I’m going to a funeral, and for the occasion, I’ve chosen a knee-length black Donna Karan dress (Flashy Trash, $15), black lace bra and panties, garter belt, sheer black stockings and brown snow boots with my “For Funerals Only” black pumps stuffed in a Hello Kitty backpack. If I didn’t care at all what people think, I would have added purple elbow-length gloves and a hat with a dotted veil. I would’ve used brown eyeliner to paint a mole on one cheekbone like Marie Antoinette. I wear the garter belt in memoriam of the guy who died. He would have appreciated the effort. I also like the shiver that comes when the wind whips under my dress and tickles my bare thighs. It makes me want to squeal and bend my leg at the knee.
It’s not often I can dress this way. The people at Mitch, Saunders, Mitch and Saunders are Republican lawyers whose idea of a fashion risk is a Wile E. Coyote tie.
At the first bus stop, raincoat-wearing passengers line up at the door. I sit in the front row of seats thinking, don’t you dare sit next to me. No, not you either—when this guy steps on who looks just like the man in the Levi’s commercial. I beam thought rays at him. Fuck me. Fuck me now. The fat guy in front of him heaves into the seat next to mine. My man passes by, leaving a whiff of lemony cologne.
For the rest of the ride, I try out scenarios for how it could happen. The bus stalls, no—the bus driver has a diabetic fit and my Levi man takes control, yelling, I’ll drive! Everyone (except me) shrieks. His manly hands grip the steering wheel. I must finish this route! I run to the front of the bus, pushing people out of my way, Excuse me, excuse me, the skirt of my dress riding up my thighs. I must help him because he’s injured his left hand (it’s been sprained somehow by the fat guy), and I have to steer for him, and the only way to do that is to sit on his lap.
It’s too close to the premise of Speed, and anyway, I’d no doubt block his view and we’d crash and my mom would have to identify the body and she would be mortified to see me wearing a black lace thong.
I exit the bus at Michigan Avenue, casting one last meaningful glance at my almost-lover. He doesn’t even turn his head to look at me while I stand at the crosswalk, wishing a breeze would come along and blow my hair across my cheek.
I have a minor panic attack as I enter the church foyer, because I have forgotten how to genuflect.
Then I see the guy from Divorce Law in the last pew. I usually don’t find him attractive because his face is dented with pockmarks and he walks on the balls of his feet with his hands in his pockets, but when he turns, his gaze skimming over me, I notice he has the bluest, bluest eyes and you can’t help but wonder what he looks like naked. Maybe underneath his starched button-up oxford he’s hiding a chest rippled with muscles. Maybe he has excellent technique, very adept fingers that would make me arch my back and lose complete control, and, at our wedding, our guests would line up to congratulate us, dying to ask me what I saw in him. I would look over at his long thin, talented fingers, one now circled with a gold band, smile and say, Oh, yes, thank you for coming.
The service begins with the horn-like opening bars of “Morning Has Broken.” I squeeze in next to my friend, Jennifer Sanantini, who works as a receptionist for Fred Cornell who smokes cigars and chews gum at the same time. The casket sits in the front of the church, and all you can see of the body is the tip of the nose, sticking into the air like it’s testing the smell of the white orchids in large baskets on the floor.
The organ music falls silent when the priest approaches the pulpit. He is not your typical, sixty-eight-year-old holy man with a shaky voice and bald head. He’s about Jesus’ age when he died and he appears heterosexual. His hair springs around his head in neat whorls and he has the chiseled features like a religious figure from a stained glass window. Strong jaw, defined cheekbones, sensuous wide mouth, and sweet hands now making the sign of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Holy Mary, mother of God pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. I want to crawl under the podium and slip between his legs while he says, Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. While everyone prays, he would look down at me, there, prone on my knees. He’d push my head away, his face white. For the love of God, what are you doing? I would bow my head and say, Forgive me, Father, for I am about to sin and then I would take him in my mouth and his hands would tighten on the podium and he’d whisper, No, no, you must cease and desist, but I wouldn’t, and he would respond against his will.
Jennifer Sanantini is frowning at me and I realize I’m wiggling and I stop.
Sometimes, I worry that God listens to my thoughts and will answer stray fragments of them one day, causing me to be gang-raped in an alleyway by a pack of eighteen-year-old construction workers with Irish accents who resemble J. Crew models. I try to keep my prayers very explicit. Please let Jonathan Pervival Simmons from Accounting whom I know only to say hi to through Brenda Lesley in P.R. show up at my apartment one night, banging his fists on the door and shouting, Katie! Open up! I can’t go another minute without touching you! This, God, must happen on a night I’m wearing my red short nightgown instead of a yellow-pitted white T-shirt and my kitty-cat flannel pajama bottom and glasses. And I have definitely not picked my face and my eyes are not puffy from crying over long distance phone commercials and my bed is actually made, and he’s wearing—but, you know, sometimes I never make it beyond the door-knocking. The details are exhausting and the struggle to make it real is too tedious and so the rest of the story doesn’t seem worth the effort.
After the ceremony ends, we must file past the body and pay our last respects. I follow Jennifer Sanantini whose slip peeks under the hem of her dress. This is my first dead person in a while. I can’t stop chewing my fingernails. When I finally see him, it’s not that bad. He’s wearing a suit I don’t recognize from work. He looks the same, more or less, except it’s as though his face is made of wax, like if you took a wet washcloth and rubbed a little circle on his cheek, it’d turn shiny.
A bunch of us meet up at a semi-professional bar in Lincoln Park to drink a beer in his memory.
We’re there for about fifteen minutes when I spot this man at the end of the bar who reminds me of a boy I was in love with in college. Jon Preston. You had to say his full name, in whispered tones. He sewed patches on his jeans before it was even cool and I thought, Damnit! Why didn’t I think of that? Now I can’t wear patches because it’ll seem like I’m copying him.
I stood in awe, every moment with him was unreal, like this gift from heaven. I’d think he didn’t even know my name and then catch him staring hard at me while I was doing something stupid like trying to open the door without using my hands.
The most lucid memory I have of that time is lying on his mattress covered with dinosaur sheets. I was wearing a heavy metal square my friend gave me from Afghanistan. It hung on a leather strap around my neck. I said, Do you want me to take it off? He said, No, leave it on, and the cool gray metal thumped between us while I rocked on top of him. He looked at me with clear blue eyes, his pupils large and black with a dot of gold in the center. I wish I could draw them to show you how perfect they were and how much I wanted inside those eyes to switch places with him and know what he was seeing in me.
Three Heinekens later, this look-alike Jon Preston stands next to me. His eyes are closer together than I first thought. He says, It’s loud in here. It’s hard to talk.
I yell, What? As a joke. He repeats, It’s loud in here. That’s ten points off for not knowing how funny I am.
Then I discover he loves Annie Hall and he quotes the line about the raccoons and I believe we could fall in love and raise adorable children without pretentious names and move to the country and buy a golden retriever and name it Janet and in the winter he’d wear soft flannel shirts and heavy boots and he’d chop wood and also cook oatmeal and when he’d come in from the snow carrying an armload of wood, his cheeks would be so rosy I’d want to bite them. I ask him who his favorite artist is. Norman Rockwell. What music does he listen to? Phish. What toy did he like best when he was growing up? Huh?
I say I have to go find my friend now.
Jennifer Sanantini is listening to one of the junior lawyers tell about a messy divorce case involving a box of Penthouse Forum letters that the wife found to be harmful to their children. Jennifer laughs and nods and shakes her head and, when she sees I’m watching her and the guy is not, she wrinkles her nose and sticks out her tongue a little.
Our group has suddenly grown alcohol-maudlin, in part because someone put “Seasons in the Sun” on the jukebox and also because, after all, we did just come from a funeral. The junior lawyer starts telling another story, this one about the deceased and how he used to crack everyone up because he’d always forget to zip up his pants and once he walked around at a convention with his shirt tail hanging out of his crotch. Gary, the guy who’s always loitering by the water cooler, throws his head back and laughs and tries to put his arms around me but I see it coming and duck to inspect a non-existent run in my stocking.
I wonder what the dead man’s family remembers about him, or maybe he lived alone in an apartment overlooking Lake Michigan. Maybe he played old Frank Sinatra records over and over and only ate Swanson pot pies. Maybe he wore checkered grandpa-pajamas and thick mule slippers and maybe he looked out the window and thought, Is this everything?
I count six baseball hats and three men in Cubs T-shirts. I search for one guy I would take home with me, just one; I have to pick one or else God will kill my entire family. There is no one. This makes me want to go home, turn off the lights, lie on the floor and listen to Counting Crows’ “Omaha,” even though it makes me sad because it reminds me of my grandma, whom I miss but never call.
Jennifer acts overly concerned when I tell her I’m leaving. Are you sure you’ll be okay? Are you sure? Out of the corner of her eye, she’s looking to see if Brad, the married guy in Damage Control, notices how good of a friend she is. Brad is not; he is guzzling a beer and involved in a serious conversation about the Bulls. I admire his leather suspenders, but only because I really, really hate them.
While hailing a taxi, I pretend I’m “That Girl.” A cab zips to the curb and stops without a screech. I give the driver my address, squirming in the seat to see his dashboard ID photograph and name without him becoming suspicious.
The cabby’s neck is smooth, vulnerable, and his ears stick out. Please don’t talk to me, I pray. He says, It’s starting to snow, huh? The wiper blades squeak across the windshield.
Yes, it is.
He says, You are coming from a party?
I press my legs together. The skin sticks. I feel like he can tell what kind of underwear I’m wearing. Maybe he can even smell me. Yeah, I say. Somebody died.
We drive the rest of the way in silence. When he pulls up to my apartment, I tip him extra for not being better company.
The snow is falling in huge white flakes, God sifting great puffs of flour from the sky. The cabbie waits to see if I make it inside okay. I want to run over to his window and say, Would you like to come up for a cup of hot chocolate? Instead, I hold out my hand and catch a snowflake on my mitten, turn, and spin for him so that my skirt flares out a little.
I look back, and he is still watching me, almost smiling. He waves and starts to drive off. I say, Thank you, and run down the sidewalk to the warmth of my building.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Aimee LaBrie from Wonderful Girl
My cat is in the driveway, gnawing on fine bones. The rain has begun: a warm muzzled sound, large soft drips, not the rapid dark downpour of yesterday. Everything wet and green, sopping, soaking.
My cat comes in, sits on the desk where I write. His paw leaves a pale red print on the page. He wants to be scratched behind the ears, he splays himself belly up for extra attention. He thinks he lives a fine life and he does. Inside he is petted and catered to; outside he lives the secret life of a hunter.
Meat Eaters and Plant Eaters: my son has divided his dinosaurs into two collections, counts how many he has in each. Plant eaters are more pot-bellied we learn: huge stomachs to process all that scruffy plant material.
Meat Eaters are leaner, tougher, their bodies efficient hunting machines. My son likes the meat eaters best: their jagged teeth, fierce open jaws, arms outstretched for prey. He prefers predators to prey, words he’s recently learned.
But in the morning: “Mom? What is that? What did I step on?”
And I clean his bare foot and the rug, now blood-stained, of the gizzards our cat left behind during the night. My son stares at what I flush away. “Was it a mouse?” “Yes, I think so.”
It’s summer and the dead things are multiplying: mice, a chipmunk, and if we are very unlucky: a small bird, its downy feathers floating in the house for days, like milkweed seeds come to rest.
The cat has retired to the closet, kneads a sweater that’s fallen over the tips of shoes. The pawing sets him purring, and soon he is curled into himself to sleep away the day.
“Are we going to die?” We are brushing our teeth, a ritual my son performs reluctantly, especially in the morning. “Are we going to die?” he asks again.
“Yes, but . . . not for a long long long time, not for maybe 100 years . . .”
“NO! We’re not, we’re never going to die.”
Silence—we’re both thinking—and then the question again: “Are we going to die?”
I hesitate—he’s only five. “Yes, but . . .”
“NO!” and he pounds on my chest. What he doesn’t like he tries to pound right out of me. I know I need to talk to him about not hitting when he’s mad, but for now I take the pounds. I go soft, evasive. “Maybe we won’t die . . .” He must know I’m just saying that because he wants me to, I rationalize.
“Never. We’re never going to die.”
“Maybe . . .”
“Maybe means no. We’re not going to die.”
And that decides it. For now anyway. He’s off to his bedroom, where his dinosaurs are. Craaak! I hear them crashing into one another, the Tyrannosaurus charging the Triceratops, but the Triceratops has horns and a thick skin, he may be able to get away alive. The swift meat eater catches him by the back leg, his teeth sink in; he bites a huge chunk of Triceratops; the poor plant eater will slowly die.
“I’m just going to drink water,” my son tells me over lunch.
“And why is that?”
“Because if you drink water, you won’t die.”
I nod, wondering how he’s reached this conclusion,
then remember a book we read recently about the human body: we can live for so many days without food, but without water, we die. I pour another glass for him, glad that he prefers water to soda, at least for now.
From my window I catch sight of the cat outside. I watch him circle something in the tall grass. Quietly he paces, his circle tightening, closing in, and then quite suddenly he leaps, back arched. He’s got something— though I can’t see what—between his paws.
We find the something on the bathroom floor—this time abandoned, not eaten or opened, not even a bloody scar: a tiny brown field mouse, its tail a long wire. My son stares at it, watches as I gather it in a paper towel. “Is it alive? Are you going to let it go outside?” I nod, though I’m unsure whether it’s dead or just stunned. I take the small bundle downstairs to thrust out the back door under the bushes outside.
“Did it get away?” my son asks.
I tell him that it did, though I didn’t really see.
“Big plant-eating dinosaurs gulped down stones as they ate. The stones stayed in the gut, helping the stomach muscles grind leaves and twigs into a soft sticky stew of plants. Dinosaurs, such as Apatosaurus, could digest this stew more easily,” I read from the thick book we got from the library, All About Dinosaurs.
“Apatosaurus used to be Brontosaurus. Read about the meat eaters now, Mom.”
“Allosaurus had large eyes, nearly twice the size of those of the much bigger meat eater, Tyrannosaurus Rex. Above the eyes was a bony flap forming an eye ridge, possible to shade its eyes from the sun. Allosaurus had about 40 teeth in its upper jaw and 32 in its lower jaw. They were up to four inches long and their front and back edges were sharp and serrated, like steak knives, for slicing through flesh. As they wore out or broke, new teeth grew in their place . . .” I read on. The words do not seem to be putting my son to sleep; he’s alert, intent on processing anything new we might learn. Our cat slips into the room through the closet door. He’s found his way in, as he usually does, through the crawl space that leads through the attic, the attached garage, to the outside. He jumps onto the bed where we’re sitting, slinks past us, his fur brushing against us in turn, as he makes his way to the end. He kneads himself a warm spot, and soon he is curled into himself, purring softly. My son likes that his bed has become the cat’s favored resting spot.
“Shut the door Mom,” he tells me as soon as I close the book.
I do, and from the other side I hear him slip out of the bed I’ve tucked him into, slam the closet door closed, then slip back in between covers. Now the cat is trapped in the room—no secret passageway to the nightworld outside. Most likely he hasn’t realized this yet. I wonder how long he’ll indulge my son, tolerate his constant stroking. For now they lie, two warm bodies fitted into one another: one purring, one stroking, soon twitching and dreaming.
*Jessica Treat, “Meat Eaters & Plant Eaters” from Meat Eaters & Plant Eaters. Copyright ©2018. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.
Abu Mustafa parked his carriage next to the sidewalk. With a large, gnarled hand he patted his horse’s head, then headed into the nearby shop. He began hoisting bags of firewood on his back and carrying them to the carriage.
The horse was angry for no reason. But his anger began to subside after finding a piece of watermelon rind that he chomped in silence.
Suddenly the horse noticed a small boy standing nearby, staring at him and smiling. The horse said to himself: “I don’t know this boy. If he comes closer, I will kick him. I will kick a kick that’ll break his head.”
Shortly the horse finished chewing the watermelon rind, and self-pity set in. He began to stare at the boy with hatred, saying to himself: “I am going to kick him.”
During these moments, Abu Mustafa was absorbed in moving the bags of wood and placing them on the roof of the carriage.
The horse was tired and complained to himself: “Justice is lost.”
The horse had been born in the city, and he had spent his whole life on its asphalt roads. He had never once left. His ancient grandfathers used to romp free through the wide prairie where there were no buildings or walls or stones. But they were all dead.
The boy bent down and picked up a watermelon rind that was out of reach for the horse. The horse backed away but out of courage did so slowly. The boy held out the watermelon rind near the horse’s mouth. The horse hesitated for a brief second, then snatched the rind in surprise, and started chewing rather happily. Then he let the boy stroke his neck with a small, gentle hand.
Abu Mustafa finished loading the wood on the carriage. When he noticed the little boy near the horse, he yelled: “Get away, you monkey.”
Then he waved his whip through the air and let out a cry, commanding the horse to go. The horse started forward, slowly pulling the heavy carriage.
The carriage passed through a number of streets, eventually coming to a wide street lined with stone buildings on both sides. Before it could get part way down the street, a policeman blocked its way. Abu Mustafa yelled a long-drawn-out “hish” at the horse.
The policeman said: “Don’t you know that carriages are not allowed on this street?”
Abu Mustafa replied: “I know.”
“Then what are you doing here?”
“My horse, look at him. My horse is worn out. If I took the other street, then I would be asking too much from him.”
The horse felt deep sympathy. The policeman said: “Carriages are not allowed on this street. Only cars and pedestrians.”
Abu Mustafa said: “I know.” He licked his lips and continued, saying: “The horse is tired. If he dies, my livelihood is stopped. I will starve to death, and so will my children. I have four children.”
“Go back, and I won’t punish you for breaking the system and the law.”
“I have four sons who eat rocks,” Abu Mustafa said, getting down from the carriage. He let out a short, dry laugh that was like a small, violent knife. He said: “I’m telling you the truth. I don’t fear for my children, I fear for their mother.”
Curious, the policeman asked: “Why do you fear for her?”
The trees were green along the sides of the street. Blue vastness stretched across the sky. And Abu Mustafa replied: “I fear that my children will eat their mother if they are starving. Their teeth are monsters.”
A car passed at high speed so the policeman blew his whistle, but the car did not stop. The policeman was able to read the license plate number before it disappeared, he wrote it on a page in his notebook, and then – his face swollen with anger – he turned to Abu Mustafa and said: “Now, go back.”
“Please let me pass, just this once.”
The policeman said sternly: “Did you hear me? Go back.”
“Just this once.”
“Go back. The law is the law. No use in pleading.”
“My horse is tired.”
“Go back now.”
“May God keep you, for your mother’s sake.”
“God, do not keep me! I do not make the law. I do what I am commanded to do, and you must obey these commands.”
Abu Mustafa said nothing. He imagined the law to be a massive creature with thousands of hands: the law commands the policeman, so the policeman obeys; the policeman commands Abu Mustafa, and Abu Mustafa must obey all commands.
Abu Mustafa stood there for a few moments, until the policeman yelled: “Go back. If you do not go back now, you will regret it.”
Abu Mustafa turned toward the carriage. But the horse’s anger had become explosive: with all of its might, berserk, it charged forward. The policeman saw the carriage coming at him, he tried to jump onto the sidewalk, but did not make it. The horse crashed into him, throwing him onto the ground on his back. The horse’s hooves crushed the policeman’s chest, then the wheels of the carriage ran over him, becoming red with blood.
The horse was surprised to see that his owner was not happy, that he was panicked and morose, and that he then took off running, fleeing.
A moment later people came running and circled the carriage. Their eyes shone fear mixed with hidden desire, as if the crushed policeman was the body of a beautiful woman.
The people did not leave until policemen arrived, who then set out to catch the murderer.
The judge was just; he sent the horse to a major stockyard. It seemed to the horse that this must be what was left of the prairie.
The horse stood there in the yard and he was happy – on his way to the stockyard he had travelled through wide streets that he had never been permitted to use before. But his bliss did not last long because soon he was hanging by his neck.
*The story was published in the collection Al-Ra’d (The Thunder), 1970, and in this English translation in Banipal Magazine of Modern Arab Literature No. 53, 2015.
Most of all I hate the sun, loud human voices, and pounding. Rapid, rapid pounding. I am so afraid of people that if I hear someone else’s footsteps and the sound of voices in the corridor in the evening, I start to scream. Because of this I have a special room, the quietest and the best, No. 27, at the very end of the corridor. No one can get to me. But in order to protect myself further, I kept begging Ivan Vasilievich for a long time (actually, I cried in front of him), to give me an official typed authorization. He consented and wrote that I was under his protection and that no one had the right to take me away. But, to tell you the truth, I did not have much confidence in the weight of his signature. So he persuaded a professor to sign it too, and affixed a round blue seal to the paper. That made all the difference. I know of many instances where people have avoided death solely because they had a piece of paper with a round blue seal on it in their pockets. True, that worker in Berdyansk with the cheek smeared with soot was hung from a lamppost after they found a crumpled piece of paper with a stamp on it in his boot. But that was altogether different. He was a criminal Bolshevik and the blue seal was a criminal seal. It reserved him a place on that lamppost and the lamppost was the reason for my illness (don’t worry, I know perfectly well that I am ill).
In fact, something had happened to me even before Kolya. I walked away in order to avoid seeing a man being hanged, but fear walked with me in my trembling legs. At the time, of course, there was nothing I could do, but now I would boldly say, “General, you are an animal! How dare you hang people!”
This alone shows you that I’m no coward. I did not go on about the seal because I am afraid of death. Oh, no. I am not afraid of that. I am going to shoot myself, and it will be soon, because Kolya will drive me to despair. I will shoot myself so that I do not have to see or hear Kolya. As for the thought that other people might come… It is loathsome.
For days on end I have been lying on the couch and staring out the window. Above our green garden is an empty void. Beyond it the yellow bulk of a seven-story building turns its deaf, windowless wall to me, and right under the roof is a rusty square. A sign. Dental Laboratory. In white letters. At first I hated it. Then I got used to it and if it were gone I might even miss it. It can be seen clearly the whole day. I focus my attention on it and ponder many important things. But evening is falling. The cupola darkens, the white letters fade from view. I become gray and dissolve in the gloom just like my thoughts. Twilight. A frightening and portentous time of day. Everything fades, everything becomes indistinct. A pale ginger cat begins to slink along the corridor with velvety steps and from time to time I scream. But I will not allow a lamp to be lit because the glare of the lamp will cause me to wring my hands and sob all night. It is better to wait submissively for the moment when that most important last picture begins to burn in the quivering darkness.
