The Symbol

Virginia Woolf

There was a little dent on the top of the mountain like a crater on the moon. It was filled with snow, iridescent like a pigeon’s breast, or dead white. There was a scurry of dry particles now and again, covering nothing. It was too high for breathing flesh or fur-covered life. All the same the snow was iridescent one moment; and blood red; and pure white, according to the day.

The graves in the valley – for there was a vast descent on either side; first pure rock; snow silted; lower a pine tree gripped a crag; then a solitary hut; then a saucer of pure green; then a cluster of eggshell roofs; at last, at the bottom, a village, an hotel, a cinema, and a graveyard – the graves in the churchyard near the hotel recorded the names of several men who had fallen climbing.

‘The mountain,’ the lady wrote, sitting on the balcony of the hotel, ‘is a symbol ... ’ She paused. She could see the topmost height through her glasses. She focused the lens, as if to see what the symbol was. She was writing to her elder sister in Birmingham.

The balcony overlooked the main street of the Alpine summer resort, like a box at a theatre. There were very few private sitting-rooms, and so the plays – such as they were – the curtain raisers – were acted in public. They were always a little provisional: preludes, curtain-raisers. Entertainments to pass the time; seldom leading to any conclusion, such as marriage; or even lasting friendship. There was something fantastic about them, airy, inconclusive. So little that was solid could be dragged to this height. Even the houses looked gimcrack. By the time the voice of the English Announcer had reached the village it too became unreal.

Lowering her glasses, she nodded at the young men who in the street below were making ready to start. With one of them she had a certain connection – that is, an aunt of his had been mistress of her daughter’s school.

Still holding the pen, still tipped with a drop of ink, she waved down at the climbers. She had written the mountain was a symbol. But of what? In the Forties of the last century two men, in the Sixties four men had perished; the first party when a rope broke; the second when night fell and froze them to death. We are always climbing to some height: that was the cliché. But it did not represent what was in her mind’s eye; after seeing through her glasses the virgin height.

She continued, inconsequently. ‘I wonder why it makes me think of the Isle of Wight? You remember when Mama was dying, we took her there. And I would stand on the balcony, when the boat came in and describe the passengers. I would say, I think that must be Mr Edwards ... He has just come off the gangway. Then, now all the passengers have landed. Now they have turned the boat ... I never told you, naturally not – you were in India; you were going to have Lucy – how I longed when the doctor came, that he should say, quite definitely, she cannot live another week. It was very prolonged; she lived eighteen months. The mountain just now reminded me how when I was alone, I would fix my eyes upon her death, as a symbol. I would think if I could reach that point – when I should be free – we could not marry as you remember until she died – a cloud then would do instead of the mountain. I thought, when I reach that point – I have never told any one; for it seemed so heartless; I shall be at the top. And I could imagine so many sides. We come of course of an Anglo-Indian family. I can still imagine, from hearing stories told, how people live in other parts of the world. I can see mud huts; and savages; I can see elephants drinking at pools. So many of our uncles and cousins were explorers. I have always had a great desire to explore for myself. But, of course, when the time came it seemed more sensible, considering our long engagement, to marry.’

She looked across the street at a woman shaking a mat on another balcony. Every morning at the same time she came out. You could have thrown a pebble into her balcony. They had indeed come to the point of smiling at each other across the street.

‘The little villas,’ she added, taking up her pen, ‘are much the same here as in Birmingham. Every house takes its lodgers. The hotel is quite full. Though monotonous, the food is not what you would call bad. And of course the hotel has a splendid view. One can see the mountain from every window. But then that’s true of the whole place. I can assure you, I could shriek sometimes coming out of the one shop where they sell papers – we get them a week late – always to see that mountain. Sometimes it looks just across the way. At others, like a cloud; only it never moves. Somehow the talk, even among the invalids, who are everywhere, is always about the mountain. Either, how clear it is today, it might be across the street; or, how far away it looks; it might be a cloud. That is the usual cliché. In the storm last night. I hoped for once it was hidden. But just as they brought in the anchovies, The Rev. W. Bishop said, “Look there’s the mountain!”

‘Am I being selfish? Ought I not to be ashamed of myself, when there is so much suffering? It is not confined to the visitors. The natives suffer dreadfully from goitre. Of course it could be stopped, if any one had enterprise, and money. Ought one not to be ashamed of dwelling upon what after all can’t be cured? It would need an earthquake to destroy that mountain, just as, I suppose, it was made by an earthquake. I asked the proprietor, Herr Melchior, the other day, if there were ever earthquakes now? No, he said, only landslides and avalanches. They have been known, he said, to blot out a whole village. But he added quickly, there’s no danger here.

‘As I write these words, I can see the young men quite plainly on the slopes of the mountain. They are roped together. One I think I told you was at the same school with Margaret. They are now crossing a crevasse ... ’

The pen fell from her hand, and the drop of ink straggled in a zigzag line down the page. The young men had disappeared.

It was only late that night when the search party had recovered the bodies that she found the unfinished letter on the table on the balcony. She dipped her pen once more; and added. ‘The old clichés will come in very handy. They died trying to climb the mountain ... And the peasants brought spring flowers to lay upon their graves. They died in an attempt to discover ... ’

There seemed no fitting conclusion. And she added. ‘Love to the children,’ and then her pet name.