About one o’clock in the afternoon. The wind is busy rolling along some beer-can that has been drained of its contents in the deserted street. A massive silence links the arch of the Sea Gate with the enormous clocktower 1 The clocktower in November 7 Square is a symbol of the coup mounted by General Zine al-Abidine ben Ali against President Habib Bourguiba on November 7, 1987. The clocktower stands where a statue of Bourguiba stood before. 2 where Mohamed V Street crosses Avenue Habib Bourguiba. The tranquillity of the deserted capital city is disturbed by its well-known nutter: a paranoiac who circles the tower for the last time then starts pushing people away, warning them of the poisonous hands of the clock high above. He then starts to throw stones, pieces of iron, houses, trees, crows and goats at imaginary enemies; things that are invisible to anyone else. He imagines that he is picking them up from the marble base of the wrought-iron clocktower that flaunts itself like a whore in the last years of the struggle. People have forgotten the days of forced disappearances and fear. Not a single person has disappeared for a year or more. People are enjoying the sacred siesta of August. The temperature is over fifty degrees, and the devil of midday picks the crab lice caught in transient lust from its crotch.
Ambulance and police sirens suddenly massacre the slumbering siesta, and everyone rushes, with the traces of drowsiness and dried semen stains still on them, to the street of streets. Something is happening at the lofty clocktower. Cordons of police officers surround the place. Rapid intervention forces hide behind cold helmets, and press back with batons the onlookers at whom car horns honk from every direction. Human beings without number look up to the top of the stern clock. A small remote figure, apparently no bigger than a finger is climbing the clock-tower with the speed of a cockroach. Everybody is amazed. He is about to announce the end of the world.
Necks strain to look at the bold climber who has reached the top of the clock and is holding on to one of its hands. He takes a water-bottle out of his back pocket, has a drink and then empties what is left over his head. He removes his leather belt and secures himself with it to some iron rings, and turns to the crowds that have gathered below like ants. Nervous policemen surround the crowds and run in all directions talking into their radio sets. Gesturing nervously they ask the man up there to come down: up there is out of bounds. Meanwhile he mutters something, the content of which is lost in the air. Only fragments of what he says fall like droppings from a ram. There is a movement of his left hand and he waves right and left, indicating his refusal to come down. The police carry on pushing back the people who are circling the tower like dung beetles. They try to ban any photography, to silence voices and to prevent mobile phone cameras being focussed on the hands of the clock. Traffic comes to a standstill and the car engines throb like the veins of a hundred metre sprinter on the starting line.
Something serious is going on. No one has been bold enough to get near the clock for the two years since a soccer fan fell off it in a delirium of happiness after his team won the President of the Republic Cup. On that day, the water bubbling up from the fancy fountain beneath the clock turned into a pool of red. From that evening the clock was subject to strict surveillance: it occupied a strategic site in the heart of the capital, regardless of what the nutter sometimes said about it.
The crowds grow and the front rows are reinvigorated by tourists who pour in from the beaches and from hotels nearby. The policemen’s batons are a little muted, but the men grow more agitated. They run about everywhere, barricading the pavements and extending the restricted area. Meanwhile the man clings to the end of the hand at the top of the clock like a gecko.
For years on the site of this clock stood a verdigrised statue of Bourguiba on a horse, with one of its forelegs raised to the faces of those who looked up. It was said that it raised its hoof in the face of Ibn Khaldun, whose statue had been planted like a bad dream opposite Bourguiba – and at his request. After he was swept away by order of the present rider, the statue was removed and there sprouted in its place a giant clock-tower with a cold cement pedestal. It was not long before it gave seed to smaller versions that were planted in each town and village, while statues of the Leader were banished from every part of the land.
The clock was changed for another that came from Switzerland or England or America – there were conflicting reports about the nationality of the new clock – and a bronze plinth was decorated in arabesque style. Groundless talk without proof about the clock of unknown origin was installed in the heart of the city that was heedless of its sons. No trace was left of the Leader whose statue was moved to La Goulette to gaze at the bitter sea.
Spiderman remains above the restricted zone, supporting himself with the leather belt from which he hangs as he swings about, like a professional mountaineer. Below, the world, bewildered. The crowds grow after workers leave their offices. One whole hour passes by and the police are chewing their sticks, unable to persuade the man of the hour to come down. Among the crowd strange things are going on. Thieves and pickpockets are busy stealing mobile phones and necklaces from the women onlookers; hands grope startled breasts or oblivious bums.
Climbing to the top of the clock is a serious crime, an unpardonable sin. What is happening today undermines security. The police are facing a dilemma: how can they get on top of the situation when the scandal is unfolding in front of everybody – citizens and foreigners, and the whole country at the height of the tourist season too?
An officer almost bites the head off one helpless policeman, asking him for the thousandth time, “How did that dirty son a of a bitch get up there? Where were you, stupid idiots? How did you let him get near the clock and let him climb up as well?”
Elsewhere a policeman pounces on a tourist and snatches the camera that he was pointing at the clock. The policeman rips out the battery and nervously hands back the camera, cautioning him against using it again. The barricaded area is a restricted security zone.
The crowds start to mutter about the behaviour of the police as they clear a large space between the people and the location of the incident. Their grievance becomes louder when they see the man on the clock waving his hand and addressing the chief of the rapid intervention forces. As he is waving the empty water-bottle about, they understand he is asking for water. Another bottle is brought. A policeman scales the clocktower’s inner stairway. He throws the man the end of the rope tied round the bottle. The man grabs it and, after the policeman tries to open negotiations, orders him to go back down.
Nothing of his conversation with the policeman is heard. People are busy listening to the ravings of one young man who is shouting, “They’re showing what’s happening on television and you can hear what the guy is saying. Look, I’ve had a text message giving the news and the frequency of the channel.”
People take out their phones. The message reached everybody at the same time. The policemen get more het up and frenziedly start to look for something or other. Another group of policemen come and busy themselves searching buildings all around for the source of transmission and for the camera that is filming the incident.
Some people rush home but crowds remain and others arrive until the pavements and streets are packed to overflowing.
The translation appeared in “Emerging Arab Voices: Nadwa I”, Edited by Peter Clark, Dar al-Saqi in collaboration with IPAF, 2010.
Hilik arrives at about 12. “Am I interrupting you?” he asks. I gesture for him to come in, but he still hesitates on the threshold. “If you’re busy working,” he says, “I’ll come back later. I don’t want to bother you or anything, I was just curious.”
I make coffee and we sit in the living room. He doesn’t drink the coffee, doesn’t even taste it, just sinks into the couch and tries to smile. “I only dropped in to see how it’s going,” he says. “The people at the publisher’s are on pins and needles, dying to read it.”
“Great,” I say, “it’s going great.”
“Terrific,” Hilik smiles, “I’m glad. Because you know, it’s nine years already. In March, I mean, it’ll be nine and you haven’t written anything since then…”
“But I have,” I say, “I write all the time. It’s just that it isn’t good enough.”
“I want you to know,” Hilik says as he holds his hands above the coffee so they can catch the steam, “that with your reputation, even not-good will sell. I swear, during Book Week, someone came up every ten minutes and asked when you’ll be publishing a new one. Ask Dubi. After almost ten years, even really-bad will sell. But if you’re not writing at all, then…”
“I’m writing,” I say, “all the time. But I don’t feel like publishing a not-good book, even if you or Dubi…”
“Of course,” Hilik interrupts me, “no one said it has to be not good. It can be good too, goodwill sells even better. Just finish a book already, for God’s sake.”
I know him. This isn’t the first time he’s come here. Soon he’ll start talking about his daughter, the paralyzed one, and then he’ll cry. He always cries in the end. “I’m almost finished,” I say, trying to head him off, “another fifty pages, tops.”
“Fifty?” Hilik repeats suspiciously. “Yes,” I say, trying to sound enthusiastic, “fifty tops. I just have to get the protagonist to kill someone who has it coming, in self-defense. Then he’ll sleep with the sister of the dead guy without her knowing that he’s the one who killed him. And then there are a few more pages of his thoughts as he walks on the beach in Caesarea. And a short epilogue with him in a taxi on the way back to his apartment when he hears about the Coronavirus outbreak on the radio, you know, so the reader can place the plot in a historical context.
“Fifty pages, you say,” Hilik says, clutching the handle of his mug of coffee, “fifty tops and the Coronavirus?” He pauses for a second and then hurls the mug at the wall. A black stain appears on it and begins to ooze towards the floor. “Remember what you told me last time? Twenty pages, you said, Twenty! Twenty pages and the last Gaza War. If you’re not writing, then don’t write, but for God’s sake, we’ve known each other for more than 25 years, even before my Yifat was born, so don’t lie to me.
I don’t say anything. Neither does Hilik. I see him slowly realizing what he’s done. The stain is still oozing, it’ll reach the carpet soon. “Do you have a rag?” he asks after the brief silence. “Don’t get up, just tell me where and I’ll clean it up.” I shake my head, I really don’t think I have one.
“I’m sorry,” he says, “I lost control. It’s not like me. I’m just going through a bad time now. I apologize. Do you forgive me?” I nod. “Good,” Hilik says, “so I’m going now. I don’t want to disturb you… Fifty pages, you said? Great, you really are almost done. Don’t make the ending too depressing, okay? Leave a sliver of hope. People like to feel there’s still a chance.” He stops at the door and says, “I’m really sorry about the coffee. You’re not angry, right? It’s just that, my daughter, she’s in a bad way…” And he starts to cry. I put a hand on his shoulder. Exactly the same one I put a hand on last time.
“Life is cruel,” Hilik says, “a real bitch. Heartless. It grinds you down until there’s nothing left but dust. Write about that. Write something about that. Not now, in your next book.”
“I’ll send it to you as soon as I’m done,” I say before I close the door, “it won’t take much longer. I’m right at the end.”
After Hilik goes, I sit down in front of the computer and surf a few porn sites. One shows a young girl with a braid whose name is Nikki. She speaks a language I don’t understand and drinks cum from a glass that someone hands her. I close the site and open my word processor. I have a lot of ideas in my head. Too many, in fact. This time, I tell myself, I’ll do it differently. This time I’ll try to start from the end. “ ‘Let’s not talk about that now,’ Nikki whispered, covering his mouth with her soft hand, ‘Let’s not even think about it. Let’s just kiss and watch the sunset.’ The sun had almost completely sunk into the black sea, and only a single, stubborn ray of light flickered in the sky in a final, desperate effort to give the very dark world another sliver of light.”
That year I spent the best two months of the dry season on one of the estates – in fact, on the principal cattle estate of a famous meat-extract manufacturing company.
B.O.S bos. You have seen the three magic letters on the advertisement pages of magazines and newspapers, in the windows of provision merchants, and on calendars for next year you receive by post in the month of November. They scatter pamphlets also, written in a sickly enthusiastic style and in several languages, giving statistics of slaughter and bloodshed enough to make a Turk turn faint. The “art” illustrating that “literature” represents in vivid and shining colours a large and enraged black bull stamping upon a yellow snake writhing in emerald-green grass, with a cobalt-blue sky for a background. It is atrocious and it is an allegory. The snake symbolizes disease, weakness – perhaps mere hunger, which last is the chronic disease of the majority of mankind. Of course everybody knows the B.O.S. Ltd., with its unrivalled products: Vinobos, Jellybos, and the latest unequalled perfection, Tribos, whose nourishment is offered to you not only highly concentrated, but already half digested. Such apparently is the love that Limited Company bears to its fellowmen – even as the love of the father and mother penguin for their hungry fledglings.
Of course the capital of a country must be productively employed. I have nothing to say against the company. But being myself animated by feelings of affection towards my fellow-men, I am saddened by the modern system of advertising. Whatever evidence it offers of enterprise, ingenuity, impudence, and resource in certain individuals, it proves to my mind the wide prevalence of that form of mental degradation which is called gullibility.
In various parts of the civilized and uncivilized world I have had to swallow B.O.S. with more or less benefit to myself, though without great pleasure. Prepared with hot water and abundantly peppered to bring out the taste, this extract is not really unpalatable. But I have never swallowed its advertisements. Perhaps they have not gone far enough. As far as I can remember they make no promise of everlasting youth to the users of B.O.S., nor yet have they claimed the power of raising the dead for their estimable products. Why this austere reserve, I wonder? But I don’t think they would have had me even on these terms. Whatever form of mental degradation I may (being but human) be suffering from, it is not the popular form. I am not gullible.
I have been at some pains to bring out distinctly this statement about myself in view of the story which follows. I have checked the facts as far as possible. I have turned up the files of French newspapers, and I have also talked with the officer who commands the military guard on the Ile Royale,
It concerns the engineer of the steam-launch belonging to the Marañon cattle estate of the B.O.S. Co., Ltd. This estate is also an island – an island as big as a small province, lying in the estuary of a great South American river. It is wild and not beautiful, but the grass growing on its low plains seems to possess exceptionally nourishing and flavouring qualities. It resounds with the lowing of innumerable herds – a deep and distressing sound under the open sky, rising like a monstrous protest of prisoners condemned to death. On the mainland, across twenty miles of discoloured muddy water, there stands a city whose name, let us say, is Horta.
But the most interesting characteristic of this island (which seems like a sort of penal settlement for condemned cattle) consists in its being the only known habitat of an extremely rare and gorgeous butterfly. The species is even more rare than it is beautiful, which is not saying little. I have already alluded to my travels. I travelled at that time, but strictly for myself and with a moderation unknown in our days of round-the-world tickets. I even travelled with a purpose. As a matter of fact, I am – “Ha, ha, ha! – a desperate butterfly-slayer. Ha, ha, ha!”
This was the tone in which Mr. Harry Gee, the manager of the cattle station, alluded to my pursuits. He seemed to consider me the greatest absurdity in the world. On the other hand, the B.O.S. Co., Ltd., represented to him the acme of the nineteenth century’s achievement. I believe that he slept in his leggings and spurs. His days he spent in the saddle flying over the plains, followed by a train of half-wild horsemen, who called him Don Enrique, and who had no definite idea of the B.O.S. Co., Ltd., which paid their wages. He was an excellent manager, but I don’t see why, when we met at meals, he should have thumped me on the back, with loud, derisive inquiries: “How’s the deadly sport to-day? Butterflies going strong? Ha, ha, ha!” – especially as he charged me two dollars per diem for the hospitality of the B.O.S. Co., Ltd., (capital L 1,500,000, fully paid up), in whose balance-sheet for that year those monies are no doubt included. “I don’t think I can make it anything less in justice to my company,” he had remarked, with extreme gravity, when I was arranging with him the terms of my stay on the island.
His chaff would have been harmless enough if intimacy of intercourse in the absence of all friendly feeling were not a thing detestable in itself. Moreover, his facetiousness was not very amusing. It consisted in the wearisome repetition of descriptive phrases applied to people with a burst of laughter. “Desperate butterfly-slayer. Ha, ha, ha!” was one sample of his peculiar wit which he himself enjoyed so much. And in the same vein of exquisite humour he called my attention to the engineer of the steam-launch, one day, as we strolled on the path by the side of the creek.
The man’s head and shoulders emerged above the deck, over which were scattered various tools of his trade and a few pieces of machinery. He was doing some repairs to the engines. At the sound of our footsteps he raised anxiously a grimy face with a pointed chin and a tiny fair moustache. What could be seen of his delicate features under the black smudges appeared to me wasted and livid in the greenish shade of the enormous tree spreading its foliage over the launch moored close to the bank.
To my great surprise, Harry Gee addressed him as “Crocodile,” in that half-jeering, half-bullying tone which is characteristic of self-satisfaction in his delectable kind:
“How does the work get on, Crocodile?”
I should have said before that the amiable Harry had picked up French of a sort somewhere in some colony or other – and that he pronounced it with a disagreeable forced precision as though he meant to guy the language. The man in the launch answered him quickly in a pleasant voice. His eyes had a liquid softness and his teeth flashed dazzlingly white between his thin, drooping lips. The manager turned to me, very cheerful and loud, explaining:
“I call him Crocodile because he lives half in, half out of the creek. Amphibious – see? There’s nothing else amphibious living on the island except crocodiles; so he must belong to the species – eh? But in reality he’s nothing less than un citoyen anarchiste de Barcelone.”
“A citizen anarchist from Barcelona?” I repeated, stupidly, looking down at the man. He had turned to his work in the engine-well of the launch and presented his bowed back to us. In that attitude I heard him protest, very audibly:
“I do not even know Spanish.”
“Hey? What? You dare to deny you come from over there?” the accomplished manager was down on him truculently.
At this the man straightened himself up, dropping a spanner he had been using, and faced us; but he trembled in all his limbs.
“I deny nothing, nothing, nothing!” he said, excitedly.
He picked up the spanner and went to work again without paying any further attention to us. After looking at him for a minute or so, we went away.
“Is he really an anarchist?” I asked, when out of ear-shot.
“I don’t care a hang what he is,” answered the humorous official of the B.O.S. Co. “I gave him the name because it suited me to label him in that way. It’s good for the company.”
“For the company!” I exclaimed, stopping short.
“Aha!” he triumphed, tilting up his hairless pug face and straddling his thin, long legs. “That surprises you. I am bound to do my best for my company. They have enormous expenses. Why – our agent in Horta tells me they spend fifty thousand pounds every year in advertising all over the world! One can’t be too economical in working the show. Well, just you listen. When I took charge here the estate had no steam-launch. I asked for one, and kept on asking by every mail till I got it; but the man they sent out with it chucked his job at the end of two months, leaving the launch moored at the pontoon in Horta. Got a better screw at a sawmill up the river – blast him! And ever since it has been the same thing. Any Scotch or Yankee vagabond that likes to call himself a mechanic out here gets eighteen pounds a month, and the next you know he’s cleared out, after smashing something as likely as not. I give you my word that some of the objects I’ve had for engine-drivers couldn’t tell the boiler from the funnel. But this fellow understands his trade, and I don’t mean him to clear out. See?”
And he struck me lightly on the chest for emphasis. Disregarding his peculiarities of manner, I wanted to know what all this had to do with the man being an anarchist.
“Come!” jeered the manager. “If you saw suddenly a barefooted, unkempt chap slinking amongst the bushes on the sea face of the island, and at the same time observed less than a mile from the beach, a small schooner full of niggers hauling off in a hurry, you wouldn’t think the man fell there from the sky, would you? And it could be nothing else but either that or Cayenne. I’ve got my wits about me. Directly I sighted this queer game I said to myself – ‘Escaped Convict.’ I was as certain of it as I am of seeing you standing here this minute. So I spurred on straight at him. He stood his ground for a bit on a sand hillock crying out: ‘Monsieur! Monsieur! Arrêtez!’ then at the last moment broke and ran for life. Says I to myself, ‘I’ll tame you before I’m done with you.’ So without a single word I kept on, heading him off here and there. I rounded him up towards the shore, and at last I had him corralled on a spit, his heels in the water and nothing but sea and sky at his back, with my horse pawing the sand and shaking his head within a yard of him.
“He folded his arms on his breast then and stuck his chin up in a sort of desperate way; but I wasn’t to be impressed by the beggar’s posturing.
“Says I, ‘You’re a runaway convict.’
“When he heard French, his chin went down and his face changed.
“‘I deny nothing,’ says he, panting yet, for I had kept him skipping about in front of my horse pretty smartly. I asked him what he was doing there. He had got his breath by then, and explained that he had meant to make his way to a farm which he understood (from the schooner’s people, I suppose) was to be found in the neighbourhood. At that I laughed aloud and he got uneasy. Had he been deceived? Was there no farm within walking distance?
“I laughed more and more. He was on foot, and of course the first bunch of cattle he came across would have stamped him to rags under their hoofs. A dismounted man caught on the feeding-grounds hasn’t got the ghost of a chance.
“‘My coming upon you like this has certainly saved your life,’ I said. He remarked that perhaps it was so; but that for his part he had imagined I had wanted to kill him under the hoofs of my horse. I assured him that nothing would have been easier had I meant it. And then we came to a sort of dead stop. For the life of me I didn’t know what to do with this convict, unless I chucked him into the sea. It occurred to me to ask him what he had been transported for. He hung his head.
“‘What is it?’ says I. ‘Theft, murder, rape, or what?’ I wanted to hear what he would have to say for himself, though of course I expected it would be some sort of lie. But all he said was – ‘Make it what you like. I deny nothing. It is no good denying anything.’
“I looked him over carefully and a thought struck me.
“‘They’ve got anarchists, there, too,’ I said. ‘Perhaps you’re one of them.’
“‘I deny nothing whatever, monsieur,’ he repeats.
“This answer made me think that perhaps he was not an anarchist. I believe those damned lunatics are rather proud of themselves. If he had been one, he would have probably confessed straight out.
“‘What were you before you became a convict?’
“‘Ouvrier,’ he says. ‘And a good workman, too.’
“At that I began to think he must be an anarchist, after all. That’s the class they come mostly from, isn’t it? I hate the cowardly bomb-throwing brutes. I almost made up my mind to turn my horse short round and leave him to starve or drown where he was, whichever he liked best. As to crossing the island to bother me again, the cattle would see to that. I don’t know what induced me to ask–
“‘What sort of workman?’
“I didn’t care a hang whether he answered me or not. But when he said at once, ‘Mécanicien, monsieur,’ I nearly jumped out of the saddle with excitement. The launch had been lying disabled and idle in the creek for three weeks. My duty to the company was clear. He noticed my start, too, and there we were for a minute or so staring at each other as if bewitched.
“‘Get up on my horse behind me,’ I told him. ‘You shall put my steam-launch to rights.'”
These are the words in which the worthy manager of the Marañon estate related to me the coming of the supposed anarchist. He meant to keep him – out of a sense of duty to the company – and the name he had given him would prevent the fellow from obtaining employment anywhere in Horta. The vaqueros of the estate, when they went on leave, spread it all over the town. They did not know what an anarchist was, nor yet what Barcelona meant. They called him Anarchisto de Barcelona, as if it were his Christian name and surname. But the people in town had been reading in their papers about the anarchists in Europe and were very much impressed. Over the jocular addition of “de Barcelona” Mr. Harry Gee chuckled with immense satisfaction. “That breed is particularly murderous, isn’t it? It makes the sawmills crowd still more afraid of having anything to do with him – see?” he exulted, candidly. “I hold him by that name better than if I had him chained up by the leg to the deck of the steam-launch.
“And mark,” he added, after a pause, “he does not deny it. I am not wronging him in any way. He is a convict of some sort, anyhow.”
“But I suppose you pay him some wages, don’t you?” I asked.
“Wages! What does he want with money here? He gets his food from my kitchen and his clothing from the store. Of course I’ll give him something at the end of the year, but you don’t think I’d employ a convict and give him the same money I would give an honest man? I am looking after the interests of my company first and last.”
I admitted that, for a company spending fifty thousand pounds every year in advertising, the strictest economy was obviously necessary. The manager of the Marañon Estancia grunted approvingly.
“And I’ll tell you what,” he continued: “if I were certain he’s an anarchist and he had the cheek to ask me for money, I would give him the toe of my boot. However, let him have the benefit of the doubt. I am perfectly willing to take it that he has done nothing worse than to stick a knife into somebody – with extenuating crrcumstances – French fashion, don’t you know. But that subversive sanguinary rot of doing away with all law and order in the world makes my blood boil. It’s simply cutting the ground from under the feet of every decent, respectable, hard-working person. I tell you that the consciences of people who have them, like you or I, must be protected in some way; or else the first low scoundrel that came along would in every respect be just as good as myself. Wouldn’t he, now? And that’s absurd!”
He glared at me. I nodded slightly and murmured that doubtless there was much subtle truth in his view.
The principal truth discoverable in the views of Paul the engineer was that a little thing may bring about the undoing of a man.
“Il ne faut pas beaucoup pour perdre un homme,” he said to me, thoughtfully, one evening.
I report this reflection in French, since the man was of Paris, not of Barcelona at all. At the Marañon he lived apart from the station, in a small shed with a metal roof and straw walls, which he called mon atelier. He had a work-bench there. They had given him several horse-blankets and a saddle, not that he ever had occasion to ride, but because no other bedding was used by the working-hands, who were all vaqueros – cattlemen. And on this horseman’s gear, like a son of the plains, he used to sleep amongst the tools of his trade, in a litter of rusty scrap-iron, with a portable forge at his head, under the work-bench sustaining his grimy mosquito-net.
Now and then I would bring him a few candle ends saved from the scant supply of the manager’s house. He was very thankful for these. He did not like to lie awake in the dark, he confessed. He complained that sleep fled from him. “Le sommeil me fuit,” he declared, with his habitual air of subdued stoicism, which made him sympathetic and touching. I made it clear to him that I did not attach undue importance to the fact of his having been a convict.
Thus it came about that one evening he was led to talk about himself. As one of the bits of candle on the edge of the bench burned down to the end, he hastened to light another.
He had done his military service in a provincial garrison and returned to Paris to follow his trade. It was a well-paid one. He told me with some pride that in a short time he was earning no less than ten francs a day. He was thinking of setting up for himself by and by and of getting married.
Here he sighed deeply and paused. Then with a return to his stoical note:
“It seems I did not know enough about myself.”
On his twenty-fifth birthday two of his friends in the repairing shop where he worked proposed to stand him a dinner. He was immensely touched by this attention.
“I was a steady man,” he remarked, “but I am not less sociable than any other body.”
The entertainment came off in a little café on the Boulevard de la Chapelle. At dinner they drank some special wine. It was excellent. Everything was excellent; and the world – in his own words – seemed a very good place to live in. He had good prospects, some little money laid by, and the affection of two excellent friends. He offered to pay for all the drinks after dinner, which was only proper on his part.
They drank more wine; they drank liqueurs, cognac, beer, then more liqueurs and more cognac. Two strangers sitting at the next table looked at him, he said, with so much friendliness, that he invited them to join the party.
He had never drunk so much in his life. His elation was extreme, and so pleasurable that whenever it flagged he hastened to order more drinks.
“It seemed to me,” he said, in his quiet tone and looking on the ground in the gloomy shed full of shadows, “that I was on the point of just attaining a great and wonderful felicity. Another drink, I felt, would do it. The others were holding out well with me, glass for glass.”
But an extraordinary thing happened. At something the strangers said his elation fell. Gloomy ideas – des idées noires – rushed into his head. All the world outside the café appeared to him as a dismal evil place where a multitude of poor wretches had to work and slave to the sole end that a few individuals should ride in carriages and live riotously in palaces. He became ashamed of his happiness. The pity of mankind’s cruel lot wrung his heart. In a voice choked with sorrow he tried to express these sentiments. He thinks he wept and swore in turns.
The two new acquaintances hastened to applaud his humane indignation. Yes. The amount of injustice in the world was indeed scandalous. There was only one way of dealing with the rotten state of society. Demolish the whole sacrée boutique. Blow up the whole iniquitous show.
Their heads hovered over the table. They whispered to him eloquently; I don’t think they quite expected the result. He was extremely drunk – mad drunk. With a howl of rage he leaped suddenly upon the table. Kicking over the bottles and glasses, he yelled: “Vive l’anarchie! Death to the capitalists!” He yelled this again and again. All round him broken glass was falling, chairs were being swung in the air, people were taking each other by the throat. The police dashed in. He hit, bit, scratched and struggled, till something crashed down upon his head. . . .
He came to himself in a police cell, locked up on a charge of assault, seditious cries, and anarchist propaganda.
He looked at me fixedly with his liquid, shining eyes, that seemed very big in the dim light.
“That was bad. But even then I might have got off somehow, perhaps,” he said, slowly.
I doubt it. But whatever chance he had was done away with by a young socialist lawyer who volunteered to undertake his defence. In vain he assured him that he was no anarchist; that he was a quiet, respectable mechanic, only too anxious to work ten hours per day at his trade. He was represented at the trial as the victim of society and his drunken shoutings as the expression of infinite suffering. The young lawyer had his way to make, and this case was just what he wanted for a start. The speech for the defence was pronounced magnificent.
The poor fellow paused, swallowed, and brought out the statement:
“I got the maximum penalty applicable to a first offence.”
I made an appropriate murmur. He hung his head and folded his arms.
“When they let me out of prison,” he began, gently, “I made tracks, of course, for my old workshop. My patron had a particular liking for me before; but when he saw me he turned green with fright and showed me the door with a shaking hand.”
While he stood in the street, uneasy and disconcerted, he was accosted by a middle-aged man who introduced himself as an engineer’s fitter, too. “I know who you are,” he said. “I have attended your trial. You are a good comrade and your ideas are sound. But the devil of it is that you won’t be able to get work anywhere now. These bourgeois’ll conspire to starve you. That’s their way. Expect no mercy from the rich.”
To be spoken to so kindly in the street had comforted him very much. His seemed to be the sort of nature needing support and sympathy. The idea of not being able to find work had knocked him over completely. If his patron, who knew him so well for a quiet, orderly, competent workman, would have nothing to do with him now – then surely nobody else would. That was clear. The police, keeping their eye on him, would hasten to warn every employer inclined to give him a chance. He felt suddenly very helpless, alarmed and idle; and he followed the middle-aged man to the estaminet round the corner where he met some other good companions. They assured him that he would not be allowed to starve, work or no work. They had drinks all round to the discomfiture of all employers of labour and to the destruction of society.
He sat biting his lower lip.
“That is, monsieur, how I became a compagnon,” he said. The hand he passed over his forehead was trembling. “All the same, there’s something wrong in a world where a man can get lost for a glass more or less.”
He never looked up, though I could see he was getting excited under his dejection. He slapped the bench with his open palm.
“No!” he cried. “It was an impossible existence! Watched by the police, watched by the comrades, I did not belong to myself any more! Why, I could not even go to draw a few francs from my savings-bank without a comrade hanging about the door to see that I didn’t bolt! And most of them were neither more nor less than housebreakers. The intelligent, I mean. They robbed the rich; they were also the fools and the mad. Des exaltés – quoi! When I was drunk I loved them. When I got some drink I was angry with the world. That was the best time. I found refuge from misery in rage. But one can’t be always drunk – n’est-ce pas, monsieur? And when I was sober I was afraid to break away. They would have stuck me like a pig.”
He folded his arms again and raised his sharp chin with a bitter smile.
“By and by they told me it was time to go to work. The work was to rob a bank. Afterwards a bomb would be thrown to wreck the place. My beginner’s part would be to keep watch in a street at the back and to take care of a black bag with the bomb inside till it was wanted. After the meeting at which the affair was arranged a trusty comrade did not leave me an inch. I had not dared to protest; I was afraid of being done away with quietly in that room; only, as we were walking together I wondered whether it would not be better for me to throw myself suddenly into the Seine. But while I was turning it over in my mind we had crossed the bridge, and afterwards I had not the opportunity.”
In the light of the candle end, with his sharp features, fluffy little moustache, and oval face, he looked at times delicately and gaily young, and then appeared quite old, decrepit, full of sorrow, pressing his folded arms to his breast.
As he remained silent I felt bound to ask:
“Well! And how did it end?”
“Deportation to Cayenne,” he answered.
He seemed to think that somebody had given the plot away. As he was keeping watch in the back street, bag in hand, he was set upon by the police. “These imbeciles,” had knocked him down without noticing what he had in his hand. He wondered how the bomb failed to explode as he fell. But it didn’t explode.
“I tried to tell my story in court,” he continued. “The president was amused. There were in the audience some idiots who laughed.”
