Old People and the Things that Pass/Chapter XXVII

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CHAPTER XXVII[edit]

"COME," said Lot, gently, one morning, sitting with Elly in the sitting-room where he came so often to chat and have tea with her in the old days before they were married, "come, let us talk sensibly. It put both of us out to be dragged back from Italy, from our work, while—very foolishly—we never thought that this might easily happen one day. Dear old Grandpapa was so very old! We thought that he would live for ever! ... But now that we are here, Elly, and Steyn has told us that all the affairs are settled, we may as well come to a sensible decision. You don't want to stay in this house; and it is, no doubt, too big, too gloomy, too old.... To live with Mamma ... well, I did hint at it the other day, but Mamma talked of it so vaguely, as though she really didn't much care about it.... Now that Hugh is with her she's quite 'off' me: it's Hugh here and Hugh there. It was always like that: it was like that in 'Mr.' Trevelley's time, when I was a boy and Hugh a child. John and Mary didn't count for much either; and it's just the same now. ... So we won't talk of setting up house together.... But what shall we do, Elly? Look out for a smaller house and settle down? Or go abroad again, go back to Italy? ... You enjoyed it, after all, and we were working together so pleasantly.... We were very happy there, weren't we, Elly?"

His voice sounded gentle, as it always did, but there was a note almost of entreaty in it now. His nature, his fair-haired person—was he not turning a little grey at the temples?—lacked physical vitality and concealed no passionate soul; but there was a great gentleness in him: under that touch of laughing bitterness and vanity and superficial cynicism he was kind and indulgent to others, with no violent longings for himself. Under his feminine soul lay the philosophy of an artist who contemplates everything around and within himself without bursting into vehemence and violence about anything whatever. He had asked Elly to be his wife, perhaps upon her own unspoken suggestion that she needed him in her work and in her life; and, often in jest and once in a way in earnest, he had asked himself why he was getting married, why he had got married and whether liberty and independence did not suit him better. But, since he had seen his sister's happiness with Aldo at Nice and had also felt his own, softer-tinted happiness, very fervent and very true in his wistfully-smiling, neutral-tinted soul, which withdrew itself almost in panic under his fear of old age; since he had been able to seize the moment, carefully, as he would have seized a precious butterfly: since then it had all remained like that, since then his still, soft happiness had remained with him as something very serious and very true, since then he had come to love Elly as he never thought that he could love any one. And it had been a joy to him to roam about Italy with Elly, to watch her delight in that beautiful past which lay so artistically dead and, on returning to Florence, to plunge at her instance into ( earnest studies of the Medici period. How they had rooted and ransacked together, taking notes as they worked; how he had written in the evenings, feeling so utterly, so fondly happy in their sitting-room at the pension where they stayed! Two lamps, one beside Elly, one beside himself, shed a light over their papers and books; vases of fragrant flowers surrounded them; photographs pinned to the walls shadowed back the beauties of the museums in the gathering dusk. But, amid the beauties of that land and of that art, amid his happiness, amid the sunshine, an indolence had stolen over him; he often proposed a trip into the country, a drive, a walk to Fiesole, to Ema; he l!^ved looking at the life of the people in the street, smiling at it with gladness: the Archives were cold and dusty; and he simply could not keep on working so regularly. And in the evening he would gaze across the Arno and sit blissfully smoking his cigarette at the window, until Elly also shut up her books and the Medicis drifted away in the changing lights of early evening outside and grew indistinct.....

He had at first not noticed her disappointment. When he did, he was unwilling to pain her and he went back to his research. But he did it against the grain. That regular work did not suit him. It tired his brain; behind his forehead he plainly felt a reluctancy, a barrier that prevented something from entering ... just as he had felt when, at school, he had to do a sum and failed, twice and thrice over.... In addition, he was burning to write ephemeral essays: he had a superabundance of material, about the Medicis, about Benozzo Gozzoli's frescoes at the Palazzo Riccardi, for instance.... Oh, to write an essay like that from afar, all aglow, with azure jewels and gold! But he dared not write the article, because Elly had once said:

"Don't go cutting up into articles all that we have discovered."

