Extract from Villette
(1853). Chs. VVI
] In going to London, I ran less risk
and evinced less enterprise than the reader may think. In fact,
the distance was only fifty miles. My means would suffice both
to take me there, to keep me a few days, and also to bring me
back if I found no inducement to stay. I regarded it as a brief
holiday, permitted for once to work-weary faculties, rather than
as an adventure of life and death. There is nothing like taking
all you do at a moderate estimate: it keeps mind and body tranquil;
whereas grandiloquent notions are apt to hurry both into a fever.
Fifty miles were then a days journey [
About nine oclock of a wet February night I reached London.
My reader, I know, is one who would not thank
me for an elaborate reproduction of poetic first impressions;
and it is well, inasmuch as I had neither time nor mood to cherish
such: arriving as I did late, on a dark, raw, and raining evening,
in a Babylon and a wilderness, of which the vastness and the strangeness
tried to the utmost any powers of clear thought and steady self-possession
with which, in the absence of more brilliant faculties, Nature
might have gifted me.
When I left the coach, the strange speech of
the cabmen and others waiting round, seemed to me odd as a foreign
tongue. I had never before heard the English language chopped
up in that way. However, I managed to understand and to be understood,
so far as to get myself and trunk safely conveyed to the old inn
whereof I had the address. How difficult, how oppressive, how
puzzling seemed my flight! In London for the first time; at an
inn for the first time; tired with travelling; confused with darkness;
palsied with cold; unfurnished with either experience or advice
to tell me how to act, and yetto act obliged.
Into the hands of common-sense I confided the
matter. Common-sense, however, was as chilled and bewildered as
all my other faculties, and it was only under the spur of an inexorable
necessity that she spasmodically executed her trust. Thus urged,
she paid the porter: considering the crisis, I did not blame her
too much that she was hugely cheated; she asked the waiter for
a room; she timorously called for the chambermaid; what is far
more, she bore, without being wholly overcome, a highly supercilious
style of demeanour from that young lady, when she appeared.
I recollect this same chambermaid was a pattern
of town prettiness and smartness. So trim her waist, her dressI
wondered how they had all been manufactured. Her speech had an
accent which in it mincing glibness seemed to rebuke mine as by
authority; her spruce attire flaunted an easy scorn to my plain
Well, it cant be helped, I
thought, and then the scene is new, and the circumstances;
I shall gain good.
Maintaining a very quiet manner towards this
arrogant little maid, and subsequently observing the same towards
the parsonic-looking black-coated, white-neckclothed waiter, I
got civility from them ere long. I believe at first they thought
I was a servant; but in a little while they changed their minds,
and hovered in a doubtful state between patronage and politeness.
I kept up well till I had partaken of some refreshment,
warmed myself by a fire, and was fairly shut into my own room;
but, as I sat down by the bed and rested my head and arms on the
pillow, a terrible oppression overcame me. All at once my position
rose on me like a ghost. Anomalous, desolate, almost blank of
hope, it stood. What was I doing here alone in great London? What
should I do on the morrow? What prospects had I in life? What
friends had I on earth? Whence did I come? Whither should I go?
What should I do?
I wet the pillows, my arms, and my hair, with
rushing tears. A dark interval of most bitter thought followed
this burst; but I did not regret the step taken, nor wish to retract
it. A strong, vague persuasion that it was better to go forward
than backward, and that I could go forwardthat a
way, however narrow and difficult, would in time openpredominated
over other feelings: its influence hushed them so far, that at
last I became sufficiently tranquil to be able to say my prayers
and seek my couch. I had just extinguished my candle and lain
down, when a deep, low, mighty tone swung through the night. At
first I knew it not; but its was uttered twelve times, and at
the twelfth colossal hum and trembling knell, I saidI
lie in the shadow of St. Pauls.
CHAPTER VI. London
The next day was the first of March, and when
I awoke, rose, and opened my curtain, I saw the risen sun struggling
through fog. Above my head, above the housetops, co-elevate almost
with the clouds, I saw a solemn, orbed mass, dark-blue and dimTHE
DOME. While I looked, my inner self moved; my spirit shook
its always-fettered wings half loose; I had a sudden feeling as
if I, who never yet truly lived, were at last about to taste life.
In that morning my soul grew as fast as Jonahs gourd.
I did well to come, I said, proceeding
to dress with speed and care. I like the spirit of this
great London which I feel around me. Who but a coward would pass
his whole life in hamlets, and for ever abandon his faculties
to the eating rust of obscurity?
Being dressed, I went down; not travel-worn and
exhausted, but tidy and refreshed. When the waiter came in with
my breakfast, I managed to accost him sedately, yet cheerfully;
we had ten minutes discourse, in the course of which we
became usefully known to each other.
He was a grey-haired, elderly man; and, it seemed
had lived in his present place twenty years. Having ascertained
this, I was sure he must remember my two uncles, Charles and Wilmot,
who, fifteen years ago, were frequent visitors here. I mentioned
their names; he recalled them perfectly and with respect. Having
intimated my connection, my position in his eyes was henceforth
clear, and on a right footing. he said I was like my uncle Charles:
I suppose he spoke truth, because Mrs. Barrett was accustomed
to say the same thing. A ready and obliging courtesy now replaced
his former uncomfortably doubtful manner; henceforth I need no
longer be at a loss for a civil answer to a sensible question.
