Page:The Voyage Out.djvu/119

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117
THE VOYAGE OUT

in the paper had to say, and noticed that a cousin of hers had married a clergyman at Minehead—ignoring the drunken women, the golden animals of Crete, the movements of battalions, the dinners, the reforms, the fires, the indignant, the learned and benevolent, Mrs. Thornbury went upstairs to write a letter for the mail.

The paper lay directly beneath the clock; the two together seeming to represent stability in a changing world. Mr. Perrott passed through; Mr. Venning poised for a second on the edge of a table. Mrs. Paley was wheeled past. Susan followed. Mr. Venning strolled after her. Portuguese military families, their clothes suggesting late rising in untidy bedrooms, trailed across, attended by confidential nurses carrying noisy children. As midday drew on, and the sun beat straight upon the roof, an eddy of great flies droned in a circle; iced drinks were served under the palms; the long blinds were pulled down with a shriek, turning all the light yellow. The clock now had a silent hall to tick in, and an audience of four or five somnolent merchants. By degrees white figures with shady hats came in at the door, admitting a wedge of the hot summer day, and shutting it out again. After resting in the dimness for a minute, they went upstairs. Simultaneously, the clock wheezed one, and the gong sounded, beginning softly, working itself into a frenzy, and ceasing. There was a pause. Then all those who had gone upstairs came down; cripples came, planting both feet on the same step lest they should slip; prim little girls came, holding the nurse's finger; fat old men came still buttoning waistcoats. The gong had been sounded in the garden, and by degrees recumbent figures rose and strolled in to eat, since the time had come for them to feed again. There were pools and bars of shade in the garden even at midday, where two or three visitors could lie working or talking at their ease.

Owing to the heat of the day, luncheon was generally a silent meal, when people observed their neighbours and took stock of any new faces there might be, hazarding guesses as to who they were and what they did. Mrs. Paley, although well over seventy and crippled in the legs, enjoyed her food