Previous Entry Share Next Entry
Flush, Virginia Woolf

Each was surprised. Heavy curls hung down on either side of Miss Barrett’s face; large bright eyes shone out; a large mouth smiled. Heavy ears hung down on either side of Flush’s face; his eyes, too, were large and bright: his mouth was wide. There was a likeness between them. As they gazed at each other each felt: Here am I— and then each felt: But how different! Hers was the pale worn face of an invalid, cut off from air, light, freedom. His was the warm ruddy face of a young animal; instinct with health and energy. Broken asunder, yet made in the same mould, could it be that each completed what was dormant in the other? She might have been — all that; and he — But no. Between them lay the widest gulf that can separate one being from another. She spoke. He was dumb. She was woman; he was dog. Thus closely united, thus immensely divided, they gazed at each other. Then with one bound Flush sprang on to the sofa and laid himself where he was to lie for ever after — on the rug at Miss Barrett’s feet.

The talk went on; but it did not flow and ripple as talk usually flowed and rippled. It leapt and jerked. It stopped and leapt again. Flush had never heard that sound in Miss Barrett’s voice before — that vigour, that excitement. Her cheeks were bright as he had never seen them bright; her great eyes blazed as he had never seen them blaze. The clock struck four; and still they talked. Then it struck half-past four. At that Mr. Browning jumped up. A horrid decision, a dreadful boldness marked every movement. In another moment he had wrung Miss Barrett’s hand in his; he had taken his hat and gloves; he had said good-bye. They heard him running down the stairs. Smartly the door banged behind him. He was gone.
But Miss Barrett did not sink back in her pillows as she sank back when Mr. Kenyon or Miss Mitford left her. Now she still sat upright; her eyes still burnt; her cheeks still glowed; she seemed still to feel that Mr. Browning was with her. Flush touched her. She recalled him with a start. She patted him lightly, joyfully, on the head. And smiling, she gave him the oddest look — as if she wished that he could talk — as if she expected him too to feel what she felt. And then she laughed, pityingly; as if it were absurd — Flush, poor Flush could feel nothing of what she felt. He could know nothing of what she knew. Never had such wastes of dismal distance separated them. He lay there ignored; he might not have been there, he felt. She no longer remembered his existence.
And that night she ate her chicken to the bone.

His vanity was exacerbated. His jealousy was inflamed. At last, when July came, he determined to make one violent attempt to regain her favour, and perhaps to oust the newcomer. How to accomplish this double purpose he did not know, and could not plan. But suddenly on the 8th of July his feelings overcame him. He flung himself on Mr. Browning and bit him savagely. At last his teeth met in the immaculate cloth of Mr. Browning’s trousers! But the limb inside was hard as iron — Mr. Kenyon’s leg had been butter in comparison. Mr. Browning brushed him off with a flick of his hand and went on talking. Neither he nor Miss Barrett seemed to think the attack worthy of attention. Completely foiled, worsted, without a shaft left in his sheath, Flush sank back on his cushions panting with rage and disappointment. But he had misjudged Miss Barrett’s insight. When Mr. Browning was gone, she called him to her and inflicted upon him the worst punishment he had ever known. First she slapped his ears — that was nothing; oddly enough the slap was rather to his liking; he would have welcomed another. But then she said in her sober, certain tones that she would never love him again. That shaft went to his heart. All these years they had lived together, shared everything together, and now, for one moment’s failure, she would never love him again. Then, as if to make her dismissal complete, she took the flowers that Mr. Browning had brought her and began to put them in water in a vase. It was an act, Flush thought, of calculated and deliberate malice; an act designed to make him feel his own insignificance completely. “This rose is from him,” she seemed to say, “and this carnation. Let the red shine by the yellow; and the yellow by the red. And let the green leaf lie there —” And, setting one flower with another, she stood back to gaze at them as if he were before her — the man in the yellow gloves — a mass of brilliant flowers. But even so, even as she pressed the leaves and flowers together, she could not altogether ignore the fixity with which Flush gazed at her. She could not deny that “expression of quite despair on his face.” She could not but relent. “At last I said, ‘If you are good, Flush, you may come and say that you are sorry,’ on which he dashed across the room and, trembling all over, kissed first one of my hands and then another, and put up his paws to be shaken, and looked into my face with such beseeching eyes that you would certainly have forgiven him just as I did.” That was her account of the matter to Mr. Browning; and he of course replied: “Oh, poor Flush, do you think I do not love and respect him for his jealous supervision — his slowness to know another, having once known you?” It was easy enough for Mr. Browning to be magnanimous, but that easy magnanimity was perhaps the sharpest thorn that pressed into Flush’s side.