My aged mother said to me: “I can’t go on like this much longer. All I see is madness. You are the oldest, and I know that you love him. Bring Kolya back. Bring him back. You are the oldest.”
I said nothing. ٠
So she put all of her yearning and all of her pain into her words.
“Find him. You pretend that nothing can be done. But I know you. You are intelligent, you have long understood that this is all madness. Bring him to me for a day. For just one day. I’ll let him go again.”
She was lying. Would she really let him go again?
I said nothing.
“I only want to kiss his eyes. I know he will be killed. Don’t you understand? He’s my baby. Who else can I ask? You are the oldest. Bring him.”
I could not stand it, so avoiding her eyes, I said, “Okay.”
But she grabbed my sleeve and turned me around so that she could look into my face.
“No, you will swear that you will bring him back alive.”
How could I swear any such thing?
But being the insane person that I am, I did it: “I swear.”
My mother is fainthearted. With that thought I left. But in Berdyansk I saw the crooked lamppost. General, Sir, I agree that I was no less criminal than you, I accept great responsibility for the man smeared with soot, but my brother does not have anything to do with it. He is nineteen years old.
After Berdyansk, I resolutely fulfilled my oath and found him by a small stream twenty versts away. The day was unusually bright. Along the road to the village, from which came the smell of ashes, a cavalry column moved slowly, stirring up clouds of white dust. He rode at the end of the first rank, with the visor of his cap pulled down over his eyes. I remember every detail. The right spur came all the way down to his heel. The strap of his cap stretched across his cheek and down under his chin.
“Kolya. Kolya!” I yelled, and ran down to the roadside ditch.
He started. Along the ranks the sullen, sweaty soldiers turned their heads.
“Ah… brother!” he cried in response. For some reason he never called me by my name, but always said brother. I am ten years older than he. And he always listened carefully to what I said. “Wait, wait here,” he continued, “by the little wood. We’ll be back right away I can’t leave the troop.”
At the edge of the wood, a little away from the dismounted troop, we smoked greedily I was calm and insistent. Everything was madness. Mother was absolutely right.
I whispered to him, “As soon as you return from the village, come with me into town. Then get out of here and never come back.”
“What are you saying, brother?”
“Be quiet,” I said, “Be quiet. I know what I’m saying.”
The troop had mounted. They were swaying, moving at a trot toward the billowing black smoke. In the distance a pounding began. Rapid, rapid pounding.
What could happen in just an hour? They would come back. I settled down to wait by the tent with the red cross on it.
An hour later I saw him. He also returned at a trot. But there was no troop. Only one horseman with a lance galloped on either side of him, and one of them, the one on the right, leaned towards my brother periodically, as if he were whispering something to him. Squinting into the sun, I watched the strange masquerade. He had left in a gray cap and was returning in a red one. The sun was setting. Only a black silhouette crowned with brightness remained. There was no hair and there was no forehead. Instead, there was a red crown with yellow spikes in clumps.
My brother, the horseman, wearing a ragged red crown, sat motionless on a lathered horse, and if the horseman on the right had not been carefully supporting him, he might have been on his way to a parade.
The horseman sat proud in the saddle, but he was blind and mute. There were two red blotches with streaks where an hour ago bright eyes had shone…
The horseman on the left dismounted, his left hand clutched the reins, but the one on the right very carefully led Kolya by the hand. Kolya swayed.
A voice said, “I’m afraid our volunteer… he’s been hit by a shell fragment. Orderly, call a doctor…”
The other sighed and said, “Sure… but why call a doctor, buddy? Better a priest.”
Then the black veil thickened and everything was obscured, even the head gear…
I have gotten used to everything. To this white building of ours, to the twilight, to the ginger cat who purrs at the door, but I cannot get used to his visits. The first time it happened, when I was still living downstairs in No. 63, he came out of the wall. He was wearing the red crown. There was nothing terrifying in that. I had seen him like that in dreams. But of course I knew that since he was wearing the crown he was dead. Then he spoke, moving his lips, which were caked with blood. He eased them apart, clicked his heels, put his hand to the crown in a salute, and said: “Brother, I can’t leave the troop.”
Since then it is always the same. He comes wearing his field shirt, with straps across his chest, with a curved saber and silent spurs, and says the same thing. Salute. Then: “Brother, I can’t leave the troop. “
You cannot imagine how it affected me the first time it happened! He gave the whole clinic a fright. Anyway, it is all over for me. It stands to reason that since he is wearing a halo, he has been killed, and if the dead come and talk to me, it means I have gone mad.
Yes. Now it’s twilight. It is the hour of reckoning. But once I dozed off and saw the living room with the worn red velvet furniture. The comfortable armchair with a cracked leg. The portrait in a dusty black frame on the wall. Flowers on stands. The piano was open and on it was the score from Faust. He stood in the doorway, and a wild happiness warmed my heart. He was not a horseman. He was as he had been before those accursed days. In a black double-breasted jacket with a smudge of chalk on the elbow. His lively eyes smiled playfully and a lock of hair hung down over his forehead. He was nodding to me.
“Brother, let’s go to my room. Do I have something to show you!… “
The rays from his eyes lit up the living room, and the burden of remorse melted inside me. That ill-fated day when I told him: “Go” had never existed, there was no pounding or acrid smoke. He had never gone away and had never been a horseman. He played the piano, the ivory keys tinkled, the golden rays of light touched everything, and his voice was expressive and he laughed.
Then I woke up. There was nothing. No light, no eyes. I never had that dream again. Then that very night, to compound my unbearable torture, he came anyway, stepping silently, the horseman in full military regalia, and he spoke to me the way he has decided to speak to me for eternity.
I decided to put an end to it. I said forcefully, “What are you, my eternal torturer? Why do you come? I admit everything. I take the blame for sending you on that doomed mission. I also take the blame for the hanging. Since I admit all this, forgive me and leave me alone.”
I tell you. General, Sir, he said nothing and left.
So I became bitter from this torment and wished with all my might that he would come to you just once and put his hand to the crown in a salute. I assure you, you would be finished, just like me. At one stroke. However, perhaps you, too, are not alone at night? Who knows, perhaps you are visited by that soot-smeared man from the lamppost in Berdyansk? If this is so, we suffer it as we must. I sent Kolya to help you carry out the hanging, but you were the one who actually did it. By verbal order.
So, he did not leave. Then I scared him away with a scream. Everyone woke up. The attendant came running, they woke Ivan Vasilievich. I could not face the next day, but they wouldn’t let me do myself in. They bound me with canvas straps, tore the glass from my hands, and bandaged me. Since then I have been in No. 27. After I was drugged I began to doze off, and heard the attendant talking in the corridor:
“A hopeless case. “
It’s true. I have no hope. Futilely, in burning anguish, I wait in the twilight for the dream to come – that old familiar room and the peaceful light from those radiant eyes. But all of that is gone forever.
The burden does not ease. And at night I wait submissively for the familiar horseman with the sightless eyes to come and say hoarsely: “I can’t leave the troop.”
Yes, I am hopeless. He will drive me to my grave.
SOV THADE TAGE EM EREB, OF RER IN KARHIDE, ON GETHEN
I live in the oldest city in the world. Long before there were kings in Karhide, Rer was a city, the marketplace and meeting ground for all the Northeast, the Plains, and Kerm Land. The Fastness of Rer was a center of learning, a refuge, a judgment seat fifteen thousand years ago. Karhide became a nation here, under the Geger kings, who ruled for a thousand years. In the thousandth year Sedern Geger, the Unking, cast the crown into the River Arre from the palace towers, proclaiming an end to dominion. The time they call the Flowering of Rer, the Summer Century, began then. It ended when the Hearth of Harge took power and moved their capital across the mountains to Erhenrang. The Old Palace has been empty for centuries. But it stands. Nothing in Rer falls down. The Arre floods through the street-tunnels every year in the Thaw, winter blizzards may bring thirty feet of snow, but the city stands. Nobody knows how old the houses are, because they have been rebuilt forever. Each one sits in its gardens without respect to the position of any of the others, as vast and random and ancient as hills. The roofed streets and canals angle about among them. Rer is all corners. We say that the Harges left because they were afraid of what might be around the corner.
Time is different here. I learned in school how the Orgota, the Ekumen, and most other people count years. They call the year of some portentous event Year One and number forward from it. Here it’s always Year One. On Getheny Thern, New Year’s Day, the Year One becomes one-ago, one-to-come becomes One, and so on. It’s like Rer, everything always changing but the city never changing.
When I was fourteen (in the Year One, or fifty-ago) I came of age. I have been thinking about that a good deal recently.
It was a different world. Most of us had never seen an Alien, as we called them then. We might have heard the Mobile talk on the radio, and at school we saw pictures of Aliens—the ones with hair around their mouths were the most pleasingly savage and repulsive. Most of the pictures were disappointing. They looked too much like us. You couldn’t even tell that they were always in kemmer. The female Aliens were supposed to have enormous breasts, but my Mothersib Dory had bigger breasts than the ones in the pictures.
When the Defenders of the Faith kicked them out of Orgoreyn, when King Emran got into the Border War and lost Erhenrang, even when their Mobiles were outlawed and forced into hiding at Estre in Kerm, the Ekumen did nothing much but wait. They had waited for two hundred years, as patient as Handdara. They did one thing: they took our young king off-world to foil a plot, and then brought the same king back sixty years later to end her wombchild’s disastrous reign. Argaven XVII is the only king who ever ruled four years before her heir and forty years after.
The year I was born (the Year One, or sixty-four-ago) was the year Argaven’s second reign began. By the time I was noticing anything beyond my own toes, the war was over, the West Fall was part of Karhide again, the capital was back in Erhenrang, and most of the damage done to Rer during the Overthrow of Emran had been repaired. The old houses had been rebuilt again. The Old Palace had been patched again. Argaven XVII was miraculously back on the throne again. Everything was the way it used to be, ought to be, back to normal, just like the old days—everybody said so.
Indeed those were quiet years, an interval of recovery before Argaven, the first Gethenian who ever left our planet, brought us at last fully into the Ekumen; before we, not they, became the Aliens; before we came of age. When I was a child we lived the way people had lived in Rer forever. It is that way, that timeless world, that world around the corner, I have been thinking about, and trying to describe for people who never knew it. Yet as I write I see how also nothing changes, that it is truly the Year One always, for each child that comes of age, each lover who falls in love.
There were a couple of thousand people in the Ereb Hearths, and a hundred and forty of them lived in my Hearth, Ereb Tage. My name is Sov Thade Tage em Ereb, after the old way of naming we still use in Rer. The first thing I remember is a huge dark place full of shouting and shadows, and I am falling upward through a golden light into the darkness. In thrilling terror, I scream. I am caught in my fall, held, held close; I weep; a voice so close to me that it seems to speak through my body says softly, “Sov, Sov, Sov.” And then I am given something wonderful to eat, something so sweet, so delicate that never again will I eat anything quite so good…
I imagine that some of my wild elder hearthsibs had been throwing me about, and that my mother comforted me with a bit of festival cake. Later on when I was a wild elder sib we used to play catch with babies for balls; they always screamed, with terror or with delight, or both. It’s the nearest to flying anyone of my generation knew. We had dozens of different words for the way snow falls, floats, descends, glides; blows, for the way clouds move, the way ice floats, the way boats sail; but not that word. Not yet. And so I don’t remember “flying.” I remember falling upward through the golden light.
Family houses in Rer are built around a big central hall. Each story has an inner balcony clear round that space, and we call the whole story, rooms and all, a balcony. My family occupied the whole second balcony of Ereb Tage. There were a lot of us. My grandmother had borne four children, and all of them had children, so I had a bunch of cousins as well as a younger and an older wombsib. “The Thades always kemmer as women and always get pregnant,” I heard neighbors say, variously envious, disapproving, admiring. “And they never keep kemmer,” somebody would add. The former was an exaggeration, but the latter was true. Not one of us kids had a father. I didn’t know for years who my getter was, and never gave it a thought. Clannish, the Thades preferred not to bring outsiders, even other members of our own Hearth, into the family. If young people fell in love and started talking about keeping kemmer or making vows, Grandmother and the mothers were ruthless. “Vowing kemmer, what do you think you are, some kind of noble? some kind of fancy person? The kemmerhouse was good enough for me and it’s good enough for you,” the mothers said to their lovelorn children, and sent them away, clear off to the old Ereb Domain in the country, to hoe braties till they got over being in love.
So as a child I was a member of a flock, a school; a swarm, in and out of our warren of rooms, tearing up and down the staircases, working together and learning together and looking after the babies—in our own fashion—and terrorizing quieter hearthmates by our numbers and our noise. As far as I know we did no real harm. Our escapades were well within the rules and limits of the sedate, ancient Hearth, which we felt not as constraints but as protection, the walls that kept us safe. The only time we got punished was when my cousin Sether decided it would be exciting if we tied a long rope we’d found to the second-floor balcony railing, tied a big knot in the rope, held onto the knot, and jumped. “I’ll go first,” Sether said. Another misguided attempt at flight. The railing and Sether’s broken leg were mended, and the rest of us had to clean the privies, all the privies of the Hearth, for a month. I think the rest of the Hearth had decided it was time the young Thades observed some discipline.
Although I really don’t know what I was like as a child, I think that if I’d had any choice I might have been less noisy than my playmates, though just as unruly. I used to love to listen to the radio, and while the rest of them were racketing around the balconies or the centerhall in winter, or out in the streets and gardens in summer, I would crouch for hours in my mother’s room behind the bed, playing her old serem-wood radio very softly so that my sibs wouldn’t know I was there. I listened to anything, Lays and plays and hearthtales, the Palace news, the analyses of grain harvests and the detailed weather reports; I listened every day all one winter to an ancient saga from the Pering Storm-Border about snowghouls, perfidious traitors, and bloody ax-murders, which haunted me at night so that I couldn’t sleep and would crawl into bed with my mother for comfort. Often my younger sib was already there in the warm, soft, breathing dark. We would sleep all entangled and curled up together like a nest of Pesthry.
My mother, Guyr Thade Tage em Ereb, was impatient, warm-hearted, and impartial, not exerting much control over us three wombchildren, buy keeping watch. The Thades were all tradespeople working in Ereb shops and masteries, with little or no cash to spend; but when I was ten, Guyr bought me a radio, a new one, and said where my sibs could hear, “You don’t have to share it.” I treasured it for years and finally shared it with my own wombchild.
So the years went along and I went along in the warmth and density and certainty of a family and a Hearth embedded in tradition, threads on the quick ever-repeating shuttle weaving the timeless web of custom and act and work and relationship, and at this distance I can hardly tell one year from the other or myself from the other children: until I turned fourteen.
The reason most people in my Hearth would remember that year is for the big party known as Dory’s Somer-Forever Celebration. My Mothersib Dory had stopped going into kemmer that winter. Some people didn’t do anything when they stopped going into kemmer; others went to the Fastness for a ritual; some stayed on at the Fastness for months after, or even moved there. Dory, who wasn’t spiritually inclined, said, “If I can’t have kids and can’t have sex anymore and have to get old and die, at least I can have a party.”
I have already had some trouble trying to tell this story in a language that has no somer pronouns, only gendered pronouns. In their last years of kemmer, as the hormone balance chances, many people tend to go into kemmer as men; Dory’s kemmers had been male for over a year, so I’ll call Dory “he,” although of course the point was that he would never be either he or she again.
In any event, his party was tremendous. He invited everyone in our Hearth and the two neighboring Ereb Hearths, and it went on for three days. It had been a long winter and the spring was late and cold; people were ready for something new, something hot to happen. We cooked for a week, and a whole storeroom was packed full of beer kegs. A lot of people who were in the middle of going out of kemmer, or had already and hadn’t done anything about it, came and joined in the ritual. That’s what I remember vividly: in the firelit three-story centerhall of our Hearth, a circle of thirty or forty people, all middle-aged or old, singing and dancing, stamping the drumbeats. There was a fierce energy in them, their gray hair was loose and wild, they stamped as if their feet would go through the floor, their voices were deep and strong, they were laughing. The younger people watching them seemed pallid and shadowy. I looked at the dancers and wondered, why are they happy? Aren’t they old? Why do they act like they’d got free? What’s it like, then, kemmer?
No, I hadn’t thought much about kemmer before. What would be the use? Until we come of age we have no gender and no sexuality, our hormones don’t give us any trouble at all. And in a city Hearth we never see adults in kemmer. They kiss and go. Where’s Maba? In the kemmerhouse, love, now eat your porridge. When’s Maba coming back? Soon, love. And in a couple of days Maba comes back, looking sleepy and shiny and refreshed and exhausted. Is it like having a bath, Maba? Yes, a bit, love, and what have you been up to while I was away?
Of course we played kemmer, when we were seven or eight. This here’s the kemmerhouse and I get to be the woman. No, I do. No, I do, I thought of it! And we rubbed our bodies together and rolled around laughing, and then maybe we stuffed a ball under our shirt and were pregnant, and then we gave birth, and then we played catch with the ball. Children will play whatever adults do; but the kemmer game wasn’t much of a game. It often ended in a tickling match. And most children aren’t even very ticklish; till they come of age.
After Dory’s party, I was on duty in the Hearth creche all through Tuwa, the last month of spring; come summer I began my fast apprenticeship, in a furniture workshop in the Third Ward. I loved getting up early and running across the city on the wayroofs and up on the curbs of the open ways; after the late Thaw some of the ways were still full of water, deep enough for kayaks and poleboats. The air would be still and cold and clear; the sun would come up behind the old towers of the Unpalace, red as blood, and all the waters and the windows of the city would flash scarlet and gold. In the workshop there was the piercing sweet smell of fresh-cut wood and the company of grown people, hard-working, patient, and demanding, taking me seriously. I wasn’t a child anymore, I said to myself. I was an adult, a working person.
But why did I want to cry all the time? Why did I want to sleep all the time? Why did I get angry at Sether? Why did Sether keep bumping into me and saying “Oh sorry” in that stupid husky voice? Why was I so clumsy with the big electric lathe that I ruined six chair-legs one after the other? “Get that kid off the lathe,” shouted old Marth, and I slunk away in a fury of humiliation. I would never be a carpenter, I would never be adult, who gave a shit for chair-legs anyway?
“I want to work in the gardens,” I told my mother and grandmother.
“Finish your training and you can work in the gardens next summer,” Grand said, and Mother nodded. This sensible counsel appeared to me as a heartless injustice, a failure of love, a condemnation to despair. I Sulked. I raged.
“What’s wrong with the furniture shop?” my elders asked after several days of sulk and rage.
“Why does stupid Sether have to be there!” I shouted. Dory, who was Sether’s mother, raised an eyebrow and smiled.
“Are you all right?” my mother asked me as I slouched into the balcony after work, and I snarled, “I’m fine,” and rushed to the privies and vomited.
I was sick. My back ached all the time. My head ached and got dizzy and heavy. Something I could not locate anywhere, some part of my soul, hurt with a keen, desolate, ceaseless pain. I was afraid of myself: of my tears, my rage, my sickness, my clumsy body. It did not feel like my body, like me. It felt like something else, an ill-fitting garment, a smelly, heavy overcoat that belonged to some old person, some dead person. It wasn’t mine, it wasn’t me. Tiny needles of agony shot through my nipples, hot as fire. When I winced and held my arms across my chest, I knew that everybody could see what was happening. Anybody could smell me. I smelled sour, strong, like blood, tike raw pelts of animals. My clitopenis was swollen hugely and stuck out from between my labia, and then shrank nearly to nothing, so that it hurt to piss. My labia itched and reddened as with loathsome insect-bites. Deep in my belly something moved, some monstrous growth. I was utterly ashamed. I was dying.
“Sov,” my mother said, sitting down beside me on my bed, with a curious, tender, complicitous smile, “shall we choose your kemmerday?”
“I’m not in kemmer,” I said passionately.
“No,” Guyr said. “But next month I think you will be.”
“I won’t! “
My mother stroked my hair and face and arm. We shape each other to be human, old people used to say as they stroked babies or children or one another with those long, slow, soft caresses.
After a while my mother said, “Sether’s coming in, too. But a month or so later than you, I think. Dory said let’s have a double kemmerday, but I think you should have your own day in your own time.”
I burst into tears and cried, “I don’t want one, I don’t want to, I just want, I just want to go away…”
“Sov,” my mother said, “if you want to, you can go to the kemmerhouse at Gerodda Ereb, where you won’t know anybody. But I think it would be better here, where people do know you. They’d like it. They’ll be so glad for you. Oh, your Grand’s so proud of you! ‘Have you seen that grandchild of mine, Sov, have you seen what a beauty, what amahad! ‘ Everybody’s bored to tears hearing about you…”
Mahad is a dialect word, a Rer word; it means a strong, handsome, generous, upright person, a reliable person. My mother’s stern mother, who commanded and thanked, but never praised, said I was a mahad? A terrifying idea, that dried my tears.
“All right,” I said desperately, “Here. But not next month! It isn’t. I’m not.”
“Let me see,” my mother said. Fiercely embarrassed yet relieved to obey, I stood up and undid my trousers.
My mother took a very brief and delicate look, hugged me, and said, “Next month, yes, I’m sure. You’ll feel much better in a day or two. And next month it’ll be different. It really will.”
Sure enough, the next day the headache and the hot itching were gone, and though I was still tired and sleepy a lot of the time, I wasn’t quite so stupid and clumsy at work. After a few more days I felt pretty much myself, light and easy in my limbs. Only if I thought about it there was still that queer feeling that wasn’t quite in any part of my body, and that was sometimes very painful and sometimes only strange, almost something I wanted to feel again.
