A young Vita Sackville-West, from Wikimedia Commons.
I remember being taken to visit my great-grandmother.
This is no story. It is a recollection—a reconstruction. A wish to give shape to a fading impression at the back of my mind, before that impression should become irrecoverable. It is not only a personal impression, it is an impression in a wider sense, of an age that I saw in the act of passing.
She lived in Paris, in an unfashionable quarter. Hers was a vast corner house on the Boulevard des Italiens; I remember I used to count the row of windows, and there were twenty each way, twenty looking on the boulevard, and twenty on the narrow side street. There was a vast porte-cochere in the side street; one rang the bell, the concierge pulled a string, the door clicked on its latch, and one pushed one’s way through, into the central courtyard, where a great business of washing carriages always seemed to be going on; a business of mops and immense quantities of water and grooms clacking round in wooden clogs; patches of sunlight, birdcages hanging in the windows, and girls arriving with parcels. All round the courtyard dwelt an indeterminate population, for portions of the upper floors were let out in flats, but these tenants were kept severely in their place, nor did I ever hear any save one, Mme. Jacquemin, referred to by name. Consequently they existed for me in a cloud of alluring and tantalizing mystery, so that I spent hours inventing the inner drama of their families, and wondering what they did when they wanted to play the piano, and how they managed their exits and their entrances. I was sure that none of them would dare risk an encounter with my great-grandmother, their landlady, who occupied the whole of the first floor.
The staircase was very dark and grand. One arrived on the first floor landing, already awed into a suitable frame of mind. Of course the bell was not electric; one pulled a cord, which produced a jangle within. The door was opened, with a miraculous promptitude, before the jangle had ceased, by either Jacques or Baptiste in white cotton gloves, white-whiskered, and respectfully benevolent; at least, Baptiste was quite definitely benevolent, and often dandled me in secret on his knee, giving me meanwhile brandy-cherries rolled in pink sugar, and murmuring confidences about his daughter, who had been guilty of some misdemeanor forever and perhaps fortunately enigmatic to me; but the benevolence of Jacques I had to take on trust, on the general principle that all the retainers in that house were benevolent. For Jacques was outwardly grincheux. In appearance he was like an old whiskered chimpanzee, and his hands, which I once saw denuded of their cotton gloves, were hairy. I never heard him make but one statement about his private life, but that statement he made with great frequency: “Moi j’ai mes cent sous par jour, et je me fiche du Pape.” Whence Jacques got his “cent sous,” and what the Pope had to do with it, I never discovered.
But I linger too long in the antechamber, where Jacques or Baptiste closed the door behind one, and relieved one of one’s parcels or one’s umbrella.
Great-grandmother’s apartment was on what in an Italian palace would be called the “piano nobile.”
This meant, that standing in the last doorway, one could see right down the vista of rooms; down, that is to say, the rooms represented by the twenty windows on the side street, until the flat turned the corner and took on a new lease of life represented by the twenty windows on the boulevard.
It was an impressive vista. Parquet floors, ivory woodwork, tarnished gilding—it seemed they must be reflected in a half-way mirror, so endlessly did they continue. I was irreverent, of course. Whenever I thought great-grandmother safe in her bedroom, I used to slide along the parquet, or, more irreverent still, get her wheeled chair out of the dining room and trundle myself down the vista. I shiver now to think of the bruised paint and dented ormolu that must have marked my progress—for, unlike great-grandmother’s stately advance in the wheeled chair, my one idea was to go as fast as I could. But what did I know then of the privilege that was mine in being admitted to that beautiful house? Small and clean, with painfully frizzed hair, I would stand by very bored while visitors marvelled at the furniture under the direction of great-grandmother’s stick. Louis Quatorze, Louis Quinze, Louis Seize, Directoire, Empire—all these were names, half meaningless, which I absorbed till they became as familiar as bread, milk, water, butter. Empire came last on the list; for the life of the house seemed to have stopped there. As the door of the antechamber closed behind you, the gulf of a century opened, and you stood on the further side.
True, there was the noise of Paris without, motors, and motor horns, and clanging bells; when you opened the window, the roar of the boulevard came in like a great sea; but within the flat, when the windows were shut, there was silence and silken walls, and a faint musty smell, and the shining golden floors, and the dimness of mirrors, and the curve of furniture, and the arabesques of the dull gilding on the ivory boiserie. There was an old stately peace never broken by the ring of a telephone; shadows never startled by the leap of electric light. It seemed that the flat itself, rather than its occupant, had refused to accept the modifications of a new century. It had enshrined itself in the gravity and beauty of a courtly age, until the day when its very masonry should go down in magnificent ruin before the mattocks of the house-breakers.