Mr. Browning had been and gone; Flush was alone with Miss Barrett. Normally he would have leapt on to the sofa at her feet. But now, instead of jumping up as usual and claiming her caress, Flush went to what was now called “Mr. Browning’s armchair.” Usually the chair was abhorrent to him; it still held the shape of his enemy. But now, such was the battle he had won, such was the charity that suffused him, that he not only looked at the chair but, as he looked, “suddenly fell into a rapture.” Miss Barrett, watching him intently, observed this extraordinary portent. Next she saw him turn his eyes towards a table. On that table still lay the packet of Mr. Browning’s cakes. He “reminded me that the cakes you left were on the table.” They were now old cakes, stale cakes, cakes bereft of any carnal seduction. Flush’s meaning was plain. He had refused to eat the cakes when they were fresh, because they were offered by an enemy. He would eat them now that they were stale, because they were offered by an enemy turned to friend, because they were symbols of hatred turned to love. Yes, he signified, he would eat them now. So Miss Barrett rose and took the cakes in her hand. And as she gave them to him she admonished him, “So I explained to him that you had brought them for him, and that he ought to be properly ashamed therefore for his past wickedness, and make up his mind to love you and not bite you for the future — and he was allowed to profit from your goodness to him.” As he swallowed down the faded flakes of that distasteful pastry — it was mouldy, it was flyblown, it was sour — Flush solemnly repeated, in his own language, the words she had used — he swore to love Mr. Browning and not bite him for the future.
He was instantly rewarded — not by stale cakes, not by chicken’s wings, not by the caresses that were now his, nor by the permission to lie once more on the sofa at Miss Barrett’s feet. He was rewarded, spiritually; yet the effects were curiously physical. Like an iron bar corroding and festering and killing all natural life beneath it, hatred had lain all these months across his soul. Now, by the cutting of sharp knives and painful surgery, the iron had been excised. Now the blood ran once more; the nerves shot and tingled; flesh formed; Nature rejoiced, as in spring.

“The archfiend” Taylor had come according to his promise the night before. He had stated his terms — six guineas for the Society and half a guinea for himself. But Henry, instead of telling her, had told Mr. Barrett, with the result, of course, that Mr. Barrett had ordered him not to pay, and to conceal the visit from his sister. Miss Barrett was “very vexed and angry.” She bade her brother to go at once to Mr. Taylor and pay the money. Henry refused and “talked of Papa.” But it was no use talking of Papa, she protested. While they talked of Papa, Flush would be killed. She made up her mind. If Henry would not go, she would go herself: “... if people won’t do as I choose, I shall go down tomorrow morning, and bring Flush back with me,” she wrote to Mr. Browning.
But Miss Barrett now found that it was easier to say this than to do it. It was almost as difficult for her to go to Flush as for Flush to come to her. All Wimpole Street was against her. The news that Flush was stolen and that Taylor demanded a ransom was now public property. Wimpole Street was determined to make a stand against Whitechapel. Blind Mr. Boyd sent word that in his opinion it would be “an awful sin” to pay the ransom. Her father and her brother were in league against her and were capable of any treachery in the interests of their class. But worst of all — far worse — Mr. Browning himself threw all his weight, all his eloquence, all his learning, all his logic, on the side of Wimpole Street and against Flush.

Lying on her sofa, Miss Barrett read the letters. How easy it could have been to yield — how easy it would have been to say, “Your good opinion is worth more to me than a hundred cocker spaniels.” How easy it would have been to sink back on her pillows and sigh, “I am a weak woman; I know nothing of law and justice; decide for me.” She had only to refuse to pay the ransom; she had only to defy Taylor and his society. And if Flush were killed, if the dreadful parcel came and she opened it and out dropped his head and paws, there was Robert Browning by her side to assure her that she had done right and earned his respect. But Miss Barrett was not to be intimidated.

On Saturday, therefore, with Mr. Browning’s letter lying open on the table before her, she began to dress. She read his “one word more — in all this, I labour against the execrable policy of the world’s husbands, fathers, brothers and domineerers in general.” So, if she went to Whitechapel she was siding against Robert Browning, and in favour of fathers, brothers and domineerers in general. Still, she went on dressing. A dog howled in the mews. It was tied up, helpless in the power of cruel men. It seemed to her to cry as it howled: “Think of Flush.” She put on her shoes, her cloak, her hat. She glanced at Mr. Browning’s letter once more. “I am about to marry you,” she read. Still the dog howled. She left her room and went downstairs.