My cousin Sether and I had been apprenticed together at the furniture shop. We didn’t go to work together because Sether was still slightly lame from that rope trick a couple of years earlier, and got a lift to work in a poleboat so long as there was water in the streets. When they closed the Arre Watergate and the ways went dry, Sether had to walk. So we walked together. The first couple of days we didn’t talk much. I still felt angry at Sether. Because I couldn’t run through the dawn anymore but had to walk at a lame-leg pace. And because Sether was always around. Always there. Taller than me, and quicker at the lathe, and with that long, heavy, shining hair. Why did anybody want to wear their hair so long, anyhow? I felt as if Sether’s hair was in front of my own eyes.
We were walking home, tired, on a hot evening of Ockre, the first month of summer. I could see that Sether was limping and trying to hide or ignore it, trying to swing right along at my quick pace, very straight-backed, scowling. A great wave of pity and admiration overwhelmed me, and that thing, that growth, that new being, whatever it was in my bowels and in the ground of my soul moved and turned again, turned towards Sether, aching, yearning.
Are you coming into kemmer?” I said in a hoarse, husky voice I had never heard come out of my mouth.
“In a couple of months,” Sether said in a mumble, not looking at me, still very stiff and frowning.
“I guess I have to have this, do this, you know, this stuff, pretty soon.”
“I wish I could,” Sether said. “Get it over with.”
We did not look at each other. Very gradually, unnoticeably, I was slowing my pace till we were going along side by side at an easy walk.
“Sometimes do you feel like your tits are on fire?” I asked without knowing that I was going to say anything.
After a while, Sether said, “Listen, does your pisser get…”
“It must be what the Aliens look like,” Sether said with revulsion. “This, this thing sticking out, it gets so big … it gets in the way.”
We exchanged and compared symptoms for a mile or so. It was a relief to talk about it, to find company in misery, but it was also frightening to hear our misery confirmed by the other. Sether burst out, “I’ll tell you what I hate, what I really hate about it—it’s dehumanizing. To get jerked around like that by your own body, to lose control, I can’t stand the idea. Of being just a sex machine. And everybody just turns into something to have sex with. You know that people in kemmer go crazy and die if there isn’t anybody else in kemmer? That they’ll even attack people in somer? Their own mothers?”
“They can’t,” I said, shocked.
“Yes they can. Tharry told me. This truck driver up in the High Kargav went into kemmer as a male while their caravan was stuck in the snow, and he was big and strong, and he went crazy and he, he did it to his cab-mate, and his cab-mate was in somer and got hurt, really hurt, trying to fight him off. And then the driver came out of kemmer and committed suicide.”
This horrible story brought the sickness back up from the pit of my stomach, and I could say nothing.
Sether went on, “People in kemmer aren’t even human anymore! And we have to do that—to be that way!
Now that awful, desolate fear was out in the open. But it was not a relief to speak it. It was even larger and more terrible, spoken.
“It’s stupid,” Sether said. “It’s a primitive device for continuing the species. There’s no need for civilized people to undergo it. People who want to get pregnant could do it with injections. It would be genetically sound. You could choose your child’s better. There wouldn’t be all this inbreeding, people fucking with their sibs, like animals. Why do we have to be animals?”
Sether’s rage stirred me. I shared it. I also felt shocked and excited by the word “fucking,” which I had never heard spoken. I looked again at my cousin, the thin, ruddy face, the heavy, long, shining hair. My age, Sether looked older. A half year in pain from a shattered leg had darkened and matured the adventurous, mischievous child, teaching anger, pride, endurance. “Sether,” I said, “listen, it doesn’t matter, you’re human, even if you have to do that stuff, that fucking. You’re a mahad.”
“Getheny Kus,” Grand said: the first day of the month of Kus, midsummer day.
“I won’t be ready,” I said.
“You’ll be ready.”
“I want to go into kemmer with Sether.”
“Sether’s got a month or two yet to go. Soon enough. It looks like you might be on the same moon-time, though. Dark-of-the-mooners, eh? That’s what I used to be. So, just stay on the same wavelength, you and Sether…” Grand had never grinned at me this way, an inclusive grin, as if I were an equal.
My mother’s mother was sixty years old, short, brawny, broad-hipped, with keen clear eyes, a stone-mason by trade, an unquestioned autocrat in the Hearth. I, equal to this formidable person? It was my first intimation that I might be becoming more, rather than less, human.
“I’d like it,” said Grand, “if you spent this half-month at the Fastness. But it’s up to you.”
“At the Fastness?” I said, taken by surprise. We Thades were all Handdara, but very inert Handdara, keeping only the great festivals, muttering the grace all in one garbled word, practicing none of the disciplines. None of my older hearthsibs had been sent off to the Fastness before their kemmerday. Was there something wrong with me?
“You’ve got a good brain,” said Grand. “You and Sether. I’d like to see some of you lot casting some shadows, some day. We Thades sit here in our Hearth and breed like pesthry. Is that enough? It’d be a good thing if some of you got your heads out of the bedding.”
“What do they do in the Fastness?” I asked, and Grand answered frankly, “I don’t know. Go find out.
They teach you. They can teach you how to control kemmer.”
“All right,” I said promptly. I would tell Sether that the Indwellers could control kemmer. Maybe I could learn how to do it and come home and teach it to Sether.
Grand looked at me with approval. I had taken up the challenge.
Of course I didn’t learn how to control kemmer, in a halfmonth in the Fastness. The first couple of days there, I thought I wouldn’t even be able to control my homesickness. From our warm, dark warren of rooms full of people talking, sleeping, eating, cooking, washing, playing remma, playing music, kids running around, noise, family, I went across the city to a huge, clean, cold, quiet house of strangers. They were courteous, they treated me with respect. I was terrified. Why should a person of forty, who knew magic disciplines of superhuman strength and fortitude, who could walk barefoot through blizzards, who could Foretell, whose eyes were the wisest and calmest I had ever seen, why should an Adept of the Handdara respect me?
“Because you are so ignorant,” Ranharrer the Adept said, smiling, with great tenderness.
Having me only for a halfmonth, they didn’t try to influence the nature of my ignorance very much. I practiced the Untrance several hours a day, and came to like it: that was quite enough for them, and they praised me. “At fourteen, most people go crazy moving slowly,” my teacher said.
During my last six or seven days in the Fastness certain symptoms began to show up again, the headache, the swellings and shooting pains, the irritability. One morning the sheet of my cot in my bare, peaceful little room was bloodstained. I looked at the smear with horror and loathing. I thought I had scratched my itching labia to bleeding in my sleep, but I knew also what the blood was. I began to cry. I had to wash the sheet somehow. I had fouled, defiled this place where everything was clean, austere, and beautiful.
An old Indweller, finding me scrubbing desperately at the sheet in the washrooms, said nothing, but brought me some soap that bleached away the stain. I went back to my room, which I had come to love with the passion of one who had never before known any actual privacy, and crouched on the sheetless bed, miserable, checking every few minutes to be sure I was not bleeding again. I missed my Untrance practice time. The immense house was very quiet. Its peace sank into me. Again I felt that strangeness in my soul, but it was not pain now; it was a desolation like the air at evening, like the peaks of the Kargav seen far in the west in the clarity of winter. It was an immense enlargement.
Ranharrer the Adept knocked and entered at my word, looked at me for a minute, and asked gently, “What is it?”
“Everything is strange,” I said.
The Adept smiled radiantly and said, “Yes.”
I know now how Ranharrer cherished and honored my ignorance, in the Handdara sense. Then I knew only that somehow or other I had said the right thing and so pleased a person I wanted very much to please.
“We’re doing some singing,” Ranharrer said, “you might like to hear it.”
They were in fact singing the Midsummer Chant, which goes on for the four days before Getheny Kus, night and day. Singers and drummers drop in and out at will, most of them singing on certain syllables in an endless group improvisation guided only by the drums and by melodic cues in the Chantbook, and failing into harmony with the soloist if one is present. At first I heard only a pleasantly thick-textured, droning sound over a quiet and subtle beat. I listened till I got bored and decided I could do it too. So I opened my mouth and sang “Aah” and heard all the other voices singing “Aah” above and with and below mine until I lost mine and heard only all the voices, and then only the music itself, and then suddenly the startling silvery rush of a single voice running across the weaving, against the current, and sinking into it and vanishing, and rising out of it again… Ranharrer touched my arm. It was time for dinner, I had been singing since Third Hour. I went back to the chantry after dinner, and after supper. I spent the next three days there. I would have spent the nights there if they had let me. I wasn’t sleepy at all anymore. I had sudden, endless energy, and couldn’t sleep. In my little room I sang to myself, or read the strange Handdara poetry which was the only book they had given me, and practiced the Untrance, trying to ignore the heat and cold, the fire and ice in my body, till dawn came and I could go sing again.
And then it was Ottormenbod, midsummer’s eve, and I must go home to my Hearth and the kemmerhouse.
To my surprise, my mother and grandmother and all the elders came to the Fastness to fetch me, wearing ceremonial hiebs and looking solemn. Ranharrer handed me over to them, saying to me only, “Come back to us.” My family paraded me through the streets in the hot summer morning; all the vines were in flower, perfuming the air, all the gardens were blooming, bearing, fruiting. “This is an excellent time,” Grand said judiciously, “to come into kemmer.”
The Hearth looked very dark to me after the Fastness, and somehow shrunken. I looked around for Sether, but it was a workday, Sether was at the shop. That gave me a sense of holiday, which was not unpleasant. And then up in the hearthroom of our balcony, Grand and the Hearth elders formally presented me with a whole set of new clothes, new everything, from the boots up, topped by a magnificently embroidered hieb. There was a spoken ritual that went with the clothes, not Handdara; I think, but a tradition of our Hearth; the words were all old and strange, the language of a thousand years ago. Grand rattled them out like somebody spitting rocks, and put the hieb on my shoulders. Everybody said, “Haya!”
All the elders, and a lot of younger kids, hung around helping me put on the new clothes as if I was a king or a baby, and some of the elders wanted to give me advice—”last advice,” they called it, since you gain shifgrethor when you go into kemmer, and once you have shifgrethor advice is insulting. “Now you just keep away from that old Ebbeche,” one of them told me shrilly. My mother took offense, snapping, “Keep your shadow to yourself, Tadsh!” And to me, “Don’t listen to the old fish. Flapmouth Tadsh! But now listen, Sov.”
I listened. Guyr had drawn me a little away from the others, and spoke gravely, with some embarrassment. “Remember, it will matter who you’re with first.”
I nodded. “I understand,” I said.
“No, you don’t,” my mother snapped, forgetting to be embarrassed. “Just keep it in mind!”
“What, ah,” I said. My mother waited. “If I, if I go into, as a, as female,” I said. “Don’t I, shouldn’t I—?”
“Ah,” Guyr said. “Don’t worry. It’ll be a year or more before you can conceive. Or get. Don’t worry, this time. The other people will see to it, just in case. They all know it’s your first kemmer. But do keep it in mind, who you’re with first! Around, oh, around Karrid, and Ebbeche, and some of them.”
“Come on!” Dory shouted, and we all got into a procession again to go downstairs and across the centerhall, where everybody cheered “Haya Sov! Haya Sov!” and the cooks beat on their saucepans. I wanted to die. But they all seemed so cheerful, so happy about me, wishing me well; I wanted also to live.
We went out the west door and across the sunny gardens and came to the kemmerhouse. Tage Ereb shares a kemmerhouse with two other Ereb Hearths; it’s a beautiful building, all carved with deep-figure friezes in the Old Dynasty style, terribly worn by the weather of a couple of thousand years. On the red stone steps my family all kissed me, murmuring, “Praise then Darkness,” or “In the act of creation praise,” and my mother gave me a hard push on my shoulders, what they call the sledge-push, for good luck, as I turned away from them and went in the door.
The doorkeeper was waiting for me; a queer-looking, rather stooped person, with coarse, pale skin.
Now I realized who this “Ebbeche” they’d been talking about was. I’d never met him, but I’d heard about him. He was the Doorkeeper of our kemmerhouse, a halfdead—that is, a person in permanent kemmer, like the Aliens.
There are always a few people born that way here. Some of them can be cured; those who can’t or choose not to be usually live in a Fastness and learn the disciplines, or they become Doorkeepers. It’s convenient for them, and for normal people too. After all, who else would want to live in a kemmerhouse? But there are drawbacks. If you come to the kemmerhouse in thorharmen, ready to gender, and the first person you meet is fully male, his pheromones are likely to gender you female right then, whether that’s what you had in mind this month or not. Responsible Doorkeepers, of course, keep well away from anybody who doesn’t invite them to come close. But permanent kemmer may not lead to responsibility of character; nor does being called halfdead and pervert all your life, I imagine. Obviously my family didn’t trust Ebbeche to keep his hands and his pheromones off me. But they were unjust. He honored a first kemmer as much as anyone else. He greeted me by name and showed me where to take off my new boots. Then he began to speak the ancient ritual welcome, backing down the hall before me; the first time I ever heard the words I would hear so many times again for so many years.
You cross earth now.
You cross water now.
You cross the Ice now….
And the exulting ending, as we came into the centerhall:
Together we have crossed the Ice.
Together we come into the Hearthplace,
Into life, bringing life!
In the act of creation, praise!
The solemnity of the words moved me and distracted me somewhat from my intense self-consciousness. As I had in the Fastness, I felt the familiar reassurance of being part of something immensely older and larger than myself, even if it was strange and new to me. I must entrust myself to it and be what it made me. At the same time I was intensely alert. All my senses were extraordinarily keen, as they had been all morning. I was aware of everything, the beautiful blue color of the walls, the lightness and vigor of my steps as I walked, the texture of the wood under my bare feet, the sound and meaning of the ritual words, the Doorkeeper himself. He fascinated me. Ebbeche was certainly not handsome, and yet I noticed how musical his rather deep voice was; and pale skin was more attractive than I had ever thought it. I felt that he had been maligned, that his life must be a strange one. I wanted to talk to him. But as he finished the welcome, standing aside for me at the doorway of the centerhall, a tall person strode forward eagerly to meet me.
I was glad to see a familiar face: it was the head cook of my Hearth, Karrid Arrage. Like many cooks a rather fierce and temperamental person, Karrid had often taken notice of me, singling me out in a joking, challenging way, tossing me some delicacy—”Here, youngun! get some meat on your bones!” As I saw Karrid now I went through the most extraordinary multiplicity of awarenesses: that Karrid was naked and that this nakedness was not like the nakedness of people in the Hearth, but a significant nakedness—that he was not the Karrid I had seen before but transfigured into great beauty—that he was he —that my mother had warned me about him—that I wanted to touch him—that I was afraid of him.
He picked me right up in his arms and pressed me against him. I felt his clitopenis like a fist between my legs. “Easy, now,” the Doorkeeper said to him, and some other people came forward from the room, which I could see only as large, dimly glowing, full of shadows and mist.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” Karrid said to me and them, with his hard laugh. “I won’t hurt my own get, will I? I just want to be the one that gives her kemmer. As a woman, like a proper Thade. I want to give you that joy, little Sov.” He was undressing me as he spoke, slipping off my hieb and shirt with big, hot, hasty hands. The Doorkeeper and the others kept close watch, but did not interfere. I felt totally defenseless, helpless, humiliated. I struggled to get free, broke loose, and tried to pick up and put on my shirt. I was shaking and felt terribly weak, I could hardly stand up. Karrid helped me clumsily; his big arm supported me. I leaned against him, feeling his hot, vibrant skin against mine, a wonderful feeling, like sunlight, like firelight. I leaned more heavily against him, raising my arms so that our sides slid together. “Hey, now,” he said. “Oh, you beauty, oh, you Sov, here, take her away, this won’t do!” And he backed right away from me, laughing and yet really alarmed, his clitopenis standing up amazingly. I stood there half-dressed, on my rubbery legs, bewildered. My eyes were full of mist, I could see nothing clearly.
“Come on,” somebody said, and took my hand, a soft, cool touch totally different from the fire of Karrid’s skin. It was a person from one of the other Hearths, I didn’t know her name. She seemed to me to shine like gold in the dim, misty place. “Oh, you’re going so fast,” she said, laughing and admiring and consoling. “Come on, come into the pool, take it easy for a while. Karrid shouldn’t have come on to you like that! But you’re lucky, first kemmer as a woman, there’s nothing like it. I kemmered as a man three times before I got to kemmer as a woman, it made me so mad, every time I got into thorharmen all my damn friends would all be women already. Don’t worry about me—I’d say Karrid’s influence was decisive,” and she laughed again. “Oh, you are so pretty!” and she bent her head and licked my nipples before I knew what she was doing.
It was wonderful, it cooled that stinging fire in them that nothing else could cool. She helped me finish undressing, and we stepped together into the warm water of the big, shallow pool that filled the whole center of this room. That was why it was so misty, why the echoes were so strange. The water lapped on my thighs, on my sex, on my belly. I turned to my friend and leaned forward to kiss her. It was a perfectly natural thing to do, it was what she wanted and I wanted, and I wanted her to lick and suck my nipples again, and she did. For a long time we lay in the shallow water playing, and I could have played forever. But then somebody else joined us, taking hold of my friend from behind, and she arched her body in the water like a golden fish leaping, threw her back, and began to play with him.
I got out of the water and dried myself, feeling sad and shy and forsaken, and yet extremely interested in what had happened to my body. It felt wonderfully alive and electric, so that the roughness of the towel made me shiver with pleasure. Somebody had come closer to me, somebody that had been watching me play with my friend in the water. He sat down by me now.
It was a hearthmate a few years older than I, Arrad Tehemmy. I had worked in the gardens with Arrad all last summer, and liked him. He looked like Sether, I now thought, with heavy black hair and a long, thin face, but in him was that shining, that glory they all had here—all the kemmerers, the women , the men —such vivid beauty as I had never seen in any human beings. “Sov,” he said, “I’d like—Your first—Will you—” His hands were already on me, and mine on him. “Come,” he said, and I went with him. He took me into a beautiful little room, in which there was nothing but a fire burning in a fireplace, and a wide bed. There Arrad took me into his arms and I took Arrad into my arms, and then between my legs, and fell upward, upward through the golden light.
Arrad and I were together all that first night, and besides fucking a great deal, we ate a great deal. It had not occurred to me that there would be food at a kemmerhouse, I had thought you weren’t allowed to do anything but fuck. There was a lot of food, very good, too, set out so that you could eat whenever you wanted. Drink was more limited; the person in charge, an old woman-halfdead, kept her canny eye on you, and wouldn’t give you any more beer if you showed signs of getting wild or stupid. I didn’t need any more beer. I didn’t need any more fucking. I was complete. I was in love forever for all time all my life to eternity with Arrad. But Arrad (who was a day farther into kemmer than I) fell asleep and wouldn’t wake up, and an extraordinary person named Hama sat down by me and began talking and also running his hand up and down my back in the most delicious way, so that before long we got further entangled, and began fucking, and it was entirely different with Hama than it had been with Arrad, so that I realized that I must be in love with Hama, until Gehardar joined us. After that I think I began to understand that I loved them all and they all loved me and that that was the secret of the kemmerhouse.
It’s been nearly fifty years, and I have to admit I do not recall everyone from my first kemmer; only Karrid and Arrad, Hama and Gehardar, old Tubanny, the most exquisitely skillful lover as a male that I ever knew—I met him often in later kemmers—and Berre, my golden fish, with whom I ended up in drowsy, peaceful, blissful lovemaking in front of the great hearth till we both fell asleep. And when we woke we were not women. We were not men. We were not in kemmer. We were very tired young adults.
“You’re still beautiful,” I said to Berre.
“So are you,” Berre said. “Where do you work?”
“Furniture shop, Third Ward.”
I tried licking Berre’s nipple, but it didn’t work; Berre flinched a little, and I said “Sorry,” and we both laughed.
“I’m in the radio trade,” Berre said. “Did you ever think of trying that?”
“No. Broadcasting. I do the Fourth Hour news and weather.”
“That’s you?” I said, awed.
“Come over to the tower some time, I’ll show you around,” said Berre.
Which is how I found my lifelong trade and a life-long friend. As I tried to tell Sether when I came back to the Hearth, kemmer isn’t exactly what we thought it was; it’s much more complicated.
Sether’s first kemmer was on Getheny Gor, the first day of the first month of autumn, at the dark of the moon. One of the family brought Sether into kemmer as a woman, and then Sether brought me in. That was the first time I kemmered as a man. And we stayed on the same wavelength, as Grand put it. We never conceived together, being cousins and having some modern scruples, but we made love in every combination, every dark of the moon, for years. And Sether brought my child, Tamor, into first kemmer—as a woman, like a proper Thade.
Later on Sether went into the Handdara, and became an Indweller in the old Fastness, and now is an Adept. I go over there often to join in one of the Chants or practice the Untrance or just to visit, and every few days Sether comes back to the Hearth. And we talk. The old days or the new times, somer or kemmer, love is love.
*Copyright © 1995 by Ursula K. Le Guin . The story first appeared NEW LEGENDS in 1995, and then in THE BIRTHDAY OF THE WORLD, published by HarperCollins in 2002 Reprinted by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd.
*Image: Dancing the Dance of Life by Andrea Wan.
Well now, esteemed readers, I am now in Ōsaka and shall therefore relate a local story.
Long ago there was a man who came to the city to seek a position as a menial. Ranking as he did among the kitchen help, he is known only by the generic name of Gonsuke.
Gonsuke passed through the entrance curtain of a servants’ registry agency and spoke to the head clerk, sitting atop the reception dais with a long-stemmed pipe in his mouth.
“Sir, I should very much like to become a wizard and so beseech you to place me with an employer suitable to that end.”
When the astonished clerk did not immediately reply, Gonsuke continued:
“Sir, have you not heard me? I wish to be sent out to become a wizard.”
“I am sorry to say, my good man,” replied the clerk at last, still puffing on his pipe, “that as we have no prior experience in mediating the apprenticeships of would-be wizards, I must humbly suggest that you look elsewhere.”
“Ah, but sir,” protested Gonsuke, looking most displeased, as he edged forward on the knees of his grey-blue trousers. “Is what you have said not contrary to what your esteemed establishment proclaims on its entrance curtain? ‘Introducing all manner of employment’…Is your claim valid? Or is it misleading and false?”
Gonsuke did indeed have reason to be angry.