The street on which my little sitting-room window
looked was narrow, perfectly quiet, and not dirty: the few passengers
were just such as one sees in provincial towns: here was nothing
formidable; I felt sure I might venture out alone.
Having breakfasted, out I went. Elation and pleasure
were in my heart: to walk alone in London seemed in itself an
adventure. Presently I found myself in Paternoster Rowclassic
ground this, I entered a booksellers shop, kept by one Jones:
I bought a little booka piece of extravagance I could ill
afford; but I thought I would one day give or send it to Mrs.
Barrett. Mr. Jones, a dried-in man of business, stood behind his
desk; he seemed one of the greatest, and I one of the happiest
Prodigious was the amount of life I lived that
morning. Finding myself before St. Pauls, I went in; I mounted
to the dome: I saw thence London, with its river, and its bridges,
and its churches; I saw antique Westminster, and the green Temple
Gardens, with the sun upon them, and a glad, blue sky, of early
spring above; and, between them and it, not too dense a cloud
Descending, I went wandering whither chance might
lead, in a still ecstasy of freedom and enjoyment; and I gotI
know not howI got into the heart of city life. I saw and
felt London at last; I got into the Strand; I went up Cornhill;
I mixed with the life passing along; I dared the perils of crossings.
To do this, and to do it utterly alone, gave me, perhaps an irrational,
but a real pleasure. Since those days, I have seen the West End,
the parks, fine squares; but I love the city far better. The city
seems so much more in earnest: its business, its rush, its roar
are such serious things, sights and sounds. The city is getting
its livingthe West End but enjoying its pleasure. At the
West End you may be amused, but in the city you are deeply excited.
Faint at last, and hungry (it was years since
I had felt such healthy hunger), I returned, about two oclock,
to my dark, old, quiet inn. I dined on two dishesa plain
joint, and vegetables; both seemed excellent: how much better
than the small, dainty messes Miss Marchmonts cook used
to send up to my kind, dead mistress and me, and to discussion
of which we could not bring half an appetite between us! Delightfully
tired, I lay down on three chairs for an hour (the room did not
boast a sofa). I slept, then I woke and thought for two hours.
My state of mind, and all accompanying circumstances,
were just now such as most to favour the adoption of a new, resolute,
and daringperhaps desperateline of action. I had nothing
to lose. Unutterable loathing of a desolate existence past, forbade
return. If I failed in what I now designed to undertake, who,
save myself, would suffer? If I died far away fromhome,
I was going to say, but I had no homefrom England, then,
who would weep?
I might suffer; I was inured to suffering: death
itself had not, I thought, those terrors for me which it has for
the softly reared. I had, ere this, looked on the thought of death
with a quiet eye. Prepared, then, for any consequences, I formed
That same evening I obtained from my friend,
the waiter, information respecting the sailing of vessels for
a certain continental port, Boue-Marine. No time, I found, was
to be lost: that very night I must take my berth. I might, indeed,
have waited till the morning before going on board, but would
not run the risk of being too late.
Better take your berth at once, maam,
counselled the waiter. I agreed with him, and having discharged
my bill, and acknowledged my friends services at a rate
which I now know was princely, and which in his eyes must have
seemed absurdand indeed, while pocketing the cash, he smiled
a faint smile which intimated his opinion of the donors
savoir-fairehe proceeded to call a coach. To the
driver he also recommended me, giving at the same time an injunction
about taking me, I think, to the wharf, and not leaving me to
the watermen; which that functionary promised to observe, but
failed in keeping his promise: on the contrary, he offered me
up as an oblation, served me as dripping roast, making me alight
in the midst of a throng of watermen.
This was an uncomfortable crisis. It was a dark
night. The coachman instantly drove off as soon as he had got
his fare; the watermen commenced a struggle for me and my trunk.
Their oaths I hear at this moment: they shook my philosophy more
than did the night, or the isolation, or the strangeness of the
scene. One laid hands on my trunk. I looked on and waited quietly;
but when another laid hands on me, I spoke up, shook off his touch,
stepped at once into a boat, desired austerely that the trunk
should be placed beside mejust there,which
was instantly done; for the owner of the boat I had chosen became
now an ally: I was rowed off.
Black was the river as a torrent of ink; lights
glanced on it from the piles of building round, ships rocked on
its bosom. They rowed me up to several vessels; I read by lantern-light
their names painted in great, white letters on a dark ground:
the Ocean, the Phoenix, the Consort, the
Dolphin, were passed in turns; but the Vivid was
my ship, and it seemed she lay further down.
Down the sable flood we glided; I though of the
Styx, and of Charon rowing some solitary soul to the Land of Shades.
Amidst the strange scene, with a chilly wind blowing in my face,
and midnight-clouds dropping rain above my head; with
two rude rowers for companions, whose insane oaths still tortured
my ear, I asked myself if I was wretched or terrified. I was neither.
Often in my life have I been far more so under comparatively safe
circumstances. How is this? said I. Methinks
I am animated and alert, instead of being depressed and apprehensive!
I could not tell how it was.