I expressed the hope that some of his companions had been caught, too. He shuddered slightly before he told me that there were two – Simon, called also Biscuit, the middle-aged fitter who spoke to him in the street, and a fellow of the name of Mafile, one of the sympathetic strangers who had applauded his sentiments and consoled his humanitarian sorrows when he got drunk in the café.
“Yes,” he went on, with an effort, “I had the advantage of their company over there on St. Joseph’s Island, amongst some eighty or ninety other convicts. We were all classed as dangerous.”
St. Joseph’s Island is the prettiest of the Iles de Salut. It is rocky and green, with shallow ravines, bushes, thickets, groves of mango-trees, and many feathery palms. Six warders armed with revolvers and carbines are in charge of the convicts kept there.
An eight-oared galley keeps up the communication in the daytime, across a channel a quarter of a mile wide, with the Ile Royale, where there is a military post. She makes the first trip at six in the morning. At four in the afternoon her service is over, and she is then hauled up into a little dock on the Ile Royale and a sentry put over her and a few smaller boats. From that time till next morning the island of St. Joseph remains cut off from the rest of the world, with the warders patrolling in turn the path from the warders’ house to the convict huts, and a multitude of sharks patrolling the waters all round.
Under these circumstances the convicts planned a mutiny. Such a thing had never been known in the penitentiary’s history before. But their plan was not without some possibility of success. The warders were to be taken by surprise and murdered during the night. Their arms would enable the convicts to shoot down the people in the galley as she came alongside in the morning. The galley once in their possession, other boats were to be captured, and the whole company was to row away up the coast.
At dusk the two warders on duty mustered the convicts as usual. Then they proceeded to inspect the huts to ascertain that everything was in order. In the second they entered they were set upon and absolutely smothered under the numbers of their assailants. The twilight faded rapidly. It was a new moon; and a heavy black squall gathering over the coast increased the profound darkness of the night. The convicts assembled in the open space, deliberating upon the next step to be taken, argued amongst themselves in low voices.
“You took part in all this?” I asked.
“No, I knew what was going to be done, of course. But why should I kill these warders? I had nothing against them. But I was afraid of the others. Whatever happened, I could not escape from them. I sat alone on the stump of a tree with my head in my hands, sick at heart at the thought of a freedom that could be nothing but a mockery to me. Suddenly I was startled to perceive the shape of a man on the path near by. He stood perfectly still, then his form became effaced in the night. It must have been the chief warder coming to see what had become of his two men. No one noticed him. The convicts kept on quarrelling over their plans. The leaders could not get themselves obeyed. The fierce whispering of that dark mass of men was very horrible.
“At last they divided into two parties and moved off. When they had passed me I rose, weary and hopeless. The path to the warders’ house was dark and silent, but on each side the bushes rustled slightly. Presently I saw a faint thread of light before me. The chief warder, followed by his three men, was approaching cautiously. But he had failed to close his dark lantern properly. The convicts had seen that faint gleam, too. There was an awful savage yell, a turmoil on the dark path, shots fired, blows, groans: and with the sound of smashed bushes, the shouts of the pursuers and the screams of the pursued, the man-hunt, the warder-hunt, passed by me into the interior of the island. I was alone. And I assure you, monsieur, I was indifferent to everything. After standing still for a while, I walked on along the path till I kicked something hard. I stooped and picked up a warder’s revolver. I felt with my fingers that it was loaded in five chambers. In the gusts of wind I heard the convicts calling to each other far away, and then a roll of thunder would cover the soughing and rustling of the trees. Suddenly, a big light ran across my path very low along the ground. And it showed a woman’s skirt with the edge of an apron.
“I knew that the person who carried it must be the wife of the head warder. They had forgotten all about her, it seems. A shot rang out in the interior of the island, and she cried out to herself as she ran. She passed on. I followed, and presently I saw her again. She was pulling at the cord of the big bell which hangs at the end of the landing-pier, with one hand, and with the other she was swinging the heavy lantern to and fro. This is the agreed signal for the Ile Royale should assistance be required at night. The wind carried the sound away from our island and the light she swung was hidden on the shore side by the few trees that grow near the warders’ house.
“I came up quite close to her from behind. She went on without stopping, without looking aside, as though she had been all alone on the island. A brave woman, monsieur. I put the revolver inside the breast of my blue blouse and waited. A flash of lightning and a clap of thunder destroyed both the sound and the light of the signal for an instant, but she never faltered, pulling at the cord and swinging the lantern as regularly as a machine. She was a comely woman of thirty – no more. I thought to myself, ‘All that’s no good on a night like this.’ And I made up my mind that if a body of my fellow-convicts came down to the pier – which was sure to happen soon – I would shoot her through the head before I shot myself. I knew the ‘comrades’ well. This idea of mine gave me quite an interest in life, monsieur; and at once, instead of remaining stupidly exposed on the pier, I retreated a little way and crouched behind a bush. I did not intend to let myself be pounced upon unawares and be prevented perhaps from rendering a supreme service to at least one human creature before I died myself.
“But we must believe the signal was seen, for the galley from Ile Royale came over in an astonishingly short time. The woman kept right on till the light of her lantern flashed upon the officer in command and the bayonets of the soldiers in the boat. Then she sat down and began to cry.
“She didn’t need me any more. I did not budge. Some soldiers were only in their shirt-sleeves, others without boots, just as the call to arms had found them. They passed by my bush at the double. The galley had been sent away for more; and the woman sat all alone crying at the end of the pier, with the lantern standing on the ground near her.
“Then suddenly I saw in the light at the end of the pier the red pantaloons of two more men. I was overcome with astonishment. They, too, started off at a run. Their tunics flapped unbuttoned and they were bare-headed. One of them panted out to the other, ‘Straight on, straight on!’
“Where on earth did they spring from, I wondered. Slowly I walked down the short pier. I saw the woman’s form shaken by sobs and heard her moaning more and more distinctly, ‘Oh, my man! my poor man! my poor man!’ I stole on quietly. She could neither hear nor see anything. She had thrown her apron over her head and was rocking herself to and fro in her grief. But I remarked a small boat fastened to the end of the pier.
“Those two men – they looked like sous-officiers – must have come in it, after being too late, I suppose, for the galley. It is incredible that they should have thus broken the regulations from a sense of duty. And it was a stupid thing to do. I could not believe my eyes in the very moment I was stepping into that boat.
“I pulled along the shore slowly. A black cloud hung over the Iles de Salut. I heard firing, shouts. Another hunt had begun – the convict-hunt. The oars were too long to pull comfortably. I managed them with difficulty, though the boat herself was light. But when I got round to the other side of the island the squall broke in rain and wind. I was unable to make head against it. I let the boat drift ashore and secured her.
“I knew the spot. There was a tumbledown old hovel standing near the water. Cowering in there I heard through the noises of the wind and the falling downpour some people tearing through the bushes. They came out on the strand. Soldiers perhaps. A flash of lightning threw everything near me into violent relief. Two convicts!
“And directly an amazed voice exclaimed, ‘It’s a mirade!’ It was the voice of Simon, otherwise Biscuit.
“And another voice growled, ‘What’s a miracle?’
“‘Why, there’s a boat lying here!’
“‘You must be mad, Simon! But there is, after all. . . . A boat.’
“They seemed awed into complete silence. The other man was Mafile. He spoke again, cautiously.
“‘It is fastened up. There must be somebody here.’
“I spoke to them from within the hovel: ‘I am here.’
“They came in then, and soon gave me to understand that the boat was theirs, not mine. ‘There are two of us,’ said Mafile, ‘against you alone.’
“I got out into the open to keep clear of them for fear of getting a treacherous blow on the head. I could have shot them both where they stood. But I said nothing. I kept down the laughter rising in my throat. I made myself very humble and begged to be allowed to go. They consulted in low tones about my fate, while with my hand on the revolver in the bosom of my blouse I had their lives in my power. I let them live. I meant them to pull that boat. I represented to them with abject humility that I understood the management of a boat, and that, being three to pull, we could get a rest in turns. That decided them at last. It was time. A little more and I would have gone into screaming fits at the drollness of it.”
At this point his excitement broke out. He jumped off the bench and gesticulated. The great shadows of his arms darting over roof and walls made the shed appear too small to contain his agitation.
“I deny nothing,” he burst out. “I was elated, monsieur. I tasted a sort of felicity. But I kept very quiet. I took my turns at pulling all through the night. We made for the open sea, putting our trust in a passing ship. It was a foolhardy action. I persuaded them to it. When the sun rose the immensity of water was calm, and the Iles de Salut appeared only like dark specks from the top of each swell. I was steering then. Mafile, who was pulling bow, let out an oath and said, ‘We must rest.’
“The time to laugh had come at last. And I took my fill of it, I can tell you. I held my sides and rolled in my seat, they had such startled faces. ‘What’s got into him, the animal?’ cries Mafile.
“And Simon, who was nearest to me, says over his shoulder to him, ‘Devil take me if I don’t think he’s gone mad!’
“Then I produced the revolver. Aha! In a moment they both got the stoniest eyes you can imagine. Ha, ha! They were frightened. But they pulled. Oh, yes, they pulled all day, sometimes looking wild and sometimes looking faint. I lost nothing of it because I had to keep my eyes on them all the time, or else – crack! – they would have been on top of me in a second. I rested my revolver hand on my knee all ready and steered with the other. Their faces began to blister. Sky and sea seemed on fire round us and the sea steamed in the sun. The boat made a sizzling sound as she went through the water. Sometimes Mafile foamed at the mouth and sometimes he groaned. But he pulled. He dared not stop. His eyes became blood-shot all over, and he had bitten his lower lip to pieces. Simon was as hoarse as a crow.
“‘Comrade-‘ he begins.
“‘There are no comrades here. I am your patron.’
“‘Patron, then,’ he says, ‘in the name of humanity let us rest.’
“I let them. There was a little rainwater washing about the bottom of the boat. I permitted them to snatch some of it in the hollow of their palms. But as I gave the command, ‘En route!’ I caught them exchanging significant glances. They thought I would have to go to sleep sometime! Aha! But I did not want to go to sleep. I was more awake than ever. It is they who went to sleep as they pulled, tumbling off the thwarts head over heels suddenly, one after another. I let them lie. All the stars were out. It was a quiet world. The sun rose. Another day. Allez! En route!
“They pulled badly. Their eyes rolled about and their tongues hung out. In the middle of the forenoon Mafile croaks out: ‘Let us make a rush at him, Simon. I would just as soon be shot at once as to die of thirst, hunger, and fatigue at the oar.’
“But while he spoke he pulled; and Simon kept on pulling too. It made me smile. Ah! They loved their life these two, in this evil world of theirs, just as I used to love my life, too, before they spoiled it for me with their phrases. I let them go on to the point of exhaustion, and only then I pointed at the sails of a ship on the horizon.
“Aha! You should have seen them revive and buckle to their work! For I kept them at it to pull right across that ship’s path. They were changed. The sort of pity I had felt for them left me. They looked more like themselves every minute. They looked at me with the glances I remembered so well. They were happy. They smiled.
“‘Well,’says Simon, ‘the energy of that youngster has saved our lives. If he hadn’t made us, we could never have pulled so far out into the track of ships. Comrade, I forgive you. I admire you.’
“And Mafile growls from forward: ‘We owe you a famous debt of gratitude, comrade. You are cut out for a chief.’
“Comrade! Monsieur! Ah, what a good word! And they, such men as these two, had made it accursed. I looked at them. I remembered their lies, their promises, their menaces, and all my days of misery. Why could they not have left me alone after I came out of prison? I looked at them and thought that while they lived I could never be free. Never. Neither I nor others like me with warm hearts and weak heads. For I know I have not a strong head, monsieur. A black rage came upon me – the rage of extreme intoxication – but not against the injustice of society. Oh, no!
“‘I must be free!’ I cried, furiously.
“‘Vive la liberté!’ yells that ruffian Mafile. ‘Mort aux bourgeois who send us to Cayenne! They shall soon know that we are free.’
“The sky, the sea, the whole horizon, seemed to turn red, blood red all round the boat. My temples were beating so loud that I wondered they did not hear. How is it that they did not? How is it they did not understand?
“I heard Simon ask, ‘Have we not pulled far enough out now?’
“‘Yes. Far enough,’ I said. I was sorry for him; it was the other I bated. He hauled in his oar with a loud sigh, and as he was raising his hand to wipe his forehead with the air of a man who has done his work, I pulled the trigger of my revolver and shot him like this off the knee, right through the heart.
“He tumbled down, with his head hanging over the side of the boat. I did not give him a second glance. The other cried out piercingly. Only one shriek of horror. Then all was still.
“He slipped off the thwart on to his knees and raised his clasped hands before his face in an attitude of supplication. ‘Mercy,’ he whispered, faintly. ‘Mercy for me! -comrade.’
“‘Ah, comrade,’ I said, in a low tone. ‘Yes, comrade, of course. Well, then, shout Vive l’anarchie.’
“He flung up his arms, his face up to the sky and his mouth wide open in a great yell of despair. ‘Vive l’anarchie! Vive -‘
“He collapsed all in a heap, with a bullet through his head.
“I flung them both overboard. I threw away the revolver, too. Then I sat down quietly. I was free at last! At last. I did not even look towards the ship; I did not care; indeed, I think I must have gone to sleep, because all of a sudden there were shouts and I found the ship almost on top of me. They hauled me on board and secured the boat astern. They were all blacks, except the captain, who was a mulatto. He alone knew a few words of French. I could not find out where they were going nor who they were. They gave me something to eat every day; but I did not like the way they used to discuss me in their language. Perhaps they were deliberating about throwing me over-board in order to keep possession of the boat. How do I know? As we were passing this island I asked whether it was inhabited. I understood from the mulatto that there was a house on it. A farm, I fancied, they meant. So I asked them to put me ashore on the beach and keep the boat for their trouble. This, I imagine, was just what they wanted. The rest you know.”
After pronouncing these words he lost suddenly all control over himself. He paced to and fro rapidly, till at last he broke into a run; his arms went like a windmill and his ejaculations became very much like raving. The burden of them was that he “denied nothing, nothing!” I could only let him go on, and sat out of his way, repeating, “Calmez vous, calmez vous,” at intervals, till his agitation exhausted itself.
I must confess, too, that I remained there long after he had crawled under his mosquito-net. He had entreated me not to leave him; so, as one sits up with a nervous child, I sat up with him – in the name of humanity – till he fell asleep.
On the whole, my idea is that he was much more of an anarchist than he confessed to me or to himself; and that, the special features of his case apart, he was very much like many other anarchists. Warm heart and weak head – that is the word of the riddle; and it is a fact that the bitterest contradictions and the deadliest conflicts of the world are carried on in every individual breast capable of feeling and passion.
From personal inquiry I can vouch that the story of the convict mutiny was in every particular as stated by him.
When I got back to Horta from Cayenne and saw the “Anarchist” again, he did not look well. He was more worn, still more frail, and very livid indeed under the grimy smudges of his calling. Evidently the meat of the company’s main herd (in its unconcentrated form) did not agree with him at all.
It was on the pontoon in Horta that we met; and I tried to induce him to leave the launch moored where she was and follow me to Europe there and then. It would have been delightful to think of the excellent manager’s surprise and disgust at the poor fellow’s escape. But he refused with unconquerable obstinacy.
“Surely you don’t mean to live always here!” I cried. He shook his head.
“I shall die here,” he said. Then added moodily, “Away from them.”
Sometimes I think of him lying open-eyed on his horseman’s gear in the low shed full of tools and scraps of iron – the anarchist slave of the Marañon estate, waiting with resignation for that sleep which “fled” from him, as he used to say, in such an unaccountable manner.
Like at other periods of metaphysical ardor, at this time too, the body (that of a woman, to be sure) wasn’t taken very seriously. This may be why even the dockworkers in the port that day didn’t notice a woman disembarking from a dinghy in the port of Jaffa, whose legs, below her dark, collared dress, were without feet. These were, as said, times of metaphysical ardor, and we must understand the lack in that very spirit, and include this woman in the family of creatures that culture has crossbred between fantasy and biology: the unicorn, the child immaculately conceived, ministering angels, Mephisto, and the Loch Ness monster.
She was assigned a house on the beach of Tel Aviv. It did not
take long before she was joined there by a well-known editor of matters of
public and spiritual interest, at a paper in which she published her stories –
stories that charmed him greatly. As was to be expected, in the deep sea
tradition, he was doomed to drown. But before this came to pass, the woman gave
birth to his daughter, a regular girl in all respects, and so as soon as she
stood on her own two feet, she was put in charge of looking after her mother,
whose only nourishment was grains and grasses which the girl collected from
neighbors’ gardens and from the beach. And claiming that her mother was her
teacher, the girl never visited school.
When the father crossed the sea to collect money from
Diaspora Jews for building up the country, the girl and her mother stayed in
this wooden house by the sea, as though they were living on an island, and other
than the writers and poets who wrote for the paper, and who got together in
their house once a week, no one came in. Like buzzing flowers, they circled the
figure of the hostess, slim like a black wasp, who lay in bed, all covered, her
hair tied together, exposing her dark, heart-shaped face, the white collar of
her dress accentuating the hue of her eyes that burned with a black fire, part
evil and part mournful. The girl too
hovered like a dark butterfly with one damaged wing, pouring tea into tin mugs for
the guests. They were all men, except for one English woman, who got herself
into trouble with a man who brought her here and then ditched her. She did not
return to her own country, her parents’ home, maybe out of pride, or for other
Because it was dark, those who looked through the window could
not make out the sea, but the waves’ tumult entered the room, rising and
falling, by turns, as if the little house were a shell or an ear whose depths
the boom was supposed to drown out, to reveal something, to conceal completely,
and get in the way of making any sense.
Meanwhile, the visitors sat and discussed Hebrew literature
and what made it stand out, about its connection to the renewal of life here in
this land. Lisbeth, the English poet, who in the yishuv was called by
the name Elisheva, tried to raise her voice above the sea’s din and the others’
voices and said that literature needs its conceit, much like poetry, whose
truth is at the same time its lie, that is, the attempt to catch hold of the
stream of nothingness, the void, above which everything hovers, the absence in
the very belly of words; being before the first day. The gentlemen seated
around the bed protested vigorously: It’s sinful, they said, to think of poetry
as a kind of hovering over the abyss. After all, we find ourselves in this life
for the purpose of confirming it and to create a new world, to write new
literature which replaces zero by one, and all this, in order to create the New
Man. For what is literature if not a looking glass which reflects to man asleep
his image fully awake.
“I drink to the life of contemporary man,” said one of the
gentlemen and raised his empty tin mug, and all the gentlemen raised theirs and
called out: “Here’s to the community, the individual’s salvation!” And this is
how the evening came to its end.
“Will you be writing to Rabinovitch?” asked the visitors, as they were taking their leave, one after the other – S.Czaczkes, 1 S. Ben-Zion, 2 A. Siskind, 3 and Y. Zarchi 4 – adding, before stepping out onto the sandy path, “Give him our best regards and tell him we’re keeping our eyes open.” And Lisbeth too, a little embarrassed, sent her wishes so it wouldn’t seem that because of one man’s offense she was now holding a grudge against all the men in the world.
The hostess however felt no need to justify the letters she
did not write. Privately she believed that every husband is nothing but his
wife’s hangman, and also the other way around.
She had a personal memory of a garden full of wild raspberry bushes
which covered the riverbank, the river whose waters set her father’s flour mill
into motion. That was where she and her brother played before her mother died,
and also, after some time, where she joined him to study from his books by
night what he studied during the day. Though that room held no more than a
small table, one chair and a bed, she lacked for nothing. It was only after his death, when she arrived
at the coast and disembarked onto this land, that she felt her feet had
remained there, and maybe she had never
had any in the first place.
Now the sea’s din abated. She turned down the oil lamp, whose
shadow fell onto the tense face of the girl asleep in the chair – she who was
born to a sorrow not produced by her life’s experience but which was
nevertheless beyond her power to keep at bay. She returned to the table, opened
the window, and looked out. The sea was utterly quiet. No one passing could
have known that this expanse of dark continent was nothing other than the sea.
She pondered what the gentlemen and the lady had been talking about. What is this here and what this now, she
wondered, and what is the manifold, if only one sorrow always enfolds all wars,
epidemics, and disappointments, because what you are able to suffer is necessarily
the greatest suffering you can experience in this world. And time, what is time
if it isn’t small links of pain that keep emerging every moment. She dipped the
quill in her ink and began to write.
But tonight more than at other times, perhaps because of the
gentlemen’s words which still lingered in the room, she felt the impotence of
tales of the past: the small town, her father’s flour mill, her grandmother the
rabbi’s wife and her spotted cow. She obviously must be wary of these gentlemen
and stay safely in the little house, keep intact her world which was so
fragile, so transparent that it took just one word to burst the bubble. Not an
incessant nothingness, she thought, but an incessantly flickering electricity
with which the brain hit the word, or the other way around, and one dead word would
do to remove its root of fire and turn it into a mummified part.
She knew that those little stories would come back to
her, but not tonight, and she felt how
her gray brain lay orphaned from itself, heavy and lifeless, in the crown of
her head, like a stone or a dead fish. Then she opened the door and sat down on
the bench on the porch.
A tiny fishing boat, it must be Arab, cast a very slim ray of
light which entered through the eyelashes like a net.
Someone approached from the sea and sat down by her side. It
was a woman, a lady, and she introduced herself:
“Je suis Madame Bovary”.
Worried, the owner of the house looked to her sides. Madame
Bovary, of all people, who the yishuv members, and the editorial board,
considered the epitome of vacuity, of the corruption of feeling, was it she of
all people who had to appear and sit down here by her side on the bench? In
fact, even though the owner of the house felt a mixture of fondness and
revulsion for her, she had always believed that if she ever got the opportunity
to meet her, she might give her some useful advice. First, that the men she had
decided to love, this Madame, were chosen neither intelligently nor in good
taste. Even had she not been one of those women possessed by the dybbuk of
having children, she might definitely have done with a little more imagination and
delight in her genius for falling in love, and understood, after so much
experience, that true hunger is a hunger never stilled; yet now that she
actually emerged from the sea and sat next to her and she moreover had the
chance to say it, she wondered whether there was any point left to it.
Madame was sitting there, wrapped in her black hood, like a
Capuchin friar, but the owner of the house did not immediately say what was on
her mind; instead she said: “Madame, what are you looking for here, at my
Her coarse intonation made Bovary shiver, an intonation of
the kind they used, in the yishuv-under-construction, with those women
who were considered useless citizens, those who yearned for flirtations on
nights when the hot desert wind deprived them of their sleep, for salons
bathing in shadow, for pianos and for the touch of silk on a white, smooth
thigh, for wild senseless weeping; but Madame did not reply and did not even
remove from her head the dark hood which hid her face. The sound of the sea
rose momentarily, blotting out this malicious remark to the visitor: “What was
this mythology of love such that, in your foolishness, you assumed your role was
that of a goddess, and to make it worse, alongside those who were many times
cleverer than you, foxes of a minor existence?
“And on what intuition?” she continued with a lowered voice,
because in those days that substance was not really recognized. “And if
dramatic theater was what you were after, what kind of heroes did you come up
with – some village apothecary and a
bank clerk, and then that pathetic finale you arranged for yourself?”
“L’amour,” spoke Madame, and the word quivered, lifting
briefly above the smooth Jaffa sands before being swallowed: “Who can even
imagine a life without love?” Having
said this, she held her head high like a heroine facing the guillotine. “I had
to fall in love with one idiot or another. How could I have left it to the
writer?! How could I trust him to give me a decent hero who would be able to
make use of everything he himself, the writer, had put into me, all my gifts,
my power, my will; so what if I used my own imagination a bit to help him along?
The heroine, too, after all, has some responsibility for the story.”
The sea crashed, its sound like the wind blowing through corn
stalks. The two women looked each other straight in the eye. Madame was the first
to lower her head and she whispered: “And if you want to know the truth, all
this didn’t depend on me. It was Gustave
who took me for a ride.”
“It’s hard to blame another person when you’ve allowed him to
live in your stead,” said the owner of the house, her voice harsh, “But letting him get away with dumping
you just because his imagination had run
dry, that’s overdoing it. Nobody told you to. And you should have known that,
being a man, he was never on your side.”
Now the little boat near the beach could be made out. The
lights on its deck swung in the wind making it hard to tell in what direction
it was heading, or whether it was coming or going.
“What did you want me to do?” asked Madame, “We’re all actors
performing the dialogue we were given, whether by nature, culture, the times,
or God above, you might call it catechism, apology, karma, fate. It’s like when
that nun confesses to the priest about the man who appears in her erotic
hallucinations, and the priest answers her mockingly: “All you need is to wake
up, dear lady. The dream, including its heroes, are the products of your
She’s right, thought the owner of the house, without
admitting it, of course we cannot wake up from our dream. Only the convinced,
priests and the like, they are the ones who pretend, moronic enough to believe
it. For the dream is our true nature – and how can we escape it? She was at a loss.
The two sat there in silence.
“But anger?” the owner of the house suddenly said,
remembering somewhat hopefully. “Isn’t anger even more powerful than the
imagination?” She turned to with renewed vividness, “You should have taken your
revenge on that feeble fat man La Bovary who took his pleasure from you as if
you were him, when he pretended that your deceit rather than his own inability
led to your end. Why didn’t you revolt?”
Madame rose from the bench, her figure darker even than the
“I never could,” she said and lifted the hem of her dress, exposing
her feetless legs – and then she vanished.
The owner of the house remained seated as she was for a long
time, until the dark air grew thinner, like aluminum foil children smooth with
their nails, and turned transparent until the morning’s white light pierced it.
Still, she said to herself, as she got up from where she had
sat, I won’t allow anyone, not even fate, to pull me along like that as though
I had no anger. I will stand within my anger like Honi the Circledrawer who
drew a circle around himself. And as for the foot, even if it’s only in our
imagination, even then we must dedicate ourselves to it lovingly, no matter to
whom it belongs – the writer or the hero of the story – for no one can tell us
that the foot on which we stand in our imagination, against the story, exists
more, or less, for real than the story itself.
She entered the house, picked up the book she was reading
from the table, got into her bed, rested the book against the slate she held on
her knees, and began to pour the sentences from French into Hebrew: “That
wonderful spectacle that was so deeply engraved in Emma’s memory, seemed to her
more beautiful than anything a person could imagine.”
In Mladá Boleslav there lived a stationer called Petiška. He was a man who respected the law and had lived, for longer than anyone could remember, across the road from the barracks. On the Emperor’s birthday and other Imperial and Royal occasions, he would hang out a black-and-gold banner from his house and provide Chinese lanterns for the Officers’ Club. He sold pictures of Franz Joseph to gin shops in the Mladá Boleslav area and to the police station. He would have supplied portraits of Our Ruler to the schools under the administration of the local education authority as well, but the dimensions of his pictures did not conform to the specifications approved by the Regional Schools Council. ‘I’m sorry, Mr Petiška,’ the Imperial and Royal Regional School Inspector said to him once when they met in the Sheriff’s Office, ‘but you’re trying to give us a longer and wider Emperor than the one prescribed in the Regional Schools Council Instructions of 20th October 1891. The Emperor as defined in the Instructions is somewhat shorter. Only Emperor is 50 cm high and 36 cm wide are permitted. Your Emperor is 50 cm high and 40 cm wide. You reply that you have two thousand pictures of our Monarch in stock. Don’t imagine that you’re going to fob off any old rubbish onto us. Your emperor is shoddy goods through and through. And the way they’ve got him up is a scandal. He looks as if his whiskers have never been combed, there’s an enormous splash of red on his nose and on top of it all, he’s got a squint.’
When Mr Petiška got home, he said irritably to his wife: ‘That old Emperor of ours has landed us in a pretty pickle!’ And this was before the war had started. Mr Petiška had been lumbered, in short, with two thousand portraits of the Emperor. When war did break out, Mr Petiška was overjoyed and full of high hopes of shifting that merchandise of his. He displayed pictures of the bloodthirsty old codger in his shop under the inscription: ‘A good buy! The Emperor Franz Joseph for 15 crowns!’ He sold six: five to the barracks, where these lithographed portraits of the Last of the Habsburgs were hung up in the canteens to whip up the fervour of the reservists, and one which was bought by old Šimr, the tobacconist. This Austrian patriot beat him down to 12 crowns and still complained in heartfelt tones that it was daylight robbery.
He took out advertisments and offered the Emperor for sale in National Politics and Voice of the People: ‘In these difficult days, no Czech home should be without its portrait of our sorely tried Monarch, at 15 crowns.’ He didn’t get any orders, but he did get a summons to present himself at the District Seriff’s Office, where he was informed that in future, he had better avoid expressions like ‘difficult days’ and ‘sorely tried’. Instead, he should use: ‘glorious days’ and ‘victorious’. Otherwise, he would find himself involved in complications. So he issued the following advertisement: ‘In these glorious days, no Czech home should be without its portrait of our victorious Monarch, at 15 crowns’. But that didn’t work either.
All he received was a number of obscene communications, in which his anonymous correspondents advised him with total frankness to put his portraits of the Emperor where the monkey keeps its nuts, and yet another invitation to the Sheriff’s Office, where the Duty Commissar told him that he must follow the guide-lines issued by the Imperial and Royal Correspondence Office in the wording of his advertisements. ‘The Russians are in Hungry, they’ve captured Lvov and got as far as Přemyšl. You don’t talk about “glorious days” in the face of all that, Mr Petiška. It sounds as if you are amusing yourself, indulging in sarcasm and irony. With adverts like that, you could end up in the Castle, in front of a Court Martial.’
Mr Petiška promised that he would be careful and composed the following advertisement: ‘Every Czech would be glad to sacrifice 15 crowns for the opportunity to hang our aged Monarch in his home.’ The local journals refused to take the advertisement. ‘Good God, man,’ said one Managing Editor to him, ‘do you want to get us all shot?’
Mr Petiška went home very upset. At the back of his shop the parcels containing his stock of Emperor’s portraits were lying about all over the place. Mr Petiška dipped into one and was horrified by what he found. He looked round anxiously and was relieved to discover that no one had seen him. He began gloomily to brush the dust off the parcel and found that some were damp and mouldy. His black tomcat was sitting behind the parcels. There could be no shadow of doubt as to who was responsible for their moist condition. In an attempt to divert suspicion from itself, the cat began to purr. Mr Petiška threw a broom at the treasonous animal, and it fell silent. In a rage the stationer stormed into the living quarters and growled at his wife: ‘That bloody animal has got to go! Who’s going to buy an Emperor that’s been pee’d on by a cat? The Emperor’s mouldy. He’ll have to be dried out, God dammit!’
Mr Petiška’s afternoon nap, which he took while his wife was looking after the shop, was very disturbed. He imagined that the police had come for the black tomcat and that he, too, was being taken along with it before a Court Martial. Then it seemed as if he and the cat had been sentenced to death by hanging and that the cat was the first to go. And he, Petiška, was blaspheming at the Court in terrible language. He gave a fearsome shout – and saw his wife standing beside him. ‘Heavens above!’ she said to him reproachfully. ‘The language you’re using! If someone were to hear you like this!’
She reported in an agitated voice that she had in the meantime tried to dry the Emperor in the garden, but that some stone-throwing hooligans had used him for target-practice ‘and now he looks like a sieve.’
