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Woolf Essays

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Written by Administrator

Posted on 24 April 2011

Last Updated 24 April 2011

Title:      Woolf Essays
Author:     Virginia Woolf




Moths that fly by day are not properly to be called moths; they do not
excite that pleasant sense of dark autumn nights and ivy-blossom which
the commonest yellow-underwing asleep in the shadow of the curtain never
fails to rouse in us. They are hybrid creatures, neither gay like
butterflies nor sombre like their own species. Nevertheless the present
specimen, with his narrow hay-coloured wings, fringed with a tassel of
the same colour, seemed to be content with life. It was a pleasant
morning, mid-September, mild, benignant, yet with a keener breath than
that of the summer months. The plough was already scoring the field
opposite the window, and where the share had been, the earth was pressed
flat and gleamed with moisture. Such vigour came rolling in from the
fields and the down beyond that it was difficult to keep the eyes
strictly turned upon the book. The rooks too were keeping one of their
annual festivities; soaring round the tree tops until it looked as if a
vast net with thousands of black knots in it had been cast up into the
air; which, after a few moments sank slowly down upon the trees until
every twig seemed to have a knot at the end of it. Then, suddenly, the
net would be thrown into the air again in a wider circle this time, with
the utmost clamour and vociferation, as though to be thrown into the air
and settle slowly down upon the tree tops were a tremendously exciting

The same energy which inspired the rooks, the ploughmen, the horses, and
even, it seemed, the lean bare-backed downs, sent the moth fluttering
from side to side of his square of the window-pane. One could not help
watching him. One was, indeed, conscious of a queer feeling of pity for
him. The possibilities of pleasure seemed that morning so enormous and
so various that to have only a moth's part in life, and a day moth's at
that, appeared a hard fate, and his zest in enjoying his meagre
opportunities to the full, pathetic. He flew vigorously to one corner of
his compartment, and, after waiting there a second, flew across to the
other. What remained for him but to fly to a third corner and then to a
fourth? That was all he could do, in spite of the size of the downs, the
width of the sky, the far-off smoke of houses, and the romantic voice,
now and then, of a steamer out at sea. What he could do he did. Watching
him, it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy
of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body. As
often as he crossed the pane, I could fancy that a thread of vital light
became visible. He was little or nothing but life.

Yet, because he was so small, and so simple a form of the energy that
was rolling in at the open window and driving its way through so many
narrow and intricate corridors in my own brain and in those of other
human beings, there was something marvellous as well as pathetic about
him. It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking
it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and
zig-zagging to show us the true nature of life. Thus displayed one could
not get over the strangeness of it. One is apt to forget all about life,
seeing it humped and bossed and garnished and cumbered so that it has to
move with the greatest circumspection and dignity. Again, the thought of
all that life might have been had he been born in any other shape caused
one to view his simple activities with a kind of pity.

After a time, tired by his dancing apparently, he settled on the window
ledge in the sun, and, the queer spectacle being at an end, I forgot
about him. Then, looking up, my eye was caught by him. He was trying to
resume his dancing, but seemed either so stiff or so awkward that he
could only flutter to the bottom of the window-pane; and when he tried
to fly across it he failed. Being intent on other matters I watched
these futile attempts for a time without thinking, unconsciously waiting
for him to resume his flight, as one waits for a machine, that has
stopped momentarily, to start again without considering the reason of
its failure. After perhaps a seventh attempt he slipped from the wooden
ledge and fell, fluttering his wings, on to his back on the window sill.
The helplessness of his attitude roused me. It flashed upon me that he
was in difficulties; he could no longer raise himself; his legs
struggled vainly. But, as I stretched out a pencil, meaning to help him
to right himself, it came over me that the failure and awkwardness were
the approach of death. I laid the pencil down again.

The legs agitated themselves once more. I looked as if for the enemy
against which he struggled. I looked out of doors. What had happened
there? Presumably it was midday, and work in the fields had stopped.
Stillness and quiet had replaced the previous animation. The birds had
taken themselves off to feed in the brooks. The horses stood still. Yet
the power was there all the same, massed outside indifferent,
impersonal, not attending to anything in particular. Somehow it was
opposed to the little hay-coloured moth. It was useless to try to do
anything. One could only watch the extraordinary efforts made by those
tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have
submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings;
nothing, I knew, had any chance against death. Nevertheless after a
pause of exhaustion the legs fluttered again. It was superb this last
protest, and so frantic that he succeeded at last in righting himself.
One's sympathies, of course, were all on the side of life. Also, when
there was nobody to care or to know, this gigantic effort on the part of
an insignificant little moth, against a power of such magnitude, to
retain what no one else valued or desired to keep, moved one strangely.
Again, somehow, one saw life, a pure bead. I lifted the pencil again,
useless though I knew it to be. But even as I did so, the unmistakable
tokens of death showed themselves. The body relaxed, and instantly grew
stiff. The struggle was over. The insignificant little creature now knew
death. As I looked at the dead moth, this minute wayside triumph of so
great a force over so mean an antagonist filled me with wonder. Just as
life had been strange a few minutes before, so death was now as strange.
The moth having righted himself now lay most decently and uncomplainingly
composed. O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am.


Evening is kind to Sussex, for Sussex is no longer young, and she is
grateful for the veil of evening as an elderly woman is glad when a
shade is drawn over a lamp, and only the outline of her face remains.
The outline of Sussex is still very fine. The cliffs stand out to sea,
one behind another. All Eastbourne, all Bexhill, all St. Leonards, their
parades and their lodging houses, their bead shops and their sweet shops
and their placards and their invalids and chars-б-bancs, are all
obliterated. What remains is what there was when William came over from
France ten centuries ago: a line of cliffs running out to sea. Also the
fields are redeemed. The freckle of red villas on the coast is washed
over by a thin lucid lake of brown air, in which they and their redness
are drowned. It was still too early for lamps; and too early for stars.