“Oh no, what we say is quite true. If what you are seeking is a position whereby you may become wizard, I shall duly look into the matter this very day. Please return tomorrow to receive our reply.”
In this way the head clerk acceded to Gonsuke’s request, even as he sought to evade it. Yet how was he to know where he would send a man for such an apprenticeship or how anyone could be properly trained in such sorcery? Thus, as soon as Gonsuke was out of his sight, he set off to consult with a neighborhood physician.
“What then, Doctor?” he asked in a worried tone, having told him the story. “Where might we most easily send him for training as a wizard?”
The physician too must have been perplexed. For some time he sat with his arms crossed, merely staring at the pine tree in his garden. Listening in on it all was his cunning wife, whose nickname was appropriately the Old Vixen. And now she unhesitatingly intruded:
“Send him to us. Within two or three years in our care, he’ll surely be a wizard for all the world to see.”
“Ah, I am most happy to hear this and shall most gratefully entrust him to you. Intuition has somehow informed me of the karmic bond between physicians and aspiring wizards.
With ardent and repeated bows, the clerk in his ignorant bliss took his leave. The physician watched him go, then, still scowling, turned to his wife in exasperation:
“What utter nonsense! ” he chided her. “And what, pray tell, do you intend to do when in a few scant years this bumpkin complains that we have kept none of the promise you have now made to him?”
Far from accepting this rebuke, the woman scornfully replied:
“Hold your tongue! What chance would the likes of you, honest simpleton, have of keeping yourself fed in this merciless world of ours?”
And with that she silenced him.
The next day, as promised, the head clerk returned, this time with the rustic Gonsuke, who was now attired in a crested half-coat—well aware, it would seem, that he was making his debut, though, in fact, none would have mistaken him for anything but a peaant. He was a strange sight indeed: The physician stared at him quite as though the man were a musky beast from the Indies.
“So you wish to become a wizard,” said the physician with a skeptical air. “Whatever was it that induced this ambition of yours?”
“Well now, I am not sure that know myself. But as I beheld Ōsaka Castle, it occurred to me that even the Great Lord who first built and occupied it was doomed to die. And so I was reminded that the pomp and glory of all human striving must pass away.”
“So you will do anything in order to become a wizard?”
The doctor’s sly spouse had promptly intervened.
“Yes indeed, I am prepared to do whatever is required.”
“Then from this very moment and for the next twenty years you will serve us. And then we shall reveal to you the wizard’s art.”
“Ah, then I am most truly and humbly grateful.”
“And in that entire score of years you shall receive not a single farthing in recompense.”
“Yes, yes. You have my compliance.”
And so for the following twenty years, Gonsuke served in the physician’s house. He drew water; he chopped wood. He cooked and he cleaned. Moreover, when the doctor made his rounds, it was Gonsuke who bore the medicine chest. Not once did he ask for wages, not even a single coin, and thus made himself a laborer more precious than one could find in all of Japan.
And now the decades passed. Once again clad in a crested half-coat, Gonsuke presented himself to his master and mistress and courteously expressed his thanks.
“And now I would beseech you to fulfill your oft-repeated promise and reveal to me how I might learn the wizard’s art and thereby gain immortality.”
The physican listened to Gonsuke in glum silence. Having worked the man for so long without payment, he dared not confess that he was presently no more possesed of knowledge concerning wizardry than he had been all those years before.
His reply was brusque and dismissive: “It is my wife who can teach you.”
For her part, she now spoke to him with ruthless self-assurance:
“I shall teach you the art of wizardry, but in exchange you must do whatever I command, however difficult the task I shall give you may be. Otherwise, you will not only be denied what you seek. You will also be obliged to perform twenty more years of labor for no wages, with death as your punishment should you fail to comply.”
“Please put me to my duty, however daunting!” replied the overjoyed Gonsuke, as he awaited her orders.
“Then climb the pine tree in the garden!”
Having herself no knowledge of wizardry, the wife no doubt thought that in forcing Gonsuke to do the impossible she could extract another twenty years of service from him. And yet hearing of his assignment, he immediately went forth to carry it out.
“Go on!” she called out to him, looking up at the pine from where she stood at the edge of the veranda. “Higher, higher!” Gonsuke’s half-coat was now fluttering at the very top of the large garden’s towering tree.
“Now release your right hand!”
Gonsuke slowly and cautiously did as he was told, even as he kept his left hand tightly gripped to a thick bough.
“And now the other!”
But now the doctor had joined her on the veranda, exclaiming with a distraught look: “Stop, woman! If he releases both hands, the bumpkin will fall onto the rocks, and that will surely be the end of him.”
“This is not your turn on stage, my dear. Leave it to me…”
“Let your left hand go!”
Gonsuke did not wait for her to finish calling out to him. Resolutely, he pulled his hand away. From there amidst the the topmost boughs there was no reason for him not to plunge to the ground. Instantly, Gonsuke and his half-coat were separated from the tree.
And yet, wondrously enough, he did not fall but, like a marionette being held by invisible strings, remained suspended there in the bright air of day.
“Thank you! Thank you!” Gonsuke called out. “At last, and all because of you, I have now indeed become a wizard!”
Bowing ever so deferentially, he gently trod the azure sky and rose into the clouds above.
The subsequent fate of the physician and his wife is quite unknown, though the pine tree in the garden endured for years thereafter. It is said that though the trunk alone was four armspans in circumference, Yodoya Tatsugorō went to the trouble of having it moved to his own garden, so that in winter he might gaze upon its snow-covered branches.
His heart suddenly flipped over in his chest. “Just like a carp in the kitchen sink,” Grigory Katz thought. To calm himself down, he stuck his nose into his scarf and breathed in his own warm air for a few seconds. Then he began to watch the tracks where a train ought to appear, but it was late and instead he ended up watching, like an eager child, another train pulling up to the next platform. Since he was untroubled by the trifling concerns of passengers, Katz was already enjoying the sight of that other train slithering along like a gray snake, adroitly swerving like mercury around the bend and then pulling up to the platform with inexorable stately majesty, like a wave, and just like a wave — iridescent — the lights of Tel Aviv were reflected on it. The train was gone, but Grigory Katz’s curiosity, like a warm wasp, had awakened and hung in the air, quivering, somewhere to the side, and then, with a sense of relief finally descended into someone’s bag. Katz saw a man’s swarthy hands groping around for something in the bag, then taking out a tube of toothpaste and a toothbrush and putting them into a backpack. This was clearly well thought-out beforehand: the man had already known where the bag would be and that the backpack was close by, and for some reason Katz felt contented to be privy to the other person’s minor logistical considerations. The young man looked like an Indian. What awaited him today — a night in a stranger’s house, a stay in a hostel or a night flight? No matter what it was, Katz knew that there would be people and places the fellow didn’t know, and it would take place just before night fall, which concerned and agitated the man slightly; Katz envied his anxiety, and he happily and tenderly imagined the other man’s evening. But then he immediately felt sad. He was like a stray dog that walked alongside people, taking a few steps with everyone who went by. When will I finally have a home? He did have a home, but after the loss of his daughter and the death of his wife, for some reason he constantly forgot it.
But he had something better. He had the street. He now looked at the poor and homeless in a different way. He recalled hearing that some of them stubbornly refused to go into the warmth, to sleep with a roof over their heads, and now he understood that some of them felt more comfortable on the street. He couldn’t decide if grief had made him hard, or if a slice of life had been revealed to him — truly opened to him — and so it no longer seemed as dreadful as it had in the past. Now when he saw a homeless person on a bench, he saw in this unremarkable form a person whose kettle was just about to come to a boil on the stove. And sometimes he was right. Maybe not about the kettle, but look, for example, at the two men playing chess with a plastic cup instead of a queen. Next to them a bottle of cola, half-drunk, stood on an old advertisement. Now Katz never agonized over whether or not to give a hand-out. He could grope around in his pockets for a long time, looking for the exact coin he wanted to give, and then secret the rest of his money back in his pocket without being embarrassed. Did he feel like one of them, was the street his home? Of course not. Katz loved warmth and comfort, but it was on the street that he was able to have his “rooms” — that’s what he called the small but perceptible spaces that sometimes appeared during his brief contact with strangers.
His housing — a clean little corner apartment in a freshly built house that he moved into after his wife’s death — had frozen and turned into something ethereal and transparent. The plastic drop cloths that he had left up after the walls were whitewashed certainly added to the apartment’s unsubstantial aura, but there were more tangible signs. From time to time the apartment gave up to him its airy fauna: pale lice, ants with rickets (both of them were weak, semi-transparent). There were completely extraordinary little spiders with bead-like bodies and the most delicate, awkward legs — he was terrified of hitting them with his mop. Sometimes he found their fragile, white cocoons in the corner. Then ethereal flora appeared. In the sink where he once washed his clay-covered boots with reckless bachelor abandon, a tiny lavender flower on a white stem grew out of the drain, and next to it another one sprung up, this one with a bud curled inward, like a large-headed fetus. Perhaps all of those creatures were waiting for him to buy a lampshade to cover the bare lightbulb, and then, in soft interior lighting, they’d warm up, take on whatever it was they should have had — fuzzy legs, whiskers, or pigmentation for heaven’s sake… But Grigory Katz didn’t buy a lampshade. He quickly walked down the bare winter street that smelled of porridge, then of rubber, and then for some reason of magic markers, and he stopped at the crosswalk; on the other side of the street a woman waited at the crosswalk just like him, and then they were walking in opposite directions across the black and white stripes, and their movement toward each other had an extraordinary painterly quality, a kind of symmetry fraught with meaning, and Katz lost heart and wanted to shamble along clumsily to shake off the solemnity of the movement, but he didn’t give in to it and passed her without speeding up or looking at her, sensing how a room took shape: an entire life lived with that woman — the room hung over the intersection… but like an architect testing the durability and beauty of a structure, he walked down the sidewalk and strode on, led by the beacon of a yellow orange in the mesh pocket of a big strapping fellow, but then he immediately forgot about it because the shawarma vendor had put speakers on the street playing whooping and hooting, and Katz had already become a gangster crossing Harlem at night: he did the first take, and that very first take was a good one — he could tell — and walked along under the gaze of the cameramen and make-up artists, walked across dozens of monitors, walked, slouched and bounced along, and he forgot that he had meant to sit at a table and have a bite to eat, but it was too late – he’d already moved on, he never ate on the set, the king of hip-hop needed a light empty stomach so no shawarma for him now — and then he’d gone by, it was history now.
He loved being outside his house more and more and began to live only in his street “rooms.” He stretched out his walks when he had somewhere to go, and if he had nowhere to go, he organized fake forays on errands with meticulously invented legends. But no one asked him about them, and no one had any intention of catching him in the act. But most important — and this was amazing — his morbid, insatiable curiosity went absolutely unpunished. People didn’t notice his attentive gaze, probably because his body’s overall benign contour was immediately perceived as non-threatening. That was certainly true, but for some reason he still felt like he was a scout on reconnaissance, or maybe — however embarrassing to admit — a secret agent. Someone whose life was in danger because “he knew too much.”
Because, actually, he did know too much. All he had to do was get on the tram and he already knew about the love between the tall, gray-haired man and the older woman sitting up front. When they got off and a student carrying a cardboard portfolio sat in their place, Katz again somehow knew that this boy, an artist, was, unfortunately, completely without talent. “Why is he without talent?” he asked himself sternly. “How can you say that, off the top of your head?” “I can,” someone very calm and merciless replied, and deigned to explain. “His portfolio is too thin. The boy is a slacker. And on top of it, he doesn’t have drive.” (The artist thoughtfully itched his long neck which had a boil coming to a head at the spot where the chain of his feeble, scrawny vertebrae began.) “Go on, take a good look,” the same merciless voice said to Katz, indicating the boil as if it were incontrovertible proof of mediocrity. “Look! What did I tell you?!”
Katz suspected that his grief was to blame for all this. It was his grief that gave him this stern new way of seeing, this new person to talk to, whom he both loved and hated. If he turned that gaze on his wife or daughter, what would he have seen? Would he have begun to loathe them or would he have loved them even more? Suddenly he wanted to look there, into the past, using his new lens. He squinted, expecting to see at least something that would tug at the edge of memory, like pulling the corner of a silk scarf.
He recalled, of course, some bit of nonsense. He remembered blindly groping in her handbag. (She had asked him to get money to pay the gas bill — her hands were covered with flour.) He was amazed by the black sateen lining. He recalled the handbags of his mother and grandmother from his childhood, after the war, with red satin or dark blue velvet mouths exhaling warm breath that smelled of the theater. His wife’s handbag — actually not a handbag but a shoulder bag, to be exact — was spacious and empty. He groped around until he found her wallet and one other thing, which surprised his blind hand. It was a vial — a glass pyramid. He held the vial in his hand, it was a perfume bottle, probably French. The black obelisk shimmered wickedly and seemed to have been specially made to be awkward — no matter how you turned it, it wouldn’t lie in your hand. He said, it seems, to his wife then, “This thing — you could kill someone with it. Do you really carry it around with you?” “That’s why I carry it,” his wife laughed, “For self-defense.” But his mother and grandmother never carried perfume in their purses. They stood in front of the mirror and tapped out several drops onto a handkerchief. But it would have been stupid to tell her that; fashions change. Now that he thought of it, how did it smell, her perfume? He couldn’t remember. She never put on perfume at home in front of the mirror. She put it on somewhere else, at work. In the cloakroom? The ladies’ room? Where? And for whom, by the way? Should he try to direct his new gaze on the black pyramid, screaming at it soundlessly “Attack!”? But he didn’t want to. He wanted to remember how pleasantly squat the base of the bottle was, how he peered at the glass in the ashy half-light. And his heart flipped over again and he thought, “like a carp,” and realized the similarity: although the heart beats constantly, we don’t notice it, but when we do, we get scared, as if it were bad to be beating, although it’s the opposite — it’s a good thing. Those carp were called “live fish,” but they were dead, and everyone knew that they were dead, and that’s why people were scared when a fish flipped over — it was unexpectedly alive and it frightened them. He leaned against the wall, unwinding his scarf, and, smiling, remembering how the carp slapped his tail and grandmother and mother squealed and jumped back from the sink.
The Western train had just arrived at Redfern railway station with a lot of ordinary passengers and one swagman.
He was short, and stout, and bow-legged, and freckled, and sandy. He had red hair and small, twinkling, grey eyes, and — what often goes with such things — the expression of a born comedian. He was dressed in a ragged, well-washed print shirt, an old black waistcoat with a calico back, a pair of cloudy moleskins patched at the knees and held up by a plaited greenhide belt buckled loosely round his hips, a pair of well-worn, fuzzy blucher boots, and a soft felt hat, green with age, and with no brim worth mentioning, and no crown to speak of. He swung a swag on to the platform, shouldered it, pulled out a billy and water-bag, and then went to a dog-box in the brake van.
Five minutes later he appeared on the edge of the cab platform, with an anxious-looking cattle-dog crouching against his legs, and one end of the chain in his hand. He eased down the swag against a post, turned his face to the city, tilted his hat forward, and scratched the well-developed back of his head with a little finger. He seemed undecided what track to take.
The swagman turned slowly and regarded cabby with a quiet grin.
“Now, do I look as if I want a cab?”
“Well, why not? No harm, anyway — I thought you might want a cab.”
Swaggy scratched his head, reflectively.
“Well,” he said, “you’re the first man that has thought so these ten years. What do I want with a cab?”
“To go where you’re going, of course.”
“Do I look knocked up?”
“I didn’t say you did.”
“And I didn’t say you said I did… Now, I’ve been on the track this five years. I’ve tramped two thousan’ miles since last Chris’mas, and I don’t see why I can’t tramp the last mile. Do you think my old dog wants a cab?”
The dog shivered and whimpered; he seemed to want to get away from the crowd.
“But then, you see, you ain’t going to carry that swag through the streets, are you?” asked the cabman.
“Why not? Who’ll stop me! There ain’t no law agin it, I b’lieve?”
“But then, you see, it don’t look well, you know.”
“Ah! I thought we’d get to it at last.”
The traveller up-ended his bluey against his knee, gave it an affectionate pat, and then straightened himself up and looked fixedly at the cabman.
“Now, look here!” he said, sternly and impressively, “can you see anything wrong with that old swag o’ mine?”
It was a stout, dumpy swag, with a red blanket outside, patched with blue, and the edge of a blue blanket showing in the inner rings at the end. The swag might have been newer; it might have been cleaner; it might have been hooped with decent straps, instead of bits of clothes-line and greenhide — but otherwise there was nothing the matter with it, as swags go.
“I’ve humped that old swag for years,” continued the bushman; “I’ve carried that old swag thousands of miles — as that old dog knows — an’ no one ever bothered about the look of it, or of me, or of my old dog, neither; and do you think I’m going to be ashamed of that old swag, for a cabby or anyone else? Do you think I’m going to study anybody’s feelings? No one ever studied mine! I’m in two minds to summon you for using insulting language towards me!”
He lifted the swag by the twisted towel which served for a shoulder-strap, swung it into the cab, got in himself and hauled the dog after him.
“You can drive me somewhere where I can leave my swag and dog while I get some decent clothes to see a tailor in,” he said to the cabman. “My old dog ain’t used to cabs, you see.”
Then he added, reflectively: “I drove a cab myself, once, for five years in Sydney.”
Katherine Farquhar was a handsome woman of forty, no longer slim, but attractive in her soft, full, feminine way. The French porters ran round her, getting a voluptuous pleasure from merely carrying her bags. And she gave them ridiculously high tips, because, in the first place, she had never really known the value of money, and secondly, she had a morbid fear of underpaying anyone, but particularly a man who was eager to serve her.
It was really a joke to her, how eagerly these Frenchmen—all sorts of Frenchmen—ran round her and Madamed her. Their voluptuous obsequiousness. Because, after all, she was Boche. Fifteen years of marriage to an Englishman—or rather to two Englishmen—had not altered her racially. Daughter of a German Baron she was, and remained, in her own mind and body, although England had become her life-home. And surely she looked German, with her fresh complexion and her strong, full figure. But like most people in the world, she was a mixture, with Russian blood and French blood also in her veins. And she had lived in one country and another, till she was somewhat indifferent to her surroundings. So that perhaps the Parisian men might be excused for running round her so eagerly, and getting a voluptuous pleasure from calling a taxi for her, or giving up a place in the omnibus to her, or carrying her bags, or holding the menu card before her. Nevertheless, it amused her. And she had to confess she liked them, these Parisians. They had their own kind of manliness, even if it wasn’t an English sort; and if a woman looked pleasant and soft-fleshed, and a wee bit helpless, they were ardent and generous. Katherine understood so well that Frenchmen were rude to the dry, hard-seeming, competent Englishwoman or American. She sympathized with the Frenchman’s point of view: too much obvious capacity to help herself is a disagreeable trait in a woman.
At the Gare de l’Est, of course, everybody was expected to be Boche, and it was almost a convention, with the porters, to assume a certain small-boyish superciliousness. Nevertheless, there was the same voluptuous scramble to escort Katherine Farquhar to her seat in the first-class carriage. Madame was travelling alone.
She was going to Germany via Strasburg, meeting her sister in Baden-Baden. Philip, her husband, was in Germany collecting some sort of evidence for his newspaper. Katherine felt a little weary of newspapers, and of the sort of “evidence” that is extracted out of nowhere to feed them. However, Philip was quite clever, he was a little somebody in the world.
Her world, she had realized, consisted almost entirely of little somebodies. She was outside the sphere of the nobodies, always had been. And the Somebodies with a capital S, were all safely dead. She knew enough of the world to-day to know that it is not going to put up with any great Somebody: but many little nobodies and a sufficient number of little somebodies. Which, after all, is as it should be, she felt.
Sometimes she had vague misgivings.
Paris, for example, with its Louvre and its Luxembourg and its cathedral, seemed intended for Somebody. In a ghostly way it called for some supreme Somebody. But all its little men, nobodies and somebodies, were as sparrows twittering for crumbs, and dropping their little droppings on the palace cornices.
To Katherine, Paris brought back again her first husband, Alan Anstruther, that red-haired fighting Celt, father of her two grown-up children. Alan had had a weird innate conviction that he was beyond ordinary judgment. Katherine could never quite see where it came in. Son of a Scottish baronet, and captain in a Highland regiment did not seem to her stupendous. As for Alan himself, he was handsome in uniform, with his kilt swinging and his blue eye glaring. Even stark naked and without any trimmings, he had a bony, dauntless, overbearing manliness of his own. The one thing Katherine could not quite appreciate was his silent, indomitable assumption that he was actually firstborn, a born lord. He was a clever man too, ready to assume that General This or Colonel That might really be his superior. Until he actually came into contact with General This or Colonel That. Whereupon his overweening blue eye arched in his bony face, and a faint tinge of contempt infused itself into his homage.
Lordly or not, he wasn’t much of a success in the worldly sense. Katherine had loved him, and he had loved her: that was indisputable. But when it came to innate conviction of lordliness, it was a question which of them was worse. For she, in her amiable, queen-bee self thought that ultimately hers was the right to the last homage.
Alan had been too unyielding and haughty to say much. But sometimes he would stand and look at her in silent rage, wonder, and indignation. The wondering indignation had been almost too much for her. What did the man think he was?
He was one of the hard, clever Scotsmen, with a philosophic tendency, but without sentimentality. His contempt of Nietzsche, whom she adored, was intolerable. Alan just asserted himself like a pillar of rock, and expected the tides of the modern world to recede around him. They didn’t.
So he concerned himself with astronomy, gazing through a telescope and watching the worlds beyond worlds. Which seemed to give him relief.
After ten years, they had ceased to live together, passionate as they both were. They were too proud and unforgiving to yield to one another, and much too haughty to yield to any outsider.
Alan had a friend, Philip, also a Scotsman, and a university friend. Philip, trained for the bar, had gone into journalism, and had made himself a name. He was a little black Highlander, of the insidious sort, clever, and knowing. This look of knowing in his dark eyes, and the feeling of secrecy that went with his dark little body, made him interesting to women. Another thing he could do was to give off a great sense of warmth and offering, like a dog when it loves you. He seemed to be able to do this at will. And Katherine, after feeling cool about him and rather despising him for years, at last fell under the spell of the dark, insidious fellow.