Other losses were registered as well. The hens had come and sat on one picture of the Emperor, which was drying on the grass, while they were going through their digestive processes and in the condition they were in, had turned his whiskers green. The young Saint Bernard belonging to Holeček, the butcher, which was a naïve young thing and had no knowledge of Paragraph 63 of the Criminal Code, had attempted to eat two pictures. That pup had it in its blood, though. Its mother had been destroyed by the knacker a year ago for eating the banner of the 36th Regiment on the parade ground.
Mr Petiška was not a happy man. In the wine-cellar that evening, he said something about the Emperor. The burden of his speech was that the authorities in Vienna looked on the Czechs with distrust because they weren’t buying portraits of the Monarch, at 15 crowns a time, from the firm of František Petiška in Mladá Boleslav.
‘Bring the price down,’ said the landlord, when it was closing time. ‘These are hard times. Horejsek is selling his steam-thresher for 300 crowns less than he gave for it last year and the Emperor’s in the same boat.’
And so Mr Petiška wrote out the following announcement and put it in the display-case in his shop window: ‘In view of the economic crisis, I am offering a large number of beautiful portraits of the Emperor, normally priced at 15 crowns, for 10 crowns each.’
And once more all was quiet in the shop. ‘How’s the Emperor going?’ asked our friend the owner of the wine-cellar. ‘Poorly,’ replied Mr Petiška. ‘There’s no demand for the Emperor.’
‘If I were you, you know,’ said the landlord of the wine-cellar in a confidential tone, ‘I’d try to get rid of him at any price, before it’s too late.’
‘I’ll wait a bit longer,’ said Mr Petiška.
And so the ill-disciplined black tomcat continued to sprawl all over the portraits of the Emperor. After eighteen months, the mould had even reached the Emperors at the bottom of the pile. The Austrians were on the way out and Austria as a whole was like something the cat had brought in.
And then Mr Petiška took paper and pencil and worked out with a heavy heart that he wasn’t going to get rich this way and that if he sold the Emperor for two crowns he’d still make a crown on each portrait.
And he devised some effective publicity. He put a portrait in the display case and wrote underneath: ‘This ancient Monarch reduced from 15 to 2 crowns.’
All Mladá Boleslav came that same day to Mr Petiška’s shop, to see how shares in the Habsburg dynasty had suddenly fallen through the floor.
And that night the police came for Mr Petiška, and after that things moved swiftly. They shut down the shop and they arrested Mr Petiška and brought him before a Court Martial for committing an offence against public peace and order. The Ex-Servicemen’s Society expelled him at an Extraordinary Plenary Session.
Mr Petiška got thirteen months of hard labour. He should really have got five years, but it was argued in mitigation that he had once fought for Austria at the Battle of Custozza. And the parcels of portraits of the Emperor have been impounded in the meanwhile in the military depository in Terezína, awaiting the hour of liberation when, on the liquidation of Austria, some enterprising tradesman will wrap his cheeses in them.
When the porter’s wife (she used to answer the house-bell), announced “A gentleman—with a lady, sir,” I had, as I often had in those days, for the wish was father to the thought, an immediate vision of sitters. Sitters my visitors in this case proved to be; but not in the sense I should have preferred. However, there was nothing at first to indicate that they might not have come for a portrait. The gentleman, a man of fifty, very high and very straight, with a moustache slightly grizzled and a dark grey walking-coat admirably fitted, both of which I noted professionally—I don’t mean as a barber or yet as a tailor—would have struck me as a celebrity if celebrities often were striking. It was a truth of which I had for some time been conscious that a figure with a good deal of frontage was, as one might say, almost never a public institution. A glance at the lady helped to remind me of this paradoxical law: she also looked too distinguished to be a “personality.” Moreover one would scarcely come across two variations together.
Neither of the pair spoke immediately—they only prolonged the preliminary gaze which suggested that each wished to give the other a chance. They were visibly shy; they stood there letting me take them in—which, as I afterwards perceived, was the most practical thing they could have done. In this way their embarrassment served their cause. I had seen people painfully reluctant to mention that they desired anything so gross as to be represented on canvas; but the scruples of my new friends appeared almost insurmountable. Yet the gentleman might have said “I should like a portrait of my wife,” and the lady might have said “I should like a portrait of my husband.” Perhaps they were not husband and wife—this naturally would make the matter more delicate. Perhaps they wished to be done together—in which case they ought to have brought a third person to break the news.
“We come from Mr. Rivet,” the lady said at last, with a dim smile which had the effect of a moist sponge passed over a “sunk” piece of painting, as well as of a vague allusion to vanished beauty. She was as tall and straight, in her degree, as her companion, and with ten years less to carry. She looked as sad as a woman could look whose face was not charged with expression; that is her tinted oval mask showed friction as an exposed surface shows it. The hand of time had played over her freely, but only to simplify. She was slim and stiff, and so well-dressed, in dark blue cloth, with lappets and pockets and buttons, that it was clear she employed the same tailor as her husband. The couple had an indefinable air of prosperous thrift—they evidently got a good deal of luxury for their money. If I was to be one of their luxuries it would behove me to consider my terms.
“Ah, Claude Rivet recommended me?” I inquired; and I added that it was very kind of him, though I could reflect that, as he only painted landscape, this was not a sacrifice.
The lady looked very hard at the gentleman, and the gentleman looked round the room. Then staring at the floor a moment and stroking his moustache, he rested his pleasant eyes on me with the remark:
“He said you were the right one.”
“I try to be, when people want to sit.”
“Yes, we should like to,” said the lady anxiously.
“Do you mean together?”
My visitors exchanged a glance. “If you could do anything with me, I suppose it would be double,” the gentleman stammered.
“Oh yes, there’s naturally a higher charge for two figures than for one.”
“We should like to make it pay,” the husband confessed.
“That’s very good of you,” I returned, appreciating so unwonted a sympathy—for I supposed he meant pay the artist.
A sense of strangeness seemed to dawn on the lady. “We mean for the illustrations—Mr. Rivet said you might put one in.”
“Put one in—an illustration?” I was equally confused.
“Sketch her off, you know,” said the gentleman, colouring.
It was only then that I understood the service Claude Rivet had rendered me; he had told them that I worked in black and white, for magazines, for story-books, for sketches of contemporary life, and consequently had frequent employment for models. These things were true, but it was not less true (I may confess it now—whether because the aspiration was to lead to everything or to nothing I leave the reader to guess), that I couldn’t get the honours, to say nothing of the emoluments, of a great painter of portraits out of my head. My “illustrations” were my pot-boilers; I looked to a different branch of art (far and away the most interesting it had always seemed to me), to perpetuate my fame. There was no shame in looking to it also to make my fortune; but that fortune was by so much further from being made from the moment my visitors wished to be “done” for nothing. I was disappointed; for in the pictorial sense I had immediately seen them. I had seized their type—I had already settled what I would do with it. Something that wouldn’t absolutely have pleased them, I afterwards reflected.
“Ah, you’re—you’re—a—?” I began, as soon as I had mastered my surprise. I couldn’t bring out the dingy word “models”; it seemed to fit the case so little.
“We haven’t had much practice,” said the lady.
“We’ve got to do something, and we’ve thought that an artist in your line might perhaps make something of us,” her husband threw off. He further mentioned that they didn’t know many artists and that they had gone first, on the off-chance (he painted views of course, but sometimes put in figures—perhaps I remembered), to Mr. Rivet, whom they had met a few years before at a place in Norfolk where he was sketching.
“We used to sketch a little ourselves,” the lady hinted.
“It’s very awkward, but we absolutely must do something,” her husband went on.
“Of course, we’re not so very young,” she admitted, with a wan smile.
With the remark that I might as well know something more about them, the husband had handed me a card extracted from a neat new pocket-book (their appurtenances were all of the freshest) and inscribed with the words “Major Monarch.” Impressive as these words were they didn’t carry my knowledge much further; but my visitor presently added: “I’ve left the army, and we’ve had the misfortune to lose our money. In fact our means are dreadfully small.”
“It’s an awful bore,” said Mrs. Monarch.
They evidently wished to be discreet—to take care not to swagger because they were gentlefolks. I perceived they would have been willing to recognise this as something of a drawback, at the same time that I guessed at an underlying sense—their consolation in adversity—that they had their points. They certainly had; but these advantages struck me as preponderantly social; such for instance as would help to make a drawing-room look well. However, a drawing-room was always, or ought to be, a picture.
In consequence of his wife’s allusion to their age Major Monarch observed: “Naturally, it’s more for the figure that we thought of going in. We can still hold ourselves up.” On the instant I saw that the figure was indeed their strong point. His “naturally” didn’t sound vain, but it lighted up the question. “She has got the best,” he continued, nodding at his wife, with a pleasant after-dinner absence of circumlocution. I could only reply, as if we were in fact sitting over our wine, that this didn’t prevent his own from being very good; which led him in turn to rejoin: “We thought that if you ever have to do people like us, we might be something like it. She, particularly—for a lady in a book, you know.”
I was so amused by them that, to get more of it, I did my best to take their point of view; and though it was an embarrassment to find myself appraising physically, as if they were animals on hire or useful blacks, a pair whom I should have expected to meet only in one of the relations in which criticism is tacit, I looked at Mrs. Monarch judicially enough to be able to exclaim, after a moment, with conviction: “Oh yes, a lady in a book!” She was singularly like a bad illustration.
“We’ll stand up, if you like,” said the Major; and he raised himself before me with a really grand air.
I could take his measure at a glance—he was six feet two and a perfect gentleman. It would have paid any club in process of formation and in want of a stamp to engage him at a salary to stand in the principal window. What struck me immediately was that in coming to me they had rather missed their vocation; they could surely have been turned to better account for advertising purposes. I couldn’t of course see the thing in detail, but I could see them make someone’s fortune—I don’t mean their own. There was something in them for a waistcoat-maker, an hotel-keeper or a soap-vendor. I could imagine “We always use it” pinned on their bosoms with the greatest effect; I had a vision of the promptitude with which they would launch a table d’hôte.
Mrs. Monarch sat still, not from pride but from shyness, and presently her husband said to her: “Get up my dear and show how smart you are.” She obeyed, but she had no need to get up to show it. She walked to the end of the studio, and then she came back blushing, with her fluttered eyes on her husband. I was reminded of an incident I had accidentally had a glimpse of in Paris—being with a friend there, a dramatist about to produce a play—when an actress came to him to ask to be intrusted with a part. She went through her paces before him, walked up and down as Mrs. Monarch was doing. Mrs. Monarch did it quite as well, but I abstained from applauding. It was very odd to see such people apply for such poor pay. She looked as if she had ten thousand a year. Her husband had used the word that described her: she was, in the London current jargon, essentially and typically “smart.” Her figure was, in the same order of ideas, conspicuously and irreproachably “good.” For a woman of her age her waist was surprisingly small; her elbow moreover had the orthodox crook. She held her head at the conventional angle; but why did she come to me? She ought to have tried on jackets at a big shop. I feared my visitors were not only destitute, but “artistic”—which would be a great complication. When she sat down again I thanked her, observing that what a draughtsman most valued in his model was the faculty of keeping quiet.
“Oh, she can keep quiet,” said Major Monarch. Then he added, jocosely: “I’ve always kept her quiet.”
“I’m not a nasty fidget, am I?” Mrs. Monarch appealed to her husband.
He addressed his answer to me. “Perhaps it isn’t out of place to mention—because we ought to be quite business-like, oughtn’t we?—that when I married her she was known as the Beautiful Statue.”
“Oh dear!” said Mrs. Monarch, ruefully.
“Of course I should want a certain amount of expression,” I rejoined.
“Of course!” they both exclaimed.
“And then I suppose you know that you’ll get awfully tired.”
“Oh, we never get tired!” they eagerly cried.
“Have you had any kind of practice?”
They hesitated—they looked at each other. “We’ve been photographed, immensely,” said Mrs. Monarch.
“She means the fellows have asked us,” added the Major.
“I see—because you’re so good-looking.”
“I don’t know what they thought, but they were always after us.”
“We always got our photographs for nothing,” smiled Mrs. Monarch.
“We might have brought some, my dear,” her husband remarked.
“I’m not sure we have any left. We’ve given quantities away,” she explained to me.
“With our autographs and that sort of thing,” said the Major.
“Are they to be got in the shops?” I inquired, as a harmless pleasantry.
“Oh, yes; hers—they used to be.”
“Not now,” said Mrs. Monarch, with her eyes on the floor.
I could fancy the “sort of thing” they put on the presentation-copies of their photographs, and I was sure they wrote a beautiful hand. It was odd how quickly I was sure of everything that concerned them. If they were now so poor as to have to earn shillings and pence, they never had had much of a margin. Their good looks had been their capital, and they had good-humouredly made the most of the career that this resource marked out for them. It was in their faces, the blankness, the deep intellectual repose of the twenty years of country-house visiting which had given them pleasant intonations. I could see the sunny drawing-rooms, sprinkled with periodicals she didn’t read, in which Mrs. Monarch had continuously sat; I could see the wet shrubberies in which she had walked, equipped to admiration for either exercise. I could see the rich covers the Major had helped to shoot and the wonderful garments in which, late at night, he repaired to the smoking-room to talk about them. I could imagine their leggings and waterproofs, their knowing tweeds and rugs, their rolls of sticks and cases of tackle and neat umbrellas; and I could evoke the exact appearance of their servants and the compact variety of their luggage on the platforms of country stations.
They gave small tips, but they were liked; they didn’t do anything themselves, but they were welcome. They looked so well everywhere; they gratified the general relish for stature, complexion and “form.” They knew it without fatuity or vulgarity, and they respected themselves in consequence. They were not superficial; they were thorough and kept themselves up—it had been their line. People with such a taste for activity had to have some line. I could feel how, even in a dull house, they could have been counted upon for cheerfulness. At present something had happened—it didn’t matter what, their little income had grown less, it had grown least—and they had to do something for pocket-money. Their friends liked them, but didn’t like to support them. There was something about them that represented credit—their clothes, their manners, their type; but if credit is a large empty pocket in which an occasional chink reverberates, the chink at least must be audible. What they wanted of me was to help to make it so. Fortunately they had no children—I soon divined that. They would also perhaps wish our relations to be kept secret: this was why it was “for the figure”—the reproduction of the face would betray them.
I liked them—they were so simple; and I had no objection to them if they would suit. But, somehow, with all their perfections I didn’t easily believe in them. After all they were amateurs, and the ruling passion of my life was the detestation of the amateur. Combined with this was another perversity—an innate preference for the represented subject over the real one: the defect of the real one was so apt to be a lack of representation. I liked things that appeared; then one was sure. Whether they were or not was a subordinate and almost always a profitless question. There were other considerations, the first of which was that I already had two or three people in use, notably a young person with big feet, in alpaca, from Kilburn, who for a couple of years had come to me regularly for my illustrations and with whom I was still—perhaps ignobly—satisfied. I frankly explained to my visitors how the case stood; but they had taken more precautions than I supposed. They had reasoned out their opportunity, for Claude Rivet had told them of the projected édition de luxe of one of the writers of our day—the rarest of the novelists—who, long neglected by the multitudinous vulgar and dearly prized by the attentive (need I mention Philip Vincent?) had had the happy fortune of seeing, late in life, the dawn and then the full light of a higher criticism—an estimate in which, on the part of the public, there was something really of expiation. The edition in question, planned by a publisher of taste, was practically an act of high reparation; the wood-cuts with which it was to be enriched were the homage of English art to one of the most independent representatives of English letters. Major and Mrs. Monarch confessed to me that they had hoped I might be able to work them into my share of the enterprise. They knew I was to do the first of the books, “Rutland Ramsay,” but I had to make clear to them that my participation in the rest of the affair—this first book was to be a test—was to depend on the satisfaction I should give. If this should be limited my employers would drop me without a scruple. It was therefore a crisis for me, and naturally I was making special preparations, looking about for new people, if they should be necessary, and securing the best types. I admitted however that I should like to settle down to two or three good models who would do for everything.
“Should we have often to—a—put on special clothes?” Mrs. Monarch timidly demanded.
“Dear, yes—that’s half the business.”
“And should we be expected to supply our own costumes?”
“Oh, no; I’ve got a lot of things. A painter’s models put on—or put off—anything he likes.”
“And do you mean—a—the same?”
Mrs. Monarch looked at her husband again.
“Oh, she was just wondering,” he explained, “if the costumes are in general use.” I had to confess that they were, and I mentioned further that some of them (I had a lot of genuine, greasy last-century things), had served their time, a hundred years ago, on living, world-stained men and women. “We’ll put on anything that fits,” said the Major.
“Oh, I arrange that—they fit in the pictures.”
“I’m afraid I should do better for the modern books. I would come as you like,” said Mrs. Monarch.
“She has got a lot of clothes at home: they might do for contemporary life,” her husband continued.
“Oh, I can fancy scenes in which you’d be quite natural.” And indeed I could see the slipshod rearrangements of stale properties—the stories I tried to produce pictures for without the exasperation of reading them—whose sandy tracts the good lady might help to people. But I had to return to the fact that for this sort of work—the daily mechanical grind—I was already equipped; the people I was working with were fully adequate.
“We only thought we might be more like some characters,” said Mrs. Monarch mildly, getting up.
Her husband also rose; he stood looking at me with a dim wistfulness that was touching in so fine a man. “Wouldn’t it be rather a pull sometimes to have—a—to have—?” He hung fire; he wanted me to help him by phrasing what he meant. But I couldn’t—I didn’t know. So he brought it out, awkwardly: “The real thing; a gentleman, you know, or a lady.” I was quite ready to give a general assent—I admitted that there was a great deal in that. This encouraged Major Monarch to say, following up his appeal with an unacted gulp: “It’s awfully hard—we’ve tried everything.” The gulp was communicative; it proved too much for his wife. Before I knew it Mrs. Monarch had dropped again upon a divan and burst into tears. Her husband sat down beside her, holding one of her hands; whereupon she quickly dried her eyes with the other, while I felt embarrassed as she looked up at me. “There isn’t a confounded job I haven’t applied for—waited for—prayed for. You can fancy we’d be pretty bad first. Secretaryships and that sort of thing? You might as well ask for a peerage. I’d be anything—I’m strong; a messenger or a coalheaver. I’d put on a gold-laced cap and open carriage-doors in front of the haberdasher’s; I’d hang about a station, to carry portmanteaus; I’d be a postman. But they won’t look at you; there are thousands, as good as yourself, already on the ground. Gentlemen, poor beggars, who have drunk their wine, who have kept their hunters!”
I was as reassuring as I knew how to be, and my visitors were presently on their feet again while, for the experiment, we agreed on an hour. We were discussing it when the door opened and Miss Churm came in with a wet umbrella. Miss Churm had to take the omnibus to Maida Vale and then walk half-a-mile. She looked a trifle blowsy and slightly splashed. I scarcely ever saw her come in without thinking afresh how odd it was that, being so little in herself, she should yet be so much in others. She was a meagre little Miss Churm, but she was an ample heroine of romance. She was only a freckled cockney, but she could represent everything, from a fine lady to a shepherdess; she had the faculty, as she might have had a fine voice or long hair.
She couldn’t spell, and she loved beer, but she had two or three “points,” and practice, and a knack, and mother-wit, and a kind of whimsical sensibility, and a love of the theatre, and seven sisters, and not an ounce of respect, especially for the h. The first thing my visitors saw was that her umbrella was wet, and in their spotless perfection they visibly winced at it. The rain had come on since their arrival.
“I’m all in a soak; there was a mess of people in the ’bus. I wish you lived near a stytion,” said Miss Churm. I requested her to get ready as quickly as possible, and she passed into the room in which she always changed her dress. But before going out she asked me what she was to get into this time.
“It’s the Russian princess, don’t you know?” I answered; “the one with the ‘golden eyes,’ in black velvet, for the long thing in the Cheapside.”
“Golden eyes? I say!” cried Miss Churm, while my companions watched her with intensity as she withdrew. She always arranged herself, when she was late, before I could turn round; and I kept my visitors a little, on purpose, so that they might get an idea, from seeing her, what would be expected of themselves. I mentioned that she was quite my notion of an excellent model—she was really very clever.
“Do you think she looks like a Russian princess?” Major Monarch asked, with lurking alarm.
“When I make her, yes.”
“Oh, if you have to make her—!” he reasoned, acutely.
“That’s the most you can ask. There are so many that are not makeable.”
“Well now, here’s a lady”—and with a persuasive smile he passed his arm into his wife’s—“who’s already made!”
“Oh, I’m not a Russian princess,” Mrs. Monarch protested, a little coldly. I could see that she had known some and didn’t like them. There, immediately, was a complication of a kind that I never had to fear with Miss Churm.
This young lady came back in black velvet—the gown was rather rusty and very low on her lean shoulders—and with a Japanese fan in her red hands. I reminded her that in the scene I was doing she had to look over someone’s head. “I forget whose it is; but it doesn’t matter. Just look over a head.”
“I’d rather look over a stove,” said Miss Churm; and she took her station near the fire. She fell into position, settled herself into a tall attitude, gave a certain backward inclination to her head and a certain forward droop to her fan, and looked, at least to my prejudiced sense, distinguished and charming, foreign and dangerous. We left her looking so, while I went down-stairs with Major and Mrs. Monarch.
“I think I could come about as near it as that,” said Mrs. Monarch.
“Oh, you think she’s shabby, but you must allow for the alchemy of art.”
However, they went off with an evident increase of comfort, founded on their demonstrable advantage in being the real thing. I could fancy them shuddering over Miss Churm. She was very droll about them when I went back, for I told her what they wanted.
“Well, if she can sit I’ll tyke to bookkeeping,” said my model.
“She’s very lady-like,” I replied, as an innocent form of aggravation.
“So much the worse for you. That means she can’t turn round.”
“She’ll do for the fashionable novels.”
“Oh yes, she’ll do for them!” my model humorously declared. “Ain’t they had enough without her?” I had often sociably denounced them to Miss Churm.
It was for the elucidation of a mystery in one of these works that I first tried Mrs. Monarch. Her husband came with her, to be useful if necessary—it was sufficiently clear that as a general thing he would prefer to come with her. At first I wondered if this were for “propriety’s” sake—if he were going to be jealous and meddling. The idea was too tiresome, and if it had been confirmed it would speedily have brought our acquaintance to a close. But I soon saw there was nothing in it and that if he accompanied Mrs. Monarch it was (in addition to the chance of being wanted), simply because he had nothing else to do. When she was away from him his occupation was gone—she never had been away from him. I judged, rightly, that in their awkward situation their close union was their main comfort and that this union had no weak spot. It was a real marriage, an encouragement to the hesitating, a nut for pessimists to crack. Their address was humble (I remember afterwards thinking it had been the only thing about them that was really professional), and I could fancy the lamentable lodgings in which the Major would have been left alone. He could bear them with his wife—he couldn’t bear them without her.
He had too much tact to try and make himself agreeable when he couldn’t be useful; so he simply sat and waited, when I was too absorbed in my work to talk. But I liked to make him talk—it made my work, when it didn’t interrupt it, less sordid, less special. To listen to him was to combine the excitement of going out with the economy of staying at home. There was only one hindrance: that I seemed not to know any of the people he and his wife had known. I think he wondered extremely, during the term of our intercourse, whom the deuce I did know. He hadn’t a stray sixpence of an idea to fumble for; so we didn’t spin it very fine—we confined ourselves to questions of leather and even of liquor (saddlers and breeches-makers and how to get good claret cheap), and matters like “good trains” and the habits of small game. His lore on these last subjects was astonishing, he managed to interweave the station-master with the ornithologist. When he couldn’t talk about greater things he could talk cheerfully about smaller, and since I couldn’t accompany him into reminiscences of the fashionable world he could lower the conversation without a visible effort to my level.
So earnest a desire to please was touching in a man who could so easily have knocked one down. He looked after the fire and had an opinion on the draught of the stove, without my asking him, and I could see that he thought many of my arrangements not half clever enough. I remember telling him that if I were only rich I would offer him a salary to come and teach me how to live. Sometimes he gave a random sigh, of which the essence was: “Give me even such a bare old barrack as this, and I’d do something with it!” When I wanted to use him he came alone; which was an illustration of the superior courage of women. His wife could bear her solitary second floor, and she was in general more discreet; showing by various small reserves that she was alive to the propriety of keeping our relations markedly professional—not letting them slide into sociability. She wished it to remain clear that she and the Major were employed, not cultivated, and if she approved of me as a superior, who could be kept in his place, she never thought me quite good enough for an equal.
She sat with great intensity, giving the whole of her mind to it, and was capable of remaining for an hour almost as motionless as if she were before a photographer’s lens. I could see she had been photographed often, but somehow the very habit that made her good for that purpose unfitted her for mine. At first I was extremely pleased with her lady-like air, and it was a satisfaction, on coming to follow her lines, to see how good they were and how far they could lead the pencil. But after a few times I began to find her too insurmountably stiff; do what I would with it my drawing looked like a photograph or a copy of a photograph. Her figure had no variety of expression—she herself had no sense of variety. You may say that this was my business, was only a question of placing her. I placed her in every conceivable position, but she managed to obliterate their differences. She was always a lady certainly, and into the bargain was always the same lady. She was the real thing, but always the same thing. There were moments when I was oppressed by the serenity of her confidence that she was the real thing. All her dealings with me and all her husband’s were an implication that this was lucky for me. Meanwhile I found myself trying to invent types that approached her own, instead of making her own transform itself—in the clever way that was not impossible, for instance, to poor Miss Churm. Arrange as I would and take the precautions I would, she always, in my pictures, came out too tall—landing me in the dilemma of having represented a fascinating woman as seven feet high, which, out of respect perhaps to my own very much scantier inches, was far from my idea of such a personage.
The case was worse with the Major—nothing I could do would keep him down, so that he became useful only for the representation of brawny giants. I adored variety and range, I cherished human accidents, the illustrative note; I wanted to characterise closely, and the thing in the world I most hated was the danger of being ridden by a type. I had quarrelled with some of my friends about it—I had parted company with them for maintaining that one had to be, and that if the type was beautiful (witness Raphael and Leonardo), the servitude was only a gain. I was neither Leonardo nor Raphael; I might only be a presumptuous young modern searcher, but I held that everything was to be sacrificed sooner than character. When they averred that the haunting type in question could easily be character, I retorted, perhaps superficially: “Whose?” It couldn’t be everybody’s—it might end in being nobody’s.
After I had drawn Mrs. Monarch a dozen times I perceived more clearly than before that the value of such a model as Miss Churm resided precisely in the fact that she had no positive stamp, combined of course with the other fact that what she did have was a curious and inexplicable talent for imitation. Her usual appearance was like a curtain which she could draw up at request for a capital performance. This performance was simply suggestive; but it was a word to the wise—it was vivid and pretty. Sometimes, even, I thought it, though she was plain herself, too insipidly pretty; I made it a reproach to her that the figures drawn from her were monotonously (bêtement, as we used to say) graceful. Nothing made her more angry: it was so much her pride to feel that she could sit for characters that had nothing in common with each other. She would accuse me at such moments of taking away her “reputytion.”
It suffered a certain shrinkage, this queer quantity, from the repeated visits of my new friends. Miss Churm was greatly in demand, never in want of employment, so I had no scruple in putting her off occasionally, to try them more at my ease. It was certainly amusing at first to do the real thing—it was amusing to do Major Monarch’s trousers. They were the real thing, even if he did come out colossal. It was amusing to do his wife’s back hair (it was so mathematically neat,) and the particular “smart” tension of her tight stays. She lent herself especially to positions in which the face was somewhat averted or blurred; she abounded in lady-like back views and profils perdus. When she stood erect she took naturally one of the attitudes in which court-painters represent queens and princesses; so that I found myself wondering whether, to draw out this accomplishment, I couldn’t get the editor of the Cheapside to publish a really royal romance, “A Tale of Buckingham Palace.” Sometimes, however, the real thing and the make-believe came into contact; by which I mean that Miss Churm, keeping an appointment or coming to make one on days when I had much work in hand, encountered her invidious rivals. The encounter was not on their part, for they noticed her no more than if she had been the housemaid; not from intentional loftiness, but simply because, as yet, professionally, they didn’t know how to fraternise, as I could guess that they would have liked—or at least that the Major would. They couldn’t talk about the omnibus—they always walked; and they didn’t know what else to try—she wasn’t interested in good trains or cheap claret. Besides, they must have felt—in the air—that she was amused at them, secretly derisive of their ever knowing how. She was not a person to conceal her scepticism if she had had a chance to show it. On the other hand Mrs. Monarch didn’t think her tidy; for why else did she take pains to say to me (it was going out of the way, for Mrs. Monarch), that she didn’t like dirty women?
One day when my young lady happened to be present with my other sitters (she even dropped in, when it was convenient, for a chat), I asked her to be so good as to lend a hand in getting tea—a service with which she was familiar and which was one of a class that, living as I did in a small way, with slender domestic resources, I often appealed to my models to render. They liked to lay hands on my property, to break the sitting, and sometimes the china—I made them feel Bohemian. The next time I saw Miss Churm after this incident she surprised me greatly by making a scene about it—she accused me of having wished to humiliate her. She had not resented the outrage at the time, but had seemed obliging and amused, enjoying the comedy of asking Mrs. Monarch, who sat vague and silent, whether she would have cream and sugar, and putting an exaggerated simper into the question. She had tried intonations—as if she too wished to pass for the real thing; till I was afraid my other visitors would take offence.
Oh, they were determined not to do this; and their touching patience was the measure of their great need. They would sit by the hour, uncomplaining, till I was ready to use them; they would come back on the chance of being wanted and would walk away cheerfully if they were not. I used to go to the door with them to see in what magnificent order they retreated. I tried to find other employment for them—I introduced them to several artists. But they didn’t “take,” for reasons I could appreciate, and I became conscious, rather anxiously, that after such disappointments they fell back upon me with a heavier weight. They did me the honour to think that it was I who was most their form. They were not picturesque enough for the painters, and in those days there were not so many serious workers in black and white. Besides, they had an eye to the great job I had mentioned to them—they had secretly set their hearts on supplying the right essence for my pictorial vindication of our fine novelist. They knew that for this undertaking I should want no costume-effects, none of the frippery of past ages—that it was a case in which everything would be contemporary and satirical and, presumably, genteel. If I could work them into it their future would be assured, for the labour would of course be long and the occupation steady.
One day Mrs. Monarch came without her husband—she explained his absence by his having had to go to the City. While she sat there in her usual anxious stiffness there came, at the door, a knock which I immediately recognised as the subdued appeal of a model out of work. It was followed by the entrance of a young man whom I easily perceived to be a foreigner and who proved in fact an Italian acquainted with no English word but my name, which he uttered in a way that made it seem to include all others. I had not then visited his country, nor was I proficient in his tongue; but as he was not so meanly constituted—what Italian is?—as to depend only on that member for expression he conveyed to me, in familiar but graceful mimicry, that he was in search of exactly the employment in which the lady before me was engaged. I was not struck with him at first, and while I continued to draw I emitted rough sounds of discouragement and dismissal. He stood his ground, however, not importunately, but with a dumb, dog-like fidelity in his eyes which amounted to innocent impudence—the manner of a devoted servant (he might have been in the house for years), unjustly suspected. Suddenly I saw that this very attitude and expression made a picture, whereupon I told him to sit down and wait till I should be free. There was another picture in the way he obeyed me, and I observed as I worked that there were others still in the way he looked wonderingly, with his head thrown back, about the high studio. He might have been crossing himself in St. Peter’s. Before I finished I said to myself: “The fellow’s a bankrupt orange-monger, but he’s a treasure.”