But, I thought, there is always some sediment of irritation when the
moment is as beautiful as it is now. The psychologists must explain; one
looks up, one is overcome by beauty extravagantly greater than one could
expect--there are now pink clouds over Battle; the fields are mottled,
marbled--one's perceptions blow out rapidly like air balls expanded by
some rush of air, and then, when all seems blown to its fullest and
tautest, with beauty and beauty and beauty, a pin pricks; it collapses.
But what is the pin? So far as I could tell, the pin had something to do
with one's own impotency. I cannot hold this--I cannot express this--I
am overcome by it--I am mastered. Somewhere in that region one's
discontent lay; and it was allied with the idea that one's nature
demands mastery over all that it receives; and mastery here meant the
power to convey what one saw now over Sussex so that another person
could share it. And further, there was another prick of the pin: one was
wasting one's chance; for beauty spread at one's right hand, at one's
left; at one's back too; it was escaping all the time; one could only
offer a thimble to a torrent that could fill baths, lakes.

But relinquish, I said (it is well known how in circumstances like these
the self splits up and one self is eager and dissatisfied and the other
stern and philosophical), relinquish these impossible aspirations; be
content with the view in front of us, and believe me when I tell you
that it is best to sit and soak; to be passive; to accept; and do not
bother because nature has given you six little pocket knives with which
to cut up the body of a whale.

While these two selves then held a colloquy about the wise course to
adopt in the presence of beauty, I (a third party now declared itself)
said to myself, how happy they were to enjoy so simple an occupation.
There they sat as the car sped along, noticing everything: a hay stack;
a rust red roof; a pond; an old man coming home with his sack on his
back; there they sat, matching every colour in the sky and earth from
their colour box, rigging up little models of Sussex barns and
farmhouses in the red light that would serve in the January gloom. But
I, being somewhat different, sat aloof and melancholy. While they are
thus busied, I said to myself: Gone, gone; over, over; past and done
with, past and done with. I feel life left behind even as the road is
left behind. We have been over that stretch, and are already forgotten.
There, windows were lit by our lamps for a second; the light is out now.
Others come behind us.

Then suddenly a fourth self (a self which lies in ambush, apparently
dormant, and jumps upon one unawares. Its remarks are often entirely
disconnected with what has been happening, but must be attended to
because of their very abruptness) said: "Look at that." It was a light;
brilliant, freakish; inexplicable. For a second I was unable to name it.
"A star"; and for that second it held its odd flicker of
unexpectedness and danced and beamed. "I take your meaning," I said.
"You, erratic and impulsive self that you are, feel that the light over
the downs there emerging, dangles from the future. Let us try to
understand this. Let us reason it out. I feel suddenly attached not to
the past but to the future. I think of Sussex in five hundred years to
come. I think much grossness will have evaporated. Things will have been
scorched up, eliminated. There will be magic gates. Draughts fan-blown
by electric power will cleanse houses. Lights intense and firmly
directed will go over the earth, doing the work. Look at the moving
light in that hill; it is the headlight of a car. By day and by night
Sussex in five centuries will be full of charming thoughts, quick,
effective beams."

The sun was now low beneath the horizon. Darkness spread rapidly. None
of my selves could see anything beyond the tapering light of our
headlamps on the hedge. I summoned them together. "Now," I said,
"comes the season of making up our accounts. Now we have got to collect
ourselves; we have got to be one self. Nothing is to be seen any more,
except one wedge of road and bank which our lights repeat incessantly.
We are perfectly provided for. We are warmly wrapped in a rug; we are
protected from wind and rain. We are alone. Now is the time of
reckoning. Now I, who preside over the company, am going to arrange in
order the trophies which we have all brought in. Let me see; there was a
great deal of beauty brought in to-day: farmhouses; cliffs standing out
to sea; marbled fields; mottled fields; red feathered skies; all that.
Also there was disappearance and the death of the individual. The
vanishing road and the window lit for a second and then dark. And then
there was the sudden dancing light, that was hung in the future. What we
have made then to-day," I said, "is this: that beauty; death of the
individual; and the future. Look, I will make a little figure for your
satisfaction; here he comes. Does this little figure advancing through
beauty, through death, to the economical, powerful and efficient future
when houses will be cleansed by a puff of hot wind satisfy you? Look at
him; there on my knee." We sat and looked at the figure we had made that
day. Great sheer slabs of rock, tree tufted, surrounded him. He was for
a second very, very solemn. Indeed it seemed as if the reality of things
were displayed there on the rug. A violent thrill ran through us; as if
a charge of electricity had entered in to us. We cried out together:
"Yes, yes," as if affirming something, in a moment of recognition.

And then the body who had been silent up to now began its song, almost
at first as low as the rush of the wheels: "Eggs and bacon; toast and
tea; fire and a bath; fire and a bath; jugged hare," it went on, "and
red currant jelly; a glass of wine with coffee to follow, with coffee to
follow--and then to bed and then to bed."

"Off with you," I said to my assembled selves. "Your work is done. I
dismiss you. Good-night."

And the rest of the journey was performed in the delicious society of my
own body.

THREE PICTURES (Written in June 1929.)