“You!” she said to Alan, whose overweening masterfulness drove her wild. “You don’t even know that a woman exists. And that’s where Philip Farquhar is more than you are. He does know something of what a woman is.”
“Bah! the little——” said Alan, using an obscene word of contempt.
Nevertheless, the friendship endured, kept up by Philip, who had an almost uncanny love for Alan. Alan was mostly indifferent. But he was used to Philip, and habit meant a great deal to him.
“Alan really is an amazing man!” Philip would say to Katherine. “He is the only real man, what I call a real man, that I have ever met.”
“But why is he the only real man?” she asked. “Don’t you call yourself a real man?”
“Oh, I—I’m different! My strength lies in giving in—and then recovering myself. I do let myself be swept away. But so far, I’ve always managed to get myself back again. Alan—” and Philip even had a half-reverential, half-envious way of uttering the word—”Alan never lets himself be swept away. And he’s the only man I know who doesn’t.”
“Yah!” she said. “He is fooled by plenty of things. You can fool him through his vanity.”
“No,” said Philip. “Never altogether. You can’t deceive him right through. When a thing really touches Alan, it is tested once and for all. You know if it’s false or not. He’s the only man I ever met who can’t help being real.”
“Ha! You overrate his reality,” said Katherine, rather scornfully.
And later, when Alan shrugged his shoulders with that mere indifferent tolerance, at the mention of Philip, she got angry.
“You are a poor friend,” she said.
“Friend!” he answered. “I never was Farquhar’s friend! If he asserts that he’s mine, that’s his side of the question. I never positively cared for the man. He’s too much over the wrong side of the border for me.”
“Then,” she answered, “you’ve no business to let him consider he is your friend. You’ve no right to let him think so much of you. You should tell him you don’t like him.”
“I’ve told him a dozen times. He seems to enjoy it. It seems part of his game.”
And he went away to his astronomy.
Came the war, and the departure of Alan’s regiment for France.
“There!” he said. “Now you have to pay the penalty of having married a soldier. You find him fighting your own people. So it is.”
She was too much struck by this blow even to weep.
“Good-bye!” he said, kissing her gently, lingeringly. After all, he had been a husband to her.
And as he looked back at her, with the gentle, protective husband-knowledge in his blue eyes, and at the same time that other quiet realization of destiny, her consciousness fluttered into incoherence. She only wanted to alter everything, to alter the past, to alter all the flow of history—the terrible flow of history. Secretly somewhere inside herself she felt that with her queen-bee love, and queen-bee will, she could divert the whole flow of history—nay, even reverse it.
But in the remote, realizing look that lay at the back of his eyes, back of all his changeless husband-care, she saw that it could never be so. That the whole of her womanly, motherly concentration could never put back the great flow of human destiny. That, as he said, only the cold strength of a man, accepting the destiny of destruction, could see the human flow through the chaos and beyond to a new outlet. But the chaos first, and the long rage of destruction.
For an instant her will broke. Almost her soul seemed broken. And then he was gone. And as soon as he was gone she recovered the core of her assurance.
Philip was a great consolation to her. He asserted that the war was monstrous, that it should never have been, and that men should refuse to consider it as anything but a colossal, disgraceful accident.
She, in her German soul, knew that it was no accident. It was inevitable, and even necessary. But Philip’s attitude soothed her enormously, restored her to herself.
Alan never came back. In the spring of 1915 he was missing. She had never mourned for him. She had never really considered him dead. In a certain sense she had triumphed. The queen-bee had recovered her sway, as queen of the earth; the woman, the mother, the female with the ear of corn in her hand, as against the man with the sword.
Philip had gone through the war as a journalist, always throwing his weight on the side of humanity, and human truth and peace. He had been an inexpressible consolation. And in 1921 she had married him.
The thread of fate might be spun, it might even be measured out, but the hand of Lachesis had been stayed from cutting it through.
At first it was wonderfully pleasant and restful and voluptuous, especially for a woman of thirty-eight, to be married to Philip. Katherine felt he caressed her senses, and soothed her, and gave her what she wanted.
Then, gradually, a curious sense of degradation started in her spirit. She felt unsure, uncertain. It was almost like having a disease. Life became dull and unreal to her, as it had never been before. She did not even struggle and suffer. In the numbness of her flesh she could feel no reactions. Everything was turning into mud.
Then again, she would recover, and enjoy herself wonderfully. And after a while, the suffocating sense of nullity and degradation once more. Why, why, why did she feel degraded, in her secret soul? Never, of course, outwardly.
The memory of Alan came back into her. She still thought of him and his relentlessness with an arrested heart, but without the angry hostility she used to feel. A little awe of him, of his memory, stole back into her spirit. She resisted it. She was not used to feeling awe.
She realized, however, the difference between being married to a soldier, a ceaseless born fighter, a sword not to be sheathed, and this other man, this cunning civilian, this subtle equivocator, this adjuster of the scales of truth.
Philip was cleverer than she was. He set her up, the queen-bee, the mother, the woman, the female judgment, and he served her with subtle, cunning homage. He put the scales, the balance in her hand. But also, cunningly, he blindfolded her, and manipulated the scales when she was sightless.
Dimly she realized all this. But only dimly, confusedly, because she was blindfolded. Philip had the subtle, fawning power that could keep her always blindfolded.
Sometimes she gasped and gasped from her oppressed lungs. And sometimes the bony, hard, masterful, but honest face of Alan would come back, and suddenly it would seem to her that she was all right again, that the strange, voluptuous suffocation, which left her soul in mud, was gone, and she could breathe air of the open heavens once more. Even fighting air.
It came to her on the boat crossing the Channel. Suddenly she seemed to feel Alan at her side again, as if Philip had never existed. As if Philip had never meant anything more to her than the shop-assistant measuring off her orders. And, escaping, as it were, by herself across the cold, wintry Channel, she suddenly deluded herself into feeling as if Philip had never existed, only Alan had ever been her husband. He was her husband still. And she was going to meet him.
This gave her her blitheness in Paris, and made the Frenchman so nice to her. For the Latins love to feel a woman is really enveloped in the spell of some man. Beyond all race is the problem of man and woman.
Katherine now sat dimly, vaguely excited and almost happy in the railway-carriage on the Est railroad. It was like the old days when she was going home to Germany. Or even more like the old days when she was coming back to Alan. Because, in the past, when he was her husband, feel as she might towards him, she could never get over the sensation that the wheels of the railway-carriage had wings, when they were taking her back to him. Even when she knew that he was going to be awful to her, hard and relentless and destructive, still the motion went on wings.
Whereas towards Philip she moved with a strange, disintegrating reluctance. She decided not to think of him.
As she looked unseeing out of the carriage window, suddenly, with a jolt, the wintry landscape realized itself in her consciousness. The flat, grey, wintry landscape, ploughed fields of greyish earth that looked as if they were compound of the clay of dead men. Pallid, stark, thin trees stood like wire beside straight, abstract roads. A ruined farm between a few more wire trees. And a dismal village filed past, with smashed houses like rotten teeth between the straight rows of the village street.
With sudden horror she realized that she must be in the Marne country, the ghastly Marne country, century after century digging the corpses of frustrated men into its soil. The border country, where the Latin races and the Germanic neutralize one another into horrid ash.
Perhaps even the corpse of her own man among that grey clay.
It was too much for her. She sat ashy herself with horror, wanting to escape.
“If I had only known,” she said. “If only I had known, I would have gone by Basle.”
The train drew up at Soissons; name ghastly to her. She simply tried to make herself unreceptive to everything. And mercifully luncheon was served, she went down to the restaurant car, and sat opposite to a little French officer in horizon-blue uniform, who suggested anything but war. He looked so naïve, rather childlike and nice, with the certain innocence that so many French people preserve under their so-called wickedness, that she felt really relieved. He bowed to her with an odd, shy little bow when she returned him his half-bottle of red wine, which had slowly jigged its way the length of the table, owing to the motion of the train. How nice he was! And how he would give himself to a woman, if she would only find real pleasure in the male that he was.
Nevertheless, she herself felt very remote from this business of male and female, and giving and taking.
After luncheon, in the heat of the train and the flush of her half-bottle of white wine, she went to sleep again, her feet grilling uncomfortably on the iron plate of the carriage floor. And as she slept, life, as she had known it, seemed all to turn artificial to her, the sunshine of the world an artificial light, with smoke above, like the light of torches, and things artificially growing, in a night that was lit up artificially with such intensity that it gave the illusion of day. It had been an illusion, her life-day, as a ballroom evening is an illusion. Her love and her emotions, her very panic of love, had been an illusion. She realized how love had become panic-stricken inside her, during the war.
And now even this panic of love was an illusion. She had run to Philip to be saved. And now, both her panic-love and Philip’s salvation were an illusion.
What remained then? Even panic-stricken love, the intensest thing, perhaps, she had ever felt, was only an illusion. What was left? The grey shadows of death?
When she looked out again it was growing dark, and they were at Nancy. She used to know this country as a girl. At half-past seven she was in Strasburg, where she must stay the night as there was no train over the Rhine till morning.
The porter, a blond, hefty fellow, addressed her at once in Alsatian German. He insisted on escorting her safely to her hotel—a German hotel—keeping guard over her like an appointed sentinel, very faithful and competent, so different from Frenchmen.
It was a cold, wintry night, but she wanted to go out after dinner to see the minster. She remembered it all so well, in that other life.
The wind blew icily in the street. The town seemed empty, as if its spirit had left it. The few squat, hefty foot-passengers were all talking the harsh Alsatian German. Shop-signs were in French, often with a little concession to German underneath. And the shops were full of goods, glutted with goods from the once-German factories of Mulhausen and other cities.
She crossed the night-dark river, where the washhouses of the washerwomen were anchored along the stream, a few odd women still kneeling over the water’s edge, in the dim electric light, rinsing their clothes in the grim, cold water. In the big square the icy wind was blowing, and the place seemed a desert. A city once more conquered.
After all she could not remember her way to the cathedral. She saw a French policeman in his blue cape and peaked cap, looking a lonely, vulnerable, silky specimen in this harsh Alsatian city. Crossing over to him she asked him in French where was the cathedral.
He pointed out to her, the first turning on the left. He did not seem hostile: nobody seemed really hostile. Only the great frozen weariness of winter in a conquered city, on a weary everlasting border-line.
And the Frenchmen seemed far more weary, and also, more sensitive than the crude Alsatians.
She remembered the little street, the old, overhanging houses with black timbers and high gables. And like a great ghost, a reddish flush in its darkness, the uncanny cathedral breasting the oncomer, standing gigantic, looking down in darkness out of darkness, on the pigmy humanness of the city. It was built of reddish stone, that had a flush in the night, like dark flesh. And vast, an incomprehensibly tall, strange thing, it looked down out of the night. The great rose window, poised high, seemed like the breast of the vast Thing, and prisms and needles of stone shot up, as if it were plumage, dimly, half-visible in heaven.
There it was, in the upper darkness of the ponderous winter night, like a menace. She remembered, her spirit used in the past to soar aloft with it. But now, looming with a faint rust of blood out of the upper black heavens, the Thing stood suspended, looking down with vast, demonish menace, calm and implacable.
Mystery and dim, ancient fear came over the woman’s soul. The cathedral looked so strange and demonish-heathen. And an ancient, indomitable blood seemed to stir in it. It stood there like some vast silent beast with teeth of stone, waiting, and wondering when to stoop against this pallid humanity.
And dimly she realized that behind all the ashy pallor and sulphur of our civilization, lurks the great blood-creature waiting, implacable and eternal, ready at last to crush our white brittleness and let the shadowy blood move erect once more, in a new implacable pride and strength. Even out of the lower heavens looms the great blood-dusky Thing, blotting out the Cross it was supposed to exalt.
The scroll of the night sky seemed to roll back, showing a huge, blood-dusky presence looming enormous, stooping, looking down, awaiting its moment.
As she turned to go away, to move away from the closed wings of the minster, she noticed a man standing on the pavement, in the direction of the post-office, which functions obscurely in the Cathedral Square. Immediately, she knew that that man, standing dark and motionless, was Alan. He was alone, motionless, remote.
He did not move towards her. She hesitated, then went in his direction, as if going to the post-office. He stood perfectly motionless, and her heart died as she drew near. Then, as she passed, he turned suddenly, looking down on her.
It was he, though she could hardly see his face, it was so dark, with a dusky glow in the shadow.
“Alan!” she said.
He did not speak, but laid his hand detainingly on her arm, as he used in the early days, with strange silent authority. And turning her with a faint pressure on her arm, he went along with her, leisurely, through the main street of the city, under the arcade where the shops were still lighted up.
She glanced at his face: it seemed much more dusky, and duskily ruddy, than she had known him. He was a stranger: and yet it was he, no other. He said nothing at all. But that was also in keeping. His mouth was closed, his watchful eyes seemed changeless, and there was a shadow of silence around him, impenetrable, but not cold. Rather aloof and gentle, like the silence that surrounds a wild animal.
She knew that she was walking with his spirit. But that even did not trouble her. It seemed natural. And there came over her again the feeling she had forgotten, the restful, thoughtless pleasure of a woman who moves in the aura of the man to whom she belongs. As a young woman she had had this unremarkable, yet very precious feeling, when she was with her husband. It had been a full contentment; and perhaps the fullness of it had made her unconscious of it. Later, it seemed to her she had almost wilfully destroyed it, this soft flow of contentment which she, a woman, had from him as a man.
Now, afterwards, she realized it. And as she walked at his side through the conquered city, she realized that it was the one enduring thing a woman can have, the intangible soft flood of contentment that carries her along at the side of the man she is married to. It is her perfection and her highest attainment.
Now, in the afterwards, she knew it. Now the strife was gone. And dimly she wondered why, why, why she had ever fought against it. No matter what the man does or is, as a person, if a woman can move at his side in this dim, full flood of contentment, she has the highest of him, and her scratching efforts at getting more than this, are her ignominious efforts at self-nullity.
Now, she knew it, and she submitted. Now that she was walking with a man who came from the halls of death, to her, for her relief. The strong, silent kindliness of him towards her, even now, was able to wipe out the ashy, nervous horror of the world from her body. She went at his side still and released, like one newly unbound, walking in the dimness of her own contentment.
At the bridge-head he came to a standstill, and drew his hand from her arm. She knew he was going to leave her. But he looked at her from under his peaked cap, darkly but kindly, and he waved his hand with a slight, kindly gesture of farewell and of promise, as if in the farewell he promised never to leave her, never to let the kindliness go out in his heart, to let it stay hers always.
She hurried over the bridge with tears running down her cheeks, and on to her hotel. Hastily she climbed to her room. And as she undressed, she avoided the sight of her own face in the mirror. She must not rupture the spell of his presence.
Now, in the afterwards she realized how careful she must be, not to break the mystery that enveloped her. Now that she knew he had come back to her from the dead, she was aware how precious and how fragile the coming was. He had come back with his heart dark and kind, wanting her even in the afterwards. And not in any sense must she go against him. The warm, powerful, silent ghost had come back to her. It was he. She must not even try to think about him definitely, not to realize him or to understand. Only in her own woman’s soul could she silently ponder him, darkly, and know him present in her, without ever staring at him or trying to find him out. Once she tried to lay hands on him, to have him, to realize him, he would be gone for ever, and gone for ever this last precious flood of her woman’s peace.
“Ah, no!” she said to herself. “If he leaves his peace with me, I must ask no questions whatsoever.”
And she repented, silently, of the way she had questioned and demanded answers, in the past. What were the answers, when she had got them? Terrible ash in the mouth.
She now knew the supreme modern terror, of a world all ashy and nerve-dead. If a man could come back out of death to save her from this, she would not ask questions of him, but be humble, and beyond tears grateful.
In the morning, she went out into the icy wind, under the grey sky, to see if he would be there again. Not that she needed him: his presence was still about her. But he might be waiting.
The town was stony and cold. The people looked pale, chilled through, and doomed in some way. Very far from her they were. She felt a sort of pity for them, but knew she could do nothing, nothing in time or eternity. And they looked at her, and looked quickly away again, as if they were uneasy in themselves.
The cathedral reared its great reddish-grey façade in the stark light; but it did not loom as in the night. The cathedral square was hard and cold. Inside, the church was cold and repellent, in spite of the glow of stained glass. And he was nowhere to be found.
So she hastened away to her hotel and to the station, to catch the 10.30 train into Germany.
It was a lonely, dismal train, with a few forlorn souls waiting to cross the Rhine. Her Alsatian porter looked after her with the same dogged care as before. She got into the first-class carriage that was going through to Prague—she was the only passenger travelling first. A real French porter, in blouse and moustache, and swagger, tried to say something a bit jeering to her, in his few words of German. But she only looked at him, and he subsided. He didn’t really want to be rude. There was a certain hopelessness even about that.
The train crept slowly, disheartened, out of town. She saw the weird humped-up creature of the cathedral in the distance, pointing its one finger above the city. Why, oh, why, had the old Germanic races put it there, like that!
Slowly the country disintegrated into the Rhine flats and marshes, the canals, the willow trees, the overflow streams, the wet places frozen but not flooded. Weary the place all seemed. And old Father Rhine flowing in greenish volume, implacable, separating the races now weary of race struggle, but locked in the toils as in the coils of a great snake, unable to escape. Cold, full, green, and utterly disheartening the river came along under the wintry sky, passing beneath the bridge of iron.
There was a long wait in Kehl, where the German officials and the French observed a numb, dreary kind of neutrality. Passport and customs examination was soon over. But the train waited and waited, as if unable to get away from that one point of pure negation, where the two races neutralized one another, and no polarity was felt, no life—no principle dominated.
Katherine Farquhar just sat still, in the suspended silence of her husband’s return. She heeded neither French nor German, spoke one language or the other at need, hardly knowing. She waited, while the hot train steamed and hissed, arrested at the perfect neutral point of the new border line, just across the Rhine.
And at last a little sun came out, and the train silently drew away, nervously, from the neutrality.
In the great flat field, of the Rhine plain, the shallow flood water was frozen, the furrows ran straight towards nowhere, the air seemed frozen too, but the earth felt strong and barbaric, it seemed to vibrate, with its straight furrows, in a deep, savage undertone. There was the frozen, savage thrill in the air also, something wild and unsubdued, pre-Roman.
This part of the Rhine valley, even on the right bank in Germany, was occupied by the French; hence the curious vacancy, the suspense, as if no men lived there, but some spirit was watching, watching over the vast, empty, straight-furrowed fields and the water-meadows. Stillness, emptiness, suspense, and a sense of something still impending.
A long wait in the station of Appenweier, on the main line of the Right-bank Railway. The station was empty. Katherine remembered its excited, thrilling bustle in pre-war days.
“Yes,” said the German guard to the station-master. “What do they hurry us out of Strasburg for, if they are only going to keep us so long here?”
The heavy Badisch German! The sense of resentful impotence in the Germans! Katherine smiled to herself. She realized that here the train left the occupied territory.
At last they set off, northwards, free for the moment, in Germany. It was the land beyond the Rhine, Germany of the pine forests. The very earth seemed strong and unsubdued, bristling with a few reeds and bushes, like savage hair. There was the same silence, and waiting, and the old barbaric undertone of the white-skinned north, under the waning civilization. The audible overtone of our civilization seemed to be wearing thin, the old, low, pine-forest hum and roar of the ancient north seemed to be sounding through. At least, in Katherine’s inner ear.
And there were the ponderous hills of the Black Forest, heaped and waiting sullenly, as if guarding the inner Germany. Black round hills, black with forest, save where white snow-patches of field had been cut out. Black and white, waiting there in the near distance, in sullen guard.
She knew the country so well. But not in this present mood, the emptiness, the sullenness, the heavy, recoiled waiting.
Steinbach! Then she was nearly there! She would have to change in Oos, for Baden-Baden, her destination. Probably Philip would be there to meet her in Oos; he would have come down from Heidelberg.
Yes, there he was! And at once she thought he looked ill, yellowish. His figure hollow and defeated.
“Aren’t you well?” she asked, as she stepped out of the train on to the empty station.
“I’m so frightfully cold,” he said. “I can’t get warm.”
“And the train was so hot,” she said.
At last a porter came to carry her bags across to the little connecting train.
“How are you?” he said, looking at her with a certain pinched look in his face, and fear in his eyes.
“All right! It all feels very queer,” she said.
“I don’t know how it is,” he said, “but Germany freezes my inside, and does something to my chest.”
“We needn’t stay long,” she said easily.
He was watching the bright look in her face. And she was thinking how queer and chétif he looked! Extraordinary! As she looked at him she felt for the first time, with curious clarity, that it was humiliating to be married to him, even in name. She was humiliated even by the fact that her name was Katherine Farquhar. Yet she used to think it a nice name!
“Just think of me married to that little man!” she thought to herself. “Think of my having his name!”
It didn’t fit. She thought of her own name: Katherine von Todtnau; or of her married name: Katherine Anstruther. The first seemed most fitting. But the second was her second nature. The third, Katherine Farquhar, wasn’t her at all.
“Have you seen Marianne?” she asked.
He was very brief. What was the matter with him?
“You’ll have to be careful, with your cold,” she said politely.
“I am careful!” he cried petulantly.
Marianne, her sister, was at the station, and in two minutes they were rattling away in German and laughing and crying and exploding with laughter again, Philip quite ignored. In these days of frozen economy, there was no taxi. A porter would wheel up the luggage on a trolley, the new arrivals walked to their little hotel, through the half-deserted town.
“But the little one is quite nice!” said Marianne deprecatingly.
“Isn’t he!” cried Katherine in the same tone.
And both sisters stood still and laughed in the middle of the street. “The little one” was Philip.
“The other was more a man,” said Marianne. “But I’m sure this one is easier. The little one! Yes, he should be easier,” and she laughed in her mocking way.
“The stand-up-mannikin!” said Katherine, referring to those little toy men weighted at the base with lead, that always stand up again.
“Yes! Yes!” cried Marianne. “I’m sure he always comes up again! Prumm!” She made a gesture of knocking him over. “And there he rises once more!” She slowly raised her hand, as if the mannikin were elevating himself.
The two sisters stood in the street laughing consumedly.
Marianne also had lost her husband in the war. But she seemed only more reckless and ruthless.
