Consider the Stars
"Night and Day," an excerpt, by Virginia Woolf
Illustration by Evan Robertson.
“I don’t care much whether I ever get to know anything—but I want to work out something in figures—something that hasn’t got to do with human beings. I don’t want people particularly. In some ways, Henry, I’m a humbug—I mean, I’m not what you all take me for. I’m not domestic, or very practical or sensible, really. And if I could calculate things, and use a telescope, and have to work out figures, and know to a fraction where I was wrong, I should be perfectly happy, and I believe I should give William all he wants.”
Having reached this point, instinct told her that she had passed beyond the region in which Henry’s advice could be of any good; and, having rid her mind of its superficial annoyance, she sat herself upon the stone seat, raised her eyes unconsciously and thought about the deeper questions which she had to decide, she knew, for herself. Would she, indeed, give William all he wanted? In order to decide the question, she ran her mind rapidly over her little collection of significant sayings, looks, compliments, gestures, which had marked their intercourse during the last day or two. He had been annoyed because a box, containing some clothes specially chosen by him for her to wear, had been taken to the wrong station, owing to her neglect in the matter of labels. The box had arrived in the nick of time, and he had remarked, as she came downstairs on the first night, that he had never seen her look more beautiful. She outshone all her cousins. He had discovered that she never made an ugly movement; he also said that the shape of her head made it possible for her, unlike most women, to wear her hair low. He had twice reproved her for being silent at dinner; and once for never attending to what he said. He had been surprised at the excellence of her French accent, but he thought it was selfish of her not to go with her mother to call upon the Middletons, because they were old family friends and very nice people. On the whole, the balance was nearly even; and, writing down a kind of conclusion in her mind which finished the sum for the present, at least, she changed the focus of her eyes, and saw nothing but the stars.
To-night they seemed fixed with unusual firmness in the blue, and flashed back such a ripple of light into her eyes that she found herself thinking that to-night the stars were happy. Without knowing or caring more for Church practices than most people of her age, Katharine could not look into the sky at Christmas time without feeling that, at this one season, the Heavens bend over the earth with sympathy, and signal with immortal radiance that they, too, take part in her festival. Somehow, it seemed to her that they were even now beholding the procession of kings and wise men upon some road on a distant part of the earth. And yet, after gazing for another second, the stars did their usual work upon the mind, froze to cinders the whole of our short human history, and reduced the human body to an ape-like, furry form, crouching amid the brushwood of a barbarous clod of mud. This stage was soon succeeded by another, in which there was nothing in the universe save stars and the light of stars; as she looked up the pupils of her eyes so dilated with starlight that the whole of her seemed dissolved in silver and spilt over the ledges of the stars for ever and ever indefinitely through space. Somehow simultaneously, though incongruously, she was riding with the magnanimous hero upon the shore or under forest trees, and so might have continued were it not for the rebuke forcibly administered by the body, which, content with the normal conditions of life, in no way furthers any attempt on the part of the mind to alter them. She grew cold, shook herself, rose, and walked towards the house.
By the light of the stars, Stogdon House looked pale and romantic, and about twice its natural size. Built by a retired admiral in the early years of the nineteenth century, the curving bow windows of the front, now filled with reddish-yellow light, suggested a portly three-decker, sailing seas where those dolphins and narwhals who disport themselves upon the edges of old maps were scattered with an impartial hand. A semicircular flight of shallow steps led to a very large door, which Katharine had left ajar. She hesitated, cast her eyes over the front of the house, marked that a light burnt in one small window upon an upper floor, and pushed the door open. For a moment she stood in the square hall, among many horned skulls, sallow globes, cracked oil-paintings, and stuffed owls, hesitating, it seemed, whether she should open the door on her right, through which the stir of life reached her ears. Listening for a moment, she heard a sound which decided her, apparently, not to enter; her uncle, Sir Francis, was playing his nightly game of whist; it appeared probable that he was losing.
She went up the curving stairway, which represented the one attempt at ceremony in the otherwise rather dilapidated mansion, and down a narrow passage until she came to the room whose light she had seen from the garden. Knocking, she was told to come in. A young man, Henry Otway, was reading, with his feet on the fender. He had a fine head, the brow arched in the Elizabethan manner, but the gentle, honest eyes were rather skeptical than glowing with the Elizabethan vigor. He gave the impression that he had not yet found the cause which suited his temperament.
He turned, put down his book, and looked at her. He noticed her rather pale, dew-drenched look, as of one whose mind is not altogether settled in the body. He had often laid his difficulties before her, and guessed, in some ways hoped, that perhaps she now had need of him. At the same time, she carried on her life with such independence that he scarcely expected any confidence to be expressed in words.
“You have fled, too, then?” he said, looking at her cloak. Katharine had forgotten to remove this token of her star-gazing.