It is impossible that one should not see pictures; because if my father
was a blacksmith and yours was a peer of the realm, we must needs be
pictures to each other. We cannot possibly break out of the frame of the
picture by speaking natural words. You see me leaning against the door
of the smithy with a horseshoe in my hand and you think as you go by:
"How picturesque!" I, seeing you sitting so much at your ease in the
car, almost as if you were going to bow to the populace, think what a
picture of old luxurious aristocratical England! We are both quite
wrong in our judgments no doubt, but that is inevitable.

So now at the turn of the road I saw one of these pictures. It might
have been called "The Sailor's Homecoming" or some such title. A fine
young sailor carrying a bundle; a girl with her hand on his arm;
neighbours gathering round; a cottage garden ablaze with flowers; as one
passed one read at the bottom of that picture that the sailor was back
from China, and there was a fine spread waiting for him in the parlour;
and he had a present for his young wife in his bundle; and she was soon
going to bear him their first child. Everything was right and good and
as it should be, one felt about that picture.

There was something wholesome and satisfactory in the sight of such
happiness; life seemed sweeter and more enviable than before.

So thinking I passed them, filling in the picture as fully, as
completely as I could, noticing the colour of her dress, of his eyes,
seeing the sandy cat slinking round the cottage door.

For some time the picture floated in my eyes, making most things appear
much brighter, warmer, and simpler than usual; and making some things
appear foolish; and some things wrong and some things right, and more
full of meaning than before. At odd moments during that day and the next
the picture returned to one's mind, and one thought with envy, but with
kindness, of the happy sailor and his wife; one wondered what they were
doing, what they were saying now. The imagination supplied other
pictures springing from that first one, a picture of the sailor cutting
firewood, drawing water; and they talked about China; and the girl set
his present on the chimney-piece where everyone who came could see it;
and she sewed at her baby clothes, and all the doors and windows were
open into the garden so that the birds were flittering and the bees
humming, and Rogers--that was his name--could not say how much to his
liking all this was after the China seas. As he smoked his pipe, with
his foot in the garden.


In the middle of the night a loud cry rang through the village. Then
there was a sound of something scuffling; and then dead silence. All
that could be seen out of the window was the branch of lilac tree
hanging motionless and ponderous across the road. It was a hot still
night. There was no moon. The cry made everything seem ominous. Who had
cried? Why had she cried? It was a woman's voice, made by some extremity
of feeling almost sexless, almost expressionless. It was as if human
nature had cried out against some iniquity, some inexpressible horror.
There was dead silence. The stars shone perfectly steadily. The fields
lay still. The trees were motionless. Yet all seemed guilty, convicted,
ominous. One felt that something ought to be done. Some light ought to
appear tossing, moving agitatedly. Someone ought to come running down
the road. There should be lights in the cottage windows. And then
perhaps another cry, but less sexless, less wordless, comforted,
appeased. But no light came. No feet were heard. There was no second
cry. The first had been swallowed up, and there was dead silence.

One lay in the dark listening intently. It had been merely a voice.
There was nothing to connect it with. No picture of any sort came to
interpret it, to make it intelligible to the mind. But as the dark arose
at last all one saw was an obscure human form, almost without shape,
raising a gigantic arm in vain against some overwhelming iniquity.


The fine weather remained unbroken. Had it not been for that single cry
in the night one would have felt that the earth had put into harbour;
that life had ceased to drive before the wind; that it had reached some
quiet cove and there lay anchored, hardly moving, on the quiet waters.
But the sound persisted. Wherever one went, it might be for a long walk
up into the hills, something seemed to turn uneasily beneath the surface,
making the peace, the stability all round one seem a little unreal.
There were the sheep clustered on the side of the hill; the valley broke
in long tapering waves like the fall of smooth waters. One came on
solitary farmhouses. The puppy rolled in the yard. The butterflies
gambolled over the gorse. All was as quiet, as safe could be. Yet, one
kept thinking, a cry had rent it; all this beauty had been an accomplice
that night; had consented; to remain calm, to be still beautiful; at
any moment it might be sundered again. This goodness, this safety were
only on the surface.

And then to cheer oneself out of this apprehensive mood one turned to
the picture of the sailor's homecoming. One saw it all over again
producing various little details--the blue colour of her dress, the
shadow that fell from the yellow flowering tree--that one had not used
before. So they had stood at the cottage door, he with his bundle on his
back, she just lightly touching his sleeve with her hand. And a sandy
cat had slunk round the door. Thus gradually going over the picture in
every detail, one persuaded oneself by degrees that it was far more
likely that this calm and content and good will lay beneath the surface
than anything treacherous, sinister. The sheep grazing, the waves of the
valley, the farmhouse, the puppy, the dancing butterflies were in fact
like that all through. And so one turned back home, with one's mind
fixed on the sailor and his wife, making up picture after picture of
them so that one picture after another of happiness and satisfaction
might be laid over that unrest, that hideous cry, until it was crushed
and silenced by their pressure out of existence.

Here at last was the village, and the churchyard through which one must
pass; and the usual thought came, as one entered it, of the peacefulness
of the place, with its shady yews, its rubbed tombstones, its nameless
graves. Death is cheerful here, one felt. Indeed, look at that picture!
A man was digging a grave, and children were picnicking at the side of
it while he worked. As the shovels of yellow earth were thrown up, the
children were sprawling about eating bread and jam and drinking milk
out of large mugs. The gravedigger's wife, a fat fair woman, had propped
herself against a tombstone and spread her apron on the grass by the
open grave to serve as a tea-table. Some lumps of clay had fallen among
the tea things. Who was going to be buried, I asked. Had old Mr. Dodson
died at last? "Oh! no. It's for young Rogers, the sailor," the woman
answered, staring at me. "He died two nights ago, of some foreign
fever. Didn't you hear his wife?" She rushed into the road and cried
out. . . . "Here, Tommy, you're all covered with earth!"