When Mrs. Monarch withdrew he passed across the room like a flash to open the door for her, standing there with the rapt, pure gaze of the young Dante spellbound by the young Beatrice. As I never insisted, in such situations, on the blankness of the British domestic, I reflected that he had the making of a servant (and I needed one, but couldn’t pay him to be only that), as well as of a model; in short I made up my mind to adopt my bright adventurer if he would agree to officiate in the double capacity. He jumped at my offer, and in the event my rashness (for I had known nothing about him), was not brought home to me. He proved a sympathetic though a desultory ministrant, and had in a wonderful degree the sentiment de la pose. It was uncultivated, instinctive; a part of the happy instinct which had guided him to my door and helped him to spell out my name on the card nailed to it. He had had no other introduction to me than a guess, from the shape of my high north window, seen outside, that my place was a studio and that as a studio it would contain an artist. He had wandered to England in search of fortune, like other itinerants, and had embarked, with a partner and a small green handcart, on the sale of penny ices. The ices had melted away and the partner had dissolved in their train. My young man wore tight yellow trousers with reddish stripes and his name was Oronte. He was sallow but fair, and when I put him into some old clothes of my own he looked like an Englishman. He was as good as Miss Churm, who could look, when required, like an Italian.
I thought Mrs. Monarch’s face slightly convulsed when, on her coming back with her husband, she found Oronte installed. It was strange to have to recognise in a scrap of a lazzarone a competitor to her magnificent Major. It was she who scented danger first, for the Major was anecdotically unconscious. But Oronte gave us tea, with a hundred eager confusions (he had never seen such a queer process), and I think she thought better of me for having at last an “establishment.” They saw a couple of drawings that I had made of the establishment, and Mrs. Monarch hinted that it never would have struck her that he had sat for them. “Now the drawings you make from us, they look exactly like us,” she reminded me, smiling in triumph; and I recognised that this was indeed just their defect. When I drew the Monarchs I couldn’t, somehow, get away from them—get into the character I wanted to represent; and I had not the least desire my model should be discoverable in my picture. Miss Churm never was, and Mrs. Monarch thought I hid her, very properly, because she was vulgar; whereas if she was lost it was only as the dead who go to heaven are lost—in the gain of an angel the more.
By this time I had got a certain start with “Rutland Ramsay,” the first novel in the great projected series; that is I had produced a dozen drawings, several with the help of the Major and his wife, and I had sent them in for approval. My understanding with the publishers, as I have already hinted, had been that I was to be left to do my work, in this particular case, as I liked, with the whole book committed to me; but my connection with the rest of the series was only contingent. There were moments when, frankly, it was a comfort to have the real thing under one’s hand; for there were characters in “Rutland Ramsay” that were very much like it. There were people presumably as straight as the Major and women of as good a fashion as Mrs. Monarch. There was a great deal of country-house life—treated, it is true, in a fine, fanciful, ironical, generalised way—and there was a considerable implication of knickerbockers and kilts. There were certain things I had to settle at the outset; such things for instance as the exact appearance of the hero, the particular bloom of the heroine. The author of course gave me a lead, but there was a margin for interpretation. I took the Monarchs into my confidence, I told them frankly what I was about, I mentioned my embarrassments and alternatives. “Oh, take him!” Mrs. Monarch murmured sweetly, looking at her husband; and “What could you want better than my wife?” the Major inquired, with the comfortable candour that now prevailed between us.
I was not obliged to answer these remarks—I was only obliged to place my sitters. I was not easy in mind, and I postponed, a little timidly perhaps, the solution of the question. The book was a large canvas, the other figures were numerous, and I worked off at first some of the episodes in which the hero and the heroine were not concerned. When once I had set them up I should have to stick to them—I couldn’t make my young man seven feet high in one place and five feet nine in another. I inclined on the whole to the latter measurement, though the Major more than once reminded me that he looked about as young as anyone. It was indeed quite possible to arrange him, for the figure, so that it would have been difficult to detect his age. After the spontaneous Oronte had been with me a month, and after I had given him to understand several different times that his native exuberance would presently constitute an insurmountable barrier to our further intercourse, I waked to a sense of his heroic capacity. He was only five feet seven, but the remaining inches were latent. I tried him almost secretly at first, for I was really rather afraid of the judgment my other models would pass on such a choice. If they regarded Miss Churm as little better than a snare, what would they think of the representation by a person so little the real thing as an Italian street-vendor of a protagonist formed by a public school?
If I went a little in fear of them it was not because they bullied me, because they had got an oppressive foothold, but because in their really pathetic decorum and mysteriously permanent newness they counted on me so intensely. I was therefore very glad when Jack Hawley came home: he was always of such good counsel. He painted badly himself, but there was no one like him for putting his finger on the place. He had been absent from England for a year; he had been somewhere—I don’t remember where—to get a fresh eye. I was in a good deal of dread of any such organ, but we were old friends; he had been away for months and a sense of emptiness was creeping into my life. I hadn’t dodged a missile for a year.
He came back with a fresh eye, but with the same old black velvet blouse, and the first evening he spent in my studio we smoked cigarettes till the small hours. He had done no work himself, he had only got the eye; so the field was clear for the production of my little things. He wanted to see what I had done for the Cheapside, but he was disappointed in the exhibition. That at least seemed the meaning of two or three comprehensive groans which, as he lounged on my big divan, on a folded leg, looking at my latest drawings, issued from his lips with the smoke of the cigarette.
“What’s the matter with you?” I asked.
“What’s the matter with you?”
“Nothing save that I’m mystified.”
“You are indeed. You’re quite off the hinge. What’s the meaning of this new fad?” And he tossed me, with visible irreverence, a drawing in which I happened to have depicted both my majestic models. I asked if he didn’t think it good, and he replied that it struck him as execrable, given the sort of thing I had always represented myself to him as wishing to arrive at; but I let that pass, I was so anxious to see exactly what he meant. The two figures in the picture looked colossal, but I supposed this was not what he meant, inasmuch as, for aught he knew to the contrary, I might have been trying for that. I maintained that I was working exactly in the same way as when he last had done me the honour to commend me. “Well, there’s a big hole somewhere,” he answered; “wait a bit and I’ll discover it.” I depended upon him to do so: where else was the fresh eye? But he produced at last nothing more luminous than “I don’t know—I don’t like your types.” This was lame, for a critic who had never consented to discuss with me anything but the question of execution, the direction of strokes and the mystery of values.
“In the drawings you’ve been looking at I think my types are very handsome.”
“Oh, they won’t do!”
“I’ve had a couple of new models.”
“I see you have. They won’t do.”
“Are you very sure of that?”
“You mean I am—for I ought to get round that.”
“You can’t—with such people. Who are they?”
I told him, as far as was necessary, and he declared, heartlessly: “Ce sont des gens qu’il faut mettre à la porte.”
“You’ve never seen them; they’re awfully good,” I compassionately objected.
“Not seen them? Why, all this recent work of yours drops to pieces with them. It’s all I want to see of them.”
“No one else has said anything against it—the Cheapside people are pleased.”
“Everyone else is an ass, and the Cheapside people the biggest asses of all. Come, don’t pretend, at this time of day, to have pretty illusions about the public, especially about publishers and editors. It’s not for such animals you work—it’s for those who know, coloro che sanno; so keep straight for me if you can’t keep straight for yourself. There’s a certain sort of thing you tried for from the first—and a very good thing it is. But this twaddle isn’t in it.” When I talked with Hawley later about “Rutland Ramsay” and its possible successors he declared that I must get back into my boat again or I would go to the bottom. His voice in short was the voice of warning.
I noted the warning, but I didn’t turn my friends out of doors. They bored me a good deal; but the very fact that they bored me admonished me not to sacrifice them—if there was anything to be done with them—simply to irritation. As I look back at this phase they seem to me to have pervaded my life not a little. I have a vision of them as most of the time in my studio, seated, against the wall, on an old velvet bench to be out of the way, and looking like a pair of patient courtiers in a royal ante-chamber. I am convinced that during the coldest weeks of the winter they held their ground because it saved them fire. Their newness was losing its gloss, and it was impossible not to feel that they were objects of charity. Whenever Miss Churm arrived they went away, and after I was fairly launched in “Rutland Ramsay” Miss Churm arrived pretty often. They managed to express to me tacitly that they supposed I wanted her for the low life of the book, and I let them suppose it, since they had attempted to study the work—it was lying about the studio—without discovering that it dealt only with the highest circles. They had dipped into the most brilliant of our novelists without deciphering many passages. I still took an hour from them, now and again, in spite of Jack Hawley’s warning: it would be time enough to dismiss them, if dismissal should be necessary, when the rigour of the season was over. Hawley had made their acquaintance—he had met them at my fireside—and thought them a ridiculous pair. Learning that he was a painter they tried to approach him, to show him too that they were the real thing; but he looked at them, across the big room, as if they were miles away: they were a compendium of everything that he most objected to in the social system of his country. Such people as that, all convention and patent-leather, with ejaculations that stopped conversation, had no business in a studio. A studio was a place to learn to see, and how could you see through a pair of feather beds?
The main inconvenience I suffered at their hands was that, at first, I was shy of letting them discover how my artful little servant had begun to sit to me for “Rutland Ramsay.” They knew that I had been odd enough (they were prepared by this time to allow oddity to artists,) to pick a foreign vagabond out of the streets, when I might have had a person with whiskers and credentials; but it was some time before they learned how high I rated his accomplishments. They found him in an attitude more than once, but they never doubted I was doing him as an organ-grinder. There were several things they never guessed, and one of them was that for a striking scene in the novel, in which a footman briefly figured, it occurred to me to make use of Major Monarch as the menial. I kept putting this off, I didn’t like to ask him to don the livery—besides the difficulty of finding a livery to fit him. At last, one day late in the winter, when I was at work on the despised Oronte (he caught one’s idea in an instant), and was in the glow of feeling that I was going very straight, they came in, the Major and his wife, with their society laugh about nothing (there was less and less to laugh at), like country-callers—they always reminded me of that—who have walked across the park after church and are presently persuaded to stay to luncheon. Luncheon was over, but they could stay to tea—I knew they wanted it. The fit was on me, however, and I couldn’t let my ardour cool and my work wait, with the fading daylight, while my model prepared it. So I asked Mrs. Monarch if she would mind laying it out—a request which, for an instant, brought all the blood to her face. Her eyes were on her husband’s for a second, and some mute telegraphy passed between them. Their folly was over the next instant; his cheerful shrewdness put an end to it. So far from pitying their wounded pride, I must add, I was moved to give it as complete a lesson as I could. They bustled about together and got out the cups and saucers and made the kettle boil. I know they felt as if they were waiting on my servant, and when the tea was prepared I said: “He’ll have a cup, please—he’s tired.” Mrs. Monarch brought him one where he stood, and he took it from her as if he had been a gentleman at a party, squeezing a crush-hat with an elbow.
Then it came over me that she had made a great effort for me—made it with a kind of nobleness—and that I owed her a compensation. Each time I saw her after this I wondered what the compensation could be. I couldn’t go on doing the wrong thing to oblige them. Oh, it was the wrong thing, the stamp of the work for which they sat—Hawley was not the only person to say it now. I sent in a large number of the drawings I had made for “Rutland Ramsay,” and I received a warning that was more to the point than Hawley’s. The artistic adviser of the house for which I was working was of opinion that many of my illustrations were not what had been looked for. Most of these illustrations were the subjects in which the Monarchs had figured. Without going into the question of what had been looked for, I saw at this rate I shouldn’t get the other books to do. I hurled myself in despair upon Miss Churm, I put her through all her paces. I not only adopted Oronte publicly as my hero, but one morning when the Major looked in to see if I didn’t require him to finish a figure for the Cheapside, for which he had begun to sit the week before, I told him that I had changed my mind—I would do the drawing from my man. At this my visitor turned pale and stood looking at me. “Is he your idea of an English gentleman?” he asked.
I was disappointed, I was nervous, I wanted to get on with my work; so I replied with irritation: “Oh, my dear Major—I can’t be ruined for you!”
He stood another moment; then, without a word, he quitted the studio. I drew a long breath when he was gone, for I said to myself that I shouldn’t see him again. I had not told him definitely that I was in danger of having my work rejected, but I was vexed at his not having felt the catastrophe in the air, read with me the moral of our fruitless collaboration, the lesson that, in the deceptive atmosphere of art, even the highest respectability may fail of being plastic.
I didn’t owe my friends money, but I did see them again. They re-appeared together, three days later, and under the circumstances there was something tragic in the fact. It was a proof to me that they could find nothing else in life to do. They had threshed the matter out in a dismal conference—they had digested the bad news that they were not in for the series. If they were not useful to me even for the Cheapside their function seemed difficult to determine, and I could only judge at first that they had come, forgivingly, decorously, to take a last leave. This made me rejoice in secret that I had little leisure for a scene; for I had placed both my other models in position together and I was pegging away at a drawing from which I hoped to derive glory. It had been suggested by the passage in which Rutland Ramsay, drawing up a chair to Artemisia’s piano-stool, says extraordinary things to her while she ostensibly fingers out a difficult piece of music. I had done Miss Churm at the piano before—it was an attitude in which she knew how to take on an absolutely poetic grace. I wished the two figures to “compose” together, intensely, and my little Italian had entered perfectly into my conception. The pair were vividly before me, the piano had been pulled out; it was a charming picture of blended youth and murmured love, which I had only to catch and keep. My visitors stood and looked at it, and I was friendly to them over my shoulder.
They made no response, but I was used to silent company and went on with my work, only a little disconcerted (even though exhilarated by the sense that this was at least the ideal thing), at not having got rid of them after all. Presently I heard Mrs. Monarch’s sweet voice beside, or rather above me: “I wish her hair was a little better done.” I looked up and she was staring with a strange fixedness at Miss Churm, whose back was turned to her. “Do you mind my just touching it?” she went on—a question which made me spring up for an instant, as with the instinctive fear that she might do the young lady a harm. But she quieted me with a glance I shall never forget—I confess I should like to have been able to paint that—and went for a moment to my model. She spoke to her softly, laying a hand upon her shoulder and bending over her; and as the girl, understanding, gratefully assented, she disposed her rough curls, with a few quick passes, in such a way as to make Miss Churm’s head twice as charming. It was one of the most heroic personal services I have ever seen rendered. Then Mrs. Monarch turned away with a low sigh and, looking about her as if for something to do, stooped to the floor with a noble humility and picked up a dirty rag that had dropped out of my paint-box.
The Major meanwhile had also been looking for something to do and, wandering to the other end of the studio, saw before him my breakfast things, neglected, unremoved. “I say, can’t I be useful here?” he called out to me with an irrepressible quaver. I assented with a laugh that I fear was awkward and for the next ten minutes, while I worked, I heard the light clatter of china and the tinkle of spoons and glass. Mrs. Monarch assisted her husband—they washed up my crockery, they put it away. They wandered off into my little scullery, and I afterwards found that they had cleaned my knives and that my slender stock of plate had an unprecedented surface. When it came over me, the latent eloquence of what they were doing, I confess that my drawing was blurred for a moment—the picture swam. They had accepted their failure, but they couldn’t accept their fate. They had bowed their heads in bewilderment to the perverse and cruel law in virtue of which the real thing could be so much less precious than the unreal; but they didn’t want to starve. If my servants were my models, my models might be my servants. They would reverse the parts—the others would sit for the ladies and gentlemen, and they would do the work. They would still be in the studio—it was an intense dumb appeal to me not to turn them out. “Take us on,” they wanted to say—“we’ll do anything.”
When all this hung before me the afflatus vanished—my pencil dropped from my hand. My sitting was spoiled and I got rid of my sitters, who were also evidently rather mystified and awestruck. Then, alone with the Major and his wife, I had a most uncomfortable moment, He put their prayer into a single sentence: “I say, you know—just let us do for you, can’t you?” I couldn’t—it was dreadful to see them emptying my slops; but I pretended I could, to oblige them, for about a week. Then I gave them a sum of money to go away; and I never saw them again. I obtained the remaining books, but my friend Hawley repeats that Major and Mrs. Monarch did me a permanent harm, got me into a second-rate trick. If it be true I am content to have paid the price—for the memory.
“Well then tell her that she intends to get out of here, mister,” the Israeli policeman called out. He was standing, arms folded, at one entrance to Mandelbaum Gate when I explained to him that we had come with my mother who intended to go through after being allowed to pass. I pointed over the Jordanian side of the gate.
That was at the end of the winter. The sun was hinting at spring. The dust between the mounds of rubble was covered in green. Rubble heaps to the right, mounds of rubble to the left. Children with pe’ot (side curls) playing amidst the piles and the green stirred a sense of wonder in our children’s hearts. Our kids had come with us in order to say goodbye to their grandmother. “Children and hair braids – how on earth?!”
In the heart of that old neighborhood we always called “Musrara”, there was an expanse of dusty asphalt which formed a wide courtyard. It was marked off by two doorways: the “here” door and the “there” door. These gates were made of stones from ruins and flattened tin, and were whitewashed by plaster. Each was wide enough to ensure proper passage for the “exiting” or the “entering” car.
Stressing the word “exit”, the guard said, as if he wanted to teach me a lesson; “What’s important is leaving the Garden of Eden, not getting in over “there”.” The customs officer did not want us to miss the lesson either. When everyone was kissing mother goodbye, he said: “Whoever exits from here never comes back”.
And I think that such unsettling thoughts also plagued mother during her last days with us. When our close friends and family members gathered the night before the trip to Jerusalem she said, “I lived in order to see my mourners (those who would eulogize me) with my own eyes.” And in the morning when we slid down the sloped alley to the car, she turned her gaze behind and gestured toward the olive and apricot trees at the door of her house, musing, “Twenty years I’ve lived here, and who can count the number of times I’ve gone up and down this alley!”
And when the car passed by the cemetery on the outskirts of town she turned to her deceased dear ones and let out, like an inner whisper, “Why isn’t it my fortune to be buried here? And who will place flowers on my granddaughter’s grave?”
In 1940, when she had gone up to Jerusalem, a fortune teller had told her that it would be her fate to die in the holy city. Would his prophecy come true in the end?
She was seventy-five back then and had not yet experienced this feeling of terror that was taking over her heart and injecting utter emptiness into her soul; a feeling like the pangs of a suffering conscience – missing one’s homeland. And if one were to ask her, for example, to explain the meaning of the word “homeland”, she would undoubtedly become confused just as she did that time she first came across the word in her prayer book and didn’t know whether to say it meant house, or at a minimum, laundry tub. Or perhaps it meant the piece of land – the Kuba crater – that had come down to her from mother (her friends laughed at her when she wanted to take the laundry tub with her but she did not even dare to think of the Kuba crater). Or maybe “homeland” was the cries of the milkman that came with the dawn, or the din-don of the oil vendor’s bell, or her sick husband’s coughing voice, or nights like the nights when her children were home – those who had gone with their families and abandoned her doorstep, leaving her alone.
Of all places, this lintel was her house’s doorstep, the one on which her last gaze rested, and the one that was privy and could attest to the countless times she stood on it, day in, day out – to see her children off, having gladdened their hearts, or to sing them a song; a tender, mother’s song, with tears in her eyes:
Dark-feathered chick, your expression grew
Into that of a bird; to sing and to nest were your teachings
Now you have grown, your wings have lifted your feathers,
You have flown, and I troubled over you for nought.
Even if she were told that “homeland” was each and every one of these things all together, the term’s riddle would not have been solved. But now, when her legs are stepping over to the “no-man’s land” and she is expecting them to let her move and step forward – now she turns to her daughter and says, “How my soul yearned to sit and rest, if only one more time, on that lintel!” Her elderly brother, who had troubled himself to come from the village to part from her, gave an instant nod, his face pained and puzzled. For indeed, this was the mysterious thing which caused him to mourn and his sister to suffer; that which she could not uproot from the ground and take with her – this thing that was most dear to his heart as well. A neighbor of ours said to him: “When all’s said and done you’ll be forced to sign on to their vendor’s contract. The law’s on their side!”
But the old man turned to me and said: “Listen, my dear, one day my father, my younger brother, and I were watching over the field. Suddenly a flock of thrushes engulfed the field. My little brother took a hunting rifle in his hands, to show that he was a real man. A loud laugh burst from my father (you remember how your grandfather laughed, my dear?). When he saw the son of his old age thus, he called out, “Hunting thrushes is a man’s job, my boy!”
But the little one was immensely stubborn. He held on to the rifle without relaxing a muscle. Sometime later he came back with a live thrush in the palm of his hand. The wonder of wonders! We were dumbfounded. And he, the little wild thing, was jumping with excitement. He was so proud of this chance to hunt that had come his way. “But we didn’t hear the gun shot!” my father called out, to which the little hunter replied, “I put a spell on the rifle, Dad!” And my father and my father’s fathers made me swear never to tell his secret – which was: he saw the thrush in danger when it was caught between the teeth of a big cat. Without a second thought, the boy bolted after the cat amid the boulders and the corn stalks, until he caught it and rescued the feathered thing from the predatory jaws.. .voila! And they expect me to sign on to a contract to sell (out) these memories? They have no power in their laws to do such a thing – none!
My advice to you is not to come to Mandelbaum Gate with your children. And it’s not because the ruined houses fascinate or entice them to cast about inside for a magic lamp or adventures like Aladdin’s. In fact, it’s not even because of the Hasidim’s waving sidecurls (pe’ot) that cause children to ask intriguing questions. They shouldn’t come with you because the road that leads to Mandelbaum Gate does not stop at it, even for a fleeting second, for those entering “there” or exiting “here”. There are American luxury cars whose passengers are healthy and dressed up, either with a blaze of color around their necks or in their army uniforms.
There are the cars of the “cease-fire people”, and of groups of U.N. inspectors. The rest of the passengers are ambassadors and representatives of Western states, with their presidents and their presidents’ cooks, their drinks, and their beautiful women. They do stop briefly by “our gate” so their drivers can exchange greetings with “our” guard — as cultured people do. And after passing through the no-man’s land, they stop briefly by “their gate” and exchange greetings with “their policemen” too, such that in this space of good manners and culture there is a back-and-forth Israeli-Jordanian competition.
The “he who goes from here” death sentence does not fall on these travelers; nor do they come under the Garden of Eden law of “he who enters does not leave.” For this way the honored observer can take lunch at the “Philadelphia” hotel over there, and dinner at the “Eden” hotel on this side, while his smile never skips off his face.
When my sister turned to the soldier – to the one who stands by “our gate,” to ask his permission to accompany mother to the Jordanian gate, he replied: “It’s forbidden Ma’am.” But I see those foreigners entering and leaving as if this were their home!” “Everyone is allowed to pass through these gates except Jews and Arabs. Except for the natives, my good lady.” He then said, “I must ask you to move out of the street. This is a main road bustling with traffic -.” He broke off in mid-sentence to joke with the passengers of a car pulling up (was it an “exiting” or an “entering” car?)
But we didn’t see what was funny here.
“Everything comes to an end, even in a time of parting!” said the customs official. An old woman leaning on a stick set out from “our gate” in the direction of “their gate.” She slowly crossed the “no-man’s land,” turning her head back from minute to minute, waving her hand and advancing further. And why should it be precisely now that her conscience knocks at her?
A soldier in a kaffiya and band burst out from among the ruins on the opposite side. He approached the old woman who was entering and stopped to snatch a bit of conversation with her. The two of them looked over to our side. We stood here with the children waving our hands. A soldier who looked deprived because of his exposed head stood in front of us and talked with us as well. He repeated that it was forbidden to go one step further.
Why did he say, “It’s as if she’s crossed the Valley of Death from which we don’t come back. That’s the reality of war; borders and Mandelbaum Gate. I must ask you to move over to the other side of the U.N. car”?
And suddenly a small body, squirming with life sprang out — leaped like a ball thrust into the air by a soccer game kick, streaking conspicuously towards the rival team’s goal post. The body leaped out and started to run ahead of us, cutting across the “no man’s land.” With a shock we realized that this was none other than my little daughter running after her grandmother, yelling, “Grandma! Grandma!” Look – the “no-man’s land” is already behind her and she’s reaching Grandmother..and Grandma is lifting her up in her arms.
From afar we saw how the soldier in the kaffiya was looking at the ground. My eyes were moist and I can attest that the soldier stood there pecking at the ground with his foot. And as for the soldier who stood with us, he also lowered his head and started scuffing the ground. The guard who was standing by the office doing nothing faded back and went inside. The customs official started looking for something in his pocket which he had apparently lost all of a sudden…
A great miracle happened here. A little girl cut across the Valley of Death from which none return. And see, in spite of everything she does come back to us crowned with triumph over the present reality of war, borders, and Mandelbaum Gate.
A girl ignorant of all of this, who doesn’t understand the real difference between the soldier in the kaffiya, and this one here with no head covering. A small, innocent girl! And because in those days there were no open hostilities towards the remote lands, how could the silly little one not think, as she was accustomed to, that she was still in her country? Here she saw her father stand on one side and her grandmother on the other. Here were cars galloping back and forth across the “no-man’s land” just like they did by her house. Here people speak Hebrew, there they speak Arabic. And therefore she speaks in the two languages, in the one with her great-grandson and in the other with his horse. The customs official despaired, it seemed, of finding the thing he had lost (there is an end to everything, even to embarrassment), for he suddenly stopped the exhausting search, moved in his place, and said to the soldier as if to comfort him: “an innocent child.” “I must ask you, good people, to move away from the street lest one of your children fall between the wheels of the stampeding cars.”
And he moved back first.
Do you understand, therefore, why I advised you not to come to Mandelbaum Gate accompanied by your children? Their logic is so simple and uncomplicated, but so healthy!
*Translated from Arabic into Hebrew by Sasson Somekh, 1955
**Reprinted in Iton 77 No. 196, May 1996. 18-19
***Translated from Hebrew into English by Stacy N. Beckwith, August 1999
The Paradise of Bachelors
It lies not far from Temple-Bar.
Going to it, by the usual way, is like stealing from a heated plain into some cool, deep glen, shady among harboring hills.
Sick with the din and soiled with the mud of Fleet Street – where the Benedick tradesmen are hurrying by, with ledger-lines ruled along their brows, thinking upon rise of bread and fall of babies – you adroitly turn a mystic corner – not a street – glide down a dim, monastic way flanked by dark, sedate, and solemn piles, and still wending on, give the whole care-worn world the slip, and, disentangled, stand beneath the quiet cloisters of the Paradise of Bachelors.
Sweet are the oases in Sahara; charming the isle-groves of August prairies; delectable pure faith amidst a thousand perfidies: but sweeter, still more charming, most delectable, the dreamy Paradise of Bachelors, found in the stony heart of stunning London.
In mild meditation pace the cloisters; take your pleasure, sip your leisure, in the garden waterward; go linger in the ancient library, go worship in the sculptured chapel: but little have you seen, just nothing do you know, not the sweet kernel have you tasted, till you dine among the banded Bachelors, and see their convivial eyes and glasses sparkle. Not dine in bustling commons, during term-time, in the hall; but tranquilly, by private hint, at a private table; some fine Templar’s hospitably invited guest.
Templar? That’s a romantic name. Let me see. Brian de Bois Gilbert was a Templar, I believe. Do we understand you to insinuate that those famous Templars still survive in modern London? May the ring of their armed heels be heard, and the rattle of their shields, as in mailed prayer the monk-knights kneel before the consecrated Host? Surely a monk-knight were a curious sight picking his way along the Strand, his gleaming corselet and snowy surcoat spattered by an omnibus. Long-bearded, too, according to his order’s rule; his face fuzzy as a pard’s; how would the grim ghost look among the crop-haired, close-shaven citizens? We know indeed – sad history recounts it – that a moral blight tainted at last this sacred Brotherhood. Though no sworded foe might outskill them in the fence, yet the worm of luxury crawled beneath their guard, gnawing the core of knightly troth, nibbling the monastic vow, till at last the monk’s austerity relaxed to wassailing, and the sworn knights-bachelors grew to be but hypocrites and rakes.
But for all this, quite unprepared were we to learn that Knights-Templars (if at all in being) were so entirely secularized as to be reduced from carving out immortal fame in glorious battling for the Holy Land, to the carving of roastmutton at a dinner-board. Like Anacreon, do these degenerate Templars now think it sweeter far to fall in banquet than in war? Or, indeed, how can there be any survival of that famous order? Templars in modern London! Templars in their red-cross mantles smoking cigars at the Divan! Templars crowded in a railway train, till, stacked with steel helmet, spear, and shield, the whole train looks like one elongated locomotive!
No. The genuine Templar is long since departed. Go view the wondrous tombs in the Temple Church; see there the rigidly-haughty forms stretched out, with crossed arm upon their stilly hearts, in everlasting and undreaming rest. Like the years before the flood, the bold Knights-Templars are no more. Nevertheless, the name remains, and the nominal society, and the ancient grounds, and some of the ancient edifices. But the iron heel is changed to a boot of patent-leather; the long two-handed sword to a one-handed quill; the monk-giver of gratuitous ghostly counsel now counsels for a fee; the defender of the sarcophagus (if in good practice with his weapon) now has more than one case to defend; the vowed opener and clearer of all highways leading to the Holy Sepulchre, now has it in particular charge to check, to clog, to hinder, and embarrass all the courts and avenues of Law; the knight-combatant of the Saracen, breasting spear-points at Acre, now fights law-points in Westminster Hall. The helmet is a wig. Struck by Time’s enchanter’s Wand, the Templar is to-day a Lawyer.
But, like many others tumbled from proud glory’s height – like the apple, hard on the bough but mellow on the ground – the Templar’s fall has but made him all the finer fellow.
I dare say those old warrior-priests were but gruff and grouty at the best; cased in Birmingham hardware, how could their crimped arms give yours or mine a hearty shake? Their proud, ambitious, monkish souls clasped shut, like horn-book missals; their very faces clapped in bomb-shells; what sort of genial men were these? But best of comrades, most affable of hosts, capital diner is the modern Templar. His wit and wine are both of sparkling brands.
The church and cloisters, courts and vaults, lanes and passages, banquet-halls, refectories, libraries, terraces, gardens, broad walks, domicils, and dessert-rooms, covering a very large space of ground, and all grouped in central neighborhood, and quite sequestered from the old city’s surrounding din; and every thing about the place being kept in most bachelor-like particularity, no part of London offers to a quiet wight so agreeable a refuge.
The Temple is, indeed, a city by itself. A city with all the best appurtenances, as the above enumeration shows. A city with a park to it, and flower-beds, and a river-side – the Thames flowing by as openly, in one part, as by Eden’s primal garden flowed the mild Euphrates. In what is now the Temple Garden the old Crusaders used to exercise their steeds and lances; the modern Templars now lounge on the benches beneath the trees, and, switching their patentleather boots, in gay discourse exercise at repartee.
Long lines of stately portraits in the banquethalls, show what great men of mark – famous nobles, judges, and Lord Chancellors – have in their time been Templars. But all Templars are not known to universal fame; though, if the having warm hearts and warmer welcomes, full minds and fuller cellars, and giving good advice and glorious dinners, spiced with rare divertisements of fun and fancy, merit immortal mention, set down, ye muses, the names of R. F. C. and his imperial brother.