“Ah, Katy!” she said, after dinner. “You are always such a good child! But you are different. Harder! No, you are not the same good Katy, the same kind Katy. You are no longer kind.”
“And you?” said Katy.
“Ah, me! I don’t matter. I watch what the end will be.”
Marianne was six years older than Katherine, and she had now ceased to struggle for anything at all. She was a woman who had lived her life. So at last, life seemed endlessly quaint and amusing to her. She accepted everything, wondering over the powerful primitiveness of it all, at the root-pulse.
“I don’t care any more at all what people do or don’t do,” she said. “Life is a great big tree, and the dead leaves fall. But very wonderful is the pulse in the roots! So strong, and so pitiless.”
It was as if she found a final relief in the radical pitilessness of the Tree of Life.
Philip was very unhappy in this atmosphere. At the core of him a Scotch sentimentalist, he had calculated, very cannily, that the emotional, sentimental values would hold good as long as he lived, which was long enough for him. The old male pride and power were doomed. They had finally fallen in the war. Alan with them. But the emotional, sentimental values still held good.
Only not here in Germany. Here the very emotions had become exhausted. “Give us pitilessness. Give us the Tree of Life in winter, dehumanized and ruthless.” So everything seemed to say. And it was too much for him.
He wanted to be soft and sweet and loving, at evening, to Katherine. But there came Marianne’s hollow, reckless laugh at the door; he was frustrated. And—
“Ach! Is it possible that anybody forty years old should still be in love? Ach! I had thought it impossible any more; after the war! Even a little indecent, shall I say!” laughed Marianne, seeing the frustrated languishing look on his face.
“If love isn’t left, what is?” he said petulantly.
“Ach! I don’t know! Really I don’t. Can’t you tell me?” she asked with a weird naïveté of the afterwards.
He gathered himself together, the little stand-up-mannikin, waiting till Marianne was gone and he could be softly alone with Katherine.
When the two were alone he said:
“I’m most frightfully glad you’ve come, Kathy. I could hardly have held out another day without you. I feel you’re the only thing on earth that remains real.”
“You don’t seem very real to me,” she said.
“I’m not real! I’m not!—not when I’m alone. But when I am with you I am the most real man alive. I know it!”
He asserted this with vehemence and a weird, personal sort of passion that used to thrill her, but now repelled her.
“Why should you need me?” she said. “I am real without you.”
She was thinking of Alan.
This was a blow to Philip. He considered for a moment. Then he said:
“Yes. You are! You are always real. But that’s because you are a woman. A man without a woman can’t be real.”
He twisted his face and shook his hand with a sort of false vehemence.
She looked at him, was repelled. After all, Alan could wander alone in the lonely places of the dead, and still be the ultimate real thing, to her.
She had given her allegiance elsewhere. Strange, how unspeakably cold she felt towards this little equivocal civilian.
“Don’t let us talk to-night,” she said. “I am so sleepy. I want to go to sleep this very minute. You don’t mind, do you? Good-night!”
She went to her room, with the green glazed stove. Outside she could see the trees of Seufzer Allee, and the intense winter night. Curiously dark and wolfish the nights came on, with the little town obscurely lighted, for economy’s sake, and no tramcars running, for economy’s sake, and the whole place, strangely, slipping back from our civilization, people moving in the dark like in a barbarian village, with the thrill of fear and menace in the wolfish air.
She slept soundly, none the less. But the raw air scraped her chest.
In the morning Philip was looking yellower, and coughing a good deal. She urged him to stay in bed. She wanted, really, to be free of him. And she also wanted him to be safe, too. He insisted, however, on staying about.
She could tell he had something on his mind. At last it came out.
“Do you dream much here?” he said.
“I think I did dream,” she said. “But I can’t remember what about.”
“I dream terribly,” he said.
“What sort of dreams?”
“All sorts!” He gave a rueful laugh. “But nearly always about Alan.” He glanced at her quickly to see how she took it. She gave no sign.
“And what about him?” she said calmly.
“Oh!—” he gave a desperate little gesture. “Why last night I dreamed that I woke up, and someone was lying on my bed, outside the bedclothes. I thought at first it was you, so I wanted to speak to you. But I couldn’t. Then I knew it was Alan, lying there in the cold. And he was terribly heavy. He was so heavy I couldn’t move, because the bed-clothes—you know I don’t have that bolster thing—they were so tight on me, I could hardly breathe, they were like tight lead round me. It was so awful, they were like a lead coffin-shell. And he was lying outside with that terrible weight. When I woke at last, I thought I was dead.”
“It’s because you’ve got a cold on your chest,” she said. “Why won’t you stay in bed and see a doctor?”
“I don’t want a doctor,” he said.
“You’re so obstinate! At least you should drink the waters here. They’d be good for you.”
During the day she walked in the woods with Marianne. It was sunny, and there was thin snow. But the cold in the air was heavy, stormy, unbreakable, and the woods seemed black, black. In a hollow open space, like a bowl, were little tortured bare vines. Never had she seen the pale vine-stocks look so tortured. And the black trees seemed to grow out of unutterably cold depths, and they seemed to be drinking away what warmth of life there was, while the vines in the clearing writhed with cold as leaves writhe in a fire.
After sunset, before dinner-time, she wanted to go to drink the hot waters from the spring at the big bath-hall under the New Castle. Philip insisted on going with her, though she urged him to stay indoors. They went down the dark hill and between the dark buildings of reddish stone, like the stone of Strasburg Cathedral.
At the obscure fountain in the alcove of the courtyard a little group of people were waiting, dark and silent, like dark spirits round a source of steam. Some had come to drink. Some had come for a pail of hot water. Some had come merely to warm their fingers and get something hot inside them. Some had come furtively, with hot-water bottles, to warm their icy beds a little. Everybody was bed-rock poor and silent, but well-clad, respectable, unbeaten.
Katherine and Philip waited a while. Then, in a far corner of the dark rocky grotto, where the fountain of hot water came out of the wall, Katherine saw Alan standing. He was standing as if waiting his turn to drink, behind the other people. Philip apparently did not see him.
She pressed forward in the silent sombre group of people, and held her glass under the tap, above the pail which a man was filling. The hot water ran over her fingers gratefully. She rinsed her glass down the fountain bowl.
“Na!” said the man of the pail, in his rough, but reckless, good-humoured Badisch: “Throw it in the bucket. It’s only wash-water.”
She laughed, and lifted her pocket-glass to drink. It was something of an ordeal among the group of silent people there in the almost dark. There was a feeble lamp outside in the courtyard; inside the grotto was deep shadow.
Nevertheless, Alan was watching her, and she drank to him, in the hot, queer, hellish-tasting water. She drank a second small glassful. Then she filled the glass again, in front of all the waiting people and handed it to Philip.
She did not look at Alan, but away in the courtyard, where more people were approaching, and where the steam of the springs rose from the grating in the ground, ghostly on the night air.
Philip drew back a little to drink. But at the first mouthful he choked, and began to cough. He coughed and coughed, in a convulsed spasm as if choking. She went to him anxiously. And then she saw that Alan also had come forward, and stood beside her, behind the coughing little Philip.
“What is it?” she said to the coughing man. “Did some of the water go the wrong way?”
He shook his head, but could not answer. At length, exhausted, but quiet, he handed her the glass, and they moved away from the silent group of watchful dark people.
And Alan was walking on her other side holding her hand.
When they came into the hall of the hotel she saw with horror that there was a red smear of blood on Philip’s chin, and red blotches on his overcoat.
“What have you done?” she cried.
He looked down at his breast, then up at her with haunted eyes. Fear, an agony and a horror of fear in his face. He went ghastly pale. Thinking he would swoon, she put her arm round him. But she felt someone silently but firmly, and with strange, cold power, pulling her arm away. She knew it was Alan.
The hotel porter helped Philip up to his room, and she assisted her husband to undress and get to bed. But each time her hand touched the sick man’s body, to sustain him, she felt it drawn silently, coldly, powerfully away, with complete relentlessness.
The doctor came and made his examination. He said it was not serious: only the rupture of a superficial blood-vessel. The patient must lie quite still and warm, and take light food. Avoid all excitement or agitation.
Philip’s face had a haunted, martyred, guilty look. She soothed him as much as possible, but dared hardly touch him.
“Won’t you sleep with me to-night, in case I dream?” he said to her, with big, excruciating eyes full of fear.
“You’ll be better alone,” she said softly. “You’ll be better alone. I’ll tuck you up warm, and sit with you a while. Keep yourself all covered up!”
She tucked him close, and sat by the bed. On the other side of the bed sat Alan, bare-headed, with his silent, expressionless, reddish face. The closed line of his lips, under the small reddish moustache, never changed, and he kept his eyelids half lowered. But there was a wonderful changeless dignity in his pose, as if he could sit thus, silent, and waiting, through the centuries. And through the warm air of the room he radiated this strange, stony coldness, that seemed heavy as the hand of death. It did not hurt Katherine. But Philip’s face seemed chilled and bluish.
Katherine went to her room, when the sick man slept. Alan did not follow her. And she did not question. It was for the two men to work out destiny between them.
In the night, towards morning she heard a hoarse, horrible cry. She ran to Philip’s room. He was sitting up in bed, blood running down his chin, his face livid, and his eyes rolling delirious.
“What is it?” she said in panic.
“He lay on top of me!” cried Philip, rolling his eyes inwards in horror. “He lay on top of me, and turned my heart cold and burst my blood-vessel in my chest.”
Katherine stood petrified. There was blood all over the sheets. She rang the bell violently. Across the bed stood Alan, looking at her with his unmoving blue eyes, just watching her. She could feel the strange stone-coldness of his presence touching even her heart. And she looked back at him humbly, she knew he had power over her too. That strange, cold, stony touch on her heart.
The servants came, and the doctor. And Alan went away. Philip was washed and changed, and went peacefully to sleep, looking like a corpse.
The day passed slowly. Alan did not appear. Even now, Katherine wanted him to come. Awful though he was, she wanted him to be there, to give her her surety, even though it was only the surety of dread; and her contentment, though it were the contentment of death.
At night she had a sofa-bed brought for her into Philip’s room. He seemed quieter, better. She had not left him all day. And Alan had not appeared. At half-past nine, Philip sleeping quietly, she too lay down to sleep.
She woke in the night feeling the same stone-coldness in the air. Had the stove gone out? Then she heard Philip’s whispering call of terror: “Katherine! Katherine!” She went over quickly, and slipped into his bed, putting her arms round him. He was shuddering, and stony cold. She drew him to her.
But immediately two hands cold and strong as iron seized her arms and pulled them away. She was pushed out of the bed, and pushed on to the floor of the bedroom. For an instant, the rage came into her heart, she wanted to get up and fight for the dying man. But a greater power, the knowledge of the uselessness and the fatal dishonourableness of her womanly interference made her desist. She lay for a time helpless and powerless on the floor, in her nightdress.
Then she felt herself lifted. In the dimness of coming dawn, she knew it was Alan. She could see the breast of his uniform—the old uniform she had known long before the war. And his face bending over her, cool and fresh.
He was still cold. But the stoniness had gone out of him, she did not mind his coldness. He pressed her firm hand hard to his own hard body. He was hard and cold like a tree, and alive. And the prickling of his moustache was the cold prickling of fir-needles.
He held her fast and hard, and seemed to possess her through every pore of her body. Not now the old, procreative way of possession. He held her fast, and possessed her through every pore in her body. Then he laid her in her own bed, to sleep.
When she awoke, the sun was shining, and Philip lay dead in a pool of blood.
Somehow she did not mind. She was only thinking of Alan. After all, she belonged to the man who could keep her. To the only man who knew how to keep her, and could only possess her through all the pores of her body, so that there was no recoil from him. Not just through one act, one function holding her. But as a cloud holds a shower.
The men that were just functional men: let them pass and perish. She wanted her contentment like life itself, through every pore, through every bit of her. The man who could hold her as the wind held her, as the air held her, all surrounded. The man whose aura permeated into every vein, through all her pores, as the scent of a pine-tree when one stands beneath it. A man, not like a faun or a satyr or an angel or a demon, but like the Tree of Life itself, implacable and unquestionable and permeating, voiceless, abiding.
In the afternoon she went to walk by herself. She climbed uphill, steep, past the New Castle, and up through the pine-woods, climbing upwards to the Old Castle. There it stood, among dense trees, its old, rose-red stone walls broken and silent. Two men, queer, wild ruffians with bundles on their backs, stood in the broken, roofless hall, looking round.
“Yes,” the elder one, with the round beard, was saying, “There are no more Dukes of Baden, and counts and barons and peers of the realm are as much in ruin as this place. Soon we shall be all alike, Lumpen, tramps.”
“Also no more ladies,” said the younger one, in a lower voice. “Every tramp can have his lady.”
Katherine heard him, with a pang of fear. Knowing the castle, she climbed the stairs and round the balustrade above the great hall, looking out far over the country. The sun was sinking. The Rhine was a dim magnesium ribbon, away on the plain. Across was the Russian Chapel; below, on the left, the town, and the Lichtenthal. No more gamblers, no more cosmopolitan play. Evening and the dark round hills going lonely, snow on the Merkur hill.
Mercury! Hermes! The messenger! Even as she thought it, standing there on the wall, Alan came along and stood beside her, and she felt at ease. The two men down below were looking up at her. They watched in silence, not knowing the way up. They were in the cold shadow of the hall below. A little, lingering sun, reddish, caught her where she was, above.
Again, for the last time, she looked over the land: the sun sinking below the Rhine, the hills of Germany this side, and the frozen stillness of the winter afternoon. “Yes, let us go,” she heard the elder man’s voice. “We are hardly men or women any more. We are more like the men and women who have drunk in this hall, living after our day.”
“Only we eat and smile still, and the men want the women still.”
“No! No! A man forgets his trouser-lining when he sees the ghost and the woman together.”
The two tramps turned and departed, heavy-shod, up the hill.
Katherine felt Alan’s touch on her arm, and she climbed down from the old, broken castle. He led her through the woods, past the red rocks. The sun had sunk, the trees were blue. He lingered again under a great pine-tree, in the shadow. And again, as he pressed her fast, and pressed his cold face against her, it was as if the wood of the tree itself were growing round her, the hard, live wood compressing and almost devouring her, the sharp needles brushing her face, the limbs of the living tree enveloping her, crushing her in the last, final ecstasy of submission, squeezing from her the last drop of her passion, like the cold, white berries of the mistletoe on the Tree of Life.
The Palace Hotel at Fort Romper was painted a light blue, a shade that is on the legs of a kind of heron, causing the bird to declare its position against any background. The Palace Hotel, then, was always screaming and howling in a way that made the dazzling winter landscape of Nebraska seem only a gray swampish hush. It stood alone on the prairie, and when the snow was falling the town two hundred yards away was not visible. But when the traveller alighted at the railway station he was obliged to pass the Palace Hotel before he could come upon the company of low clapboard houses which composed Fort Romper, and it was not to be thought that any traveller could pass the Palace Hotel without looking at it. Pat Scully, the proprietor, had proved himself a master of strategy when he chose his paints. It is true that on clear days, when the great trans-continental expresses, long lines of swaying Pullmans, swept through Fort Romper, passengers were overcome at the sight, and the cult that knows the brown-reds and the subdivisions of the dark greens of the East expressed shame, pity, horror, in a laugh. But to the citizens of this prairie town and to the people who would naturally stop there, Pat Scully had performed a feat. With this opulence and splendor, these creeds, classes, egotisms, that streamed through Romper on the rails day after day, they had no color in common.
As if the displayed delights of such a blue hotel were not sufficiently enticing, it was Scully’s habit to go every morning and evening to meet the leisurely trains that stopped at Romper and work his seductions upon any man that he might see wavering, gripsack in hand.
One morning, when a snow-crusted engine dragged its long string of freight cars and its one passenger coach to the station, Scully performed the marvel of catching three men. One was a shaky and quick-eyed Swede, with a great shining cheap valise; one was a tall bronzed cowboy, who was on his way to a ranch near the Dakota line; one was a little silent man from the East, who didn’t look it, and didn’t announce it. Scully practically made them prisoners. He was so nimble and merry and kindly that each probably felt it would be the height of brutality to try to escape. They trudged off over the creaking board sidewalks in the wake of the eager little Irishman. He wore a heavy fur cap squeezed tightly down on his head. It caused his two red ears to stick out stiffly, as if they were made of tin.
At last, Scully, elaborately, with boisterous hospitality, conducted them through the portals of the blue hotel. The room which they entered was small. It seemed to be merely a proper temple for an enormous stove, which, in the centre, was humming with godlike violence. At various points on its surface the iron had become luminous and glowed yellow from the heat. Beside the stove Scully’s son Johnnie was playing High-Five with an old farmer who had whiskers both gray and sandy. They were quarrelling. Frequently the old farmer turned his face towards a box of sawdust—colored brown from tobacco juice—that was behind the stove, and spat with an air of great impatience and irritation. With a loud flourish of words Scully destroyed the game of cards, and bustled his son up-stairs with part of the baggage of the new guests. He himself conducted them to three basins of the coldest water in the world. The cowboy and the Easterner burnished themselves fiery-red with this water, until it seemed to be some kind of a metal polish. The Swede, however, merely dipped his fingers gingerly and with trepidation. It was notable that throughout this series of small ceremonies the three travellers were made to feel that Scully was very benevolent. He was conferring great favors upon them. He handed the towel from one to the other with an air of philanthropic impulse.
Afterwards they went to the first room, and, sitting about the stove, listened to Scully’s officious clamor at his daughters, who were preparing the mid-day meal. They reflected in the silence of experienced men who tread carefully amid new people. Nevertheless, the old farmer, stationary, invincible in his chair near the warmest part of the stove, turned his face from the sawdust box frequently and addressed a glowing commonplace to the strangers. Usually he was answered in short but adequate sentences by either the cowboy or the Easterner. The Swede said nothing. He seemed to be occupied in making furtive estimates of each man in the room. One might have thought that he had the sense of silly suspicion which comes to guilt. He resembled a badly frightened man.
Later, at dinner, he spoke a little, addressing his conversation entirely to Scully. He volunteered that he had come from New York, where for ten years he had worked as a tailor. These facts seemed to strike Scully as fascinating, and afterwards he volunteered that he had lived at Romper for fourteen years. The Swede asked about the crops and the price of labor. He seemed barely to listen to Scully’s extended replies. His eyes continued to rove from man to man.
Finally, with a laugh and a wink, he said that some of these Western communities were very dangerous; and after his statement he straightened his legs under the table, tilted his head, and laughed again, loudly. It was plain that the demonstration had no meaning to the others. They looked at him wondering and in silence.
As the men trooped heavily back into the front-room, the two little windows presented views of a turmoiling sea of snow. The huge arms of the wind were making attempts—mighty, circular, futile—to embrace the flakes as they sped. A gate-post like a still man with a blanched face stood aghast amid this profligate fury. In a hearty voice Scully announced the presence of a blizzard. The guests of the blue hotel, lighting their pipes, assented with grunts of lazy masculine contentment. No island of the sea could be exempt in the degree of this little room with its humming stove. Johnnie, son of Scully, in a tone which defined his opinion of his ability as a card-player, challenged the old farmer of both gray and sandy whiskers to a game of High-Five. The farmer agreed with a contemptuous and bitter scoff. They sat close to the stove, and squared their knees under a wide board. The cowboy and the Easterner watched the game with interest. The Swede remained near the window, aloof, but with a countenance that showed signs of an inexplicable excitement.
The play of Johnnie and the gray-beard was suddenly ended by another quarrel. The old man arose while casting a look of heated scorn at his adversary. He slowly buttoned his coat, and then stalked with fabulous dignity from the room. In the discreet silence of all other men the Swede laughed. His laughter rang somehow childish. Men by this time had begun to look at him askance, as if they wished to inquire what ailed him.
A new game was formed jocosely. The cowboy volunteered to become the partner of Johnnie, and they all then turned to ask the Swede to throw in his lot with the little Easterner, He asked some questions about the game, and, learning that it wore many names, and that he had played it when it was under an alias, he accepted the invitation. He strode towards the men nervously, as if he expected to be assaulted. Finally, seated, he gazed from face to face and laughed shrilly. This laugh was so strange that the Easterner looked up quickly, the cowboy sat intent and with his mouth open, and Johnnie paused, holding the cards with still fingers.
Afterwards there was a short silence. Then Johnnie said, “Well, let’s get at it. Come on now!” They pulled their chairs forward until their knees were bunched under the board. They began to play, and their interest in the game caused the others to forget the manner of the Swede.
The cowboy was a board-whacker. Each time that he held superior cards he whanged them, one by one, with exceeding force, down upon the improvised table, and took the tricks with a glowing air of prowess and pride that sent thrills of indignation into the hearts of his opponents. A game with a board-whacker in it is sure to become intense. The countenances of the Easterner and the Swede were miserable whenever the cowboy thundered down his aces and kings, while Johnnie, his eyes gleaming with joy, chuckled and chuckled.
Because of the absorbing play none considered the strange ways of the Swede. They paid strict heed to the game. Finally, during a lull caused by a new deal, the Swede suddenly addressed Johnnie: “I suppose there have been a good many men killed in this room.” The jaws of the others dropped and they looked at him.
“What in hell are you talking about?” said Johnnie.
The Swede laughed again his blatant laugh, full of a kind of false courage and defiance. “Oh, you know what I mean all right,” he answered.
“I’m a liar if I do!” Johnnie protested. The card was halted, and the men stared at the Swede. Johnnie evidently felt that as the son of the proprietor he should make a direct inquiry. “Now, what might you be drivin’ at, mister?” he asked. The Swede winked at him. It was a wink full of cunning. His fingers shook on the edge of the board. “Oh, maybe you think I have been to nowheres. Maybe you think I’m a tenderfoot?”
“I don’t know nothin’ about you,” answered Johnnie, “and I don’t give a damn where you’ve been. All I got to say is that I don’t know what you’re driving at. There hain’t never been nobody killed in this room.”
The cowboy, who had been steadily gazing at the Swede, then spoke: “What’s wrong with you, mister?”