What a picture it made!


There are moments even in England, now, when even the busiest, most
contented suddenly let fall what they hold--it may be the week's washing.
Sheets and pyjamas crumble and dissolve in their hands, because, though
they do not state this in so many words, it seems silly to take the
washing round to Mrs. Peel when out there over the fields over the
hills, there is no washing; no pinning of clothes to lines; mangling and
ironing no work at all, but boundless rest. Stainless and boundless
rest; space unlimited; untrodden grass; wild birds flying hills whose
smooth uprise continue that wild flight.

Of all this however only seven foot by four could be seen from Mrs.
Grey's corner. That was the size of her front door which stood wide
open, though there was a fire burning in the grate. The fire looked
like a small spot of dusty light feebly trying to escape from the
embarrassing pressure of the pouring sunshine.

Mrs. Grey sat on a hard chair in the corner looking--but at what?
Apparently at nothing. She did not change the focus of her eyes when
visitors came in. Her eyes had ceased to focus themselves; it may be
that they had lost the power. They were aged eyes, blue, unspectacled.
They could see, but without looking. She had never used her eyes on
anything minute and difficult; merely upon faces, and dishes and fields.
And now at the age of ninety-two they saw nothing but a zigzag of pain
wriggling across the door, pain that twisted her legs as it wriggled;
jerked her body to and fro like a marionette. Her body was wrapped round
the pain as a damp sheet is folded over a wire. The wire was
spasmodically jerked by a cruel invisible hand. She flung out a foot, a
hand. Then it stopped. She sat still for a moment.

In that pause she saw herself in the past at ten, at twenty, at
twenty-five. She was running in and out of a cottage with eleven
brothers and sisters. The line jerked. She was thrown forward in her

"All dead. All dead," she mumbled. "My brothers and sisters. And my
husband gone. My daughter too. But I go on. Every morning I pray God to
let me pass."

The morning spread seven foot by four green and sunny. Like a fling of
grain the birds settled on the land. She was jerked again by another
tweak of the tormenting hand.

"I'm an ignorant old woman. I can't read or write, and every morning
when I crawls down stairs, I say I wish it were night; and every night,
when I crawls up to bed, I say, I wish it were day. I'm only an ignorant
old woman. But I prays to God: 0 let me pass. I'm an ignorant old
woman--I can't read or write."

So when the colour went out of the doorway, she could not see the other
page which is then lit up; or hear the voices that have argued, sung,
talked for hundreds of years.

The jerked limbs were still again.

"The doctor comes every week. The parish doctor now. Since my daughter
went, we can't afford Dr. Nicholls. But he's a good man. He says he
wonders I don't go. He says my heart's nothing but wind and water. Yet I
don't seem able to die."

So we--humanity--insist that the body shall still cling to the wire. We
put out the eyes and the ears; but we pinion it there, with a bottle of
medicine, a cup of tea, a dying fire, like a rook on a barn door; but a
rook that still lives, even with a nail through it.


No one perhaps has ever felt passionately towards a lead pencil. But
there are circumstances in which it can become supremely desirable to
possess one; moments when we are set upon having an object, an excuse
for walking half across London between tea and dinner. As the foxhunter
hunts in order to preserve the breed of foxes, and the golfer plays in
order that open spaces may be preserved from the builders, so when the
desire comes upon us to go street rambling the pencil does for a
pretext, and getting up we say: "Really I must buy a pencil," as if
under cover of this excuse we could indulge safely in the greatest
pleasure of town life in winter--rambling the streets of London.

The hour should be the evening and the season winter, for in winter the
champagne brightness of the air and the sociability of the streets are
grateful. We are not then taunted as in the summer by the longing for
shade and solitude and sweet airs from the hayfields. The evening hour,
too, gives us the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow.
We are no longer quite ourselves. As we step out of the house on a fine
evening between four and six, we shed the self our friends know us by
and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers,
whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one's own room. For
there we sit surrounded by objects which perpetually express the oddity
of our own temperaments and enforce the memories of our own experience.
That bowl on the mantelpiece, for instance, was bought at Mantua on a
windy day. We were leaving the shop when the sinister old woman plucked
at our skirts and said she would find herself starving one of these
days, but, "Take it!" she cried, and thrust the blue and white china
bowl into our hands as if she never wanted to be reminded of her
quixotic generosity. So, guiltily, but suspecting nevertheless how badly
we had been fleeced, we carried it back to the little hotel where, in
the middle of the night, the innkeeper quarrelled so violently with his
wife that we all leant out into the courtyard to look, and saw the vines
laced about among the pillars and the stars white in the sky. The moment
was stabilized, stamped like a coin indelibly among a million that
slipped by imperceptibly. There, too, was the melancholy Englishman, who
rose among the coffee cups and the little iron tables and revealed the
secrets of his soul--as travellers do. All this--Italy, the windy morning,
the vines laced about the pillars, the Englishman and the secrets of his
soul--rise up in a cloud from the china bowl on the mantelpiece. And
there, as our eyes fall to the floor, is that brown stain on the carpet.
Mr. Lloyd George made that. "The man's a devil!" said Mr. Cummings,
putting the kettle down with which he was about to fill the teapot so
that it burnt a brown ring on the carpet.