There was a faint bleating in the shadowed room — something waved on the pillow. It was a live animal. Independently of them all, without the street door being opened, out of herself in the room, alone, Mrs. Browning had become two people. The horrid thing waved and mewed by her side. Torn with rage and jealousy and some deep disgust that he could not hide, Flush struggled himself free and rushed downstairs. Wilson and Mrs. Browning called him back; they tempted him with caresses; they offered him titbits; but it was useless. He cowered away from the disgusting sight, the repulsive presence, wherever there was a shadowy sofa or a dark corner. “... for a whole fortnight he fell into deep melancholy and was proof against all attentions lavished on him”— so Mrs. Browning, in the midst of all her other distractions, was forced to notice. And when we take, as we must, human minutes and hours and drop them into a dog’s mind and see how the minutes swell into hours and the hours into days, we shall not exaggerate if we conclude that Flush’s “deep melancholy” lasted six full months by the human clock. Many men and women have forgotten their hates and their loves in less.
But Flush was no longer the unschooled, untrained dog of Wimpole Street days. He had learnt his lesson. Wilson had struck him. He had been forced to swallow cakes that were stale when he might have eaten them fresh; he had sworn to love and not to bite. All this churned in his mind as he lay under the sofa; and at last he issued out. Again he was rewarded. At first, it must be admitted, the reward was insubstantial if not positively disagreeable. The baby was set on his back and Flush had to trot about with the baby pulling his ears. But he submitted with such grace, only turning round, when his ears were pulled, “to kiss the little bare, dimpled feet,” that, before three months had passed, this helpless, weak, puling, muling lump had somehow come to prefer him, “on the whole”— so Mrs. Browning said — to other people.

However democratic Flush had become and careless of the signs of rank, he still remained what Philip Sidney had called him, a gentleman by birth. He carried his pedigree on his back. His coat meant to him what a gold watch inscribed with the family arms means to an impoverished squire whose broad acres have shrunk to that single circle. It was the coat that Mr. Browning now proposed to sacrifice. He called Flush to him and, “taking a pair of scissors, clipped him all over into the likeness of a lion.”
As Robert Browning snipped, as the insignia of a cocker spaniel fell to the floor, as the travesty of quite a different animal rose round his neck, Flush felt himself emasculated, diminished, ashamed. What am I now? he thought, gazing into the glass. And the glass replied with the brutal sincerity of glasses, “You are nothing.” He was nobody. Certainly he was no longer a cocker spaniel. But as he gazed, his ears bald now, and uncurled, seemed to twitch. It was as if the potent spirits of truth and laughter were whispering in them. To be nothing — is that not, after all, the most satisfactory state in the whole world? He looked again. There was his ruff. To caricature the pomposity of those who claim that they are something — was that not in its way a career? Anyhow, settle the matter as he might, there could be no doubt that he was free from fleas. He shook his ruff. He danced on his nude, attenuated legs. His spirits rose. So might a great beauty, rising from a bed of sickness and finding her face eternally disfigured, make a bonfire of clothes and cosmetics, and laugh with joy to think that she need never look in the glass again or dread a lover’s coolness or a rival’s beauty. So might a clergyman, cased for twenty years in starch and broadcloth, cast his collar into the dustbin and snatch the works of Voltaire from the cupboard. So Flush scampered off clipped all over into the likeness of a lion, but free from fleas. “Flush,” Mrs. Browning wrote to her sister, “is wise.”

Mrs. Browning was lying, reading, on the sofa. She looked up, startled, as he came in. It was not a spirit — it was only Flush. She laughed. Then, as he leapt on to the sofa and thrust his face into hers, the words of her own poem came into her mind:
You see this dog. It was but yesterday
I mused forgetful of his presence here
Till thought on thought drew downward tear on tear,
When from the pillow, where wet-cheeked I lay,
A head as hairy as Faunus, thrust its way
Right sudden against my face — two golden-clear
Great eyes astonished mine — a drooping ear
Did flap me on either cheek to dry the spray!
I started first, as some Arcadian,
Amazed by goatly god in twilight grove;
But, as the bearded vision closelier ran
My tears off, I knew Flush, and rose above
Surprise and sadness — thanking the true Pan,
Who, by low creatures, leads to heights of love.
She had written that poem one day years ago in Wimpole Street when she was very unhappy. Years had passed; now she was happy. She was growing old now and so was Flush. She bent down over him for a moment. Her face with its wide mouth and its great eyes and its heavy curls was still oddly like his. Broken asunder, yet made in the same mould, each, perhaps, completed what was dormant in the other. But she was woman; he was dog. Mrs. Browning went on reading. Then she looked at Flush again. But he did not look at her. An extraordinary change had come over him. “Flush!” she cried. But he was silent. He had been alive; he was now dead. 10 That was all. The drawing-room table, strangely enough, stood perfectly still.


Log in