“Fled?” she asked. “From whom d’you mean? Oh, the family party. Yes, it was hot down there, so I went into the garden.”
“And aren’t you very cold?” Henry inquired, placing coal on the fire, drawing a chair up to the grate, and laying aside her cloak. Her indifference to such details often forced Henry to act the part generally taken by women in such dealings. It was one of the ties between them.
“Thank you, Henry,” she said. “I’m not disturbing you?”
“I’m not here. I’m at Bungay,” he replied. “I’m giving a music lesson to Harold and Julia. That was why I had to leave the table with the ladies—I’m spending the night there, and I shan’t be back till late on Christmas Eve.”
“How I wish—” Katharine began, and stopped short. “I think these parties are a great mistake,” she added briefly, and sighed.
“Oh, horrible!” he agreed; and they both fell silent.
Her sigh made him look at her. Should he venture to ask her why she sighed? Was her reticence about her own affairs as inviolable as it had often been convenient for rather an egoistical young man to think it? But since her engagement to Rodney, Henry’s feeling towards her had become rather complex; equally divided between an impulse to hurt her and an impulse to be tender to her; and all the time he suffered a curious irritation from the sense that she was drifting away from him for ever upon unknown seas. On her side, directly Katharine got into his presence, and the sense of the stars dropped from her, she knew that any intercourse between people is extremely partial; from the whole mass of her feelings, only one or two could be selected for Henry’s inspection, and therefore she sighed. Then she looked at him, and their eyes meeting, much more seemed to be in common between them than had appeared possible. At any rate they had a grandfather in common; at any rate there was a kind of loyalty between them sometimes found between relations who have no other cause to like each other, as these two had.
“Well, what’s the date of the wedding?” said Henry, the malicious mood now predominating.
“I think some time in March,” she replied.
“And afterwards?” he asked.
“We take a house, I suppose, somewhere in Chelsea.”
“It’s very interesting,” he observed, stealing another look at her.
She lay back in her arm-chair, her feet high upon the side of the grate, and in front of her, presumably to screen her eyes, she held a newspaper from which she picked up a sentence or two now and again. Observing this, Henry remarked:
“Perhaps marriage will make you more human.”
At this she lowered the newspaper an inch or two, but said nothing. Indeed, she sat quite silent for over a minute.
“When you consider things like the stars, our affairs don’t seem to matter very much, do they?” she said suddenly.
“I don’t think I ever do consider things like the stars,” Henry replied. “I’m not sure that that’s not the explanation, though,” he added, now observing her steadily.
“I doubt whether there is an explanation,” she replied rather hurriedly, not clearly understanding what he meant.
“What? No explanation of anything?” he inquired, with a smile.
“Oh, things happen. That’s about all,” she let drop in her casual, decided way.
“That certainly seems to explain some of your actions,” Henry thought to himself.
“One thing’s about as good as another, and one’s got to do something,” he said aloud, expressing what he supposed to be her attitude, much in her accent. Perhaps she detected the imitation, for looking gently at him, she said, with ironical composure:
“Well, if you believe that your life must be simple, Henry.”
“But I don’t believe it,” he said shortly.
“No more do I,” she replied.
“What about the stars?” he asked a moment later. “I understand that you rule your life by the stars?”
She let this pass, either because she did not attend to it, or because the tone was not to her liking.
Once more she paused, and then she inquired:
“But do you always understand why you do everything? Ought one to understand? People like my mother understand,” she reflected. “Now I must go down to them, I suppose, and see what’s happening.”
“What could be happening?” Henry protested.
“Oh, they may want to settle something,” she replied vaguely, putting her feet on the ground, resting her chin on her hands, and looking out of her large dark eyes contemplatively at the fire.
“And then there’s William,” she added, as if by an afterthought.
Henry very nearly laughed, but restrained himself.
“Do they know what coals are made of, Henry?” she asked, a moment later.
“Mares’ tails, I believe,” he hazarded.
“Have you ever been down a coal-mine?” she went on.
“Don’t let’s talk about coal-mines, Katharine,” he protested. “We shall probably never see each other again. When you’re married—”
Tremendously to his surprise, he saw the tears stand in her eyes.
“Why do you all tease me?” she said. “It isn’t kind.”
Henry could not pretend that he was altogether ignorant of her meaning, though, certainly, he had never guessed that she minded the teasing. But before he knew what to say, her eyes were clear again, and the sudden crack in the surface was almost filled up.
“Things aren’t easy, anyhow,” she stated.
Obeying an impulse of genuine affection, Henry spoke.
“Promise me, Katharine, that if I can ever help you, you will let me.”
She seemed to consider, looking once more into the red of the fire, and decided to refrain from any explanation.