Though to be a Templar, in the one true sense, you must needs be a lawyer, or a student at the law, and be ceremoniously enrolled as member of the order, yet as many such, though Templars, do not reside within the Temple’s precincts, though they may have their offices there, just so, on the other hand, there are many residents of the hoary old domicils who are not admitted Templars. If being, say, a lounging gentleman and bachelor, or a quiet, unmarried, literary man, charmed with the soft seclusion of the spot, you much desire to pitch your shady tent among the rest in this serene encampment, then you must make some special friend among the order, and procure him to rent, in his name but at your charge, whatever vacant chamber you may find to suit.
Thus, I suppose, did Dr. Johnson, that nominal Benedick and widower but virtual bachelor, when for a space he resided here. So, too, did that undoubted bachelor and rare good soul, Charles Lamb. And hundreds more, of sterling spirits, Brethren of the Order of Celibacy, from time to time have dined, and slept, and tabernacled here. Indeed, the place is all a honeycomb of offices and domicils. Like any cheese, it is quite perforated through and through in all directions with the snug cells of bachelors. Dear, delightful spot! Ah! when I bethink me of the sweet hours there passed, enjoying such genial hospitalities beneath those timehonored roofs, my heart only finds due utterance through poetry; and, with a sigh, I softly sing, “Carry me back to old Virginny!”
Such then, at large, is the Paradise of Bachelors. And such I found it one pleasant afternoon in the smiling month of May, when, sallying from my hotel in Trafalgar Square, I went to keep my dinner-appointment with that fine Barrister, Bachelor, aud Bencher, R. F. C. (he is the first and second, and should be the third; I hereby nominate him), whose card I kept fast pinched between my gloved forefinger and thumb, and every now and then snatched still another look at the pleasant address inscribed beneath the name, “No. – Elm Court, Temple.”
At the core he was a right bluff, care-free, right comfortable, and most companionable Englishman. If on a first acquaintance he seemed reserved, quite icy in his air – patience; this Champagne will thaw. And if it never do, better frozen Champagne than liquid vinegar.
There were nine gentlemen, all bachelors, at the dinner. One was from “No. – King’s Bench Walk, Temple;” a second, third, and fourth, and fifth, from various courts or passages christened with some similarly rich resounding syllables. It was indeed a sort of Senate of the Bachelors, sent to this dinner from widely-scattered districts, to represent the general celibacy of the Temple. Nay it was, by representation, a Grand Parliament of the best Bachelors in universal London; several of those present being from distant quarters of the town, noted immemorial seats of lawyers and unmarried men – Lincoln’s Inn, Furnival’s Inn; and one gentleman, upon whom I looked with a sort of collateral awe, hailed from the spot where Lord Verulam once abode a bachelor – Gray’s Inn.
The apartment was well up toward heaven. I know not how many strange old stairs I climbed to get to it. But a good dinner, with famous company, should be well earned. No doubt our host had his dining-room so high with a view to secure the prior exercise necessary to the due relishing and digesting of it.
The furniture was wonderfully unpretending, old, and snug. No new shining mahogany, sticky with undried varnish; no uncomfortably luxurious ottomans, and sofas too fine to use, vexed you in this sedate apartment. It is a thing which every sensible American should learn from every sensible Englishman, that glare and glitter, gimcracks and gewgaws, are not in dispensable to domestic solacement. The American Benedick snatches, down-town, a tough chop in a gilded show-box; the English bachelor leisurely dines at home on that incomparable South Down of his, off a plain deal board.
The ceiling of the room was low. Who wants to dine under the dome of St. Peter’s? High ceilings! If that is your demand, and the higher the better, and you be so very tall, then go dine out with the topping giraffe in the open air.
In good time the nine gentlemen sat down to nine covers, and soon were fairly under way.
If I remember right, ox-tail soup inaugurated the affair. Of a rich russet hue, its agreeable flavor dissipated my first confounding of its main ingredient with teamster’s gads and the rawhides of ushers. (By way of interlude, we here drank a little claret.) Neptune’s was the next tribute rendered – turbot coming second; snowwhite, flaky, and just gelatinous enough, not too turtleish in its unctuousness.
(At this point we refreshed ourselves with a glass of sherry.) After these light skirmishers had vanished, the heavy artillery of the feast marched in, led by that well-known English generalissimo, roast beef. For aids-de-camp we had a saddle of mutton, a fat turkey, a chickenpie, and endless other savory things; while for avant-couriers came nine silver flagons of humming ale. This heavy ordnance having departed on the track of the light skirmishers, a picked brigade of game-fowl encamped upon the board, their camp-fires lit by the ruddiest of decanters.
Tarts and puddings followed, with innumerable niceties; then cheese and crackers. (By way of ceremony, simply, only to keep up good old fashions, we here each drank a glass of good old port.)
The cloth was now removed, and like Blucher’s army coming in at the death on the field of Waterloo, in marched a fresh detachment of bottles, dusty with their hurried march.
All these manoeuvrings of the forces were superintended by a surprising old field-marshal (I can not school myself to call him by the inglorious name of waiter), with snowy hair and napkin, and a head like Socrates. Amidst all the hilarity of the feast, intent on important business, he disdained to smile. Venerable man!
I have above endeavored to give some slight schedule of the general plan of operations. But any one knows that a good, genial dinner is a sort of pell-mell, indiscriminate affair, quite baffling to detail in all particulars. Thus, I spoke of taking a glass of claret, and a glass of sherry, and a glass of port, and a mug of ale – all at certain specific periods and times. But those were merely the state bumpers, so to speak. Innumerable impromptu glasses were drained between the periods of those grand imposing ones.
The nine bachelors seemed to have the most tender concern for each other’s health. All the time, in flowing wine, they most earnestly expressed their sincerest wishes for the entire wellbeing and lasting hygiene of the gentlemen on the right and on the left. I noticed that when one of these kind bachelors desired a little more wine (just for his stomach’s sake, like Timothy), he would not help himself to it unless some other bachelor would join him. It seemed held something indelicate, selfish, and unfraternal, to be seen taking a lonely, unparticipated glass. Meantime, as the wine ran apace, the spirits of the company grew more and more to perfect genialness and unconstraint. They related all sorts of pleasant stories. Choice experiences in their private lives were now brought out, like choice brands of Moselle or Rhenish, only kept for particular company. One told us how mellowly he lived when a student at Oxford; with various spicy anecdotes of most frank-hearted noble lords, his liberal companions. Another bachelor, a gray-headed man, with a sunny face, who, by his own account, embraced every opportunity of leisure to cross over into the Low Countries, on sudden tours of inspection of the fine old Flemish architecture there – this learned, white-haired, sunny-faced old bachelor, excelledin his descriptions of the elaborate splendors of those old guild-halls, town-halls, and stadthold-houses, to be seen in the land of the ancient Flemings. A third was a great frequenter of the British Museum, and knew all about scores of wonderful antiquities, of Oriental manuscripts, and costly books without a duplicate. A fourth had lately returned from a trip to Old Granada, and, of course, was full of Saracenic scenery. A fifth had a funny case in law to tell. A sixth was erudite in wines. A seventh had a strange characteristic anecdote of the private life of the Iron Duke, never printed, and never before announced in any public or private company. An eighth had lately been amusing his evenings, now and then, with translating a comic poem of Pulci’s. He quoted for us the more amusing passages.
And so the evening slipped along, the hours told, not by a water-clock, like King Alfred’s, but a wine-chronometer. Meantime the table seemed a sort of Epsom Heath; a regular ring, where the decanters galloped round. For fear one decanter should not with sufficient speed reach his destination, another was sent express after him to hurry him; and then a third to hurry the second; and so on with a fourth and fifth. And throughout all this nothing loud, nothing unmannerly, nothing turbulent. I am quite sure, from the scrupulous gravity and austerity of his air, that had Socrates, the fieldmarshal, perceived aught of indecorum in the company he served, he would have forthwith departed without giving warning. I afterward learned that, during the repast, an invalid bachelor in an adjoining chamber enjoyed his first sound refreshing slumber in three long, weary weeks.
It was the very perfection of quiet absorption of good living, good drinking, good feeling, and good talk. We were a band of brothers. Comfort – fraternal, household comfort, was the grand trait of the affair. Also, you could plainly see that these easy-hearted men had no wives or children to give an anxious thought. Almost all of them were travelers, too; for bachelors alone can travel freely, and without any twinges of their consciences touching desertion of the fireside.
The thing called pain, the bugbear styled trouble – those two legends seemed preposterous to their bachelor imaginations. How could men of liberal sense, ripe scholarship in the world, and capacious philosophical and convivial understandings – how could they suffer themselves to be imposed upon by such monkishfables? Pain! Trouble! As well talk of Catholic miracles. No such thing. – Pass the sherry, Sir. – Pooh, pooh! Can’t be! – The port, Sir, if you please. Nonsense; don’t tell me so. The decanter stops with you, Sir, I believe.
And so it went.
Not long after the cloth was drawn our host glanced significantly upon Socrates, who, solemnly stepping to the stand, returned with an immense convolved horn, a regular Jericho horn, mounted with polished silver, and otherwise chased and curiously enriched; not omitting two life-like goat’s heads, with four more horns of solid silver, projecting from opposite sides of the mouth of the noble main horn.
Not having heard that our host was a performer on the bugle, I was surprised to see him lift this horn from the table, as if he were about to blow an inspiring blast. But I was relieved from this, and set quite right as touching the purposes of the horn, by his now inserting his thumb and forefinger into its mouth; whereupon a slight aroma was stirred up, and my nostrils were greeted with the smell of some choice Rappee. It was a mull of snuff. It went the rounds. Capital idea this, thought I, of taking snuff at about this juncture. This goodly fashion must be introduced among my countrymen at home, further ruminated I.
The remarkable decorum of the nine bachelors – a decorum not to be affected by any quantity of wine – a decorum unassailable by any degree of mirthfulness – this was again set in a forcible light to me, by now observing that, though they took snuff very freely, yet not a man so far violated the proprieties, or so far molested the invalid bachelor in the adjoining room as to indulge himself in a sneeze. The snuff was snuffed silently, as if it had been some fine innoxious powder brushed off the wings of butterflies.
But fine though they be, bachelors’ dinners, like bachelors’ lives, can not endure forever. The time came for breaking up. One by one the bachelors took their hats, and two by two, and arm-in-arm they descended, still conversing, to the flagging of the court; some going to their neighboring chambers to turn over the Decameron ere retiring for the night; some to smoke a cigar, promenading in the garden on the cool river-side; some to make for the street, call a hack, and be driven snugly to their distant lodgings.
I was the last lingerer.
“Well,” said my smiling host, “what do you think of the Temple here, and the sort of life we bachelors make out to live in it?”
“Sir,” said I, with a burst of admiring candor – “Sir, this is the very Paradise of Bachelors!”
The Tartarus of Maids
It lies not far from Woedolor Mountain in New England. Turning to the east, right out from among bright farms and sunny meadows, nodding in early June with odorous grasses, you enter ascendingly among bleak hills. These gradually close in upon a dusky pass, which, from the violent Gulf Stream of air unceasingly driving between its cloven walls of haggard rock, as well as from the tradition of a crazy spinster’s hut having long ago stood somewhere hereabouts, is called the Mad Maid’s Bellows’ pipe.
Winding along at the bottom of the gorge is a dangerously narrow wheel-road, occupying the bed of a former torrent. Following this road to its highest point, you stand as within a Dantean gateway. From the steepness of the walls here, their strangely ebon hue, and the sudden contraction of the gorge, this particular point is called the Black Notch. The ravine now expandingly descends into a great, purple, hopper-shaped hollow, far sunk among many Plutonian, shaggy-wooded mountains. By the country people this hollow is called the Devil’s Dungeon. Sounds of torrents fall on all sides upon the ear. These rapid waters unite at last in one turbid brick-colored stream, boiling through a flume among enormous boulders. They call this strange-colored torrent Blood River. Gaining a dark precipice it wheels suddenly to the west, and makes one maniac spring of sixty feet into the arms of a stunted wood of gray haired pines, between which it thence eddies on its further way down to the invisible lowlands.
Conspicuously crowning a rocky bluff high to one side, at the cataract’s verge, is the ruin of an old saw-mill, built in those primitive times when vast pines and hemlocks superabounded throughout the neighboring region. The blackmossed bulk of those immense, rough-hewn, and spike-knotted logs, here and there tumbled all together, in long abandonment and decay, or left in solitary, perilous projection over the cataract’s gloomy brink, impart to this rude wooden ruin not only much of the aspect of one of rough-quarried stone, but also a sort of feudal, Rhineland, and Thurmberg look, derived from the pinnacled wildness of the neighboring scenery.
Not far from the bottom of the Dungeon stands a large white-washed building, relieved, like some great whited sepulchre, against the sullen background of mountain-side firs, and other hardy evergreens, inaccessibly rising in grim terraces for some two thousand feet.
The building is a paper-mill.
Having embarked on a large scale in the seedsman’s business (so extensively and broadcast, indeed, that at length my seeds were distributed through all the Eastern and Northern States and even fell into the far soil of Missouri and the Carolinas), the demand for paper at my place became so great, that the expenditure soon amounted to a most important item in the general account. It need hardly be hinted how paper comes into use with seedsmen, as envelopes. These are mostly made of yellowish paper, folded square; and when filled, are all but flat, and being stamped, and superscribed with the nature of the seeds contained, assume not a little the appearance of business-letters ready for the mail. Of these small envelopes I used an incredible quantity – several hundreds of thousands in a year. For a time I had purchased my paper from the wholesale dealers in a neighboring town. For economy’s sake, and partly for the adventure of the trip, I now resolved to cross the mountains, some sixty miles, and order my future paper at the Devil’s Dungeon paper-mill.
The sleighing being uncommonly fine toward the end of January, and promising to hold so for no small period, in spite of the bitter cold I started one gray Friday noon in my pung, well fitted with buffalo and wolf robes; and, spending one night on the road, next noon came in sight of Woedolor Mountain.
The far summit fairly smoked with frost; white vapors curled up from its white-wooded top, as from a chimney. The intense congelation made the whole country look like one petrifaction. The steel shoes of my pung craunched and gritted over the vitreous, chippy snow, as if it had been broken glass. The forests here and there skirting the route, feeling the same all-stiffening influence, their inmost fibres penetrated with the cold, strangely groaned – not in the swaying branches merely, but likewise in the vertical trunk – as the fitful gusts remorselessly swept through them. Brittle with excessive frost, many colossal tough-grained maples, snapped in twain like pipe-stems, cumbered the unfeeling earth.
Flaked all over with frozen sweat, white as a milky ram, his nostrils at each breath sending forth two horn-shaped shoots of heated respiration, Black, my good horse, but six years old, started at a sudden turn, where, right across the track – not ten minutes fallen – an old distorted hemlock lay, darkly undulatory as an anaconda.
Gaining the Bellows’-pipe, the violent blast, dead from behind, all but shoved my high-backed pung up-hill. The gust shrieked through the shivered pass, as if laden with lost spirits bound to the unhappy world. Ere gaining the summit, Black, my horse, as if exasperated by the cutting wind, slung out with his strong hind legs, tore the light pung straight up-hill, and sweeping grazingly through the narrow notch, sped downward madly past the ruined saw-mill. Into the Devil’s Dungeon horse and cataract rushed together.
With might and main, quitting my seat and robes, and standing backward, with one foot braced against the dash-board, I rasped and churned the bit, and stopped him just in time to avoid collision, at a turn, with the bleak nozzle of a rock, couchant like a lion in the way – a road-side rock.
At first I could not discover the paper-mill.
The whole hollow gleamed with the white, except, here and there, where a pinnacle of granite showed one wind-swept angle bare. The mountains stood pinned in shrouds – a pass of Alpine corpses. Where stands the mill? Suddenly a whirling, humming sound broke upon my ear. I looked, and there, like an arrested avalanche, lay the large whitewashed factory. It was subordinately surrounded by a cluster of other and smaller buildings, some of which, from their cheap, blank air, great length, gregarious windows, and comfortless expression, no doubt were boarding-houses of the operatives. A snow-white hamlet amidst the snows. Various rude, irregular squares and courts resulted from the somewhat picturesque clusterings of these buildings, owing to the broken, rocky nature of the ground, which forbade all method in their relative arrangement. Several narrow lanes and alleys, too, partly blocked with snow fallen from the roof, cut up the hamlet in all directions.
When, turning from the traveled highway, jingling with bells of numerous farmers – who availing themselves of the fine sleighing, were dragging their wood to market – and frequently diversified with swift cutters dashing from inn to inn of the scattered villages – when, I say, turning from that bustling main-road, I by degrees wound into the Mad Maid’s Bellows’-pipe, and saw the grim Black Notch beyond, then something latent, as well as something obvious in the time and scene, strangely brought back to my mind my first sight of dark and grimy Temple Bar. And when Black, my horse, went darting through the Notch, perilously grazing its rocky wall, I remembered being in a runaway London omnibus, which in much the same sort of style, though by no means at an equal rate, dashed through the ancient arch of Wren. Though the two objects did by no means completely correspond, yet this partial inadequacy but served to tinge the similitude not less with the vividness than the disorder of a dream. So that, when upon reining up at the protruding rock I at last caught sight of the quaint groupings of the factory-buildings, and with the traveled highway and the Notch behind, found myself all alone, silently and privily stealing through deep-cloven passages into this sequestered spot, and saw the long, high-gabled main factory edifice, with a rude tower – for hoisting heavy boxes – at one end, standing among its crowded outbuildings and boarding-houses, as the Temple Church amidst the surrounding offices and dormitories, and when the marvelous retirement of this mysterious mountain nook fastened its whole spell upon me, then, what memory lacked, all tributary imagination furnished, and I said to myself, “This is the very counterpart of the Paradise of Bachelors, but snowed upon, and frost-painted to a sepulchre.”
Dismounting, and warily picking my way down the dangerous declivity – horse and man both sliding now and then upon the icy ledges – at length I drove, or the blast drove me, into the largest square, before one side of the main edifice. Piercingly and shrilly the shotted blast blew by the corner; and redly and demoniacally boiled Blood River at one side. A long woodpile, of many scores of cords, all glittering in mail of crusted ice, stood crosswise in the square. A row of horse-posts, their north sides plastered with adhesive snow, flanked the factory wall. The bleak frost packed and paved the square as with some ringing metal.
The inverted similitude recurred – “The sweet tranquil Temple garden, with the Thames bordering its green beds,” strangely meditated I.
But where are the gay bachelors?
Then, as I and my horse stood shivering in the wind-spray, a girl ran from a neighboring dormitory door, and throwing her thin apron over her bare head, made for the opposite building.
“One moment, my girl; is there no shed hereabouts which I may drive into?”
Pausing, she turned upon me a face pale with work, and blue with cold; an eye supernatural with unrelated misery.
”Nay,” faltered I, “I mistook you. Go on; I want nothing.”
Leading my horse close to the door from which she had come, I knocked. Another pale, blue girl appeared, shivering in the doorway as, to prevent the blast, she jealously held the door ajar.
“Nay, I mistake again. In God’s name shut the door. But hold, is there no man about?”
That moment a dark-complexioned wellwrapped personage passed, making for the factory door, and spying him coming, the girl rapidly closed the other one.
“Is there no horse-shed here, Sir?”
“Yonder, to the wood-shed,” he replied, and disappeared inside the factory.
With much ado I managed to wedge in horse and pung between the scattered piles of wood all sawn and split. Then, blanketing my horse, and piling my buffalo on the blanket’s top, and tucking in its edges well around the breast-band and breeching, so that the wind might not strip him bare, I tied him fast, and ran lamely for the factory door, stiff with frost, and cumbered with my driver’s dread-naught.
Immediately I found myself standing in a spacious, intolerably lighted by long rows of windows, focusing inward the snowy scene without.
At rows of blank-looking counters sat rows of blank-looking girls, with blank, white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper.
In one corner stood some huge frame of ponderous iron, with a vertical thing like a piston periodically rising and falling upon a heavy wooden block. Before it – its tame minister – stood a tall girl, feeding the iron animal with half-quires of rose-hued note paper, which, at every downward dab of the piston-like machine, received in the corner the impress of a wreath of roses. I looked from the rosy paper to the pallid cheek, but said nothing.
Seated before a long apparatus, strung with long, slender strings like any harp, another girl was feeding it with foolscap sheets, which, so soon as they curiously traveled from her on the cords, were withdrawn at the opposite end of the machine by a second girl. They came to the first girl blank; they went to the second girl ruled.
I looked upon the first girl’s brow, and saw it was young and fair; I looked upon the second girl’s brow, and saw it was ruled and wrinkled. Then, as I still looked, the two – for some small variety to the monotony – changed places; and where had stood the young, fair brow, now stood the ruled and wrinkled one.
Perched high upon a narrow platform, and still higher upon a high stool crowning it, sat another figure serving some other iron animal; while below the platform sat her mate in some sort of reciprocal attendance.
Not a syllable was breathed. Nothing was heard but the low, steady, overruling hum of the iron animals. The human voice was banished from the spot. Machinery – that vaunted slave of humanity – here stood menially served by human beings, who served mutely and cringingly as the slave serves the Sultan. The girls did not so much seem accessory wheels to the general machinery as mere cogs to the wheels.
All this scene around me was instantaneously taken in at one sweeping glance – even before I had proceeded to unwind the heavy fur tippet from around my neck. But as soon as this fell from me the dark-complexioned man, standing close by, raised a sudden cry, and seizing my arm, dragged me out into the open air, and without pausing for word instantly caught up some congealed snow and began rubbing both my cheeks.
“Two white spots like the whites of your eyes,” he said; “man, your cheeks are frozen.”
“That may well be,” muttered I; “’tis some wonder the frost of the Devil’s Dungeon strikes in no deeper. Rub away.”
Soon a horrible, tearing pain caught at my reviving cheeks. Two gaunt blood-hounds, one on each side, seemed mumbling them. I seemed Acton.
Presently, when all was over, I re-entered the factory, made known my business, concluded it satisfactorily, and then begged to be conducted throughout the place to view it.
“Cupid is the boy for that,” said the dark complexioned man. “Cupid!” and by this odd fancy-name calling a dimpled, red-cheeked, spirited-looking, forward little fellow, who was rather impudently, I thought, gliding about among the passive-looking girls – like a gold fish through hueless waves – yet doing nothing in particular that I could see, the man bade him lead the stranger through the edifice.
“Come first and see the water-wheel,” said this lively lad, with the air of boyishly-brisk importance.
Quitting the folding-room, we crossed some damp, cold boards, and stood beneath a area wet shed, incessantly showering with foam, like the green barnacled bow of some East Indiaman in a gale. Round and round here went the enormous revolutions of the dark colossal waterwheel, grim with its one immutable purpose.
“This sets our whole machinery a-going, Sir in every part of all these buildings; where the girls work and all.”
I looked, and saw that the turbid waters of Blood River had not changed their hue by coming under the use of man.
“You make only blank paper; no printing of any sort, I suppose? All blank paper, don’t you?”
“Certainly; what else should a paper-factory make?”
The lad here looked at me as if suspicious of my common-sense.
“Oh, to be sure!” said I, confused and stammering; “it only struck me as so strange that red waters should turn out pale chee – paper, I mean.”
He took me up a wet and rickety stair to a great light room, furnished with no visible thing but rude, manger-like receptacles running all round its sides; and up to these mangers, like so many mares haltered to the rack, stood rows of girls. Before each was vertically thrust up a long, glittering scythe, immovably fixed at bottom to the manger-edge. The curve of the scythe, and its having no snath to it, made it look exactly like a sword. To and fro, across the sharp edge, the girls forever dragged long strips of rags, washed white, picked from baskets at one side; thus ripping asunder every seam, and converting the tatters almost into lint. The air swam with the fine, poisonous particles, which from all sides darted, subtilely, as motes in sunbeams, into the lungs.
“This is the rag-room,” coughed the boy.
“You find it rather stifling here,” coughed I, in answer;” but the girls don’t cough.”
“Oh, they are used to it.”
“Where do you get such hosts of rags?” picking up a handful from a basket.
“Some from the country round about; some from far over sea – Leghorn and London.”
“‘Tis not unlikely, then,” murmured I, “that among these heaps of rags there may be some old shirts, gathered from the dormitories of the Paradise of Bachelors. But the buttons are all dropped off. Pray, my lad, do you ever find any bachelor’s buttons hereabouts?”
“None grow in this part of the country. The Devil’s Dungeon is no place for flowers.”
“Oh! you mean the flowers so called – the Bachelor’s Buttons?”
“And was not that what you asked about? Or did you mean the gold bosom-buttons of our boss, Old Bach, as our whispering girls all call him?”
“The man, then, I saw below is a bachelor, is he?”
“Oh, yes, he’s a Bach.”
“The edges of those swords, they are turned outward from the girls, if I see right; but their rags and fingers fly so, I can not distinctly see.”
Yes, murmured I to myself; I see it now; turned outward, and each erected sword is so borne, edge-outward, before each girl. If my reading fails me not, just so, of old, condemned state-prisoners went from the hall of judgment to their doom: an officer before, bearing a sword, its edge turned outward, in significance of their fatal sentence. So, through consumptive pallors of this blank, raggy life, go these white girls to death.
“Those scythes look very sharp,” again turning toward the boy.
“Yes; they have to keep them so. Look!”
That moment two of the girls, dropping their rags, plied each a whet-stone up and down the sword-blade. My unaccustomed blood curdled at the sharp shriek of the tormented steel.
Their own executioners; themselves whetting the very swords that slay them; meditated I.
“What makes those girls so sheet-white, my lad?”
“Why” – with a roguish twinkle, pure ignorant drollery, not knowing heartlessness – “I suppose the handling of such white bits of sheets all the time makes them so sheety.”
“Let us leave the rag-room now, my lad.”
More tragical and more inscrutably mysterious than any mystic sight, human or machine, throughout the factory, was the strange innocence of cruel-heartedness in this usage-hardened boy.
“And now,” said he, cheerily, “I suppose you want to see our great machine, which cost us twelve thousand dollars only last autumn. That’s the machine that makes the paper, too. This way, Sir.”
Following him, I crossed a large, bespattered place, with two great round vats in it, full of a white, wet, woolly-looking stuff, not unlike the albuminous part of an egg, soft-boiled.
“There,” said Cupid, tapping the vats carelessly, “these are the first beginnings of the paper; this white pulp you see. Look how it swims bubbling round and round, moved by the paddle here. From hence it pours from both vats into that one common channel yonder; and so goes, mixed up and leisurely, to the great machine. And now for that.”
He led me into a room, stifling with a strange, blood-like, abdominal heat, as if here, true enough, were being finally developed the germinous particles lately seen.
Before me, rolled out like some long Eastern manuscript, lay stretched one continuous length of iron frame-work – multitudinous and mystical, with all sorts of rollers, wheels, and cylinders, in slowly-measured and unceasing motion.
“Here first comes the pulp now,” said Cupid, pointing to the nighest end of the machine. “See; first it pours out and spreads itself upon this wide, sloping board; and then – look – slides, thin and quivering, beneath the first roller there. Follow on now, and see it as it slides from under that to the next cylinder. There; see how it has become just a very little less pulpy now. One step more, and it grows still more to some slight consistence. Still another cylinder, and it is so knitted – though as yet mere dragon-fly wing – that it forms an airbridge here, like a suspended cobweb, between two more separated rollers; and flowing over the last one, and under again, and doubling about there out of sight for a minute among all those mixed cylinders you indistinctly see, it reappears here, looking now at last a little less like pulp and more like paper, but still quite delicate and defective yet awhile. But – a little further onward, Sir, if you please – here now, at this further point, it puts on something of a real look, as if it might turn out to be something you might possibly handle in the end. But it’s not yet done, Sir. Good way to travel yet, and plenty more of cylinders must roll it.”
“Bless my soul!” said I, amazed at the elongation, interminable convolutions, and deliberate slowness of the machine; “it must take a long time for the pulp to pass from end to end, and come out paper.”
“Oh! not so long,” smiled the precocious lad, with a superior and patronizing air; “only nine minutes. But look; you may try it for yourself. Have you a bit of paper? Ah! here’s a bit on the floor. Now mark that with any word you please, and let me dab it on here, and we’ll see how long before it comes out at the other end.”
“Well, let me see,” said I, taking out my pencil; “come, I’ll mark it with your name.”
Bidding me take out my watch, Cupid adroitly dropped the inscribed slip on an exposed part of the incipient mass.
Instantly my eye marked the second-hand on my dial-plate.
Slowly I followed the slip, inch by inch; sometimes pausing for full half a minute as it disappeared beneath inscrutable groups of the lower cylinders, but only gradually to emerge again; and so, on, and on, and on – inch by inch; now in open sight, sliding along like a freckle on the quivering sheet, and then again wholly vanished; and so, on, and on, and on – inch by inch; all the time the main sheet growing more and more to final firmness – when, suddenly, I saw a sort of paper-fall, not wholly unlike a water-fall; a scissory sound smote my ear, as of some cord being snapped, and down dropped an unfolded sheet of perfect foolscap, with my “Cupid” half faded out of it, and still moist and warm.
My travels were at an end, for here was the end of the machine.
“Well, how long was it?” said Cupid.
“Nine minutes to a second,” replied I, watch in hand.
“I told you so.”
For a moment a curious emotion filled me, not wholly unlike that which one might experience at the fulfillment of some mysterious prophecy. But how absurd, thought I again; the thing is a mere machine, the essence of which is unvarying punctuality and precision.
Previously absorbed by the wheels and cylinders, my attention was now directed to a sadlooking woman standing by.
“That is rather an elderly person so silently tending the machine-end here. She would not seem wholly used to it either.”
“Oh,” knowingly whispered Cupid, through the din, “she only came last week. She was a nurse formerly. But the business is poor in these parts, and she’s left it. But look at the paper she is piling there.”
“Ay, foolscap,” handling the piles of moist, warm sheets, which continually were being delivered into the woman’s waiting hands. “Don’t you turn out any thing but foolscap at this machine?”
“Oh, sometimes, but not often, we turn out finer work – cream-laid and royal sheets, we call them. But foolscap being in chief demand, we turn out foolscap most.”
It was very curious. Looking at that blank paper continually dropping, dropping, dropping, my mind ran on in wonderings of those strange uses to which those thousand sheets eventually would be put. All sorts of writings would be writ on those now vacant things – sermons, lawyers’ briefs, physicians’ prescriptions, love-letters, marriage certificates, bills of divorce, registers of births, death-warrants, and so on, without end. Then, recurring back to them as they here lay all blank, I could not but bethink me of that celebrated comparison of John Locke, who, in demonstration of his theory that man had no innate ideas, compared the human mind at birth to a sheet of blank paper; something destined to be scribbled on, but what sort of characters no soul might tell.
Pacing slowly to and fro along the involved machine, still humming with its play, I was struck as well by the inevitability as the evolvement-power in all its motions.
“Does that thin cobweb there,” said I, pointing to the sheet in its more imperfect stage, “does that never tear or break? It is marvelous fragile, and yet this machine it passes through is so mighty.”
“It never is known to tear a hair’s point.”
“Does it never stop – get clogged?”
“No. It must go. The machinery makes it go just so; just that very way, and at that very pace you there plainly see it go. The pulp can’t help going.”