But when the door shuts on us, all that vanishes. The shell-like
covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves, to make for
themselves a shape distinct from others, is broken, and there is left of
all these wrinkles and roughnesses a central oyster of perceptiveness,
an enormous eye. How beautiful a street is in winter! It is at once
revealed and obscured. Here vaguely one can trace symmetrical straight
avenues of doors and windows; here under the lamps are floating islands
of pale light through which pass quickly bright men and women, who, for
all their poverty and shabbiness, wear a certain look of unreality, an
air of triumph, as if they had given life the slip, so that life,
deceived of her prey, blunders on without them. But, after all, we are
only gliding smoothly on the surface. The eye is not a miner, not a
diver, not a seeker after buried treasure. It floats us smoothly down a
stream; resting, pausing, the brain sleeps perhaps as it looks.

How beautiful a London street is then, with its islands of light, and
its long groves of darkness, and on one side of it perhaps some
tree-sprinkled, grass-grown space where night is folding herself to
sleep naturally and, as one passes the iron railing, one hears those
little cracklings and stirrings of leaf and twig which seem to suppose
the silence of fields all round them, an owl hooting, and far away the
rattle of a train in the valley. But this is London, we are reminded;
high among the bare trees are hung oblong frames of reddish yellow
light--windows; there are points of brilliance burning steadily like low
stars--lamps; this empty ground, which holds the country in it and its
peace, is only a London square, set about by offices and houses where at
this hour fierce lights burn over maps, over documents, over desks where
clerks sit turning with wetted forefinger the files of endless
correspondences; or more suffusedly the firelight wavers and the
lamplight falls upon the privacy of some drawing-room, its easy chairs,
its papers, its china, its inlaid table, and the figure of a woman,
accurately measuring out the precise number of spoons of tea which----She
looks at the door as if she heard a ring downstairs and somebody asking,
is she in?

But here we must stop peremptorily. We are in danger of digging deeper
than the eye approves; we are impeding our passage down the smooth
stream by catching at some branch or root. At any moment, the sleeping
army may stir itself and wake in us a thousand violins and trumpets in
response; the army of human beings may rouse itself and assert all its
oddities and sufferings and sordidities. Let us dally a little longer,
be content still with surfaces only--the glossy brilliance of the motor
omnibuses; the carnal splendour of the butchers' shops with their yellow
flanks and purple steaks; the blue and red bunches of flowers burning so
bravely through the plate glass of the florists' windows.

For the eye has this strange property: it rests only on beauty; like a
butterfly it seeks colour and basks in warmth. On a winter's night like
this, when nature has been at pains to polish and preen herself, it
brings back the prettiest trophies, breaks off little lumps of emerald
and coral as if the whole earth were made of precious stone. The thing
it cannot do (one is speaking of the average unprofessional eye) is to
compose these trophies in such a way as to bring out the more obscure
angles and relationships. Hence after a prolonged diet of this simple,
sugary fare, of beauty pure and uncomposed, we become conscious of
satiety. We halt at the door of the boot shop and make some little
excuse, which has nothing to do with the real reason, for folding up the
bright paraphernalia of the streets and withdrawing to some duskier
chamber of the being where we may ask, as we raise our left foot
obediently upon the stand: "What, then, is it like to be a dwarf?"

She came in escorted by two women who, being of normal size, looked like
benevolent giants beside her. Smiling at the shop girls, they seemed to
be disclaiming any lot in her deformity and assuring her of their
protection. She wore the peevish yet apologetic expression usual on the
faces of the deformed. She needed their kindness, yet she resented it.
But when the shop girl had been summoned and the giantesses, smiling
indulgently, had asked for shoes for "this lady" and the girl had
pushed the little stand in front of her, the dwarf stuck her foot out
with an impetuosity which seemed to claim all our attention. Look at
that! Look at that! she seemed to demand of us all, as she thrust her
foot out, for behold it was the shapely, perfectly proportioned foot of
a well-grown woman. It was arched; it was aristocratic. Her whole manner
changed as she looked at it resting on the stand. She looked soothed and
satisfied. Her manner became full of self-confidence. She sent for shoe
after shoe; she tried on pair after pair. She got up and pirouetted
before a glass which reflected the foot only in yellow shoes, in fawn
shoes, in shoes of lizard skin. She raised her little skirts and
displayed her little legs. She was thinking that, after all, feet are
the most important part of the whole person; women, she said to herself,
have been loved for their feet alone. Seeing nothing but her feet, she
imagined perhaps that the rest of her body was of a piece with those
beautiful feet. She was shabbily dressed, but she was ready to lavish
any money upon her shoes. And as this was the only occasion upon which
she was hot afraid of being looked at but positively craved attention,
she was ready to use any device to prolong the choosing and fitting.
Look at my feet, she seemed to be saying, as she took a step this way
and then a step that way. The shop girl good-humouredly must have said
something flattering, for suddenly her face lit up in ecstasy. But,
after all, the giantesses, benevolent though they were, had their own
affairs to see to; she must make up her mind; she must decide which to
choose. At length, the pair was chosen and, as she walked out between
her guardians, with the parcel swinging from her finger, the ecstasy
faded, knowledge returned, the old peevishness, the old apology came
back, and by the time she had reached the street again she had become a
dwarf only.

But she had changed the mood; she had called into being an atmosphere
which, as we followed her out into the street, seemed actually to create
the humped, the twisted, the deformed. Two bearded men, brothers,
apparently, stone-blind, supporting themselves by resting a hand on the
head of a small boy between them, marched down the street. On they came
with the unyielding yet tremulous tread of the blind, which seems to
lend to their approach something of the terror and inevitability of the
fate that has overtaken them. As they passed, holding straight on, the
little convoy seemed to cleave asunder the passers-by with the momentum
of its silence, its directness, its disaster. Indeed, the dwarf had
started a hobbling grotesque dance to which everybody in the street now
conformed: the stout lady tightly swathed in shiny sealskin; the
feeble-minded boy sucking the silver knob of his stick; the old man
squatted on a doorstep as if, suddenly overcome by the absurdity of the
human spectacle, he had sat down to look at it--all joined in the hobble
and tap of the dwarf's dance.