Apparently it seemed to the Swede that he was formidably menaced. He shivered and turned white near the corners of his mouth. He sent an appealing glance in the direction of the little Easterner. During these moments he did not forget to wear his air of advanced pot-valor. “They say they don’t know what I mean,” he remarked mockingly to the Easterner.
The latter answered after prolonged and cautious reflection. “I don’t understand you,” he said, impassively.
The Swede made a movement then which announced that he thought he had encountered treachery from the only quarter where he had expected sympathy, if not help. “Oh, I see you are all against me. I see—”
The cowboy was in a state of deep stupefaction. “Say.” he cried, as he tumbled the deck violently down upon the board “—say, what are you gittin’ at, hey?”
The Swede sprang up with the celerity of a man escaping from a snake on the floor. “I don’t want to fight!” he shouted. “I don’t want to fight!”
The cowboy stretched his long legs indolently and deliberately. His hands were in his pockets. He spat into the sawdust box. “Well, who the hell thought you did?” he inquired.
The Swede backed rapidly towards a corner of the room. His hands were out protectingly in front of his chest, but he was making an obvious struggle to control his fright. “Gentlemen,” he quavered, “I suppose I am going to be killed before I can leave this house! I suppose I am going to be killed before I can leave this house!” In his eyes was the dying-swan look. Through the windows could be seen the snow turning blue in the shadow of dusk. The wind tore at the house and some loose thing beat regularly against the clap-boards like a spirit tapping.
A door opened, and Scully himself entered. He paused in surprise as he noted the tragic attitude of the Swede. Then he said, “What’s the matter here?”
The Swede answered him swiftly and eagerly: “These men are going to kill me.”
“Kill you!” ejaculated Scully. “Kill you! What are you talkin’?”
The Swede made the gesture of a martyr.
Scully wheeled sternly upon his son. “What is this, Johnnie?”
The lad had grown sullen. “Damned if I know,” he answered. “I can’t make no sense to it.” He began to shuffle the cards, fluttering them together with an angry snap. “He says a good many men have been killed in this room, or something like that. And he says he’s goin’ to be killed here too. I don’t know what ails him. He’s crazy, I shouldn’t wonder.”
Scully then looked for explanation to the cowboy, but the cowboy simply shrugged his shoulders.
“Kill you?” said Scully again to the Swede. “Kill you? Man, you’re off your nut.”
“Oh, I know.” burst out the Swede. “I know what will happen. Yes, I’m crazy—yes. Yes, of course, I’m crazy—yes. But I know one thing—” There was a sort of sweat of misery and terror upon his face. “I know I won’t get out of here alive.”
The cowboy drew a deep breath, as if his mind was passing into the last stages of dissolution. “Well, I’m dog-goned,” he whispered to himself.
Scully wheeled suddenly and faced his son. “You’ve been troublin’ this man!”
Johnnie’s voice was loud with its burden of grievance. “Why, good Gawd, I ain’t done nothin’ to ‘im.”
The Swede broke in. “Gentlemen, do not disturb yourselves. I will leave this house. I will go away because”—he accused them dramatically with his glance—”because I do not want to be killed.”
Scully was furious with his son. “Will you tell me what is the matter, you young divil? What’s the matter, anyhow? Speak out!”
“Blame it!” cried Johnnie in despair, “don’t I tell you I don’t know. He—he says we want to kill him, and that’s all I know. I can’t tell what ails him.”
The Swede continued to repeat: “Never mind, Mr. Scully; nevermind. I will leave this house. I will go away, because I do not wish to be killed. Yes, of course, I am crazy—yes. But I know one thing! I will go away. I will leave this house. Never mind, Mr. Scully; never mind. I will go away.”
“You will not go ‘way,” said Scully. “You will not go ‘way until I hear the reason of this business. If anybody has troubled you I will take care of him. This is my house. You are under my roof, and I will not allow any peaceable man to be troubled here.” He cast a terrible eye upon Johnnie, the cowboy, and the Easterner.
“Never mind, Mr. Scully; never mind. I will go away. I do not wish to be killed.” The Swede moved towards the door, which opened upon the stairs. It was evidently his intention to go at once for his baggage.
“No, no,” shouted Scully peremptorily; but the white-faced man slid by him and disappeared. “Now,” said Scully severely, “what does this mane?”
Johnnie and the cowboy cried together: “Why, we didn’t do nothin’ to ‘im!”
Scully’s eyes were cold. “No,” he said, “you didn’t?”
Johnnie swore a deep oath. “Why this is the wildest loon I ever see. We didn’t do nothin’ at all. We were jest sittin’ here play in’ cards, and he—”
The father suddenly spoke to the Easterner. “Mr. Blanc,” he asked, “what has these boys been doin’?”
The Easterner reflected again. “I didn’t see anything wrong at all,” he said at last, slowly.
Scully began to howl. “But what does it mane?” He stared ferociously at his son. “I have a mind to lather you for this, me boy.”
Johnnie was frantic. “Well, what have I done?” he bawled at his father.
“I think you are tongue-tied,” said Scully finally to his son, the cowboy, and the Easterner; and at the end of this scornful sentence he left the room.
Up-stairs the Swede was swiftly fastening the straps of his great valise. Once his back happened to be half turned towards the door, and, hearing a noise there, he wheeled and sprang up, uttering a loud cry. Scully’s wrinkled visage showed grimly in the light of the small lamp he carried. This yellow effulgence, streaming upward, colored only his prominent features, and left his eyes, for instance, in mysterious shadow. He resembled a murderer.
“Man! man!” he exclaimed, “have you gone daffy?”
“Oh, no! Oh, no!” rejoined the other. “There are people in this world who know pretty nearly as much as you do—understand?”
For a moment they stood gazing at each other. Upon the Swede’s deathly pale checks were two spots brightly crimson and sharply edged, as if they had been carefully painted. Scully placed the light on the table and sat himself on the edge of the bed. He spoke ruminatively. “By cracky, I never heard of such a thing in my life. It’s a complete muddle. I can’t, for the soul of me, think how you ever got this idea into your head.” Presently he lifted his eyes and asked: “And did you sure think they were going to kill you?”
The Swede scanned the old man as if he wished to see into his mind. “I did,” he said at last. He obviously suspected that this answer might precipitate an outbreak. As he pulled on a strap his whole arm shook, the elbow wavering like a bit of paper.
Scully banged his hand impressively on the foot-board of the bed. “Why, man, we’re goin’ to have a line of ilictric street-cars in this town next spring.”
“‘A line of electric street-cars,'” repeated the Swede, stupidly.
“And,” said Scully, “there’s a new railroad goin’ to be built down from Broken Arm to here. Not to mintion the four churches and the smashin’ big brick school-house. Then there’s the big factory, too. Why, in two years Romper ‘ll be a metropolis.”
Having finished the preparation of his baggage, the Swede straightened himself. “Mr. Scully,” he said, with sudden hardihood, “how much do I owe you?”
“You don’t owe me anythin’,” said the old man, angrily.
“Yes, I do,” retorted the Swede. He took seventy-five cents from his pocket and tendered it to Scully; but the latter snapped his fingers in disdainful refusal. However, it happened that they both stood gazing in a strange fashion at three silver pieces on the Swede’s open palm.
“I’ll not take your money,” said Scully at last. “Not after what’s been goin’ on here.” Then a plan seemed to strike him. “Here,” he cried, picking up his lamp and moving towards the door. “Here! Come with me a minute.”
“No,” said the Swede, in overwhelming alarm.
“Yes,” urged the old man. “Come on! I want you to come and see a picter—just across the hall—in my room.”
The Swede must have concluded that his hour was come. His jaw dropped and his teeth showed like a dead man’s. He ultimately followed Scully across the corridor, but he had the step of one hung in chains.
Scully flashed the light high on the wall of his own chamber. There was revealed a ridiculous photograph of a little girl. She was leaning against a balustrade of gorgeous decoration, and the formidable bang to her hair was prominent. The figure was as graceful as an upright sled-stake, and, withal, it was of the hue of lead. “There,” said Scully, tenderly, “that’s the picter of my little girl that died. Her name was Carrie. She had the purtiest hair you ever saw! I was that fond of her, she—”
Turning then, he saw that the Swede was not contemplating the picture at all, but, instead, was keeping keen watch on the gloom in the rear.
“Look, man!” cried Scully, heartily. “That’s the picter of my little gal that died. Her name was Carrie. And then here’s the picter of my oldest boy, Michael. He’s a lawyer in Lincoln, an’ doin’ well. I gave that boy a grand eddycation, and I’m glad for it now. He’s a fine boy. Look at ‘im now. Ain’t he bold as blazes, him there in Lincoln, an honored an’ respicted gintleman. An honored an’ respicted gintleman,” concluded Scully with a flourish. And, so saying, he smote the Swede jovially on the back.
The Swede faintly smiled.
“Now,” said the old man, “there’s only one more thing.” He dropped suddenly to the floor and thrust his head beneath the bed. The Swede could hear his muffled voice. “I’d keep it under me piller if it wasn’t for that boy Johnnie. Then there’s the old woman—Where is it now? I never put it twice in the same place. Ah, now come out with you!”
Presently he backed clumsily from under the bed, dragging with him an old coat rolled into a bundle. “I’ve fetched him,” he muttered. Kneeling on the floor, he unrolled the coat and extracted from its heart a large yellow-brown whiskey bottle.
His first maneuver was to hold the bottle up to the light. Reassured, apparently, that nobody had been tampering with it, he thrust it with a generous movement towards the Swede.
The weak-kneed Swede was about to eagerly clutch this element of strength, but he suddenly jerked his hand away and cast a look of horror upon Scully.
“Drink,” said the old man affectionately. He had risen to his feet, and now stood facing the Swede.
There was a silence. Then again Scully said: “Drink!”
The Swede laughed wildly. He grabbed the bottle, put it to his mouth, and as his lips curled absurdly around the opening and his throat worked, he kept his glance, burning with hatred, upon the old man’s face.
After the departure of Scully the three men, with the card-board still upon their knees, preserved for a long time an astounded silence. Then Johnnie said: “That’s the dod-dangest Swede I ever see.”
“He ain’t no Swede,” said the cowboy, scornfully.
“Well, what is he then?” cried Johnnie. “What is he then?”
“It’s my opinion,” replied the cowboy deliberately, “he’s some kind of a Dutchman.” It was a venerable custom of the country to entitle as Swedes all light-haired men who spoke with a heavy tongue. In consequence the idea of the cowboy was not without its daring. “Yes, sir,” he repeated. “It’s my opinion this feller is some kind of a Dutchman.”
“Well, he says he’s a Swede, anyhow,” muttered Johnnie, sulkily. He turned to the Easterner: “What do you think, Mr. Blanc?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” replied the Easterner.
“Well, what do you think makes him act that way?” asked the cowboy.
“Why, he’s frightened.” The Easterner knocked his pipe against a rim of the stove. “He’s clear frightened out of his boots.”
“What at?” cried Johnnie and cowboy together.
The Easterner reflected over his answer.
“What at?” cried the others again.
“Oh, I don’t know, but it seems to me this man has been reading dime-novels, and he thinks he’s right out in the middle of it—the shootin’ and stabbin’ and all.”
“But,” said the cowboy, deeply scandalized, “this ain’t Wyoming, ner none of them places. This is Nebrasker.”
“Yes,” added Johnnie, “an’ why don’t he wait till he gits out West?”
The travelled Easterner laughed. “It isn’t different there even—not in these days. But he thinks he’s right in the middle of hell.”
Johnnie and the cowboy mused long.
“It’s awful funny,” remarked Johnnie at last.
“Yes,” said the cowboy. “This is a queer game. I hope we don’t git snowed in, because then we’d have to stand this here man bein’ around with us all the time. That wouldn’t be no good.”
“I wish pop would throw him out,” said Johnnie.
Presently they heard a loud stamping on the stairs, accompanied by ringing jokes in the voice of old Scully, and laughter, evidently from the Swede. The men around the stove stared vacantly at each other. “Gosh!” said the cowboy. The door flew open, and old Scully, flushed and anecdotal, came into the room. He was jabbering at the Swede, who followed him, laughing bravely. It was the entry of two roisterers from a banquet-hall.
“Come now,” said Scully sharply to the three seated men, “move up and give us a chance at the stove.” The cowboy and the Easterner obediently sidled their chairs to make room for the new-comers. Johnnie, however, simply arranged himself in a more indolent attitude, and then remained motionless.
“Come! Git over, there,” said Scully.
“Plenty of room on the other side of the stove,” said Johnnie.
“Do you think we want to sit in the draught?” roared the father.
But the Swede here interposed with a grandeur of confidence. “No, no. Let the boy sit where he likes,” he cried in a bullying voice to the father.
“All right! All right!” said Scully, deferentially. The cowboy and the Easterner exchanged glances of wonder.
The five chairs were formed in a crescent about one side of the stove. The Swede began to talk; he talked arrogantly, profanely, angrily. Johnnie, the cowboy, and the Easterner maintained a morose silence, while old Scully appeared to be receptive and eager, breaking in constantly with sympathetic ejaculations.
Finally the Swede announced that he was thirsty. He moved in his chair, and said that he would go for a drink of water.
“I’ll git it for you,” cried Scully at once.
“No,” said the Swede, contemptuously. “I’ll get it for myself.” He arose and stalked with the air of an owner off into the executive parts of the hotel.
As soon as the Swede was out of hearing Scully sprang to his feet and whispered intensely to the others: “Up-stairs he thought I was tryin’ to poison ‘im.”
“Say,” said Johnnie, “this makes me sick. Why don’t you throw ‘im out in the snow?”
“Why, he’s all right now,” declared Scully. “It was only that he was from the East, and he thought this was a tough place. That’s all. He’s all right now.”
The cowboy looked with admiration upon the Easterner. “You were straight,” he said. “You were on to that there Dutchman.”
“Well,” said Johnnie to his father, “he may be all right now, but I don’t see it. Other time he was scared, but now he’s too fresh.”
Scully’s speech was always a combination of Irish brogue and idiom, Western twang and idiom, and scraps of curiously formal diction taken from the story-books and newspapers, He now hurled a strange mass of language at the head of his son. “What do I keep? What do I keep? What do I keep?” he demanded, in a voice of thunder. He slapped his knee impressively, to indicate that he himself was going to make reply, and that all should heed. “I keep a hotel,” he shouted. “A hotel, do you mind? A guest under my roof has sacred privileges. He is to be intimidated by none. Not one word shall he hear that would prejudice him in favor of goin’ away. I’ll not have it. There’s no place in this here town where they can say they iver took in a guest of mine because he was afraid to stay here.” He wheeled suddenly upon the cowboy and the Easterner. “Am I right?”
“Yes, Mr. Scully,” said the cowboy, “I think you’re right.”
“Yes, Mr. Scully,” said the Easterner, “I think you’re right.”
At six-o’clock supper, the Swede fizzed like a fire-wheel. He sometimes seemed on the point of bursting into riotous song, and in all his madness he was encouraged by old Scully. The Easterner was incased in reserve; the cowboy sat in wide-mouthed amazement, forgetting to eat, while Johnnie wrathily demolished great plates of food. The daughters of the house, when they were obliged to replenish the biscuits, approached as warily as Indians, and, having succeeded in their purpose, fled with ill-concealed trepidation. The Swede domineered the whole feast, and he gave it the appearance of a cruel bacchanal. He seemed to have grown suddenly taller; he gazed, brutally disdainful, into every face. His voice rang through the room. Once when he jabbed out harpoon-fashion with his fork to pinion a biscuit, the weapon nearly impaled the hand of the Easterner which had been stretched quietly out for the same biscuit.
After supper, as the men filed towards the other room, the Swede smote Scully ruthlessly on the shoulder. “Well, old boy, that was a good, square meal.” Johnnie looked hopefully at his father; he knew that shoulder was tender from an old fall; and, indeed, it appeared for a moment as if Scully was going to flame out over the matter, but in the end he smiled a sickly smile and remained silent. The others understood from his manner that he was admitting his responsibility for the Swede’s new view-point.
Johnnie, however, addressed his parent in an aside. “Why don’t you license somebody to kick you down-stairs?” Scully scowled darkly by way of reply.
When they were gathered about the stove, the Swede insisted on another game of High Five. Scully gently deprecated the plan at first, but the Swede turned a wolfish glare upon him. The old man subsided, and the Swede canvassed the others. In his tone there was always a great threat. The cowboy and the Easterner both remarked indifferently that they would play. Scully said that he would presently have to go to meet the 6.58 train, and so the Swede turned menacingly upon Johnnie. For a moment their glances crossed like blades, and then Johnnie smiled and said, “Yes, I’ll play.”
They formed a square, with the little board on their knees. The Easterner and the Swede were again partners. As the play went on, it was noticeable that the cowboy was not board-whacking as usual. Meanwhile, Scully, near the lamp, had put on his spectacles and, with an appearance curiously like an old priest, was reading a newspaper. In time he went out to meet the 6.58 train, and, despite his precautions, a gust of polar wind whirled into the room as he opened the door. Besides scattering the cards, it dulled the players to the marrow. The Swede cursed frightfully. When Scully returned, his entrance disturbed a cosey and friendly scene. The Swede again cursed. But presently they were once more intent, their heads bent forward and their hands moving swiftly. The Swede had adopted the fashion of board-whacking.
Scully took up his paper and for a long time remained immersed in matters which were extraordinarily remote from him. The lamp burned badly, and once he stopped to adjust the wick. The newspaper, as he turned from page to page, rustled with a slow and comfortable sound. Then suddenly he heard three terrible words: “You are cheatin’!”
Such scenes often prove that there can be little of dramatic import in environment. Any room can present a tragic front; any room can be comic. This little den was now hideous as a torture-chamber. The new faces of the men themselves had changed it upon the instant. The Swede held a huge fist in front of Johnnie’s face, while the latter looked steadily over it into the blazing orbs of his accuser. The Easterner had grown pallid; the cowboy’s jaw had dropped in that expression of bovine amazement which was one of his important mannerisms. After the three words, the first sound in the room was made by Scully’s paper as it floated forgotten to his feet. His spectacles had also fallen from his nose, but by a clutch he had saved them in air. His hand, grasping the spectacles, now remained poised awkwardly and near his shoulder. He stared at the card-players.
Probably the silence was while a second elapsed. Then, if the floor had been suddenly twitched out from under the men they could not have moved quicker. The five had projected themselves headlong towards a common point. It happened that Johnnie, in rising to hurl himself upon the Swede, had stumbled slightly because of his curiously instinctive care for the cards and the board. The loss of the moment allowed time for the arrival of Scully, and also allowed the cowboy time to give the Swede a great push which sent him staggering back. The men found tongue together, and hoarse shouts of rage, appeal, or fear burst from every throat. The cowboy pushed and jostled feverishly at the Swede, and the Easterner and Scully clung wildly to Johnnie; but, through the smoky air, above the swaying bodies of the peace-compellers, the eyes of the two warriors ever sought each other in glances of challenge that were at once hot and steely.
Of course the board had been overturned, and now the whole company of cards was scattered over the floor, where the boots of the men trampled the fat and painted kings and queens as they gazed with their silly eyes at the war that was waging above them.
Scully’s voice was dominating the yells. “Stop now? Stop, I say! Stop, now—”
Johnnie, as he struggled to burst through the rank formed by Scully and the Easterner, was crying, “Well, he says I cheated! He says I cheated! I won’t allow no man to say I cheated! If he says I cheated, he’s a ——— ———!”
The cowboy was telling the Swede, “Quit, now! Quit, d’ye hear—”
The screams of the Swede never ceased: “He did cheat! I saw him! I saw him—”
As for the Easterner, he was importuning in a voice that was not heeded: “Wait a moment, can’t you? Oh, wait a moment. What’s the good of a fight over a game of cards? Wait a moment—”
In this tumult no complete sentences were clear. “Cheat”—”Quit”—”He says”—these fragments pierced the uproar and rang out sharply. It was remarkable that, whereas Scully undoubtedly made the most noise, he was the least heard of any of the riotous band.
Then suddenly there was a great cessation. It was as if each man had paused for breath; and although the room was still lighted with the anger of men, it could be seen that there was no danger of immediate conflict, and at once Johnnie, shouldering his way forward, almost succeeded in confronting the Swede. “What did you say I cheated for? What did you say I cheated for? I don’t cheat, and I won’t let no man say I do!”
The Swede said, “I saw you! I saw you!”
“Well,” cried Johnnie, “I’ll fight any man what says I cheat!”
“No, you won’t,” said the cowboy. “Not here.”
“Ah, be still, can’t you?” said Scully, coming between them.
The quiet was sufficient to allow the Easterner’s voice to be heard. He was repealing, “Oh, wait a moment, can’t you? What’s the good of a fight over a game of cards? Wait a moment!”
Johnnie, his red face appearing above his father’s shoulder, hailed the Swede again. “Did you say I cheated?”
The Swede showed his teeth. “Yes.”
“Then,” said Johnnie, “we must fight.”
“Yes, fight,” roared the Swede. He was like a demoniac. “Yes, fight! I’ll show you what kind of a man I am! I’ll show you who you want to fight! Maybe you think I can’t fight! Maybe you think I can’t! I’ll show you, you skin, you card-sharp! Yes, you cheated! You cheated! You cheated!”
“Well, let’s go at it, then, mister,” said Johnnie, coolly.
The cowboy’s brow was beaded with sweat from his efforts in intercepting all sorts of raids. He turned in despair to Scully. “What are you goin’ to do now?”
A change had come over the Celtic visage of the old man. He now seemed all eagerness; his eyes glowed.
“We’ll let them fight,” he answered, stalwartly. “I can’t put up with it any longer. I’ve stood this damned Swede till I’m sick. We’ll let them fight.”
The men prepared to go out-of-doors. The Easterner was so nervous that he had great difficulty in getting his arms into the sleeves of his new leather coat. As the cowboy drew his fur cap down over his cars his hands trembled. In fact, Johnnie and old Scully were the only ones who displayed no agitation. These preliminaries were conducted without words.
Scully threw open the door. “Well, come on,” he said. Instantly a terrific wind caused the flame of the lamp to struggle at its wick, while a puff of black smoke sprang from the chimney-top. The stove was in mid-current of the blast, and its voice swelled to equal the roar of the storm. Some of the scarred and bedabbled cards were caught up from the floor and dashed helplessly against the farther wall. The men lowered their heads and plunged into the tempest as into a sea.