Given up to its dream, in a sumptuous melancholy ennobled by the inexorable menace of its eventual end, few were aware of the existence of this fragment intact in the heart of Paris. A little museum, said the connoisseurs; but they were wrong. It was no museum, for it had preserved its life; its appointments had never been deposed from their proper use to the humiliation of a display for the curious; chairs that should, said the connoisseurs, have stood ranged beyond the safety of red ropes, carried the weight of the living as well as the ghosts of the dead; the sconces and the chandeliers still came to life each evening under the flame of innumerable candles. It was then that I liked the flat best. It was then that its gilding and its shadows leapt and flickered most suggestively as the little pointed flames swayed in the draught, and that the golden floors lay like pools reflecting the daggers of the lights. It was then that I used to creep on stockinged feet to the end of the long vista, a scared adventurer in the hushed palace of Sleeping Beauty, and it was on such an evening that I saw my great-grandmother, as I most vividly remember her, coming towards me, from the length of that immeasurable distance, tiny, bent, and alone.
She was a rude, despotic old materialist, without an ounce of romance or fantasy in her body, but to me that night she was every malevolent fairy incarnate, more especially that disgruntled one who had so disastrously attended Sleeping Beauty’s christening. I had often been frightened of her tongue; that night I was frightened of her magic. I stood transfixed, incapable of the retreat for which I still had ample time. I remember being wildly thankful that I had on, at least, a clean pinafore. Very slowly she advanced, propped upon her stick, all in black beneath the candles, pausing now and then to look about her, as though she welcomed this escape from the aged servants who usually attended her, or from the guests, deferential but inquisitive, who came, as she shrewdly knew, to boast afterwards of their admission into this almost legendary fastness. I realized that she had not yet caught sight of me, white blot though I must have been at the end of that shadowy aisle of rooms.
Very leisurely she was, savoring the wealth of her possessions, stealing out of her room when no one knew that she was abroad; as clandestine, really, as I myself—and suddenly I knew that on no account must she learn the presence of an eavesdropper. It was no longer fear that prompted me to slip behind the curtain looped across the last door; it was a desperate pity; pity of her age, I suppose, pity of her frailty, pity of her as the, spirit of that house, stubborn in the preservation of what was already a thing of the past, whose life would go out with hers; it was her will alone that kept the house together, as it was her will alone that kept the breath fluttering in her body. What thoughts were hers as she lingered in her progress I cannot pretend to tell; I only know that to me she was a phantom, an evocation, a symbol, although, naturally, ‘being but a child, I gave her no such name. To me, at the moment, she was simply a being so old and so fragile that I half expected her to crumble into dust at my feet.
She crossed the dining room and passed me, flattened against the wall and trying to cover the white of my pinafore with a fold of the curtain; so close she passed to me, that I observed the quiver of her fine hands on the knob of her stick and the transparency of the features beneath the shrouding mantilla of black lace. I wondered what her errand might be, as she stood, so bent and shrunken, beneath the immense height of the ballroom. But it was evident that errand she had none. She stood there quietly surveying, almost as though she took a protracted and contemplative farewell, all unaware of the eyes of youth that spied upon her. Her glance roamed round, with satisfaction, I thought, but whether with satisfaction at the beauty of the room, or at having kept off for so long the tides that threatened to invade it, I could not tell.
Then, as she stood there, the clocks in the room began to strike the hour. There were thirty clocks in the room—I had often counted them—big clocks, little clocks, wall clocks, table clocks, grandfather clocks, and even a clock with a musical box in its intestines; and it was a point of honor with Baptiste that they should all strike at the same moment. So now they began; first the deep note of the buhl clock in the corner, then the clear ring of a little Cupid hitting a hammer on a bell, then a rumble and a note like a mastiff baying, then a gay trill, then the first bars of a chime, then innumerable others all joining in, till the room was filled with the music of the passing hour, and my great-grandmother standing in the middle, listening, listening… . I could see her face, for her head was lifted, and her expression was a thing I shall never forget, so suddenly lighted up was it; so pleased; so gallant; so, even, amused. She had, I think, her private joke and understanding with the clocks. The little flames of the candles quivered in the vibration of the air, but as the last notes died away they steadied again, like a life which has wavered for an instant, only to resume with a strengthened purpose. And as the silence fluttered down once more, my great-grandmother drooped from her strange humorous ecstasy, and it was as a little figure bent and tired that I saw her retrace her steps down the long vista of the lighted rooms.
From The Yale Review, Autumn 1929, issue 19.1.