In what crevices and crannies, one might ask, did they lodge, this
maimed company of the halt and the blind? Here, perhaps, in the top
rooms of these narrow old houses between Holborn and Soho, where people
have such queer names, and pursue so many curious trades, are gold
beaters, accordion pleaters, cover buttons, or support life, with even
greater fantasticality, upon a traffic in cups without saucers, china
umbrella handles, and highly-coloured pictures of martyred saints. There
they lodge, and it seems as if the lady in the sealskin jacket must find
life tolerable, passing the time of day with the accordion pleater, or
the man who covers buttons; life which is so fantastic cannot be
altogether tragic. They do not grudge us, we are musing, our prosperity;
when, suddenly, turning the corner, we come upon a bearded Jew, wild,
hunger-bitten, glaring out of his misery; or pass the humped body of an
old woman flung abandoned on the step of a public building with a cloak
over her like the hasty covering thrown over a dead horse or donkey. At
such sights the nerves of the spine seem to stand erect; a sudden flare
is brandished in our eyes; a question is asked which is never answered.
Often enough these derelicts choose to lie not a stone's thrown from
theatres, within hearing of barrel organs, almost, as night draws on,
within touch of the sequined cloaks and bright legs of diners and
dancers. They lie close to those shop windows where commerce offers to a
world of old women laid on doorsteps, of blind men, of hobbling dwarfs,
sofas which are supported by the gilt necks of proud swans; tables
inlaid with baskets of many coloured fruit; sideboards paved with green
marble the better to support the weight of boars' heads; and carpets so
softened with age that their carnations have almost vanished in a pale
green sea.

Passing, glimpsing, everything seems accidentally but miraculously
sprinkled with beauty, as if the tide of trade which deposits its burden
so punctually and prosaically upon the shores of Oxford Street had this
night cast up nothing but treasure. With no thought of buying, the eye
is sportive and generous; it creates; it adorns; it enhances. Standing
out in the street, one may build up all the chambers of an imaginary
house and furnish them at one's will with sofa, table, carpet. That rug
will do for the hall. That alabaster bowl shall stand on a carved table
in the window. Our merrymaking shall be reflected in that thick round
mirror. But, having built and furnished the house, one is happily under
no obligation to possess it; one can dismantle it in the twinkling of an
eye, and build and furnish another house with other chairs and other
glasses. Or let us indulge ourselves at the antique jewellers, among the
trays of rings and the hanging necklaces. Let us choose those pearls,
for example, and then imagine how, if we put them on, life would be
changed. It becomes instantly between two and three in the morning; the
lamps are burning very white in the deserted streets of Mayfair. Only
motor-cars are abroad at this hour, and one has a sense of emptiness, of
airiness, of secluded gaiety. Wearing pearls, wearing silk, one steps
out on to a balcony which overlooks the gardens of sleeping Mayfair.
There are a few lights in the bedrooms of great peers returned from
Court, of silk-stockinged footmen, of dowagers who have pressed the
hands of statesmen. A cat creeps along the garden wall. Love-making is
going on sibilantly, seductively in the darker places of the room behind
thick green curtains. Strolling sedately as if he were promenading a
terrace beneath which the shires and counties of England lie sun-bathed,
the aged Prime Minister recounts to Lady So-and-So with the curls and
the emeralds the true history of some great crisis in the affairs of the
land. We seem to be riding on the top of the highest mast of the tallest
ship; and yet at the same time we know that nothing of this sort
matters; love is not proved thus, nor great achievements completed thus;
so that we sport with the moment and preen our feathers in it lightly,
as we stand on the balcony watching the moonlit cat creep along Princess
Mary's garden wall.

But what could be more absurd? It is, in fact, on the stroke of six; it
is a winter's evening; we are walking to the Strand to buy a pencil.
How, then, are we also on a balcony, wearing pearls in June? What could
be more absurd? Yet it is nature's folly, not ours. When she set about
her chief masterpiece, the making of man, she should have thought of one
thing only. Instead, turning her head, looking over her shoulder, into
each one of us she let creep instincts and desires which are utterly at
variance with his main being, so that we are streaked, variegated, all
of a mixture; the colours have run. Is the true self this which stands
on the pavement in January, or that which bends over the balcony in
June? Am I here, or am I there? Or is the true self neither this nor
that, neither here nor there, but something so varied and wandering that
it is only when we give the rein to its wishes and let it take its way
unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves? Circumstances compel unity; for
convenience sake a man must be a whole. The good citizen when he opens
his door in the evening must be banker, golfer, husband, father; not a
nomad wandering the desert, a mystic staring at the sky, a debauchee in
the slums of San Francisco, a soldier heading a revolution, a pariah
howling with scepticism and solitude. When he opens his door, he must
run his fingers through his hair and put his umbrella in the stand like
the rest.

