
If the mind's shot through by such little arrows, and? for human
society compels it? no sooner is one launched than another presses
forward; if this engenders heat and in addition they've turned on the
electric light; if saying one thing does, in so many cases, leave
behind it a need to improve and revise, stirring besides regrets,
pleasures, vanities, and desires? if it's all the facts I mean, and the
hats, the fur boas, the gentlemen's swallow-tail coats, and pearl
tie-pins that come to the surface? what chance is there?
Of what? It becomes every minute more difficult to say why, in
spite of everything, I sit here believing I can't now say what, or even
remember the last time it happened.
"Did you see the procession?"
"The King looked cold."
"No, no, no. But what was it?"
"She's bought a house at Malmesbury."
"How lucky to find one!"
On the contrary, it seems to me pretty sure that she, whoever she
may be, is damned, since it's all a matter of flats and hats and sea
gulls, or so it seems to be for a hundred people sitting here well
dressed, walled in, furred, replete. Not that I can boast, since I too
sit passive on a gilt chair, only turning the earth above a buried
memory, as we all do, for there are signs, if I'm not mistaken, that
we're all recalling something, furtively seeking something. Why fidget?
Why so anxious about the sit of cloaks; and gloves? whether to button
or unbutton? Then watch that elderly face against the dark canvas, a
moment ago urbane and flushed; now taciturn and sad, as if in shadow.
Was it the sound of the second violin tuning in the ante-room? Here
they come; four black figures, carrying instruments, and seat
themselves facing the white squares under the downpour of light; rest
the tips of their bows on the music stand; with a simultaneous movement
lift them; lightly poise them, and, looking across at the player
opposite, the first violin counts one, two, three?
Flourish, spring, burgeon, burst! The pear tree on the top of the
mountain. Fountains jet; drops descend. But the waters of the Rhone
flow swift and deep, race under the arches, and sweep the trailing
water leaves, washing shadows over the silver fish, the spotted fish
rushed down by the swift waters, now swept into an eddy where? it's
difficult this? conglomeration of fish all in a pool; leaping,
splashing, scraping sharp fins; and such a boil of current that the
yellow pebbles are churned round and round, round and round? free now,
rushing downwards, or even somehow ascending in exquisite spirals into
the air; curled like thin shavings from under a plane, up and up....How
lovely goodness is in those who, stepping lightly, go smiling through
the world! Also in jolly old fishwives, squatted under arches, obscene
old women, how deeply they laugh and shake and rollick, when they walk,
from side to side, hum, hah!
"That's an early Mozart, of course?"
"But the tune, like all his tunes, makes one despair? I mean hope.
What do I mean? That's the worst of music! I want to dance, laugh, eat
pink cakes, yellow cakes, drink thin, sharp wine. Or an indecent story,
now? I could relish that. The older one grows the more one likes
indecency. Hah, hah! I'm laughing. What at? You said nothing, nor did
the old gentleman opposite....But suppose? suppose? Hush!"
The melancholy river bears us on. When the moon comes through the
trailing willow boughs, I see your face, I hear your voice and the bird
singing as we pass the osier bed. What are you whispering? Sorrow,
sorrow. Joy, joy. Woven together, like reeds in moonlight. Woven
together, inextricably commingled, bound in pain and strewn in sorrow?
The boat sinks. Rising, the figures ascend, but now leaf thin,
tapering to a dusky wraith, which, fiery tipped, draws its twofold
passion from my heart. For me it sings, unseals my sorrow, thaws
compassion, floods with love the sunless world, nor, ceasing, abates
its tenderness but deftly, subtly, weaves in and out until in this
pattern, this consummation, the cleft ones unify; soar, sob, sink to
rest, sorrow and joy.
Why then grieve? Ask what? Remain unsatisfied? I say all's been
settled; yes; laid to rest under a coverlet of rose leaves, falling.
Falling. Ah, but they cease. One rose leaf, falling from an enormous
height, like a little parachute dropped from an invisible balloon,
turns, flutters waveringly. It won't reach us.
"No, no. I noticed nothing. That's the worst of music? these silly
dreams. The second violin was late, you say?"
"There's old Mrs. Munro, feeling her way out? blinder each year,
poor woman? on this slippery floor."
Eyeless old age, grey-headed Sphinx....There she stands on the
pavement, beckoning, so sternly, the red omnibus.
"How lovely! How well they play! How? how? how!"
The tongue is but a clapper. Simplicity itself. The feathers in the
hat next me are bright and pleasing as a child's rattle. The leaf on
the plane-tree flashes green through the chink in the curtain. Very
strange, very exciting.
"How? how? how!" Hush!
These are the lovers on the grass.
"If, madam, you will take my hand?"
"Sir, I would trust you with my heart. Moreover, we have left our
bodies in the banqueting hall. Those on the turf are the shadows of our
"Then these are the embraces of our souls." The lemons nod assent.
The swan pushes from the bank and floats dreaming into midstream.
"But to return. He followed me down the corridor, and, as we turned
the corner, trod on the lace of my petticoat. What could I do but cry
'Ah!' and stop to finger it? At which he drew his sword, made passes
as if he were stabbing something to death, and cried, 'Mad! Mad! Mad!'
Whereupon I screamed, and the Prince, who was writing in the large
vellum book in the oriel window, came out in his velvet skull-cap and
furred slippers, snatched a rapier from the wall? the King of Spain's
gift, you know? on which I escaped, flinging on this cloak to hide the
ravages to my skirt? to hide...But listen! The horns!"
The gentleman replies so fast to the lady, and she runs up the
scale with such witty exchange of compliment now culminating in a sob
of passion, that the words are indistinguishable though the meaning is
plain enough? love, laughter, flight, pursuit, celestial bliss? all
floated out on the gayest ripple of tender endearment? until the sound
of the silver horns, at first far distant, gradually sounds more and
more distinctly, as if seneschals were saluting the dawn or proclaiming
ominously the escape of the lovers....The green garden, moonlit pool,
lemons, lovers, and fish are all dissolved in the opal sky, across
which, as the horns are joined by trumpets and supported by clarions
there rise white arches firmly planted on marble pillars....Tramp and
trumpeting. Clang and clangour. Firm establishment. Fast foundations.
March of myriads. Confusion and chaos trod to earth. But this city to
which we travel has neither stone nor marble; hangs enduring; stands
unshakable; nor does a face, nor does a flag greet or welcome. Leave
then to perish your hope; droop in the desert my joy; naked advance.
Bare are the pillars; auspicious to none; casting no shade;
resplendent; severe. Back then I fall, eager no more, desiring only to
go, find the street, mark the buildings, greet the applewoman, say to
the maid who opens the door: A starry night.
"Good night, good night. You go this way?"
"Alas. I go that."