Something of awe now stole over me, as I gazed upon this inflexible iron animal. Always, more or less, machinery of this ponderous, elaborate sort strikes, in some moods, strange dread into the human heart, as some living, panting Behemoth might. But what made the thing I saw so specially terrible to me was the metallic necessity, the unbudging fatality which governed it. Though, here and there, I could not follow the thin, gauzy vail of pulp in the course of its more mysterious or entirely invisible advance, yet it was indubitable that, at those points where it eluded me, it still marched on in unvarying docility to the autocratic cunning of the machine. A fascination fastened on me. I stood spell-bound and wandering in my soul. Before my eyes – there, passing in slow procession along the wheeling cylinders, I seemed to see, glued to the pallid incipience of the pulp, the yet more pallid faces of all the pallid girls I had eyed that heavy day. Slowly, mournfully, beseechingly, yet unresistingly, they gleamed along, their agony dimly outlined on the imperfect paper, like the print of the tormented face on the handkerchief of Saint Veronica.
“Halloa! the heat of the room is too much for you,” cried Cupid, staring at me.
“No – I am rather chill, if any thing.”
“Come out, Sir -out – out,” and, with the protecting air of a careful father, the precocious lad hurried me outside.
In a few moments, feeling revived a little, I went into the folding-room – the first room I had entered, and where the desk for transacting business stood, surrounded by the blank counters and blank girls engaged at them.
“Cupid here has led me a strange tour,” said I to the dark-complexioned man before mentioned, whom I had ere this discovered not only to be an old bachelor, but also the principal proprietor. “Yours is a most wonderful factory. Your great machine is a miracle of inscrutable intricacy.”
“Yes, all our visitors think it so. But we don’t have many. We are in a very out-of-theway corner here. Few inhabitants, too. Most of our girls come from far-off villages.”
“The girls,” echoed I, glancing round at their silent forms. “Why is it, Sir, that in most factories, female operatives, of whatever age, are indiscriminately called girls, never women?”
“Oh! as to that – why, I suppose, the fact of their being generally unmarried – that’s the reason, I should think. But it never struck me before. For our factory here, we will not have married women; they are apt to be offand-on too much. We want none but steady workers: twelve hours to the day, day after day, through the three hundred and sixty-five days, excepting Sundays, Thanksgiving, and Fastdays. That’s our rule. And so, having no married women, what females we have are rightly enough called girls.”
“Then these are all maids,” said I, while some pained homage to their pale virginity made me involuntarily bow.
Again the strange emotion filled me.
“Your cheeks look whitish yet, Sir,” said the man, gazing at me narrowly. “You must be careful going home. Do they pain you at all now? It’s a bad sign, if they do.”
“No doubt, Sir,” answered I, “when once I have got out of the Devil’s Dungeon, I shall feel them mending.”
“Ah, yes; the winter air in valleys, or gorges, or any sunken place, is far colder and more bitter than elsewhere. You would hardly believe it now, but it is colder here than at the top of Woedolor Mountain.”
“I dare say it is, Sir. But time presses me; I must depart.”
With that, remuffling myself in dread-naught and tippet, thrusting my hands into my huge seal-skin mittens, I sallied out into the nipping air, and found poor Black, my horse, all cringing and doubled up with the cold.
Soon, wrapped in furs and meditations, I ascended from the Devil’s Dungeon.
At the Black Notch I paused, and once more bethought me of Temple-Bar. Then, shooting through the pass, all alone with inscrutable nature, I exclaimed – Oh! Paradise of Bachelors! and oh! Tartarus of Maids!
I was an utterly unexceptional child of the twenty-ninth century, comprehensively engineered for emortality while I was still a more-or-less inchoate blastula and decanted from an artificial womb in Naburn Hatchery in the county of York in the Defederated States of Europe. I was raised in an aggregate family which consisted of six men and six women. I was, of course, an only child, and I received the customary superabundance of love, affection and admiration. With the aid of excellent role-models, careful biofeedback training and thoroughly competent internal technologies I grew up reasonable, charitable, self-controlled and intensely serious of mind.
It’s evident that not everyone grows up like that, but I’ve never quite been able to understand how people manage to avoid it. If conspicuous individuality—and frank perversity—aren’t programmed in the genes or rooted in early upbringing, how on earth to they spring into being with such determined irregularity? But this is my story, not the world’s, and I shouldn’t digress.
In due course, the time came for me—as it comes to everyone—to leave my family and enter a community of my peers for my first spell at college. I elected to go to Adelaide in Australia, because I liked the name.
Although my memories of that prod are understandably hazy I feel sure that I had begun to see the fascination of history long before the crucial event which determined my path in life. The subject seemed–in stark contrast to the disciplined coherency of mathematics or the sciences–so huge, so amazingly abundant in its data, and so charmingly disorganized. I was always a very orderly and organized person, and I needed a vocation of that kind to loosen me up a little. It was not, however, until I set forth on an ill-fated expedition on the sailing-ship Genesis in September 2901, that the exact form of my destiny was determined.
I use the word “destiny” with the utmost care; it is no mere rhetorical flourish. What happened when Genesis defied the supposed limits of possibility and turned turtle was no mere incident, and the impression which it made on my fledgling mind was no mere suggestion. Before that ship set sail, a thousand futures were open to me; afterwards, I was beset by an irresistible compulsion. My destiny was determined the day Genesis went down; as a result of that tragedy my fate was sealed.
We were en route from Brisbane to tour the Creationist Islands of Micronesia, which were then regarded as artistic curiosities rather than daring experiments in continental design. I had expected to find the experience exhilarating, but almost as soon as we had left port I was struck down by sea-sickness.
Sea-sickness, by virtue of being psychosomatic, is one of the very few diseases with which modern internal technology is sometimes impotent to deal, and I was miserably confined to my cabin while I waited for my mind to make the necessary adaptation. I was bitterly ashamed of myself, for I alone out of half a hundred passengers had fallen prey to this strange atavistic malaise. While the others partied on deck, beneath the glorious light of the tropic stars, I lay in my bunk, half-delirious with discomfort and lack of sleep. I thought myself the unluckiest man in the world.
When I was abruptly hurled from my bed I thought that I had fallen—that my tossing and turning had inflicted one more ignominy upon me. When I couldn’t recover my former position after spent long minutes fruitlessly groping about amid all kinds of mysterious debris, I assumed that I must be confused. When I couldn’t open the door of my cabin even though I had the handle in my hand, I assumed that my failure was the result of clumsiness. When I finally got out into the corridor, and found myself crawling in shallow water with the artificial bioluminescent strip beneath instead of above me, I thought I must be mad.
When the little girl spoke to me, I thought at first that she was a delusion, and that I was lost in a nightmare. It wasn’t until she touched me, and tried to drag me upright with her tiny, frail hands, and addressed me by name—albeit incorrectly—that I was finally able to focus my thoughts.
“You have to get up, Mr. Mortimer,” she said. “The boat’s upside-down.”
She was only eight years old, but she spoke quite calmly and reasonably.
“That’s impossible,” I told her. “Genesis is unsinkable. There’s no way it could turn upside-down.”
“But it is upside-down,” she insisted—and as she did so, I finally realized the significance of the fact that the floor was glowing the way the ceiling should have glowed. “The water’s coming in. I think we’ll have to swim out.”
The light put out by the ceiling-strip was as bright as ever, but the rippling water overlaying it made it seem dim and uncertain. The girl’s little face, lit from below, seemed terribly serious within the frame of her dark and curly hair.
“I can’t swim,” I said, flatly.
She looked at me as if I were insane, or stupid, but it was true. I couldn’t swim. I’d never liked the idea and I’d never seen any necessity. All modern ships—even sailing-ships designed to be cute and quaint for the benefit of tourists—were unsinkable.
I scrambled to my feet, and put out both my hands to steady myself, to hold myself rigid against the upside-down walls. The water was knee-deep. I couldn’t tell whether it was increasing or not–which told me, reassuringly, that it couldn’t be rising very quickly. The upturned boat was rocking this way and that, and I could hear the rumble of waves breaking on the outside of the hull, but I didn’t know how much of that apparent violence was in my mind.
“My name’s Emily,” the little girl told me. “I’m frightened. All my mothers and fathers were on deck. Everyone was on deck, except for you and me. Do you think they’re all dead?”
“They can’t be,” I said, marveling at the fact that she spoke so soberly, even when she said that she was frightened. I realized, however, that if the ship had suffered the kind of misfortune which could turn it upside-down, the people on deck might indeed be dead. I tried to remember the passengers gossiping in the departure lounge, introducing themselves to one another with such fervor. The little girl had been with a party of nine, none of whose names I could remember. It occurred to me that her whole family might have been wiped out, that she might now be that rarest of all rare beings, an orphan. It was almost unimaginable. What possible catastrophe, I wondered, could have done that?
I asked Emily what had happened. She didn’t know. Like me she had been in her bunk, sleeping the sleep of the innocent.
“Are we going to die too?” she asked. “I’ve been a good girl. I’ve never told a lie.” It couldn’t have been literally true, but I knew exactly what she meant. She was eight years old and she had every right to expect to live till she was eight hundred. She didn’t deserve to die. It wasn’t fair.
I knew full well that fairness didn’t really come into it, and I expect she knew it too, even if my fellow historians were wrong about the virtual abolition of all the artifices of childhood, but I knew in my heart that what she said was right, and that insofar as the imperious laws of nature ruled her observation irrelevant, the universe was wrong. It wasn’t fair. She had been a good girl. If she died, it would be a monstrous injustice.
Perhaps it was merely a kind of psychological defense mechanism that helped me to displace my own mortal anxieties, but the horror which ran through me was all focused on her. At that moment, her plight—not our plight, but hers—seemed to be the only thing that mattered. It was as if her dignified fear and her placid courage somehow contained the essence of human existence, the purest product of human progress.
Perhaps it was only my cowardly mind’s refusal to contemplate anything else, but the only thing I could think of while I tried to figure out what to do was the awfulness of what she was saying. As that awfulness possessed me it was magnified a thousandfold, and it seemed to me that in her lone and tiny voice there was a much greater voice speaking for multitudes: for all the human children that had ever died before achieving maturity; all the good children who had without ever having the chance to deserve to die.
“I don’t think any more water can get in,” she said, with a slight tremor in her voice. “But there’s only so much air. If we stay here too long, we’ll suffocate.”
“It’s a big ship,” I told her. “If we’re trapped in an air-bubble, it must be a very large one.”
“But it won’t last forever,” she told me. She was eight years old and hoped to live to be eight hundred, and she was absolutely right. The air wouldn’t last forever. Hours, certainly; maybe days—but not forever.
“There are survival pods under the bunks,” she said. She had obviously been paying attention to the welcoming speeches which the captain and the chief steward had delivered in the lounge the evening after embarkation. She’d plugged the chips they’d handed out into her trusty handbook, like the good girl she was, and inwardly digested what they had to teach her—unlike those of us who were blithely careless and wretchedly sea-sick.
“We can both fit into one of the pods,” she went on, “but we have to get it out of the boat before we inflate it. We have to go up—I mean down—the stairway into the water and away from the boat. You’ll have to carry the pod, because it’s too big for me.”
“I can’t swim,” I reminded her.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said, patiently. “All you have to do is hold your breath and kick yourself away from the boat. You’ll float up to the surface whether you can swim or not. Then you just yank the cord and the pod will inflate. You have to hang on to it, though. Don’t let go.”
I stared at her, wondering how she could be so calm, so controlled, so efficient.
“Listen to the water breaking on the hull,” I whispered. “Feel the movement of the boat. It would take a hurricane to overturn a boat like this. We wouldn’t stand a chance out there.”
“It’s not so bad,” she told me. She didn’t have both hands out to brace herself against the walls, although she lifted one occasionally to stave off the worst of the lurches caused by the bobbing of the boat.
But if it wasn’t a hurricane that turned us over, I thought, what the hell was it? Whales have been extinct for eight hundred years.
“We don’t have to go just yet,” Emily said, mildly, “But we’ll have to go in the end. We have to get out. The pod’s bright orange and it has a distress beacon. We should be picked up within twenty-four hours, but there’ll be supplies for a week.”
I had every confidence that modern internal technology could sustain us for a month, if necessary. Even having to drink a little sea-water, if your recycling gel clots, only qualifies as a minor inconvenience nowadays. Drowning is another matter; so is asphyxiation. She was absolutely right. We had to get out of the upturned boat—not immediately, but some time soon. Help might get to us before then, but we couldn’t wait, and we shouldn’t. We were, after all, human beings. We were supposed to be able to take charge of our own destinies, to do what we ought to do. Anything less would be a betrayal of our heritage. I knew that, and understood it.
But I couldn’t swim.
“It’s okay, Mr. Mortimer,” she said, putting her reassuring hand in mine. “We can do it. We’ll go together. It’ll be all right.”
Emily was right. We could do it, together, and we did—not immediately, I confess, but in the end we did it. It was the most terrifying and most horrible experience of my young life, but it had to be done and we did it.
When I finally dived into that black pit of water, knowing that I had to go down and sideways before I could hope to go up, I was carried forward by the knowledge that Emily expected it of me, and needed me to do it. Without her, I’m sure that I would have died. I simply would not have had the courage to save myself. Because she was there, I dived, with the pod clutched in my arms. Because she was there, I managed to kick away from the hull and yank the cord to inflate it.
It wasn’t until I had pulled Emily into the pod, and made sure that she was safe, that I paused to think how remarkable it was that the sea was hot enough to scald us both.
We were three storm-tossed days afloat before the helicopter picked us up. We cursed our ill-luck, not having the least inkling how bad things were elsewhere. We couldn’t understand why the weather was getting worse and worse instead of better.
When the pilot finally explained it, we couldn’t immediately take it in. Perhaps that’s not surprising, given that the geologists were just as astonished as everyone else. After all, the sea-bed had been quietly cracking wherever the tectonic plates were pulling apart for millions of years; it was an ongoing phenomenon, very well understood. Hundreds of black smokers and underwater volcanoes were under constant observation. Nobody had any reason to expect that a plate could simply break so far away from its rim, or that the fissure could be so deep, so long and so rapid in its extension. Everyone thought that the main threat to the earth’s surface was posed by wayward comets; all vigilant eyes were directed outwards. No one had expected such awesome force to erupt from within, from the hot mantle which lay, hubbling and bubbling, beneath the earth’s fragile crust.
It was, apparently, an enormous bubble of upwelling gas that contrived the near-impossible feat of flipping Genesis over. The earthquakes and the tidal waves came later.
It was the worst natural disaster in six hundred years. One million, nine hundred thousand people died in all. Emily wasn’t the only child to lose her entire family, and I shudder to think of the number of families which lost their only children. We historians have to maintain a sense of perspective, though. Compared with the number of people who died in the wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, or the numbers of people who died in epidemics in earlier centuries, nineteen hundred thousand is a trivial figure.
Perhaps I would have done what I eventually set out to do anyway. Perhaps the Great Coral Sea Catastrophe would have appalled me even if I’d been on the other side of the world, cocooned in the safety of a tree-house or an apartment in one of the crystal cities—but I don’t think so.
It was because I was at the very centre of things, because my life was literally turned upside-down by the disaster—and because eight-year-old Emily Marchant was there to save my life with her common sense and her composure—that I set out to write a definitive history of death, intending to reveal not merely the dull facts of mankind’s longest and hardest battle, but also the real meaning and significance of it.
The first volume of Mortimer Gray’s History of Death, entitled The Prehistory of Death, was published on 21 January 2914. It was, unusually for its day, a mute book, with no voice-over, sound-effects or background music. Nor did it have any original art-work, all the illustrations being unenhanced still photographs. It was, in short, the kind of book that only a historian would have published. Its reviewers generally agreed that it was an old-fashioned example of scrupulous scholarship, and none expected that access demand would be considerable. Many commentators questioned the merit of Gray’s arguments.
The Prehistory of Death summarized what was known about early hominid lifestyles, and had much to say about the effects of natural selection of the patterns of mortality in modern man’s ancestor species. Gray carefully discussed the evolution of parental care as a genetic strategy. Earlier species of man, he observed, had raised parental care to a level of efficiency which permitted the human infant to be born sat a much earlier stage in its development than any other, maximizing its opportunity to be shaped by nurture and learning. From the very beginning, Gray proposed, human species were actively at war with death. The evolutionary success of Homo sapiens was based in the collaborative activities of parents in protecting, cherishing and preserving the lives of children: activities which extended beyond immediate family groups as reciprocal altruism made it advantageous for humans to form tribes, and ultimately nations.
In these circumstances, Gray argued, it was entirely natural that the origins of consciousness and culture should be intimately bound up with a keen awareness of the war against death. He asserted that the first great task of the human imagination must have been to carry forward that war. It was entirely understandable, he said, that early paleontologists, having discovered the bones of a Neanderthal man in an apparent grave, with the remains of a primitive garland of flowers, should instantly have felt an intimate kinship with him; there could be no more persuasive evidence of full humanity than the attachment of ceremony to the idea and the fact of death.
Gray waxed lyrical about the importance of ritual as a symbolization of opposition and enmity to death. He had no patience with the proposition that such rituals were of no practical value, a mere window-dressing of culture. On the contrary, he claimed that there was no activity more practical than this expressive recognition of the value of life, this imposition of a moral order on the fact of human mortality. The birth of agriculture Gray regarded as a mere sophistication of food-gathering, of considerable importance as a technical discovery but of little significance in transforming human nature. The practices of burying the dead with ceremony, and of ritual mourning, on the other hand, were in his view evidence of the transformation of human nature, of the fundamental creation of meaning that made human life very different from the lives of animals.
Prehistorians who marked out the evolution of man by his developing technology—the Stone Age giving way to the Bronze Age, the Bronze Age to the Iron Age—were, Gray conceded, taking intelligent advantage of those relics that had stood the test of time. He warned, however, of the folly of thinking that because tools had survived the millennia, it must have been tool-making that was solely or primarily responsible for human progress. In his view, the primal cause which made people invent was man’s ongoing war against death.
It was not tools which created man and gave birth to civilization, Mortimer Gray proclaimed, but the awareness of mortality.
Although its impact on my nascent personality was considerable, the Coral Sea Catastrophe was essentially an impersonal disaster. The people who died, including those who had been aboard the Genesis, were all unknown to me; it was not until some years later that I experienced personal bereavement. It wasn’t one of my parents who died—by the time the first of them quit this earth I was nearly a hundred years old and our temporary closeness was a half-remembered thing of the distant past—but one of my spouses.
By the time The Prehistory of Death was published I’d contracted my first marriage: a group contract with a relatively small aggregate consisting of three other men and four women. We lived in Lamu, on the coast of Kenya, a nation to which I had been drawn by my studies of the early evolution of man. We were all young people, and we had formed our group for companionship rather than for parenting—which was a privilege conventionally left, even in those days, to much older people. We didn’t go in for overmuch fleshsex, because we were still finding our various ways through the maze of erotic virtuality, but we took the time—as I suppose all young people do—to explore its unique delights. I can’t remember exactly why I joined the group; I presume that it was because I accepted, tacitly at least, the conventional wisdom that there is spice in variety, and that one should do one’s best to keep a broad front of experience.
It wasn’t a particularly happy marriage, but it served its purpose. We went in for a good deal of sporting activity and conventional tourism. We visited the other continents from time to time, but most of our adventures took us back and forth across Africa. Most of my spouses were practical ecologists involved in one way or another with the re-greening of the north and south, or with the reforestation of the equatorial belt. What little credit I earned to add to my Allocation was earned by assisting them; such fees as I received for net-access to my work were inconsiderable. Axel, Jodocus and Minna were all involved in large-scale hydrological engineering, and liked to describe themselves, light-heartedly, as the Lamu Rainmakers. The rest of us became, inevitably, the Rainmakers-in-Law.
To begin with, I had considerable affection for all the other members of my new family, but as time went by the usual accretion of petty irritations built up, and a couple of changes in the group’s personnel failed to renew the initial impetus. The research for the second volume of my history began to draw me more and more to Egypt and to Greece, even though there was no real need actually to travel in order to do the relevant research. I think we would have divorced in 2919 anyhow, even if it hadn’t been for Grizel’s death.
She went swimming in the newly re-routed Kwarra one day, and didn’t come back.
Maybe the fact of her death wouldn’t have hit me so hard if she hadn’t been drowned, but I was still uneasy about deep water—even the relatively placid waters of the great rivers. If I’d been able to swim I might have gone out with her, but I didn’t. I didn’t even know she was missing until the news came in that a body had been washed up twenty kilometers downriver.
“It was a million-to-one thing,” Ayesha told me, when she came back from the on-site inquest. “She must have been caught from behind by a log moving in the current, or something like that. We’ll never know for sure. She must have been knocked unconscious, though, or badly dazed. Otherwise, she’d never have drifted into the white water. The rocks finished her off.”
Rumor has it that many people simply can’t take in news of the death of someone they love—that it flatly defies belief. I didn’t react that way. With me, belief was instantaneous, and I just gave way under its pressure. I literally fell over, because my legs wouldn’t support me—another psychosomatic failure about which my internal machinery could do nothing—and I wept uncontrollably. None of the others did, not even Alex, who’d been closer to Grizel than anyone. They were sympathetic at first, but it wasn’t long before a note of annoyance began to creep into their reassurances.
“Come on, Morty,” Ilya said, voicing the thought the rest of them were too diplomatic to let out. “You know more about death than any of us; if it doesn’t help you to get a grip, what good is all that research?”
He was right, of course. Alex and Ayesha had often tried to suggest, delicately, that mine was an essentially unhealthy fascination, and now they felt vindicated.
“If you’d actually bothered to read my book,” I retorted, “you’d know that it has nothing complimentary to say about philosophical acceptance. It sees a sharp awareness of mortality, and the capacity to feel the horror of death so keenly, as key forces driving human evolution.”
“But you don’t have to act it out so flamboyantly,” Ilya came back, perhaps using cruelty to conceal and assuage his own misery. “We’ve evolved now. We’ve got past all that. We’ve matured.” Ilya was the oldest of us, and he seemed very old, although he as only sixty-five. In those days, there weren’t nearly as many double centenarians around as there are nowadays, and triple centenarians were very rare indeed. We take emortality so much for granted that it’s easy to forget how recent a development it is.
“It’s what I feel,” I told him, retreating into uncompromising assertion. “I can’t help it.”
“We all loved her,” Ayesha reminded me. “We’ll all miss her. You’re not proving anything, Morty.”
What she meant was that I wasn’t proving anything except my own instability, but she spoke more accurately than she thought; I wasn’t proving anything at all. I was just reacting—atavistically, perhaps, but with crude honesty and authentically child-like innocence.
“We all have to pull together now,” she added, “for Grizel’s sake.”
A death in the family almost always leads to universal divorce in childless marriages; nobody knows why. Such a loss does force the survivors pull together, but it seems that the process of pulling together only serves to emphasize the incompleteness of the unit. We all went our separate ways, even the three Rainmakers.
I set out to use my solitude to become a true neo-Epicurean, after the fashion of the times, seeking no excess and deriving an altogether appropriate pleasure from everything I did. I took care to cultivate a proper love for the commonplace, training myself to a pitch of perfection in all the techniques of physiological control necessary to physical fitness and quiet metabolism.
I soon convinced myself that I’d transcended such primitive and adolescent goals as happiness, and had cultivated instead a truly civilized ataraxia: a calm of mind whose value went beyond the limits of ecstasy and exultation.
Perhaps I was fooling myself, but if I was, I succeeded. The habits stuck. No matter what lifestyle fashions came and went thereafter, I remained a stubborn neo-Epicurean, immune to all other eupsychian fantasies. For a while, though, I was perpetually haunted by Grizel’s memory—and not, alas, the memory of all the things that we’d shared while she was alive. I gradually forgot the sound of her voice, the touch of her hand and even the image of her face, remembering only the horror of her sudden and unexpected departure from the arena of my experience.
For the next ten years I lived in Alexandria, in a simple villa cleverly gantzed out of the desert sands—sands that still gave an impression of timelessness, even though they had been restored to wilderness as recently as the twenty-seventh century, when Egypt’s food-economy had been realigned to take full advantage of the newest techniques in artificial photosynthesis.
The second volume of Mortimer Gray’s History of Death, entitled Death in the Ancient World, was published on 7 May 2931. It contained a wealth of data regarding burial practices and patterns of mortality in Egypt, the Kingdoms of Sumer and Akkad, the Indus civilizations of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, the Yangshao and Lungshan cultures of the Far East, the cultures of the Olmecs and Zpotecs, Greece before and after Alexander, and the pre-Christian Roman Empire. It paid particular attention to the elaborate mythologies of life after death developed by ancient cultures
Gray gave most elaborate consideration to the Egyptians, whose eschatology evidently fascinated him. He spared no effort in description and discussion of the Book of the Dead, the Hall of Double Justice, Anubis and Osiris, the custom of mummification, and the building of pyramid-tombs. He was almost as fascinated by the elaborate geography of the Greek Underworld, the characters associated with it—Hades and Persephone, Thanatos and the Erinnyes, Cerberus and Charon—and the descriptions of the unique fates reserved for such individuals as Sisyphus, Ixion and Tantalus. The development of such myths as these Gray regarded as a triumph of the creative imagination. In his account, myth-making and story-telling were vital weapons in the war against death—a war that had still to be fought in the mind of man, because there was little yet to be accomplished by defiance of its claims upon the body.
In the absence of an effective medical science, Gray argued, the war against death was essentially a war of propaganda, and myths were to be judged in that light–not by their truthfulness, even in some allegorical or metaphorical sense, but by their usefulness in generating morale and meaning. By elaborating and extrapolating the process of death in this way, a more secure moral order could be imported into social life. People thus achieved a sense of continuity with past and future generations, so that every individual became part of a great enterprise which extended across the generations, from the beginning to the end of time.
Gray did not regard the building of the pyramids as a kind of gigantic folly or vanity, or a way to dispose of the energies of the peasants when they were not required in harvesting the bounty of the fertile Nile. He argued that pyramid-building should be seen as the most useful of all labors, because it was work directed toward the glorious imposition of human endeavor upon the natural landscape. The placing of a royal mummy, with all its accoutrements, in a fabulous geometric edifice of stone was for Gray a loud, confident and entirely appropriate statement of humanity’s invasion of the empire of death.
Gray complimented those tribesmen who worshipped their ancestors and thought them always close at hand, ready to deliver judgments upon the living. Such people, he felt, had fully mastered an elementary truth of human existence: that the dead were not entirely gone, but lived on, intruding upon memory and dream, both when they were bidden and when they were not. He approved of the idea that the dead should have a voice, and must be entitled to speak, and that the living had a moral duty to listen. Because these ancient tribes were as direly short of history as they were of medicine, he argued, they were entirely justified in allowing their ancestors to live on in the minds of living people, where the culture those ancestors had forged similarly resided.
Some reviewers complimented Gray on the breadth of his research and the comprehensiveness of his data, but few endorsed the propriety of his interpretations. He was widely advised to be more dispassionate in carrying forward his project.
I was sixty when I married again. This time it was a singular marriage, to Sharane Fereday. We set up home in Avignon, and lived together for nearly twenty years. I won’t say that we were exceptionally happy, but I came to depend on her closeness and her affection, and the day she told me that she had had enough was the darkest of my life so far—far darker in its desolation than the day Emily Marchant and I had been trapped in the wreck of the Genesis, although it didn’t mark me as deeply.
“Twenty years is a long time, Mortimer,” she told me. “It’s time to move on—time for you as well as for me.”
She was being sternly reasonable at that stage; I knew from experience that the sternness would crumble if I put it to the test, and I thought that her resolve would crumble with it, as it had before in similar circumstances, but it didn’t.
“I’m truly sorry,” she said, when she was eventually reduced to tears, “but I have to do it. I have to go. It’s my life, and your part in it is over. I hate hurting you, but I don’t want to live with you any more. It’s my fault, not yours, but that’s the way it is.”
It wasn’t anybody’s fault. I can see that clearly now, although it wasn’t so easy to see it at the time. Like the Great Coral Sea Catastrophe or Grizel’s drowning, it was just something that happened. Things do happen, regardless of people’s best-laid plans, most heartfelt wishes and most intense hopes.
Now that memory has blotted out the greater part of that phase of my life—including, I presume, the worst of it—I don’t really know why I was so devastated by Sharane’s decision, nor why it should have filled me with such black despair. Had I cultivated a dependence so absolute that it seemed irreplaceable, or was it really only my pride that had suffered a sickening blow? Was it the imagined consequences of the rejection or merely the fact of rejection itself that sickened me so? Even now, I can’t tell for certain. Even then, my neo-Epicurean conscience must have told me over and over again to pull myself together, to conduct myself with more decorum.
I tried. I’m certain that I tried.
Sharane’s love for the ancient past was even more intense than mine, but her writings were far less dispassionate. She was a historian of sorts but she wasn’t an academic historian; her writings tended to the lyrical rather than the factual even when she was supposedly writing non-fiction.
Sharane would never have written a mute book, or one whose pictures didn’t move. Had it been allowed by law at that time she’d have fed her readers designer psychotropics to heighten their responses according to the schemes of her texts. She was a VR scriptwriter rather than a textwriter like me. She wasn’t content to know about the past; she wanted to re-create it and make it solid and live in it. Nor did she reserve such inclinations to the privacy of her E-suit. She was flamboyantly old-fashioned in all that she did. She liked to dress in gaudy pastiches of the costumes represented in Greek or Egyptian art, and she liked decor to match. People who knew us were mildly astonished that we should want to live together, given the difference in our personalities, but I suppose it was an attraction of opposites. Perhaps my intensity of purpose and solitude had begun to weigh rather heavily upon me when we met, and my carefully-cultivated calm of mind threatened to become a kind of toiling inertia.
On the other hand, perhaps that’s all confabulation and rationalization. I was a different person then, and I’ve since lost touch with that person as completely as I’ve lost touch with everyone else I knew then.
But I do remember, vaguely…
I remember that I found in Sharane a certain precious wildness which, although it wasn’t entirely spontaneous, was unfailingly amusing. She had the happy gift of never taking herself too seriously, although she was wholehearted enough in her determined attempts to put herself imaginatively in touch with the past.
From her point of view, I suppose I was doubly valuable. On the one hand, I was a fount of information and inspiration, on the other a kind of anchorage whose solidity kept her from losing herself in her flights of the imagination. Twenty years of marriage ought to have cemented here dependence on me just as it had cemented my dependence on her, but it didn’t.
“You think I need you to keep my feet on the ground,” Sharane said, as the break between us was completed and carefully rendered irreparable, “but I don’t. Anyhow, I’ve been weighed down long enough. I need to soar for a while, to spread my wings.”
Sharane and I had talked for a while, as married people do, about the possibility of having a child. We had both made deposits to the French national gamete bank, so that if we felt the same way when the time finally came to exercise our right of replacement—or to specify in our wills how that right was to be posthumously exercised—we could order an ovum to be unfrozen and fertilized.
I had always known, of course, that such flights of fancy were not to be taken too seriously, but when I accepted that the marriage was indeed over there seemed to be an extra dimension of tragedy and misery in the knowledge that our genes never would be combined—that our separation cast our legacies once again upon the chaotic sea of irresolution.