But here, none too soon, are the second-hand bookshops. Here we find
anchorage in these thwarting currents of being; here we balance
ourselves after the splendours and miseries of the streets. The very
sight of the bookseller's wife with her foot on the fender, sitting
beside a good coal fire, screened from the door, is sobering and
cheerful. She is never reading, or only the newspaper; her talk, when it
leaves bookselling, which it does so gladly, is about hats; she likes a
hat to be practical, she says, as well as pretty. 0 no, they don't live
at the shop; they live in Brixton; she must have a bit of green to look
at. In summer a jar of flowers grown in her own garden is stood on the
top of some dusty pile to enliven the shop. Books are everywhere; and
always the same sense of adventure fills us. Second-hand books are wild
books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of
variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of
the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may
rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the
best friend we have in the world. There is always a hope, as we reach
down some grayish-white book from an upper shelf, directed by its air of
shabbiness and desertion, of meeting here with a man who set out on
horseback over a hundred years ago to explore the woollen market in the
Midlands and Wales; an unknown traveller, who stayed at inns, drank his
pint, noted pretty girls and serious customs, wrote it all down stiffly,
laboriously for sheer love of it (the book was published at his own
expense); was infinitely prosy, busy, and matter-of-fact, and so let
flow in without his knowing it the very scent of hollyhocks and the hay
together with such a portrait of himself as gives him forever a seat in
the warm corner of the mind's inglenook. One may buy him for eighteen
pence now. He is marked three and sixpence, but the bookseller's wife,
seeing how shabby the covers are and how long the book has stood there
since it was bought at some sale of a gentleman's library in Suffolk,
will let it go at that.

Thus, glancing round the bookshop, we make other such sudden capricious
friendships with the unknown and the vanished whose only record is, for
example, this little book of poems, so fairly printed, so finely
engraved, too, with a portrait of the author. For he was a poet and
drowned untimely, and his verse, mild as it is and formal and
sententious, sends forth still a frail fluty sound like that of a piano
organ played in some back street resignedly by an old Italian
organ-grinder in a corduroy jacket. There are travellers, too, row upon
row of them, still testifying, indomitable spinsters that they were, to
the discomforts that they endured and the sunsets they admired in Greece
when Queen Victoria was a girl. A tour in Cornwall with a visit to the
tin mines was thought worthy of voluminous record. People went slowly up
the Rhine and did portraits of each other in Indian ink, sitting reading
on deck beside a coil of rope; they measured the pyramids; were lost to
civilization for years; converted negroes in pestilential swamps. This
packing up and going off, exploring deserts and catching fevers,
settling in India for a lifetime, penetrating even to China and then
returning to lead a parochial life at Edmonton, tumbles and tosses upon
the dusty floor like an uneasy sea, so restless the English are, with
the waves at their very door. The waters of travel and adventure seem to
break upon little islands of serious effort and lifelong industry stood
in jagged column upon the floor. In these piles of puce-bound volumes
with gilt monograms on the back, thoughtful clergymen expound the
gospels; scholars are to be heard with their hammers and their chisels
chipping clear the ancient texts of Euripides and Aeschylus. Thinking,
annotating, expounding goes on at a prodigious rate all around us and
over everything, like a punctual, everlasting tide, washes the ancient
sea of fiction. Innumerable volumes tell how Arthur loved Laura and they
were separated and they were unhappy and then they met and they were
happy ever after, as was the way when Victoria ruled these islands.

The number of books in the world is infinite, and one is forced to
glimpse and nod and move on after a moment of talk, a flash of
understanding, as, in the street outside, one catches a word in passing
and from a chance phrase fabricates a lifetime. It is about a woman
called Kate that they are talking, how "I said to her quite straight
last night . . . if you don't think I'm worth a penny stamp, I
said . . ." But who Kate is, and to what crisis in their friendship that
penny stamp refers, we shall never know; for Kate sinks under the warmth
of their volubility; and here, at the street corner, another page of the
volume of life is laid open by the sight of two men consulting under the
lamp-post. They are spelling out the latest wire from Newmarket in the
stop press news. Do they think, then, that fortune will ever convert
their rags into fur and broadcloth, sling them with watch-chains, and
plant diamond pins where there is now a ragged open shirt? But the main
stream of walkers at this hour sweeps too fast to let us ask such
questions. They are wrapt, in this short passage from work to home, in
some narcotic dream, now that they are free from the desk, and have the
fresh air on their cheeks. They put on those bright clothes which they
must hang up and lock the key upon all the rest of the day, and are
great cricketers, famous actresses, soldiers who have saved their
country at the hour of need. Dreaming, gesticulating, often muttering a
few words aloud, they sweep over the Strand and across Waterloo Bridge
whence they will be slung in long rattling trains, to some prim little
villa in Barnes or Surbiton where the sight of the clock in the hall and
the smell of the supper in the basement puncture the dream.

But we are come to the Strand now, and as we hesitate on the curb, a
little rod about the length of one's finger begins to lay its bar across
the velocity and abundance of life. "Really I must--really I must"--that
is it. Without investigating the demand, the mind cringes to the
accustomed tyrant. One must, one always must, do something or other; it
is not allowed one simply to enjoy oneself. Was it not for this reason
that, some time ago, we fabricated the excuse, and invented the
necessity of buying something? But what was it? Ah, we remember, it was
a pencil. Let us go then and buy this pencil. But just as we are turning
to obey the command, another self disputes the right of the tyrant to
insist. The usual conflict comes about. Spread out behind the rod of
duty we see the whole breadth of the river Thames--wide, mournful,
peaceful. And we see it through the eyes of somebody who is leaning over
the Embankment on a summer evening, without a care in the world. Let us
put off buying the pencil; let us go in search of this person--and soon
it becomes apparent that this person is ourselves. For if we could stand
there where we stood six months ago, should we not be again as we were
then--calm, aloof, content? Let us try then. But the river is rougher and
greyer than we remembered. The tide is running out to sea. It brings
down with it a tug and two barges, whose load of straw is tightly bound
down beneath tarpaulin covers. There is, too, close by us, a couple
leaning over the balustrade with the curious lack of self-consciousness
lovers have, as if the importance of the affair they are engaged on
claims without question the indulgence of the human race. The sights we
see and the sounds we hear now have none of the quality of the past; nor
have we any share in the serenity of the person who, six months ago,
stood precisely were we stand now. His is the happiness of death; ours
the insecurity of life. He has no future; the future is even now
invading our peace. It is only when we look at the past and take from it
the element of uncertainty that we can enjoy perfect peace. As it is, we
must turn, we must cross the Strand again, we must find a shop where,
even at this hour, they will be ready to sell us a pencil.