No snow was falling, but great whirls and clouds of flakes, swept up from the ground by the frantic winds, were streaming southward with the speed of bullets. The covered land was blue with the sheen of an unearthly satin, and there was no other hue save where, at the low, black railway station—which seemed incredibly distant—one light gleamed like a tiny jewel. As the men floundered into a thigh deep drift, it was known that the Swede was bawling out something. Scully went to him, put a hand on his shoulder and projected an ear. “What’s that you say?” he shouted.
“I say,” bawled the Swede again, “I won’t stand much show against this gang. I know you’ll all pitch on me.”
Scully smote him reproachfully on the arm. “Tut, man!” he yelled. The wind tore the words from Scully’s lips and scattered them far alee.
“You are all a gang of—” boomed the Swede, but the storm also seized the remainder of this sentence.
Immediately turning their backs upon the wind, the men had swung around a corner to the sheltered side of the hotel. It was the function of the little house to preserve here, amid this great devastation of snow, an irregular V-shape of heavily incrusted grass, which crackled beneath the feet. One could imagine the great drifts piled against the windward side. When the party reached the comparative peace of this spot it was found that the Swede was still bellowing.
“Oh, I know what kind of a thing this is! I know you’ll all pitch on me. I can’t lick you all!”
Scully turned upon him panther fashion. “You’ll not have to whip all of us. You’ll have to whip my son Johnnie. An’ the man what troubles you durin’ that time will have me to dale with.”
The arrangements were swiftly made. The two men faced each other, obedient to the harsh commands of Scully, whose face, in the subtly luminous gloom, could be seen set in the austere impersonal lines that are pictured on the countenances of the Roman veterans. The Easterner’s teeth were chattering, and he was hopping up and down like a mechanical toy. The cowboy stood rock-like.
The contestants had not stripped off any clothing. Each was in his ordinary attire. Their fists were up, and they eyed each other in a calm that had the elements of leonine cruelty in it.
During this pause, the Easterner’s mind, like a film, took lasting impressions of three men—the iron-nerved master of the ceremony; the Swede, pale, motionless, terrible; and Johnnie, serene yet ferocious, brutish yet heroic. The entire prelude had in it a tragedy greater than the tragedy of action, and this aspect was accentuated by the long, mellow cry of the blizzard, as it sped the tumbling and wailing flakes into the black abyss of the south.
“Now!” said Scully.
The two combatants leaped forward and crashed together like bullocks. There was heard the cushioned sound of blows, and of a curse squeezing out from between the tight teeth of one.
As for the spectators, the Easterner’s pent-up breath exploded from him with a pop of relief, absolute relief from the tension of the preliminaries. The cowboy bounded into the air with a yowl. Scully was immovable as from supreme amazement and fear at the fury of the fight which he himself had permitted and arranged.
For a time the encounter in the darkness was such a perplexity of flying arms that it presented no more detail than would a swiftly revolving wheel. Occasionally a face, as if illumined by a flash of light, would shine out, ghastly and marked with pink spots. A moment later, the men might have been known as shadows, if it were not for the involuntary utterance of oaths that came from them in whispers.
Suddenly a holocaust of warlike desire caught the cowboy, and he bolted forward with the speed of a broncho. “Go it, Johnnie! go it! Kill him! Kill him!”
Scully confronted him. “Kape back,” he said; and by his glance the cowboy could tell that this man was Johnnie’s father.
To the Easterner there was a monotony of unchangeable fighting that was an abomination. This confused mingling was eternal to his sense, which was concentrated in a longing for the end, the priceless end. Once the fighters lurched near him, and as he scrambled hastily backward he heard them breathe like men on the rack.
“Kill him, Johnnie! Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!” The cowboy’s face was contorted like one of those agony masks in museums.
“Keep still,” said Scully, icily.
Then there was a sudden loud grunt, incomplete, cut short, and Johnnie’s body swung away from the Swede and fell with sickening heaviness to the grass. The cowboy was barely in time to prevent the mad Swede from flinging himself upon his prone adversary. “No, you don’t,” said the cowboy, interposing an arm. “Wait a second.”
Scully was at his son’s side. “Johnnie! Johnnie, me boy!” His voice had a quality of melancholy tenderness. “Johnnie! Can you go on with it?” He looked anxiously down into the bloody, pulpy face of his son.
There was a moment of silence, and then Johnnie answered in his ordinary voice, “Yes, I—it—yes.”
Assisted by his father he struggled to his feet. “Wait a bit now till you git your wind,” said the old man.
A few paces away the cowboy was lecturing the Swede. “No, you don’t! Wait a second!”
The Easterner was plucking at Scully’s sleeve. “Oh, this is enough,” he pleaded. “This is enough! Let it go as it stands. This is enough!”
“Bill,” said Scully, “git out of the road.” The cowboy stepped aside. “Now.” The combatants were actuated by a new caution as they advanced towards collision. They glared at each other, and then the Swede aimed a lightning blow that carried with it his entire weight. Johnnie was evidently half stupid from weakness, but he miraculously dodged, and his fist sent the over-balanced Swede sprawling.
The cowboy, Scully, and the Easterner burst into a cheer that was like a chorus of triumphant soldiery, but before its conclusion the Swede had scuffled agilely to his feet and come in berserk abandon at his foe. There was another perplexity of flying arms, and Johnnie’s body again swung away and fell, even as a bundle might fall from a roof. The Swede instantly staggered to a little wind-waved tree and leaned upon it, breathing like an engine, while his savage and flame-lit eyes roamed from face to face as the men bent over Johnnie. There was a splendor of isolation in his situation at this time which the Easterner felt once when, lifting his eyes from the man on the ground, he beheld that mysterious and lonely figure, waiting.
“Arc you any good yet, Johnnie?” asked Scully in a broken voice.
The son gasped and opened his eyes languidly. After a moment he answered, “No—I ain’t—any good—any—more.” Then, from shame and bodily ill he began to weep, the tears furrowing down through the blood-stains on his face. “He was too—too—too heavy for me.”
Scully straightened and addressed the waiting figure. “Stranger,” he said, evenly, “it’s all up with our side.” Then his voice changed into that vibrant huskiness which is commonly the tone of the most simple and deadly announcements. “Johnnie is whipped.”
Without replying, the victor moved off on the route to the front door of the hotel.
The cowboy was formulating new and un-spellable blasphemies. The Easterner was startled to find that they were out in a wind that seemed to come direct from the shadowed arctic floes. He heard again the wail of the snow as it was flung to its grave in the south. He knew now that all this time the cold had been sinking into him deeper and deeper, and he wondered that he had not perished. He felt indifferent to the condition of the vanquished man.
“Johnnie, can you walk?” asked Scully.
“Did I hurt—hurt him any?” asked the son.
“Can you walk, boy? Can you walk?”
Johnnie’s voice was suddenly strong. There was a robust impatience in it. “I asked you whether I hurt him any!”
“Yes, yes, Johnnie,” answered the cowboy, consolingly; “he’s hurt a good deal.”
They raised him from the ground, and as soon as he was on his feet he went tottering off, rebuffing all attempts at assistance. When the party rounded the corner they were fairly blinded by the pelting of the snow. It burned their faces like fire. The cowboy carried Johnnie through the drift to the door. As they entered some cards again rose from the floor and beat against the wall.
The Easterner rushed to the stove. He was so profoundly chilled that he almost dared to embrace the glowing iron. The Swede was not in the room. Johnnie sank into a chair, and, folding his arms on his knees, buried his face in them. Scully, warming one foot and then the other at a rim of the stove, muttered to himself with Celtic mournfulness. The cowboy had removed his fur cap, and with a dazed and rueful air he was running one hand through his tousled locks. From overhead they could hear the creaking of boards, as the Swede tramped here and there in his room.
The sad quiet was broken by the sudden flinging open of a door that led towards the kitchen. It was instantly followed by an inrush of women. They precipitated themselves upon Johnnie amid a chorus of lamentation. Before they carried their prey off to the kitchen, there to be bathed and harangued with that mixture of sympathy and abuse which is a feat of their sex, the mother straightened herself and fixed old Scully with an eye of stern reproach. “Shame be upon you, Patrick Scully!” she cried. “Your own son, too. Shame be upon you!”
“There, now! Be quiet, now!” said the old man, weakly.
“Shame be upon you, Patrick Scully!” The girls, rallying to this slogan, sniffed disdainfully in the direction of those trembling accomplices, the cowboy and the Easterner. Presently they bore Johnnie away, and left the three men to dismal reflection.
“I’d like to fight this here Dutchman myself,” said the cowboy, breaking a long silence.
Scully wagged his head sadly. “No, that wouldn’t do. It wouldn’t be right. It wouldn’t be right.”
“Well, why wouldn’t it?” argued the cowboy. “I don’t see no harm in it.”
“No,” answered Scully, with mournful heroism. “It wouldn’t be right. It was Johnnie’s fight, and now we mustn’t whip the man just because he whipped Johnnie.”
“Yes, that’s true enough,” said the cowboy; “but—he better not get fresh with me, because I couldn’t stand no more of it.”
“You’ll not say a word to him,” commanded Scully, and even then they heard the tread of the Swede on the stairs. His entrance was made theatric. He swept the door back with a bang and swaggered to the middle of the room. No one looked at him. “Well,” he cried, insolently, at Scully, “I s’pose you’ll tell me now how much I owe you?”
The old man remained stolid. “You don’t owe me nothin’.”
“Huh!” said the Swede, “huh! Don’t owe ‘im nothin’.”
The cowboy addressed the Swede. “Stranger, I don’t see how you come to be so gay around here.”
Old Scully was instantly alert. “Stop!” he shouted, holding his hand forth, fingers upward. “Bill, you shut up!”
The cowboy spat carelessly into the sawdust box. “I didn’t say a word, did I?” he asked.
“Mr. Scully,” called the Swede, “how much do I owe you?” It was seen that he was attired for departure, and that he had his valise in his hand.
“You don’t owe me nothin’,” repeated Scully in his same imperturbable way.
“Huh!” said the Swede. “I guess you’re right. I guess if it was any way at all, you’d owe me somethin’. That’s what I guess.” He turned to the cowboy. “‘Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!'” he mimicked, and then guffawed victoriously. “‘Kill him!'” He was convulsed with ironical humor.
But he might have been jeering the dead. The three men were immovable and silent, staring with glassy eyes at the stove.
The Swede opened the door and passed into the storm, giving one derisive glance backward at the still group.
As soon as the door was closed, Scully and the cowboy leaped to their feet and began to curse. They trampled to and fro, waving their arms and smashing into the air with their fists. “Oh, but that was a hard minute!” wailed Scully. “That was a hard minute! Him there leerin’ and scoffin’! One bang at his nose was worth forty dollars to me that minute! How did you stand it, Bill?”
“How did I stand it?” cried the cowboy in a quivering voice. “How did I stand it? Oh!”
The old man burst into sudden brogue. “I’d loike to take that Swade,” he wailed, “and hould ‘im down on a shtone flure and bate ‘im to a jelly wid a shtick!”
The cowboy groaned in sympathy. “I’d like to git him by the neck and ha-ammer him “—he brought his hand down on a chair with a noise like a pistol-shot—”hammer that there Dutchman until he couldn’t tell himself from a dead coyote!”
“I’d bate ‘im until he—”
“I’d show him some things—”
And then together they raised a yearning, fanatic cry—”Oh-o-oh! if we only could—”
“And then I’d—”
The Swede, tightly gripping his valise, tacked across the face of the storm as if he carried sails. He was following a line of little naked, gasping trees, which he knew must mark the way of the road. His face, fresh from the pounding of Johnnie’s fists, felt more pleasure than pain in the wind and the driving snow. A number of square shapes loomed upon him finally, and he knew them as the houses of the main body of the town. He found a street and made travel along it, leaning heavily upon the wind whenever, at a corner, a terrific blast caught him.
He might have been in a deserted village. We picture the world as thick with conquering and elate humanity, but here, with the bugles of the tempest pealing, it was hard to imagine a peopled earth. One viewed the existence of man then as a marvel, and conceded a glamour of wonder to these lice which were caused to cling to a whirling, fire-smote, ice-locked, disease-stricken, space-lost bulb. The conceit of man was explained by this storm to be the very engine of life. One was a coxcomb not to die in it. However, the Swede found a saloon.
In front of it an indomitable red light was burning, and the snow-flakes were made blood color as they flew through the circumscribed territory of the lamp’s shining. The Swede pushed open the door of the saloon and entered. A sanded expanse was before him, and at the end of it four men sat about a table drinking. Down one side of the room extended a radiant bar, and its guardian was leaning upon his elbows listening to the talk of the men at the table. The Swede dropped his valise upon the floor, and, smiling fraternally upon the barkeeper, said, “Gimme some whiskey, will you?” The man placed a bottle, a whiskey-glass, and a glass of ice-thick water upon the bar. The Swede poured himself an abnormal portion of whiskey and drank it in three gulps. “Pretty bad night,” remarked the bartender, indifferently. He was making the pretension of blindness which is usually a distinction of his class; but it could have been seen that he was furtively studying the half-erased blood-stains on the face of the Swede. “Bad night,” he said again.
“Oh, it’s good enough for me,” replied the Swede, hardily, as he poured himself some more whiskey. The barkeeper took his coin and maneuvered it through its reception by the highly nickelled cash-machine. A bell rang; a card labelled “20 cts.” had appeared.
“No,” continued the Swede, “this isn’t too bad weather. It’s good enough for me.”
“So?” murmured the barkeeper, languidly.
The copious drams made the Swede’s eyes swim, and he breathed a trifle heavier. “Yes, I like this weather. I like it. It suits me.” It was apparently his design to impart a deep significance to these words.
“So?” murmured the bartender again. He turned to gaze dreamily at the scroll-like birds and bird-like scrolls which had been drawn with soap upon the mirrors back of the bar.
“Well, I guess I’ll take another drink,” said the Swede, presently. “Have something?”
“No, thanks; I’m not drinkin’,” answered the bartender. Afterwards he asked, “How did you hurt your face?”
The Swede immediately began to boast loudly. “Why, in a fight. I thumped the soul out of a man down here at Scully’s hotel.”
The interest of the four men at the table was at last aroused.
“Who was it?” said one.
“Johnnie Scully,” blustered the Swede. “Son of the man what runs it. He will be pretty near dead for some weeks, I can tell you. I made a nice thing of him, I did. He couldn’t get up. They carried him in the house. Have a drink?”
Instantly the men in some subtle way incased themselves in reserve. “No, thanks,” said one. The group was of curious formation. Two were prominent local business men; one was the district-attorney; and one was a professional gambler of the kind known as “square.” But a scrutiny of the group would not have enabled an observer to pick the gambler from the men of more reputable pursuits. He was, in fact, a man so delicate in manner, when among people of fair class, and so judicious in his choice of victims, that in the strictly masculine part of the town’s life he had come to be explicitly trusted and admired. People called him a thoroughbred. The fear and contempt with which his craft was regarded was undoubtedly the reason that his quiet dignity shone conspicuous above the quiet dignity of men who might be merely hatters, billiard markers, or grocery-clerks. Beyond an occasional unwary traveller, who came by rail, this gambler was supposed to prey solely upon reckless and senile farmers, who, when flush with good crops, drove into town in all the pride and confidence of an absolutely invulnerable stupidity. Hearing at times in circuitous fashion of the despoilment of such a farmer, the important men of Romper invariably laughed in contempt of the victim, and, if they thought of the wolf at all, it was with a kind of pride at the knowledge that he would never dare think of attacking their wisdom and courage. Besides, it was popular that this gambler had a real wife and two real children in a neat cottage in a suburb, where he led an exemplary home life; and when any one even suggested a discrepancy in his character, the crowd immediately vociferated descriptions of this virtuous family circle. Then men who led exemplary home lives, and men who did not lead exemplary home lives, all subsided in a bunch, remarking that there was nothing more to be said.
However, when a restriction was placed upon him—as, for instance, when a strong clique of members of the new Pollywog Club refused to permit him, even as a spectator, to appear in the rooms of the organization—the candor and gentleness with which he accepted the judgment disarmed many of his foes and made his friends more desperately partisan. He invariably distinguished between himself and a respectable Romper man so quickly and frankly that his manner actually appeared to be a continual broadcast compliment.
And one must not forget to declare the fundamental fact of his entire position in Romper. It is irrefutable that in all affairs outside of his business, in all matters that occur eternally and commonly between man and man, this thieving card-player was so generous, so just, so moral, that, in a contest, he could have put to flight the consciences of nine-tenths of the citizens of Romper.
And so it happened that he was seated in this saloon with the two prominent local merchants and the district-attorney.
The Swede continued to drink raw whiskey, meanwhile babbling at the barkeeper and trying to induce him to indulge in potations. “Come on. Have a drink. Come on. What—no? Well, have a little one, then. By gawd, I’ve whipped a man to-night, and I want to celebrate. I whipped him good, too. Gentlemen,” the Swede cried to the men at the table, “have a drink?”
“Ssh!” said the barkeeper.
The group at the table, although furtively attentive, had been pretending to be deep in talk, but now a man lifted his eyes towards the Swede and said, shortly, “Thanks. We don’t want any more.”
At this reply the Swede ruffled out his chest like a rooster. “Well,” he exploded, “it seems I can’t get anybody to drink with me in this town. Seems so, don’t it? Well!”
“Ssh!” said the barkeeper.
“Say,” snarled the Swede, “don’t you try to shut me up. I won’t have it. I’m a gentleman, and I want people to drink with me. And I want ’em to drink with me now. Now—do you understand?” He rapped the bar with his knuckles.
Years of experience had calloused the bartender. He merely grew sulky. “I hear you,” he answered.
“Well,” cried the Swede, “listen hard then. See those men over there? Well, they’re going to drink with me, and don’t you forget it. Now you watch.”
“Hi!” yelled the barkeeper, “this won’t do!”
“Why won’t it?” demanded the Swede. He stalked over to the table, and by chance laid his hand upon the shoulder of the gambler. “How about this?” he asked, wrathfully. “I asked you to drink with me.”
The gambler simply twisted his head and spoke over his shoulder. “My friend, I don’t know you.”
“Oh, hell!” answered the Swede, “come and have a drink.”
“Now, my boy,” advised the gambler, kindly, “take your hand off my shoulder and go ‘way and mind your own business.” He was a little, slim man, and it seemed strange to hear him use this tone of heroic patronage to the burly Swede. The other men at the table said nothing.
“What! You won’t drink with me, you little dude? I’ll make you then! I’ll make you!” The Swede had grasped the gambler frenziedly at the throat, and was dragging him from his chair. The other men sprang up. The barkeeper dashed around the corner of his bar. There was a great tumult, and then was seen a long blade in the hand of the gambler. It shot forward, and a human body, this citadel of virtue, wisdom, power, was pierced as easily as if it had been a melon. The Swede fell with a cry of supreme astonishment.
The prominent merchants and the district attorney must have at once tumbled out of the place backward. The bartender found himself hanging limply to the arm of a chair and gazing into the eyes of a murderer.
“Henry,” said the latter, as he wiped his knife on one of the towels that hung beneath the bar-rail, “you tell ’em where to find me. I’ll be home, waiting for ’em.” Then he vanished. A moment afterwards the barkeeper was in the street dinning through the storm for help, and, moreover, companionship.
The corpse of the Swede, alone in the saloon, had its eyes fixed upon a dreadful legend that dwelt atop of the cash-machine: “This registers the amount of your purchase.”
Months later, the cowboy was frying pork over the stove of a little ranch near the Dakota line, when there was a quick thud of hoofs outside, and presently the Easterner entered with the letters and the papers.
“Well,” said the Easterner at once, “the chap that killed the Swede has got three years. Wasn’t much, was it?”
“He has? Three years?” The cowboy poised his pan of pork, while he ruminated upon the news. “Three years. That ain’t much.”
“No. It was a light sentence,” replied the Easterner as he unbuckled his spurs. “Seems there was a good deal of sympathy for him in Romper.”
“If the bartender had been any good,” observed the cowboy, thoughtfully, “he would have gone in and cracked that there Dutchman on the head with a bottle in the beginnin’ of it and stopped all this here murderin’.”
“Yes, a thousand things might have happened,” said the Easterner, tartly.
The cowboy returned his pan of pork to the fire, but his philosophy continued. “It’s funny, ain’t it? If he hadn’t said Johnnie was cheatin’ he’d be alive this minute. He was an awful fool. Game played for fun, too. Not for money. I believe he was crazy.”
“I feel sorry for that gambler,” said the Easterner.
“Oh, so do I,” said the cowboy. “He don’t deserve none of it for killin’ who he did.”
“The Swede might not have been killed if everything had been square.”
“Might not have been killed?” exclaimed the cowboy. “Everythin’ square? Why, when he said that Johnnie was cheatin’ and acted like such a jackass? And then in the saloon he fairly walked up to git hurt?” With these arguments the cowboy browbeat the Easterner and reduced him to rage.
“You’re a fool!” cried the Easterner, viciously. “You’re a bigger jackass than the Swede by a million majority. Now let me tell you one thing. Let me tell you something. Listen! Johnnie was cheating!”
“‘Johnnie,'” said the cowboy, blankly. There was a minute of silence, and then he said, robustly, “Why, no. The game was only for fun.”
“Fun or not,” said the Easterner, “Johnnie was cheating. I saw him. I know it. I saw him. And I refused to stand up and be a man. I let the Swede fight it out alone. And you—you were simply puffing around the place and wanting to fight. And then old Scully himself! We are all in it! This poor gambler isn’t even a noun. He is kind of an adverb. Every sin is the result of a collaboration. We, five of us, have collaborated in the murder of this Swede. Usually there are from a dozen to forty women really involved in every murder, but in this case it seems to be only five men—you, I, Johnnie, old Scully, and that fool of an unfortunate gambler came merely as a culmination, the apex of a human movement, and gets all the punishment.”
The cowboy, injured and rebellious, cried out blindly into this fog of mysterious theory: “Well, I didn’t do anythin’, did I?”