Despite the extremity of my melancholy, I never contemplated suicide. Although I’d already used up the traditional threescore years and ten, I was in no doubt at all that it wasn’t yet time to remove myself from the crucible of human evolution to make room for my successor, whether that successor was to be born from an ovum of Sharane’s or not. No matter how black my mood was when Sharane, I knew that my History of Death remained to be completed, and that the work would require at least another century. Even so, the breaking of such an intimate bond filled me with intimations of mortality and a painful sense of the futility of all my endeavors.
My first divorce had come about because a cruel accident had ripped apart the delicate fabric of my life, but my second—or so it seemed to me—was itself a horrid rent shearing my very being into ragged fragments. I hope that I tried with all my might not to blame Sharane, but how could I avoid it? And how could she not resent my overt and covert accusations, my veiled and naked resentments?
“Your problem, Mortimer,” she said to me, when her lachrymose phase had given way to bright anger, “is that you’re obsessed. You’re a deeply morbid man, and it’s not healthy. There’s some special fear in you, some altogether exceptional horror which feeds upon you day and night, and makes you grotesquely vulnerable to occurrences which normal people can take in their stride, and which ill befit a self-styled Epicurean. If you want my advice, you ought to abandon that history you’re writing, at least for a while, and devote yourself to something brighter and more vigorous.”
“Death is my life,” I informed her, speaking metaphorically, and not entirely without irony. “It always will be, until and including the end.”
I remember saying that. The rest is vague, but I really do remember saying that.
The third volume of Mortimer Gray’s History of Death, entitled The Empires of Faith, was published on 18 August 2954. The introduction announced that the author had been forced to set aside his initial ambition to write a truly comprehensive history, and stated that he would henceforth be unashamedly eclectic, and contentedly ethnocentric, because he did not wish to be a mere archivist of death and therefore could not regard all episodes in humankind’s war against death as being of equal interest. He declared that he was more interested in interpretation than mere summary, and that insofar as the war against death had been a moral crusade he felt fully entitled to draw morals from it.
This preface, understandably, dismayed those critics who had urged the author to be more dispassionate. Some reviewers were content to condemn the new volume without even bothering to inspect the rest of it, although it was considerably shorter than the second volume and had a rather more fluent style. Others complained that the day of mute text was dead and gone, and that there was no place in the modern world for pictures which resolutely refused to move.
Unlike many contemporary historians, whose birth into a world in which religious faith was almost extinct had robbed them of any sympathy for the imperialists of dogma, Gray proposed that the great religions had been one of the finest achievements of humankind. He regarded them as a vital stage in the evolution of community—as social technologies that had permitted a spectacular transcendence of the limitation of community to the tribe or region. Faiths, he suggested, were the first instruments which could bind together different language groups, and even different races. It was not until the spread of the great religions, Gray argued, that the possibility came into being of gathering all men together into a single common enterprise. He regretted, of course, that the principal product of this great dream was two millennia of bitter and savage conflict between adherents of different faiths or adherents of different versions of the same faith, but thought the ambition worthy of all possible respect and admiration. He even retained some sympathy for jihads and crusades, in the formulation of which people had tried to attribute more meaning to the sacrifice of life than they ever had before.
Gray was particularly fascinated by the symbology of the Christian mythos, which had taken as its central image the death on the cross of Jesus, and had tried to make that one image of death carry an enormous allegorical load. He was entranced by the idea of Christ’s death as a force of redemption and salvation, by the notion that this person died for others. He extended the argument to take in the Christian martyrs, who added to the primal crucifixion a vast series of symbolic and morally significant deaths. This, he considered, was a colossal achievement of the imagination, a crucial victory by which death was dramatically transfigured in the theatre of the human imagination—as was the Christian idea of death as a kind of reconciliation: a gateway to Heaven, if properly met; a gateway to Hell if not. Gray seized upon the idea of absolution from sin following confession, and particularly the notion of deathbed repentance, as a daring raid into the territories of the imagination previously ruled by fear of death.
Gray’s commentaries on the other major religions were less elaborate but no less interested. Various ideas of reincarnation and the related concept karma he discussed at great length, as one of the most ingenious imaginative bids for freedom from the tyranny of death. He was not quite so enthusiastic about the idea of the world as illusion, the idea of nirvana, and certain other aspects of Far Eastern thought, although he was impressed in several ways by Confucius and the Buddha. All these things and more he assimilated to the main line of his argument, which was that the great religions had made bold imaginative leaps in order to carry forward the war against death on a broader front than ever before, providing vast numbers of individuals with an efficient intellectual weaponry of moral purpose.
After Sharane left I stayed on in Avignon for a while. The house where we had lived was demolished, and I had another raised in its place. I resolved to take up the reclusive life again, at least for a while. I had come to think of myself as one of nature’s monks, and when I was tempted to flights of fancy of a more personal kind than those retailed in virtual reality I could imagine myself an avatar of some patient scholar born fifteen hundred years, contentedly submissive to the Benedictine rule. I didn’t, of course, believe in the possibility of reincarnation, and when such belief became fashionable again I found it almost impossible to indulge such fantasies.
In 2960 I moved to Antarctica, not to Amundsen City—which had become the world’s political centre since the United Nations had elected to set up headquarters in “the continent without nations”—but to Cape Adare on the Ross Sea, which was a relatively lonely spot.
I moved into a tall house somewhat resembling a lighthouse, from whose upper stories I could look out at the edge of the ice-cap and watch the penguins at play. I was reasonably contented, and soon came to feel that I had put the torments and turbulences of my early life behind me.
I often went walking across the nearer reaches of the icebound sea, but I rarely got into difficulties. Ironically enough, my only serious injury of that period was a broken leg which I sustained while working with a rescue party attempting to locate and save one of my neighbors, Ziru Majumdar, who had fallen into a crevasse while out on a similar expedition. We ended up in adjacent beds at the hospital in Amundsen City.
“I’m truly sorry about your leg, Mr. Gray,” Majumdar said. “It was very stupid of me to get lost. After all, I’ve lived here for thirty years; I thought I knew every last ice-ridge like the back of my hand. It’s not as if the weather was particularly bad, and I’ve never suffered from summer rhapsody or snow-blindness.”
I’d suffered from both—I was still awkwardly vulnerable to psychosomatic ills—but they only served to make me more careful. An uneasy mind can sometimes be an advantage.
“It wasn’t your fault, Mr. Majumdar” I graciously insisted. “I suppose I must have been a little over-confident myself, or I’d never have slipped and fallen. At least they were able to pull me out in a matter of minutes; you must have lain unconscious at the bottom of that crevasse for nearly two days.”
“Just about. I came round several times—at least, I think I did—but my internal tech was pumping so much dope around my system it’s difficult to be sure. My surskin and thermosuit were doing their best to keep me warm but the first law of thermodynamics doesn’t give you much slack when you’re at the bottom of a cleft in the permafrost. I’ve got authentic frostbite in my toes, you know—imagine that!”
I dutifully tried to imagine it, but it wasn’t easy. He could hardly be in pain, so it was difficult to conjure up any notion of what it might feel like to have necrotized toes. The doctors reckoned that it would take a week for the nanomachines to restore the tissues to their former pristine condition.
“Mind you,” he added, with a small embarrassed laugh, “it’s only a matter of time before the whole biosphere gets frostbite, isn’t it? Unless the sun gets stirred up again.”
More than fifty years had passed since scrupulous students of the sunspot cycle had announced the advent of a new Ice Age, but the world was quite unworried by the exceedingly slow advance of the glaciers across the Northern Hemisphere. It was the sort of thing that only cropped up in light banter.
“I won’t mind that,” I said, contemplatively. “Nor will you, I dare say. We like ice–why else would we live here?”
“Right. Not that I agree with those Gaean Liberationists, mind. I hear they’re proclaiming that the inter-glacial periods are simply Gaea’s fevers, that the birth of civilization was just a morbid symptom of the planet’s sickness, and that human culture has so far been a mere delirium of the noösphere.”
He obviously paid more attention to the lunatic fringe channels than I did.
“It’s just colorful rhetoric,” I told him. “They don’t mean it literally.”
“Think not? Well, perhaps. I was delirious myself for a while when I was down that hole. Can’t be sure whether I was asleep or awake, but I was certainly lost in some vivid dreams—and I mean vivid. I don’t know about you, but I always find VR a bit flat, even if I use illicit psychotropics to give delusion a helping hand. I think it’s to do with the protective effects of our internal technology. Nanomachines mostly do their job a little too well, because of the built-in safety margins—it’s only when they reach the limits of their capacity that they let really interesting things begin to happen.”
I knew he was building up to some kind of self-justification, but I felt that he was entitled to it. I nodded, to give him permission to prattle on.
“You have to go to the very brink of extinction to reach the cutting edge of experience, you see. I found that out while I was trapped down there in the ice, not knowing whether the rescuers would get to me in time. You can learn a lot about life, and about yourself, in a situation like that. It really was vivid—more vivid than anything I ever….well, what I’m trying to get at is that we’re too safe nowadays; we can have no idea of the zest there was in living in the bad old days. Not that I’m about to take up jumping into crevasses as a hobby, you understand. Once in a very long while is plenty.”
“Yes it is,” I agreed, shifting my itching leg and wishing that nanomachines weren’t so slow to compensate for trifling but annoying sensations. “Once in a while is certainly enough for me. In fact, I for one will be quite content if it never happens again. I don’t think I need any more of the kind of enlightenment which comes from experiences like that. I was in the Great Coral Sea Catastrophe, you know—shipwrecked, scalded and lost at sea for days on end.”
“It’s not the same,” he insisted, “but you won’t be able to understand the difference until it happens to you.
I didn’t believe him. In that instance, I suppose, he was right and I was wrong.
I’d never heard Mr Majumdar speak so freely before, and I never heard him do it again. The social life of the Cape Adare “exiles” was unusually formal, hemmed in by numerous barriers of formality and etiquette. After an embarrassing phase of learning and adjustment I’d found the formality aesthetically appealing, and had played the game with enthusiasm, but it was beginning to lose its appeal by the time the accident shook me up. I suppose it’s understandable that whatever you set out to exclude from the pattern of your life eventually comes to seem like a lack, and then an unfulfilled need.
After a few years more I began to hunger once again for the spontaneity and abandonment of warmer climes. I decided there’d be time enough to celebrate the advent of the Ice Age when the glaciers had reached the full extent of their reclaimed empire, and that I might as well make what use I could of Gaea’s temporary fever before it cooled. I moved to Venezuela, to dwell in the gloriously restored jungles of the Orinoco amid their teeming wildlife.
Following the destruction of much of the southern part of the continent in the second nuclear war, Venezuela had attained a cultural hegemony in South America that it had never surrendered. Brazil and Argentina had long since recovered, both economically and ecologically, from their disastrous fit of ill temper, but Venezuela was still the home of the avant garde of the Americas. It was there, for the first time, that I came into close contact with Thanaticism.
The original Thanatic cults had flourished in the twenty-eighth century. They had appeared among the last generations of children born without Zaman transformations; their members were people who, denied emortality through blastular engineering, had perversely elected to reject the benefits of rejuvenation too, making a fetish out of living only a “natural” lifespan. At the time it had seemed likely that they would be the last of the many Millenarian cults which had long afflicted Western culture, and they had quite literally died out some eighty or ninety years before I was born.
Nobody had then thought it possible, let alone likely, that genetically-endowed emortals would ever embrace Thanaticism, but they were wrong.
There had always been suicides in the emortal population—indeed, suicide was the commonest cause of death among emortals, outnumbering accidental deaths by a factor of three—but such acts were usually covert and normally involved people who had lived at least a hundred years. The neo-Thanatics were not only indiscreet—their whole purpose seemed to be to make a public spectacle of themselves—but also young; people over seventy were held to have violated the Thanaticist ethic simply by surviving to that age.
Thanatics tended to choose violent means of death, and usually issued invitations as well as choosing their moments so that large crowds could gather. Jumping from tall buildings and burning to death were the most favored means in the beginning, but these quickly ceased to be interesting. As the Thanatic revival progressed, adherents of the movement sought increasingly bizarre methods in the interests of capturing attention and out-doing their predecessors. For these reasons, it was impossible for anyone living alongside the cults to avoid becoming implicated in their rites, if only as a spectator.
By the time I had been in Venezuela for a year I had seen five people die horribly. After the first I had resolved to turn away from any others, so as not to lend even minimal support to the practice, but I soon found that I had underestimated the difficulty of so doing. There was no excuse to be found in my vocation; thousands of people who were not historians of death found it equally impossible to resist fascination.
I believed at first that the fad would soon pass, after wasting the lives of a handful of neurotics, but the cults continued to grow. Gaea’s fever might be cooling, its crisis having passed, but the delirium of human culture had evidently not yet reached what Ziru Majumdar called “the cutting edge of experience”.
The fourth volume of Mortimer Gray’s History of Death, entitled Fear and Fascination, was published on 12 February 2977. In spite of being mute and motionless it was immediately subject to heavy access-demand, presumably in consequence of the world’s increasing fascination with the “problem” of neo-Thanaticism. Requisitions of the earlier volumes of Gray’s history had picked up worldwide during the early 2970s, but the author had not appreciated what this might mean in terms of the demand for the new volume, and might have set a higher access fee had he realized.
Academic historians were universal in their condemnation of the new volume, possibly because of the enthusiasm with which it was greeted by laymen, but popular reviewers adored it. Its arguments were recklessly plundered by journalists and other broadcasting pundits in search of possible parallels that might be drawn with the modern world, especially those which seemed to carry moral lessons for the Thanatics and their opponents.
Fear and Fascination extended, elaborated and diversified the arguments contained in its immediate predecessor, particularly in respect of the Christian world of the Medieval period and the Renaissance. It had much to say about art and literature, and the images contained therein. It had chapters on the personification of Death as the Grim Reaper, on the iconography of the danse macabre, on the topics of memento mori and artes moriendi. It had long analyses of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, Milton’s Paradise Lost and graveyard poetry. These were by no means exercises in conventional literary criticism; they were elements of a long and convoluted argument about the contributions made by the individual creative imagination to the war of ideas which raged on the only battleground on which man could as yet constructively oppose the specter of death.
Gray also dealt with the persecution of heretics and the subsequent elaboration of Christian Demonology, which led to the witch-craze of the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth century. He gave considerable attention to various thriving folklore traditions which confused the notion of death, especially to the popularity of fictions and fears regarding premature burial, ghosts and the various species of the “undead” who rose from their graves as ghouls or vampires. In Gray’s eyes, all these phenomena were symptomatic of a crisis in Western man’s imaginative dealings with the idea of death: a feverish heating up of a conflict which had been in danger of becoming desultory. The cities of men had been under perpetual siege from Death since the time of their first building, but now—in one part of the world, at least—the perception of that siege had sharpened. A kind of spiritual starvation and panic had set in, and the progress which had been made in the war by virtue of the ideological imperialism of Christ’s Holy Cross now seemed imperiled by disintegration. This Empire of Faith was breaking up under the stress of skepticism, and men were faced with the prospect of going into battle against their most ancient enemy with their armor in tatters.
Just as the Protestants were trying to replace the Catholic Church’s centralized authority with a more personal relationship between men and God, Gray argued, so the creative artists of this era were trying to achieve a more personal and more intimate form of reconciliation between men and Death, equipping individuals with the power to mount their own ideative assaults. He drew some parallels between what happened in the Christian world and similar periods of crisis which he found in different cultures at different times, but other historians claimed that his analogies were weak, and that he was over-generalizing. Some argued that his intense study of the phenomena associated with the idea of death had become too personal, and suggested that he had become infatuated with the ephemeral ideas of past ages to the point where they were taking over his own imagination.
At first, I found celebrity status pleasing, and the extra credit generated by my access fees was certainly welcome, even to a man of moderate tastes and habits. The unaccustomed touch of fame brought a fresh breeze into a life which might have been in danger of becoming bogged down.
To begin with, I was gratified to be reckoned an expert whose views on Thanaticism were to be taken seriously, even by some Thanatics. I received a veritable deluge of invitations to appear on the talk shows which were the staple diet of contemporary broadcasting, and for a while I accepted as many as I could conveniently accommodate within the pattern of my life.
I have no need to rely on my memories in recapitulating these episodes, because they remain on record—but by the same token, I needn’t quote extensively from them. In the early days, when I was a relatively new face, my interrogators mostly started out by asking for information about my book, and their opening questions were usually stolen from uncharitable reviews.
“Some people feel that you’ve been carried away, Mr. Gray,” more than one combative interviewer sneeringly began, “and that what started out as a sober history is fast becoming an obsessive rant. Did you decide to get personal in order to boost your sales?”
My careful cultivation of neo-Epicureanism and my years in Antarctica had left a useful legacy of calm formality; I always handled such accusations with punctilious politeness.
“Of course the war against death is a personal matter,” I would reply. “It’s a personal matter for everyone, mortal or emortal. Without that sense of personal relevance it would be impossible to put oneself imaginatively in the place of the people of the ancient past so as to obtain empathetic insight into their affairs. If I seem to be making heroes of the men of the past by describing their crusades, it’s because they were heroes, and if my contemporaries find inspiration in my work it’s because they too are heroes in the same cause. The engineering of emortality has made us victors in the war, but we desperately need to retain a proper sense of triumph. We ought to celebrate our victory over death as joyously as possible, lest we lose our appreciation of its fruits.”
My interviewers always appreciated that kind of link, which handed them their next question on a plate. “Is that what you think of the Thanatics?” they would follow up, eagerly.
It was, and I would say so at any length they considered appropriate.
Eventually, my interlocutors no longer talked about my book, taking it for granted that everyone knew who I was and what I’d done. They’d cut straight to the chase, asking me what I thought of the latest Thanaticist publicity stunt.
Personally, I thought the media’s interest in Thanaticism was exaggerated. All death was, of course, news in a world populated almost entirely by emortals, and the Thanatics took care to be newsworthy by making such a song and dance about what they were doing, but the number of individuals involved was very small. In a world population of nearly three billion, a hundred deaths per week was a drop in the ocean, and “quiet” suicides still outnumbered the ostentatious Thanatics by a factor of five or six throughout the 2980s. The public debates quickly expanded to take in other issues. Subscription figures for net access to videotapes and teletexts concerned with the topic of violent death came under scrutiny, and everyone began talking about the “new pornography of death”—although fascination with such material had undoubtedly been widespread for many years.
“Don’t you feel, Mr. Gray,” I was often asked, “that a continued fascination with death in a world where everyone has a potential lifespan of several centuries is rather sick? Shouldn’t we have put such matters behind us?”
“Not at all,” I replied, earnestly and frequently. “In the days when death was inescapable, people were deeply frustrated by this imperious imposition of fate. They resented it with all the force and bitterness they could muster, but it could not be truly fascinating while it remained a simple and universal fact of life. Now that death is no longer a necessity, it has perforce become a luxury. Because it is no longer inevitable, we no longer feel such pressure to hate and fear it, and this frees us so that we may take an essentially aesthetic view of death. The transformation of the imagery of death into a species of pornography is both understandable and healthy.”
“But such material surely encourages the spread of Thanaticism. You can’t possibly approve of that?”
Actually, the more I was asked about it the less censorious I became, at least for a while.
“Planning a life,” I explained to a whole series of faces, indistinguishable by virtue of having been sculptured according to the latest theory of telegenicity, “is an exercise in story-making. Living people are forever writing the narratives of their own lives, deciding who to be and what to do, according to various aesthetic criteria. In olden days, death was inevitably seen as an interruption of the business of life, cutting short life-stories before they were—in the eyes of their creators—complete. Nowadays, people have the opportunity to plan whole lives, deciding exactly when and how their life-stories should reach a climax and a conclusion. We may not share their aesthetic sensibilities, and may well think them fools, but there is a discernible logic in their actions. They are neither mad nor evil.”
Perhaps I was reckless in adopting this point of view, or at least in proclaiming it to the whole world. By proposing that the new Thanatics were simply individuals who had a particular kind of aesthetic sensibility, tending towards conciseness and melodrama rather than prolixity and anti-climax, I became something of a hero to the cultists themselves—which was not my intention. The more lavishly I embroidered my chosen analogy—declaring that ordinary emortals were the feuilletonists, epic poets and three-decker novelists of modern life while Thanatics were the prose-poets and short-story writers who liked to sign off with a neat punch-line—the more they liked me. I received many invitations to attend suicides, and my refusal to take them up only served to make my presence a prize to be sought after.
I was, of course, entirely in agreement with the United Nations Charter of Human Rights, whose ninety-ninth amendment guaranteed the citizens of every nation the right to take their own lives, and to be assisted in making a dignified exit should they so desire, but I had strong reservations about the way in which the Thanaticists construed the amendment. Its original intention had been to facilitate self-administered euthanasia in an age when that was sometimes necessary, not to guarantee Thanatics the entitlement to recruit whatever help they required in staging whatever kinds of exit they desired. Some of the invitations I received were exhortations to participate in legalized murders, and these became more common as time went by and the cults became more extreme in their bizarrerie.
In the 2080s the Thanatics had progressed from conventional suicides to public executions, by rope, sword, axe or guillotine. At first the executioners were volunteers—and one or two were actually arrested and charged with murder, although none could be convicted—but the Thanatics were not satisfied even with this, and began campaigning for various nations to recreate the official position of Public Executioner, together with bureaucratic structures which would give all citizens the right to call upon the services of such officials. Even I, who claimed to understand the cults better than their members, was astonished when the government of Colombia—which was jealous of Venezuela’s reputation as the home of the world’s avant garde—actually accepted such an obligation, with the result that Thanatics began to flock to Maracaibo and Cartagena in order to obtain an appropriate send-off. I was profoundly relieved when the UN, following the crucifixion of Shamiel Sihra in 2991, revised the wording of the amendment and outlawed suicide by public execution.
By this time I was automatically refusing invitations to appear on 3-V in much the same way that I was refusing invitations to take part in Thanaticist ceremonies. It was time to become a recluse once again.
I left Venezuela in 2989 to take up residence on Cape Wolstenholme, at the neck of Hudson’s Bay. Canada was an urbane, highly civilized and rather staid confederacy of states whose people had no time for such follies as Thanaticism; it provided an ideal retreat where I could throw himself wholeheartedly into my work again.
I handed over full responsibility for answering all my calls to a state-of-the-art Personal Simulation program, which grew so clever and so ambitious with practice that it began to give live interviews on broadcast television. Although it offered what was effectively no comment in a carefully elaborate fashion I eventually thought it best to introduce a block into its operating system—a block which ensured that my face dropped out of public sight for half a century.
Having once experienced the rewards and pressures of fame, I never felt the need to seek them again. I can’t and won’t say that I learned as much from that phase in my life as I learned from any of my close encounters with death, but I still remember it—vaguely—with a certain nostalgia. Unmelodramatic it might have been, but it doubtless played its part in shaping the person that I now am. It certainly made me more self-assured in public.
The fifth volume of Mortimer Gray’s History of Death, entitled The War of Attrition, was published on 19 March 2999. It marked a return to the cooler and more comprehensive style of scholarship exhibited by the first two volumes. It dealt with the history of medical science and hygiene up to the end of the nineteenth century, thus concerning itself with a new and very different arena of the war between mankind and mortality.
To many of its readers The War of Attrition was undoubtedly a disappointment, though it did include some material about Victorian tomb-decoration and nineteenth-century spiritualism which carried forward arguments from volume four. Access was initially widespread, although demand tailed off fairly rapidly when it was realized how vast and how tightly-packed with data the document was. This lack of popular enthusiasm was not counterbalanced by any redemption of Mortimer’s academic reputation; like many earlier scholars who had made contact with a popular audience Gray was considered guilty of a kind of intellectual treason, and was frozen out of the scholarly community in spite of what appeared to be a determined attempt at rehabilitation. Some popular reviewers argued, however, that there was much in the new volume to intrigue the inhabitants of a world whose medical science was so adept that almost everyone enjoyed perfect health as well as eternal youth, and in which almost any injury could be repaired completely. It was suggested that there was a certain piquant delight to be obtained from recalling a world where everyone was (by modern standards) crippled or deformed, and in which everyone suffered continually from illnesses of a most horrific nature.
Although it had a wealth of scrupulously dry passages, there were parts of The War of Attrition that were deemed pornographic by some commentators. Its accounts of the early history of surgery and midwifery were condemned as unjustifiably blood-curdling, and its painstaking analysis of the spread of syphilis through Europe in the sixteenth century was censured as a mere horror-story made all the nastier by its clinical narration. Gray was particularly interested in syphilis, because of the dramatic social effects of its sudden advent in Europe and its significance in the development of prophylactic medicine. He argued that syphilis was primarily responsible for the rise and spread of Puritanism, repressive sexual morality being the only truly effective weapon against its spread. He then deployed well-tried sociological arguments to the effect that Puritanism and its associated habits of thought had been importantly implicated in the rapid development of Capitalism in the Western World, in order that he might claim that syphilis ought to be regarded as the root cause of the economic and political systems which came to dominate the most chaotic, the most extravagantly progressive and most extravagantly destructive centuries of human history.
The history of medicine and the conquest of disease were, of course, topics of elementary education in the thirtieth century. There was supposedly not a citizen of any nation to whom the names of Semmelweis, Jenner and Pasteur were unknown—but disease had been so long banished from the world, and it was so completely outside the experience of ordinary men and women, that what they “knew” about it was never really brought to consciousness, and never came alive to the imagination. Words like “smallpox”, “plague” and “cancer” were used metaphorically in common parlance, and over the centuries had become virtually empty of any real significance. Gray’s fifth volume, therefore—in spite of the fact that it contained little that was really new—did serve as a stimulus to collective memory. It reminded the world of some issues which, though not exactly forgotten, had not really been brought to mind for some time. It is at least arguable it touched off ripples whose movement across the collective consciousness of world culture was of some moment. Mortimer Gray was no longer famous, but his continuing work had become firmly established within the zeitgeist.
Neo-Thanaticism began to peter out as the turn of the century approached. By 3010 the whole movement had “gone underground”—which is to say that Thanatics no longer staged their exits before the largest audiences they could obtain, but saved their performance for small, carefully-selected groups. This wasn’t so much a response to persecution as a variation in the strange game that they were playing out; it was simply a different kind of drama. Unfortunately, there was no let-up in the communications with which Thanatics continued to batter my patient AI interceptors.
Although it disappointed the rest of the world, The War of Attrition was welcomed enthusiastically by some of the Thanatic cults, whose members cultivated an altogether unhealthy interest in disease as a means of decease, replacing the violent executions which had become too familiar. As time went by and Thanaticism declined generally, this particular subspecies underwent a kind of mutation as the cultists began to promote diseases not as means of death but as valuable experiences from which much might be learned. A black market in carcinogens and bioengineered pathogens quickly sprang up. The original agents of smallpox, cholera, bubonic plague and syphilis were long since extinct, but the world abounded in clever genetic engineers who could synthesize a virus with very little effort. Suddenly, they began to find clients for a whole range of horrid diseases. Those which afflicted the mind as well as or instead of the body were particularly prized; there was a boom in recreational schizophrenia which almost broke through to the mainstream of accredited psychotropics.
I couldn’t help but remember, with a new sense of irony, Ziru Majumdar’s enthusiasm for the vivid delusions which had visited him while his internal technology was tested to the limit in staving off hypothermia and frostbite.
When the new trend spread beyond the ranks of the Thanaticists and large numbers of people began to regard disease as something that could be temporarily and interestingly indulged without any real danger to life or subsequent health, I began to find my arguments about death quoted—without acknowledgment—with reference to disease. A popular way of talking about the phenomenon was to claim that what had ceased to be a dire necessity “naturally” became available as a perverse luxury.
None of this would have mattered much had it not been for the difficulty of restricting the spread of recreational diseases to people who wanted to indulge, but those caught up in the fad refused to restrict themselves to non-infectious varieties. There had been no serious threat of epidemic since the Plague Wars of the twenty-first century, but now it seemed that medical science might once again have to be mobilized on a vast scale. Because of the threat to innocent parties who might be accidentally infected, the self-infliction of dangerous diseases was quickly outlawed in many nations, but some governments were slow to act.
I would have remained aloof and apart from all of this had I been able to, but it proved that my defenses weren’t impregnable. In 3029 a Thanaticist of exceptional determination named Hadria Nuccoli decided that if I wouldn’t come to her, she would come to me. Somehow, she succeeded in getting past all my carefully-sealed doors to arrive in my bedroom at three o’clock one winter morning.
I woke up in confusion, but the confusion was quickly transformed into sheer terror. This was an enemy more frightening than the scalding Coral Sea, because this was an active enemy who meant to do me harm—and the intensity of the threat she posed was in no way lessened by the fact that she claimed to be doing it out of love rather than hatred.
The woman’s skin bore an almost mercuric luster, and she was in the grip of a terrible fever, but she would not be still. She seemed, in fact, to have an irresistible desire to move and to communicate, and the derangement of her body and brain had not impaired her crazed eloquence.
“Come with me!” she begged, as I tried to evade her eager clutch. “Come with me to the far side of death and I’ll show you what’s there. There’s no need to be afraid! Death isn’t the end, it’s the beginning. It’s the metamorphosis which frees us from our caterpillar flesh to be spirits in a massless world of light and color. I am your redeemer, for whom you have waited far too long. Love me, dear Mortimer Gray, only love me and you will learn. Let me be your mirror; drown yourself in me!”
For ten minutes I succeeded in keeping away from her, stumbling this way and that, thinking that I might be safe if only I didn’t touch her. I managed to send out a call for help, but I knew that it would take an hour or more for anyone to come.
I tried all the while to talk her down but it was impossible.
“There’s no return from eternity,” she told me. “This is no ordinary virus created by accident to fight a hopeless cause against the defenses of the body. Nanotechnology is as impotent to deal with this transformer of the flesh as the immune system was to deal with its own destroyers. The true task of medical engineers, did they but know it, was never to fight disease but always to perfect it, and we have found the way. I bring you the greatest of all gifts, my darling: the elixir of life, which will make us angels instead of men, creatures of light and ecstasy.”
It was no use running; I tired before she did, and she caught me. I tried to knock her down, and if I had had a weapon to hand I would certainly have used it in self-defense, but she couldn’t feel pain and no mater how badly disabled her internal technology was I wasn’t able to injure her with my blows.
In the end, I had no sensible alternative but to let her take me in her arms and cling to me; nothing else would soothe her.
I was afraid for her as well as myself; I didn’t believe then that she truly intended to die and I wanted to keep us safe until help arrived.
My panic didn’t decrease while I held her; if anything, I felt it all the more intensely. I became outwardly calmer once I had let her touch me, and made every effort to remind myself that it didn’t really matter whether she infected me or not, given that medical help would soon arrive. I didn’t expect to have to go through the kind of hell that I actually endured before the doctors got the bug under control; for once, panic was wiser than common sense.
Even so, I wept for her when they told me she’d died, and wished with all my heart that she hadn’t.
Unlike my previous brushes with death, I don’t think my encounter with Hadria Nuccoli was an important learning experience. It was just a disturbance of the now-settled pattern of my life—something to be survived, put away and forgotten. I haven’t forgotten it, but I did put it away in the back of my mind. I didn’t let it affect me.