It is always an adventure to enter a new room for the lives and
characters of its owners have distilled their atmosphere into it, and
directly we enter it we breast some new wave of emotion. Here, without a
doubt, in the stationer's shop people had been quarrelling. Their
anger shot through the air. They both stopped; the old woman--they were
husband and wife evidently--retired to a back room; the old man whose
rounded forehead and globular eyes would have looked well on the
frontispiece of some Elizabethan folio, stayed to serve us. "A pencil,
a pencil," he repeated, "certainly, certainly." He spoke with the
distraction yet effusiveness of one whose emotions have been roused and
checked in full flood. He began opening box after box and shutting them
again. He said that it was very difficult to find things when they kept
so many different articles. He launched into a story about some legal
gentleman who had got into deep waters owing to the conduct of his wife.
He had known him for years; he had been connected with the Temple for
half a century, he said, as if he wished his wife in the back room to
overhear him. He upset a box of rubber bands. At last, exasperated by
his incompetence, he pushed the swing door open and called out roughly:
"Where d'you keep the pencils?" as if his wife had hidden them. The
old lady came in. Looking at nobody, she put her hand with a fine air of
righteous severity upon the right box. There were pencils. How then
could he do without her? Was she not indispensable to him? In order to
keep them there, standing side by side in forced neutrality, one had to
be particular in one's choice of pencils; this was too soft, that too
hard. They stood silently looking on. The longer they stood there, the
calmer they grew; their heat was going down, their anger disappearing.
Now, without a word said on either side, the quarrel was made up. The
old man, who would not have disgraced Ben Jonson's title-page, reached
the box back to its proper place, bowed profoundly his good-night to us,
and they disappeared. She would get out her sewing; he would read his
newspaper; the canary would scatter them impartially with seed. The
quarrel was over.

In these minutes in which a ghost has been sought for, a quarrel
composed, and a pencil bought, the streets had become completely empty.
Life had withdrawn to the top floor, and lamps were lit. The pavement
was dry and hard; the road was of hammered silver. Walking home through
the desolation one could tell oneself the story of the dwarf, of the
blind men, of the party in the Mayfair mansion, of the quarrel in the
stationer's shop. Into each of these lives one could penetrate a little
way, far enough to give oneself the illusion that one is not tethered to
a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and
minds of others. One could become a washerwoman, a publican, a street
singer. And what greater delight and wonder can there be than to leave
the straight lines of personality and deviate into those footpaths that
lead beneath brambles and thick tree trunks into the heart of the forest
where live those wild beasts, our fellow men?

That is true: to escape is the greatest of pleasures; street haunting in
winter the greatest of adventures. Still as we approach our own doorstep
again, it is comforting to feel the old possessions, the old prejudices,
fold us round; and the self, which has been blown about at so many
street corners, which has battered like a moth at the flame of so many
inaccessible lanterns, sheltered and enclosed. Here again is the usual
door; here the chair turned as we left it and the china bowl and the
brown ring on the carpet. And here--let us examine it tenderly, let us
touch it with reverence--is the only spoil we have retrieved from all
the treasures of the city, a lead pencil.


Whether Jones should come before Wilkinson or Wilkinson before Jones is
not a matter likely to agitate many breasts at the present moment,
seeing that more than a hundred and fifty years have rolled over the
gentlemen in question and diminished a lustre which, even in their own
time, round about the year 1750, was not very bright. The Rev. Dr.
Wilkinson might indeed claim precedence by virtue of his office. He was
His Majesty's Chaplain of the Savoy and Chaplain also to his late Royal
Highness, Frederick Prince of Wales. But then Dr. Wilkinson was
transported. Captain James Jones might assert that, as Captain of His
Majesty's third regiment of Guards with a residence by virtue of his
office in Savoy Square, his social position was equal to the Doctor's.
But Captain Jones had to seclude himself beyond the reach of the law at
Mortlake. What, however, renders these comparisons peculiarly odious is
the fact that the Captain and the Doctor were boon companions whose
tastes were congenial, whose incomes were insufficient, whose wives
drank tea together, and whose houses in the Savoy were not two hundred
yards apart. Dr. Wilkinson, for all his sacred offices (he was Rector of
Coyty in Glamorgan, stipendiary curate of Wise in Kent, and, through
Lord Galway, had the right to "open plaister-pits in the honour of
Pontefract"), was a convivial spirit who cut a splendid figure in the
pulpit, preached and read prayers in a voice that was clear, strong and
sonorous so that many a lady of fashion never "missed her pew near the
pulpit," and persons of title remembered him many years after misfortune
had removed the handsome preacher from their sight.

Captain Jones shared many of his friend's qualities. He was vivacious,
witty, and generous, well made and elegant in person and, if he was not
quite as handsome as the doctor, he was perhaps rather his superior in
intellect. Compare them as we may, however, there can be little doubt
that the gifts and tastes of both gentlemen were better adapted for
pleasure than for labour, for society than for solitude, for the hazards
and pleasures of the table rather than for the rigours