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An essay by Vernon Lee

Going Away

Title:     Going Away
Author: Vernon Lee [More Titles by Lee]

We stood on the steps of the old Scotch house as the carriage rolled her away. A last greeting from that delightful, unflagging voice; the misty flare of the lanterns round a corner; and then nothing but the darkness of the damp autumn night. There is to some foolish persons--myself especially--a strange and almost supernatural quality about the fact of departure, one's own or that of others, which constant repetition seems, if anything, merely to strengthen. I cannot become familiar with the fact that a moment, the time necessary for a carriage, as in this case, to turn a corner, or for those two steel muscles of the engine to play upon each other, can do so complete and wonderful a thing as to break the continuity of intercourse, to remove a living presence. The substitution of an image for a reality, the present broken off short and replaced by the past; enumerating this by no means gives the equivalent of that odd and unnatural word GONE. And the terror of death itself lies surely in its being the most sudden and utter act of _going away_.

I suppose there must be people who do not feel like this, as there are people also who do not feel, apparently, the mystery of change of place, of watching the familiar lines of hill or valley transform themselves, and the very sense of one's bearings, what was in front or to the other side, east or west, getting lost or hopelessly altered. Such people's lives must be (save for misfortune) funnily undramatic; and, trying to realize them, I understand why such enormous crowds require to go and see plays.

It is usually said that in such partings as these--partings with definite hope of meeting and with nothing humanly tragic about them, so that the last interchange of voice is expected to be a laugh or a joke--the sadder part is for those who stay. But I think this is mistaken. There is indeed a little sense of flatness--almost of something in one's chest--when the train is gone or the carriage rolled off; and one goes back into one's house or into the just-left room, throwing a glance all round as if to measure the emptiness. But the accustomed details--the book we left open, the order we had to give, the answer brought to the message, and breakfast and lunch and dinner and the postman, all the great eternities--gather round and close up the gap: close the gone one, and that piece of past, not merely _up_, but, alas! _out_.

It is the sense of this, secret even in the most fatuous breast, which makes things sadder for the goer. He knows from experience, and, if he have imagination, he feels, this process of closing him out, this rapid adaptation to doing without him. And meanwhile he, in his carriage or train, is being hurled into the void; for even the richest man and he of the most numerous clients, is turned adrift without possessions or friends, a mere poor nameless orphan, when on a solitary journey. There is, moreover, a sadder feeling than this in the heart of the more sentimental traveller, who has engaged the hospitality of friends. _He knows it is extended equally to others_; that this room, which he may have made peculiarly his own, filling it, perhaps, in proportion to the briefness of sojourn, with his own most personal experience; the landscape made his own through this window, the crucial conversation, receiving unexpected sympathies, held or (more potent still) thought over afterwards in that chair; he knows that this room will become, perhaps, O horror, within a few hours, another's!

The extraordinary hospitality of England, becoming, like all English things, rather too well done materially, rather systematic, and therefore heartless, inflicts, I have been told, some painful blows on sentimental aliens, particularly of Latin origin. There is a pang in finding on the hospitable door a label-holder with one's name in it: it saves losing one's way, but suggests that one is apt to lose it, is a stranger in the house; and it tells of other strangers, past and future, each with his name slipped in. Similarly the guest-book, imitated from nefarious foreign inns, so fearfully suggestive of human instability, with its close-packed signatures, and dates of arrival and departure. And then the cruelty of housekeepers, and the ruthlessness of housemaids! Take heed, O Thestylis, dear Latin guardian of my hearth, take heed and imprint my urgent wishes in thy faithful heart: never, never, never, in my small southern home (not unlike, I sometimes fondly fancy, the Poet's _parva domus_), never let me surprise thee depositing thy freshly-whitened linen in heaps outside the door of the departing guest; and never, I conjure thee, offend his eye or nostril with mops, or _frotteur's_ rollers, or resinous scent of furniture-polish near his small chamber! For that chamber, kindly Handmaiden, is _his_. He is the Prophet it was made for; and the only Prophet conceivable as long as present. And when he takes departure, why, the void must follow, a long hiatus, darkness, and stacked-up furniture, and the scent of varnish within tight-closed shutters....

But, alas! alas! not all kind Thestylis's doing and refraining is able to dispel the natural sense of coming and going: one's bed re-made, one's self replaced, new boxes brought and unpacked, metaphorically as well as literally; fresh adjustments, new subjects of discourse, new sympathies: and the poor previous occupant meanwhile _rolling_, as the French put it. Rolling! how well the word expresses that sense of smooth and empty nowhere, with nothing to catch on or keep, which plays so large a part in all our earthly experience; as, for the rest, is natural, seeing that the earth is only a ball, at least the astronomers say so.

But let us turn from this painful side of _going away_; and insist rather on certain charming impressions sometimes connected with it. For there is something charming and almost romantic, when, as in the case I mentioned, the friend leaves friends late in the evening. There is the whole pleasant day intact, with leisurely afternoon stroll when all is packed and ready: watching the sunset up the estuary, picking some flowers in the garden; sometimes even seeing the first stars prick themselves upon the sky, and mild sheet-lightnings, auguring good, play round the house, disclosing distant hills and villages. And the orderly dinner, seeming more swept and garnished for the anticipation of bustle, the light on the cloth, the sheen on the silver, the grace and fragrance of fruit and flowers, and the gracious faces above it, remains a wide and steady luminous vision on the black background of midnight travel, of the train rushing through nothingness. Most charming of all, when after the early evening on the balcony, the traveller leaves the south, to hurtle by night, conscious only of the last impression of supper with kind friends at Milan or the lakes, and the glimpse, in the station light, of heads covered with veils, and flowers in the hands, and southern evening dresses. These are the occasional gracious compensations for that bad thing called going away.

[The end]
Vernon Lee's essay: Going Away