“Here we left it,” she said. And he added, “Oh, but here too!” “It’s upstairs,” she murmured. “And in the garden,” he whispered. “Quietly,” they said, “or we shall wake them.”
But it wasn’t that you woke us. Oh, no. “They’re looking for it; they’re drawing the curtain,” one might say, and so read on a page or two. “Now they’ve found it, ” one would be certain, stopping the pencil on the margin. And then, tired of reading, one might rise and see for oneself, the house all empty, the doors standing open, only the wood pigeons bubbling with content and the hum of the threshing machine sounding from the farm. “What did I come in here for? What did I want to find?” My hands were empty. “Perhaps it’s upstairs then?” The apples were in the loft. And so down again, the garden still as ever, only the book had slipped into the grass.
But they had found it in the drawing room. Not that one could ever see them. The window panes reflected apples, reflected roses; all the leaves were green in the glass. If they moved in the drawing room, the apple only turned its yellow side. Yet, the moment after, if the door was opened, spread about the floor, hung upon the walls, pendant from the ceiling – what? My hands were empty. The shadow of a thrush crossed the carpet; from the deepest wells of silence the wood pigeon drew its bubble of sound. “Safe, safe, safe” the pulse of the house beat softly. “The treasure buried; the room . . .” the pulse stopped short. Oh, was that the buried treasure?
A moment later the light had faded. Out in the garden then? But the trees spun darkness for a wandering beam of sun. So fine, so rare, coolly sunk beneath the surface the beam I sought always burnt behind the glass. Death was the glass; death was between us; coming to the woman first, hundreds of years ago, leaving the house, sealing all the windows; the rooms were darkened. He left it, left her, went North, went East, saw the stars turned in the Southern sky; sought the house, found it dropped beneath the Downs. “Safe, safe, safe,” the pulse of the house beat gladly. “The Treasure yours.”
The wind roars up the avenue. Trees stoop and bend this way and that. Moonbeams splash and spill wildly in the rain. But the beam of the lamp falls straight from the window. The candle burns stiff and still. Wandering through the house, opening the windows, whispering not to wake us, the ghostly couple seek their joy.
“Here we slept,” she says. And he adds, “Kisses without number.” – “Waking in the morning” – “Silver between the trees” – “Upstairs” “In the garden” – “When summer came” – “In winter snowtime” – “The doors go shutting far in the distance, gently knocking like the pulse of a heart.
Nearer they come, cease at the doorway. The wind falls, the rain slides silver down the glass. Our eyes darken, we hear no steps beside us; we see no lady spread her ghostly cloak. His hands shield the lantern. “Look,” he breathes. “Sound asleep. Love upon their lips.”
Stooping, holding their silver lamp above us, long they look and deeply. Long they pause. The wind drives straightly; the flame stoops slightly. Wild beams of moonlight cross both floor and wall, and, meeting, stain the faces bent; the faces pondering; the faces that search the sleepers and seek their hidden joy.
“Safe, safe, safe,” the heart of the house beats proudly. “Long years” – he sighs. “Again you found me.” “Here,” she murmurs, “sleeping; in the garden reading; laughing, rolling apples in the loft. Here we left our treasure” Stooping, their light lifts the lids upon my eyes. “Safe! safe! safe!” the pulse of the house beats wildly. Waking, I cry “Oh, is this your buried treasure? – The light in the heart.”
In this utterly luminous piece of writing Virginia Woolf conjures up two pairs of lovers, one ghostly and the other living. Despite the suggestion implicit in the title, it is really the lovers who are haunted, and not the house – the dead by their past, and the living inhabitants by their spectral predecessors, whose presence persists in the small but telling events which are the currency of mortal life.
Here there is not a trace of Woolf’s caustic wit; her normally biting observation of humans and their ordinary doings, is suspended and held in abeyance and so is something which I refer to myself as her ‘remote viewing’: in fact it is completely absent, and there is not even a tinge of her customary note of acerbity. Here she is in tune with a world, which though ever-present, is for the most part unseen and unfelt: the extended reality which can only be sensed through a refinement of the awareness and intuition. It is by the grace of this faculty that the echoes of the past can be heard again because, it would seem, they are never altogether lost.
I recently had a sense of this with the scent which continued to linger so heavily outside my door, of the choke cherry blossoms which finished their blooming many days ago, and left behind a Kirlian image of odour whose origin is now quite invisible.
There is a sharpened sense of urgency in the trance-like succession of hurried, yet vivid conveyance of images, and a sense of life and pleasure which clamours to be reclaimed. The images themselves seem to be encoded: they are not quite cryptic, but the significance they transmit is suggestive of something which is less than obvious.
My own intuition informs me Woolf was swept up in what I call ‘the writer’s trance’ – a kind of fugue, in which whisps of thought become ardent and are enkindled. This gives rise to inspired writing, which is the kind that emerges from an altered state. It is instantly recognisable, because it enkindles the same state in others, and leaves behind a sort of aching enchantment.
Woolf’s story suggests that here is nothing sinister in this intrusion of past lives into present ones – it is solely benevolent. The dead live on vicariously or by proxy, the living continue, extend, carry on. They accept the the weight of the others’ unrealised love, perhaps because she died, perhaps because he went away: something was left unfulfilled, forfeit, overtaken by events, by his error, by a failure to realise the finiteness of mortality, as often so much in our pasts remain unfulfilled.
But the sibilant incantation of “safe safe safe” of the unseen lovers tells of an anxiety allayed, a loss vicariously, but happily recovered by the agency of these suplanting two, who feel the invisible yet strongly sensed presence of the indelible persistence of love.
So, in Woolf’s telling, the treasure is restored love love regained and redeemed. We are left with the conviction that the lives not lived we so often end up with, the unfulfilled and forfeit past, is not irreclaimable after all. In that spirit, I welcome such reverberations of the past as I am capable of hearing, feeling and sensing.
As usual I find myself coming up with my own twist on stories such as this one, which draw me in and set my thoughts awhirl. I am thinking now of the many generations of same-sex lovers who were not permitted to love as they would have wished. They lived their mortal lives cheated of their rightful inheritance, so perhaps we owe them a debt of remembrance. They are the repositories of our gay and lesbian ancestral memory. If there is such a thing as a collective unconscious, we must in some sense retain the sparks of their lives. But rather than ‘the unconscious’ or ‘the subconscious,’ I prefer to think of this as the ‘adjacent conscious’, since it lives side- by-side with us and all around us. As such it retains for me a deep and persistent poignancy, which I feel is precious, and should be kept alive.
The heart of this story, and the reference to “kisses without number”, instantly reminded me of a poem by Catullus – and I can’t help wondering if Woolf thought of it too – and resolved to provide an assurance to the contrary, suggesting that death does not always extinguish mortal love. If so, I think I understand a little better what she meant by “the light of the heart.”
Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
rumoresque senum severiorum
omnes unius aestimemus assis!
soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum.
dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
conturbābimus illa, ne sciāmus,
aut ne quis malus invidere possit,
cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.
Gaius Valerius Catullus
*Let’s live and love, my Lesbia,
counting the grumblings of severe old men
as being not worth a penny.
The western sun may rise again,
But when our brief light sets,
Night is a perpetual sleeping.
So give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred –
another thousand and a second hundred
and yet another thousand and another hundred
and when we have had many thousands of kisses
we will confound them, and lose count,
lest by counting so many kisses,
evil men should know their number
and be given cause for envy.
*My version, adapted from various translations of the original Latin.