As for Elly, she devoted herself earnestly and with masculine perseverance to her research and felt almost an inner inclination herself to write their book, a fine, serious historical study; but she understood that her art alone would not suffice for it. Whereas she thought that Lot had only to wish it and that they would then turn out something very good between them.... But Lot felt that indolence impairing his powers more and more, felt his reluctance, like an impeding, resisting barrier, drawn right across his forehead; and one morning he said, a little nervously, that it was impossible for him, that it was too difficult for him, that he couldn't do it. She had not insisted; but a great disappointment had come over her and yet she had remained gentle and kind and had answered lightly and not betrayed the depth of her disappointment.... The books now remained closed, the notes under the paper-weights; and there was no more question of the Medicis. It produced a void about them, but Lot nevertheless felt happy and remained true to that soft blissfulness which had come to him smilingly and which cast a soft gloss over both his worldly cynicism and the overhanging dread. But Elly's disappointment increased and became a great sorrow to her, greater even, she thought, than the sorrow which she had felt as a young girl at her broken engagement, at the loss of the man whom she had first loved. She was a woman to suffer more for another than for herself; and she suffered because she could not rouse Lot to great things. Her love for Lot, after her emotional passion for another, was very intellectual, more that of a cultured woman than of a woman all heart and senses. She did not see this so plainly herself; but her disappointment was very great that she could not lead Lot on to do great work; and the void around her widened, whereas he, in tne beauty of the land that was dear to him, in his gentle happiness, just felt the void around himself shrinking into a perspective in which his eyes wandered dreamily.... Not a bitter word was spoken between them; but, when they sat together, Elly felt herself grow very aimless. She was not of a contemplative mind. That wandering through Italian cities, that pleasant rambling among the beauties of the museums did not satisfy her, to whom action was a real and positive need. Her fingers had a nervous tremor of aimlessness between the pages of her Baedeker. She could not be always admiring and musing and existing in that way. She must act. She must devote herself. And she longed for a child.... And yet a child, or perhaps several children, while not bringing unhappiness, would not bring happiness either; for she knew that, even if she had children, she would not find sufficient satisfaction for her activity in educating them and bringing them up: she would do it as a loving duty, but it would not fill her life. She felt that almost masculine call within her, to strive as far as she could. If her limit was reached, well, then she would go no farther. But to strive to that limit, to perform her task as far as her nature demanded! ... And she spoke to Lot in this sense. He did not know how to answer her, did not understand her and felt that something was escaping him. It never came to bitter words, but on both sides there were little thrills and counterthrills, after the first harmonious soft billowing over them both....

This sudden journey home, though causing an abrupt distraction, had, because of its relative futility, intensified Elly's feeling that she was out of tune with things. She had loved the old man, as a father more than a grandfather, but she was too late to see him on his deathbed and the business-matters could have been arranged by power of attorney.

"Yes, but we're here now," said Lot, "and we must have a talk like sensible people.... Shall we go back to Italy, Elly? "

"No, Lot, I'm glad I saw the place, with you; why go back at once and try to repeat...?"

"Settle down here at the Hague? Go and live in the country, when the winter is over?"

She looked at him because she heard the note of entreaty in his voice: he was entreating her because he felt something escape him ... and she suddenly felt pity for him. She flung herself on his breast, threw her arms round him:

"My dear, darling boy!" she said. "I am so absolutely devoted to you."

"And I to you, Elly dearest.... I love you more than I thought I could love anybody. Oh, Elly, let us keep this feeling! Don't let us be irritable.... You see, there has never been an unkind word between us, but still I feel something in you, a dissatisfaction.... Is it because ..."

"Because what, Lot?"

"Because I can't do ... as much as you would like me to? ... We were working together so pleasantly; and the work we did is not wasted ... that sort of work is never wasted.... But, you know, darling, to do it as you would have me do it ... is beyond me: I am not so thorough as that. I am a writer for the magazines, a dilettante, not an historian. Mine is an ephemeral talent and all that I create is ephemeral: it always was.... Take it like that...."

"Yes, Lot, I do take it like that. I am no longer distressed ... about our poor Medicis."

"You'll see, I shall make a series of articles out of our researches: really, something quite good. A series: they'll follow on one another...."

"Yes, do it that way."

"But then you must interest yourself in it."

"That I certainly shall."

"And now let us talk about what we shall do, where we shall live."

"We'd better not settle down.... Stay here, until the house is sold, and then ..."

"Very well, then we can see."

"Yes."

"We haven't seen Grandmamma yet. Shall we go this afternoon?"

"I don't believe that she has been up since, but we can go and ask."

She gave him an affectionate kiss. It was as an atonement after what had clashed and thrilled through them, without bitter words. She tried to recollect herself, to force herself, in the empty hunger of her soul. She loved Lot with all her heart; she would devote herself to him ... and perhaps later to his children.... That must be enough to fill a woman's life.... She would have her hobbies: she would take up her modelling again; after all, the Beggar Boy was very good. ... That would certainly give completeness to her life, so long as she was happy with her husband; and that she was sure she was. She began to talk in a livelier strain than at first: something seemed to recover itself in her dejection. She would lead an ordinary life, as a happy wife, a happy mother, and cease longing for great, faraway things.... She would give up striving for horizons difficult of approach, horizons that proved to be limits, so that she had to go back after all.

She was gay at luncheon and Aunt Adèle brightened: the poor thing had been depressed lately and walked with a stoop, as though bending under a heavy load; she was sad also because she thought that Lot and Elly were not quite happy. Aunt Adèle now freshened up, glad because lly was more cheerful and looked brighter and was once more talking with her restless volubility.