In some of my writings I’d lauded the idea of martyrdom as an important invention in the imaginative war against death, and I’d been mightily intrigued by the lives and deaths of the saints recorded in the Golden Legend. Now that I’d been appointed a saint by some very strange people, though, I began to worry about the exemplary functions of such legends. The last thing I’d expected when I set out to write a History of Death was that my explanatory study might actually assist the dread empire of Death to regain a little of the ground which it had lost in the world of human affairs. I began to wonder whether I ought to abandon my project, but I decided otherwise. The Thanatics and their successors were, after all, willfully misunderstanding and perverting my message; I owed it to them and to everyone else to make myself clearer.
As it happened, the number of deaths recorded in association with Thanaticism and recreational disease began to decline after 3030. In a world context, the numbers were never more than tiny, but they were still worrying and hundreds of thousands of people had, like me, to be rescued from the consequences of their own or other people’s folly by doctors.
As far back as 2982 I had appeared on TV—via a satellite link—with a faber named Khan Mirafzal, who had argued that Thanaticism was evidence of the fact that Earthbound man was becoming decadent, and that the future of man lay outside the Earth, in the microworlds and the distant colonies. Mirafzal had claimed that men genetically reshaped for life in low gravity—like the four-handed fabers—or for the colonization of alien worlds would find Thanaticism unthinkable. At the time I’d been content to assume that his arguments were spurious. People who lived in space were always going on about the decadence of the Earthbound, much as the Gaean Liberationists did. Fifty years later, I wasn’t so sure. I actually called Mirafzal so that we could discuss the matter again, in private. The conversation took a long time because of the signal delay, but that seemed to make its thrust all the more compelling.
I decided to leave Earth, at least for a while, to investigate the farther horizons of the human enterprise.
In 3033 I flew to the moon, and took up residence in Mare Moscoviense—which is, of course, on the side which faces away from the Earth.
The sixth volume of Mortimer Gray’s History of Death, entitled Fields of Battle, was published on 24 July 3044. Its subject-matter was war, but Gray was not greatly interested in the actual fighting of the wars of the nineteenth and succeeding centuries. His main concern was with the mythology of warfare as it developed in the period under consideration, and in particular with the way that the development of the mass media of communication transformed the business and the perceived meanings of warfare. He began his study with the Crimean War, because it was the first war to be extensively covered by newspaper reporters, and the first whose conduct was drastically affected thereby.
Before the Crimea, Gray argued, wars had been “private” events, entirely the affairs of the men who started them and the men who fought them. They might have a devastating effect on the local population of the areas where they were fought, but were largely irrelevant to distant civilian populations. The British Times had changed all that, by making the Crimean War the business of all its readers, exposing the government and military leaders to public scrutiny and to public scorn. Reports from the front had scandalized the nation by creating an awareness of how ridiculously inefficient the organization of the army was, and what a toll of human life was exacted upon the troops in consequence–not merely deaths in battle, but deaths from injury and disease caused by the appalling lack of care given to wounded soldiers. That reportage had not only had practical consequences, but imaginative consequences—it rewrote the entire mythology of heroism in an intricate webwork of new legends, ranging from the Charge of the Light Brigade to the secular canonization of Florence Nightingale.
Throughout the next two centuries, Gray argued, war and publicity were entwined in a Gordian knot. Control of the news media became vital to propagandist control of popular morale, and governments engaged in war had to become architects of the mythology of war as well as planners of military strategy. Heroism and jingoism became the currency of consent; where governments failed to secure the public image of the wars they fought, they fell. Gray tracked the way in which attitudes to death in war and to the endangerment of civilian populations by war were dramatically transformed by the three World Wars and by the way those wars were subsequently mythologized in memory and fiction. He commented extensively on the way the first World War was “sold” to those who must fight it as a war to end war, and on the consequent sense of betrayal that followed when it failed to live up to this billing. And yet, he argued, if the three global wars were seen as a whole, its example really had brought into being the attitude of mind which ultimately forbade wars.
As those who had become used to his methods now expected, Gray dissented from the view of other modern historians who saw the World Wars as an unmitigated disaster and a horrific example of the barbarity of ancient man. He agreed that the nationalism which had replaced the great religions as the main creator and definer of a sense of community was a poor and petty thing, and that the massive conflicts which it engendered were tragic—but it was, he asserted, a necessary stage in historical development. The empires of faith were, when all was said and done, utterly incompetent to their self-defined task, and were always bound to fail and to disintegrate. The groundwork for a genuine human community, in which all mankind could properly and meaningfully join, had to be relaid, and it had to be relaid in the common experience of all nations, as part of a universal heritage.
The real enemy of mankind was, as Gray had always insisted and now continued to insist, death itself. Only by facing up to death in a new way, by gradually transforming the role of death as part of the means to human ends, could a true human community be made. Wars, whatever their immediate purpose in settling economic squabbles and pandering to the megalomaniac psychoses of national leaders, also served a large-scale function in the shifting pattern of history: to provide a vast carnival of destruction which must either weary men of the lust to kill, or bring about their extinction.
Some reviewers condemned Fields of Battle on the grounds of its evident irrelevance to a world that had banished war, but others welcomed the fact that the volume returned Gray’s thesis to the safe track of true history, in dealing exclusively with that which was safely dead and buried.
I found life on the moon very different from anything I’d experienced in my travels around the Earth’s surface. It wasn’t so much the change in gravity, although that certainly took a lot of getting used to, nor the severe regime of daily exercise in the centrifuge which I had to adopt in order to make sure that I might one day return to the world of my birth without extravagant medical provision. Nor was it the fact that the environment was so comprehensively artificial, or that it was impossible to venture outside without special equipment; in those respects it was much like Antarctica. The most significant difference was in the people.
Mare Moscoviense had few tourists—tourists mostly stayed Earthside, making only brief trips farside—but most of its inhabitants were nevertheless just passing through. It was one of the main jumping-off points for emigrants, largely because it was an important industrial centre, the home of one of the largest factories for the manufacture of shuttles and other local-space vehicles. It was one of the chief trading posts supplying materials to the microworlds in Earth orbit and beyond, and many of its visitors came in from the farther reaches of the solar system.
The majority of the city’s long-term residents were unmodified, like me, or lightly modified by reversible cyborgization, but a great many of those visiting were fabers, genetically engineered for low-gee environments. The most obvious external feature of their modification was that they had an extra pair of “arms” instead of “legs”, and this meant that most of the public places in Moscoviense were designed to accommodate their kind as well as “walkers”; all the corridors were railed and all the ceilings ringed.
The sight of fabers swinging around the place like gibbons, getting everywhere at five or six times the pace of walkers, was one that I found strangely fascinating, and one to which I never quite became accustomed. Fabers couldn’t live, save with the utmost difficulty, in the gravity well that was Earth; they almost never descended to the planet’s surface. By the same token, it was very difficult for men from Earth to work in zero-gee environments without extensive modification, surgical if not genetic. For this reason, the only “ordinary” men who went into the true faber environments weren’t ordinary by any customary standard. The moon, with its one-sixth Earth gravity, was the only place in the inner solar system where fabers and unmodified men frequently met and mingled–there was nowhere else nearer than Ganymede.
I had always known about fabers, of course, but like so much other “common” knowledge the information had lain unattended in some unheeded pigeon-hole of memory until direct acquaintance ignited it and gave it life. It seemed to me that fabers lived their lives at a very rapid tempo, despite the fact that they were just as emortal as members of their parent species.
For one thing, faber parents normally had their children while they were still alive, and very often had several at intervals of only twenty or thirty years. An aggregate family usually had three or even four children growing up in parallel. In the infinite reaches of space, there was no population control, and no restrictive “right of replacement”. A microworld’s population could grow as fast as the microworld could put on extra mass. Then again, the fabers were always doing things. Even though they had four arms, they always seemed to have trouble finding a spare hand. They seemed to have no difficulty at all in doing two different things at the same time, often using only one limb for attachment—on the moon this generally meant hanging from the ceiling like a bat—while one hand mediated between the separate tasks being carried out by the remaining two.
I quickly realized that it wasn’t just the widely-accepted notion that the future of mankind must take the form of a gradual diffusion through the galaxy that made the fabers think of Earth as decadent. From their viewpoint, Earth-life seemed unbearably slow and sedentary. Unmodified humankind, having long since attained control of the ecosphere of its native world, seemed to the fabers to be living a lotus-eater existence, indolently pottering about in its spacious garden.
The fabers weren’t contemptuous of legs as such, but they drew a sharp distinction between those spacefaring folk who were given legs by the genetic engineers in order to descend to the surfaces of new and alien worlds, with a job to do, and those Earthbound people who simply kept the legs their ancestors had bequeathed to them in order to enjoy the fruits of the labors of past generations.
Wherever I had lived on Earth, it had always seemed to me that one could blindly throw a stone into a crowded room and stand a fifty-fifty chance of hitting a historian of some sort. In Mare Moscoviense, the population of historians could be counted on the fingers of an unmodified man–and that in a city of a quarter of a million people. Whether they were resident or passing through, the people of the moon were far more interested in the future than the past. When I told them about my vocation, my new neighbors were likely to smile politely and shake their heads.
“It’s the weight of those legs,” the fabers among them were wont to say. “You think they’re holding you up, but in fact they’re holding you down. Give them a chance and you’ll find that you’ve put down roots.”
If anyone told them that on Earth, “having roots” wasn’t considered an altogether bad thing, they’d laugh.
“Get rid of your legs and learn to swing,” they’d say. “You’ll understand then that human beings have no need of roots. Only reach with four hands instead of two, and you’ll find the stars within your grasp. Leave the past to rot at the bottom of the deep dark well, and give the Heavens their due.
I quickly learned to fall back on the same defensive moves most of my unmodified companions employed. “You can’t break all your links with solid ground,” we told the fabers, over and over again. “Somebody has to deal with the larger lumps of matter which are strewn about the universe, and you can’t go to meet real mass if you don’t have legs. It’s planets that produce biospheres and biospheres that produce such luxuries as air. If you’ve seen further than other men it’s not because you can swing by your arms from the ceiling–it’s because you can stand on the shoulders of giants with legs.”
Such exchanges were always cheerful. It was almost impossible to get into a real argument with a faber, because their talk was as intoxicated as their movements. “Leave the wells to the unwell,” they were fond of quoting. “The well will climb out of the wells, if they only find the will. History is bunk, only fit for sleeping minds.”
A man less certain of his own destiny might have been turned aside from his task by faber banter, but I was well into my second century of life by then and I had few doubts left regarding the propriety of my particular labor. Access to data was no more difficult on the moon than anywhere else in the civilized Ekumen, and I proceeded, steadily and methodically, with my self-allotted task.
I made good progress there, as befitted the circumstances. Perhaps that was the happiest time of my life—but it’s so difficult to draw comparisons when you’re as far away from childhood and youth as I now am.
Memory is an untrustworthy crutch for minds that have not yet mastered eternity
The seventh volume of Mortimer Gray’s History of Death, entitled The Last Judgment, was published on 21 June 3053. It dealt with the multiple crises which had developed in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, each of which and all of which had faced the human race with the prospect of extinction.
Gray described in minute detail the various nuclear exchanges which led up to Brazil’s nuclear attack on Argentina in 2079 and the Plague Wars waged throughout that century. He discussed the various factors—the greenhouse crisis, soil erosion, pollution and deforestation—which had come close to inflicting irreparable damage on the ecosphere. His map of the patterns of death in this period considered in detail the fate of the “lost billions” of peasant and subsistence farmers who were disinherited and displaced by the emergent ecological and economic order.
Gray scrupulously pointed out that in less than two centuries more people had died than in the previous ten millennia. He made the ironic observation that the near-conquest of death achieved by twenty-first century medicine had created such an abundance of life as to precipitate a Malthusian crisis of awful proportions. He proposed that the new medicine and the new pestilences might be seen as different faces of the same coin, and that new technologies of food production—from the twentieth century Green Revolution to twenty-second century tissue-culture farmfactories—were as much progenitors of famine as of satiation.
Gray advanced the opinion that this was the most critical of all the stages of man’s war with death. The weapons of the imagination were discarded in favor of more effective ones, but in the short term those more effective weapons, by multiplying life so effectively, had also multiplied death. In earlier times, the growth of human population had been restricted by lack of resources, and the war with death had been, in essence, a war of mental adaptation whose goal was reconciliation. When the “natural” checks on population-growth were removed because that reconciliation was abandoned, the waste-products of human society threatened to poison it.
Humankind, in developing the weapons by which the long war with death might be won, had also developed—in a more crudely literal sense—the weapons by which it might be lost. Nuclear arsenals and stockpiled AIDS viruses were scattered all over the globe: twin pistols held in the skeletal hands of death, leveled at the entire human race. The wounds they inflicted could so easily have been mortal—but the dangerous corner had, after all, been turned. The sciences of life, having passed through a particularly desperate stage of their evolution, kept one vital step ahead of the problems which they had helped to generate. Food technology finally achieved a merciful divorce from the bounty of nature, moving out of the fields and into the factories to achieve a complete liberation of man from the vagaries of the ecosphere, and paving the way for Garden Earth.
Gray argued that this was a remarkable triumph of human sanity, which produced a political apparatus enabling human beings to take collective control of themselves, allowing the entire world to be managed and governed as a whole. He judged that the solution was far from Utopian, and that the political apparatus in question was at best a ramshackle and ill-designed affair, but admitted that it did the job. He emphasized that in the final analysis it was not scientific progress per se that had won the war against death, but the ability of human beings to work together, to compromise, to build communities. That human beings possessed this ability was, he argued, as much the legacy of thousands of years of superstition and religion as of hundreds of years of science.
The Last Judgment attracted little critical attention, as it was widely held to be dealing with matters that everyone understood very well. Given that the period had left an abundant legacy of archival material of all kinds, Gray’s insistence on using only mute text accompanied by still photographs seemed to many commentators to be pedestrian and frankly perverse, unbecoming a true historian.
In twenty years of living beneath a star-filled sky I was strongly affected by the magnetic pull that those stars seemed to exert upon my spirit. I seriously considered applying for modification for low-gee and shipping out from Mare Moscoviense along with the emigrants to some new microworld, or perhaps going out to one of the satellites of Saturn or Uranus, to a world where the sun’s bountiful radiance was of little consequence and men lived entirely by the fruits of their own efforts and their own wisdom.
But the years drifted by, and I didn’t go.
Sometimes, I thought of this failure as a result of cowardice, or evidence of the decadence that the fabers and other subspecies attributed to the humans of Earth. I sometimes imagined myself as an insect born at the bottom of a deep cave, who had—thanks to the toil of many preceding generations of insects—been brought to the rim from which I could look out at the great world, but dared not take the one final step that would carry me out and away. More and more, however, I found my thoughts turning back to the Earth. My memories of its many environments became gradually fonder the longer my absence lasted. Nor could I despise this as a weakness. Earth was, after all, my home. It was not only my world, but the home world of all humankind. No matter what the fabers and their kin might say, the Earth was and would always remain an exceedingly precious thing, which should never be abandoned.
It seemed to me then—and still seems now—that it would be a terrible thing were men to spread themselves across the entire galaxy, taking a multitude of forms in order to occupy a multitude of alien worlds, and in the end forget entirely the world from which their ancestors had sprung.
Once, I was visited in Mare Moscoviense by Khan Mirafzal, the faber with whom I had long ago debated on TV, and talked to again before my emigration. His home, for the moment, was a microworld in the asteroid belt which was in the process of being fitted with a drive which would take it out of the system and into the infinite. He was a kind and even-tempered man who would not dream of trying to convince me of the error of my ways, but he was also a man with a sublime vision who could not restrain his enthusiasm for his own chosen destiny.
“I have no roots on Earth, Mortimer, even in a metaphorical sense. In my being, the chains of adaptation have been decisively broken. Every man of my kind is born anew, designed and synthesized; we are self-made men, who belong everywhere and nowhere. The wilderness of empty space which fills the universe is our realm, our heritage. Nothing is strange to us, nothing foreign, nothing alien. Blastular engineering has incorporated freedom into our blood and our bones, and I intend to take full advantage of that freedom. To do otherwise would be a betrayal of my nature.”
“My own blastular engineering served only to complete the adaptation to life on Earth which natural selection had left incomplete,” I reminded him. “I’m no new man, free from the ties that bind me to the Earth.”
“Not so,” he replied. “Natural selection would never have devised emortality, for natural selection can only generate change by death and replacement. When genetic engineers found the means of setting aside the curse of aging they put an end to natural selection forever. The first and greatest freedom is time, my friend, and you have all the time in the world. You can become whatever you want to be. What do you want to be, Mortimer?”
“A historian,” I told him. “It’s what I am because it’s what I want to be.”
“All well and good—but history isn’t inexhaustible, as you well know. It ends with the present day, the present moment. The future, on the other hand….”
“Is given to your kind. I know that, Mira. I don’t dispute it. But what exactly is your kind, given that you rejoice in such freedom to be anything you want to be? When the starship Pandora effected the first meeting between humans and a ship that had set out from another star-system the crews of the two ships, each consisting entirely of individuals bioengineered for life in zero-gee, resembled one another far more than they resembled unmodified members of their parent species. The fundamental chemistries controlling their design were different, but this only led to the faber crews trading their respective molecules of life, so that their genetic engineers could henceforth make and use chromosomes of both kinds. What kind of freedom is it that makes all the travelers of space into mirror images of one another?”
“You’re exaggerating,” Mirafzal insisted. “The news reports played up the similarity, but it really wasn’t as close as all that. Yes, the Pandora encounter can’t really be regarded as a first contact between humans and aliens, because the distinction between human and alien had ceased to carry any real meaning long before it happened. But it’s not the case that our kind of freedom breeds universal mediocrity because adaptation to zero-gee is an existential straitjacket. We’ve hardly scratched the surface of constructive cyborgization, which will open up a whole new dimension of freedom.”
“That’s not for me,” I told him. “Maybe it is just my legs weighing me down, but I’m well and truly addicted to gravity. I can’t cast off the past like a worn-out surskin. I know you think I ought to envy you, but I don’t. I dare say you think that I’m clinging like a terrified infant to Mother Earth while you’re achieving true maturity, but I really do think it’s important to have somewhere to belong.”
“So do I,” the faber said, quietly. “I just don’t think that Earth is or ought to be that place. It’s not where you start from that’s important, Mortimer, it’s where you’re going.”
“Not for a historian.”
“For everybody. History ends, Mortimer, life doesn’t—not any more.”
I was at least half-convinced that Khan Mirafzal was right, although I didn’t follow his advice. I still am. Maybe I was and am trapped in a kind of infancy, or a kind of lotus-eater decadence—but if so, I could see no way out of the trap then and I still can’t.
Perhaps things would have turned out differently if I’d had one of my close encounters with death while I was on the moon, but I didn’t. The dome in which I lived was only breached once, and the crack was sealed before there was any significant air-loss. It was a scare, but it wasn’t a threat. Perhaps, in the end, the moon was too much like Anatarctica—but without the crevasses. Fortune seems to have decreed that all my significant formative experiences have to do with water, whether it be very hot or very, very cold.
Eventually, I gave in to my homesickness for Garden Earth and returned there, having resolved not to leave it again until my history of death was complete. I never did.
The eighth volume of Mortimer Gray’s History of Death, entitled The Fountains of Youth, was published on 1 December 3064. It dealt with the development of elementary technologies of longevity and elementary technologies of cyborgization in the twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth centuries. It tracked the progress of the new “politics of immortality”, whose main focus was the new Charter of Human Rights which sought to establish a basic right to longevity for all. It also described the development of the Zaman transformations by which human blastulas could be engineered for longevity, which finally opened the way for the wholesale metamorphosis of the human race.
According to Gray, the Manifesto of the New Chartists was the vital treaty which ushered in a new phase in man’s continuing war with death, because it defined the whole human community as a single army, united in all its interests. He quoted with approval and reverence the opening words of the document: “Man is born free, but is everywhere enchained by the fetters of death. In all times past men have been truly equal in one respect and one only: they have all borne the burden of age and decay. The day must soon dawn when this burden can be set aside; there will be a new freedom, and with this freedom must come a new equality. No man has the right to escape the prison of death while his fellows remain shackled within it.”
Gray carefully chronicled the long battle fought by the Chartists across the stage of world politics, describing it with a partisan fervor which had been largely absent from his work since the fourth volume. There was nothing clinical about his description of the “persecution” of Ali Zaman and the resistance offered by the community of nations to his proposal to make future generations truly emortal. Gray admitted that he had the benefits of hindsight, and that as a Zaman-transformed individual himself he was bound to have an attitude very different from Zaman’s confused and cautious contemporaries, but he saw no reason to be entirely even-handed. From his viewpoint, those who initially opposed Zaman were traitors in the war against death, and he could find few excuses for them. In trying to preserve “human nature” against biotechnological intervention—or, at least, to confine such interventions by a mythos of medical “repair”—those men and women had in his stern view been willfully blind and negligent of the welfare of their own children.
Some critics charged Gray with inconsistency because he was not nearly so extravagant in his enthusiasm for the various kinds of symbiosis between organic and inorganic systems which were tried out in the period under consideration. His descriptions of experiments in cyborgization were indeed conspicuously cooler, not because he saw such endeavors as “unnatural”, but rather because he saw them as only peripherally relevant to the war against death. He tended to lump together adventures in cyborgization with cosmetic biotechnology as symptoms of lingering anxiety regarding the presumed “tedium of emortality”—an anxiety that had led the first generations of long-lived people to lust for variety and “multidimensionality”. Many champions of cyborgization and man/machine symbiosis, who saw their work as the new frontier of science, accused Gray of rank conservatism, suggesting that it was hypocritical of him, given that his mind was closed against them, to criticize so extravagantly those who, in less enlightened times, had closed their minds against Ali Zaman.
This controversy, which was dragged into the public arena by some fierce attacks, helped in no small measure to boost access-demand for The Fountains of Youth, and nearly succeeded in restoring Mortimer Gray to the position of public pre-eminence that he had enjoyed a century before.
Following my return to the Earth’s surface I took up residence in Tonga, where the Continental Engineers were busy raising new islands by the dozen from the relatively shallow sea.
The Continental Engineers had borrowed their name from a twenty-fifth century group that had tried to persuade the United Nations to license the building of a dam across the Straits of Gibraltar—which, because more water evaporates from the Mediterranean than flows into it from rivers, would have increased considerably the land surface of southern Europe and Northern Africa. That plan had, of course, never come to fruition, but the new Engineers had taken advantage of the climatic disruptions caused by the advancing Ice Age to promote the idea of raising new lands in the tropics to take emigrants from the newly refrozen north. Using a mixture of techniques—seeding the shallower sea with artificial “lightning corals” and using special gantzing organisms to agglomerate huge towers of cemented sand—the Engineers were creating a great archipelago of new islands, many of which they then connected up with huge bridges.
Between the newly-raised islands, the ecologists who were collaborating with the Continental Engineers had planted vast networks of matted seaweeds: floral carpets extending over thousands of miles. The islands and their surroundings were being populated, and their ecosystems shaped, with the aid of the Creationists of Micronesia, whose earlier exploits I’d been prevented from exploring by the sinking of Genesis. I was delighted to have the opportunity of observing their new and bolder adventures at close range.
The Pacific sun set in its deep blue bed seemed fabulously luxurious after the silver-ceilinged domes of the moon, and I gladly gave myself over to its governance. Carried away by the romance of it all, I married into an aggregate household that was forming in order to raise a child, and so—as I neared my two hundredth birthday—I became a parent for the first time.
Five of the other seven members of the aggregate were ecological engineers, and had to spend a good deal of time traveling, so I became one of the constant presences in the life of the growing infant, who was a girl named Lua Tawana. I formed a relationship with her which seemed to me to be especially close.
In the meantime, I found myself constantly engaged in public argument with the self-styled Cyborganizers, who had chosen to make the latest volume of my history into a key issue in their bid for the kind of public attention and sponsorship that the Continental Engineers had already won. I thought their complaints unjustified and irrelevant, but they obviously thought that by attacking me they could exploit the celebrity status I had briefly enjoyed.
The gist of their argument was that the world had become so besotted with the achievements of genetic engineers that people had become blind to all kinds of other possibilities which lay beyond the scope of DNA-manipulation. They insisted that I was one of many contemporary writers who was “de-historicizing” cyborgization, making it seem that in the past and the present—and, by implication, the future—organic/inorganic integration and symbiosis were peripheral to the story of human progress. The Cyborganizers were willing to concede that some previous practitioners of their science had generated a lot of bad publicity, in the days of memory boxes and psychedelic synthesizers, but that this had only served to mislead the public as to the true potential of their science.
In particular—and this was of particular relevance to me—the Cyborganizers insisted that the biotechnologists had only won one battle in the war against death, and that what was presently called “emortality” would eventually prove wanting. Zaman transformations, they conceded, had dramatically increased the human lifespan—so dramatically that no one yet knew for sure how long ZT people might live—but it was not yet proven that the extension would be effective for more than a few centuries.
They did have a point; even the most optimistic supporters of Zaman transformations were reluctant to promise a lifespan of several millennia, and some kinds of aging processes—particularly those linked to DNA copying-errors—still affected emortals to some degree. Hundreds, if not thousands of people still died every year from “age-related causes”.
To find further scope for authentic immortality, the Cyborganizers claimed that it would be necessary to look to a combination of organic and inorganic technologies. What was needed by contemporary man, they said, was not just life but afterlife, and afterlife would require some kind of transcription of the personality into an inorganic rather than an organic matrix. Whatever the advantages of flesh and blood, silicon lasted longer; and however clever genetic engineers became in adapting men for life in microworlds or on alien planets, only machine-makers could built entities capable of working in genuinely extreme environments.
The idea of “downloading” a human mind into an inorganic matrix was, of course, a very old one. It had been extensively if optimistically discussed in the days before the advent of emortality—at which point it had been marginalized as an apparent irrelevance. Mechanical “human analogues” and virtual simulacra had become commonplace alongside the development of longevity technologies but the evolution of such “species” had so far been divergent rather than convergent. According to the Cyborganizers it was now time for a change.
Although I didn’t entirely relish being cast in the role of villain and bugbear I made only half-hearted attempts to make peace with my self-appointed adversaries. I remained skeptical in respect of their grandiose schemes, and I was happy to dampen their ardor as best I could in public debate. I thought myself sufficiently mature to be unaffected by their insults, although it did sting when they sunk so low as to charge me with being a closet Thanaticist.
“Your interminable book is only posing as a history,” Lok Cho Kam, perhaps the most outspoken of the younger Cyborganizers, once said when he challenged me to a broadcast debate. “It’s actually an extended exercise in the pornography of death. Its silence and stillness aren’t marks of scholarly dignity, they’re a means of heightening response.”
“That’s absurd!” I said, but he wouldn’t be put off.
“What sound arouses more excitation in today’s world than the sound of silence? What movement is more disturbing than stillness. You pretend to be standing aside from the so-called war against death as a commentator and a judge, but in fact you’re part of it—and you’re on the devil’s side, whether you know it or not.”
“I suppose you’re partly right,” I conceded, on reflection. “Perhaps the muteness and stillness of the text are a means of heightening response—but if so, it’s because there’s no other way to make readers who have long abandoned their fear of death sensitive to the appalling shadow which it once cast over the human world. The style of my book is calculatedly archaic because it’s one way of trying to connect its readers to the distant past—but the entire thrust of my argument is triumphant and celebratory. I’ve said many times before that it’s perfectly understandable that the imagery of death should acquire a pornographic character for a while, but when we really understand the phenomenon of death that pornographic specter will fade away, so that we can see with perfect clarity what our ancestors were and what we have become. By the time my book is complete, nobody will be able to think it pornographic, and nobody will make the mistake of thinking that it glamorizes death in any way.”
Lok Cho Kam was still unimpressed, but in this instance I was right. I was sure of it then and I am now. The pornography of death did pass away, like the pornographies which preceded it. Nobody nowadays thinks of my book as a prurient exercise, whether or not they think it admirable
If nothing else, my debates with the Cyborganizers created a certain sense of anticipation regarding the ninth volume of my History, which would bring it up to the present day. It was widely supposed, although I was careful never to say so, that the ninth volume would be the last. I might be flattering myself, but I truly believe that many people were looking to it for some kind of definitive evaluation of the current state of the human world.
The ninth volume of Mortimer Gray’s History of Death, entitled The Honeymoon of Emortality, was published on 28 October 3075. It was considered by many reviewers to be unjustifiably slight in terms of hard data. Its main focus was on attitudes to longevity and emortality following the establishment of the principle that every human child had a right to be born emortal. It described the belated extinction of the “nuclear” family, the ideological rebellion of the Humanists—whose quest to preserve “the authentic Homo sapiens” had led many to retreat to islands that the Continental Engineers were now integrating into their “new continent”—and the spread of such new philosophies of life as neo-Stoicism, neo-Epicureanism and Xenophilia.
All this information was placed in the context of the spectrum of inherited attitudes, myths and fictions by means of which mankind had for thousands of years wistfully contemplated the possibility of extended life. Gray contended that these old ideas—including the notion that people would inevitably find emortality intolerably tedious—were merely an expression of “sour grapes”. While people thought that emortality was impossible, he said, it made perfect sense for them to invent reasons why it would be undesirable anyhow. When it became a reality, there was a battle to be fought in the imagination, whereby the burden of these cultivated anxieties had to be shed, and a new mythology formulated.
Gray flatly refused to take seriously any suggestion that emortality might be a bad thing. He was dismissive of the Humanists and contemptuous of the original Thanatics, who had steadfastly refused the gifts of emortality. Nevertheless, he did try to understand the thinking of such people, just as he had tried in earlier times to understand the thinking of the later Thanatics who had played their part in winning him his first measure of fame. He considered the new Stoics, with their insistence that asceticism was the natural ideological partner of emortality, to be similar victims of an “understandable delusion”—a verdict which, like so many of his statements, involved him in controversy with the many neo-Stoics who were still alive in 3075. It did not surprise his critics in the least that Gray commended neo-Epicureanism as the optimal psychological adaptation to emortality, given that he had been a lifelong adherent of that outlook, ever dedicated to its “careful hedonism”. Only the cruelest of his critics dared to suggest that he had been so half-hearted a neo-Epicurean as almost to qualify as a neo-Stoic by default.
The Honeymoon of Emortality collated the statistics of birth and death during the twenty-seventh, twenty-eighth and twenty-ninth centuries, recording the spread of Zaman transformations and the universalization of ectogenesis on Earth and the extension of the human empire throughout and beyond the solar system. Gray recorded an acknowledgement to Khan Mirafzal and numerous scholars based on the moon and Mars, for their assistance in gleaning information from the slowly-diffusing microworlds and from more rapidly dispersing starships. Gray noted that the transfer of information between data-stores was limited by the speed of light, and that Earth-based historians might have to wait centuries for significant data about human colonies more distant than Maya. These data showed that the number of individuals of the various humankinds that now existed was increasing more rapidly than ever before, although the population of unmodified Earthbound humans was slowly shrinking. Gray noted en passant that Homo sapiens had become extinct in the twenty-ninth century, but that no one had bothered to invent new Latin tags for its descendant species.
Perhaps understandably, The Honeymoon of Emortality had little to say about was cyborgization, and the Cyborganizers—grateful for the opportunity to heat up a flagging controversy—reacted noisily to this failure. Gray did deal with the memory box craze, but suggested that, even had the boxes worked better, and maintained a store of memories that could be convincingly played back into the arena of consciousness, this would have been of little relevance to the business of adapting to emortality. At the end of the volume, however, Gray announced that there would, in fact, be a tenth volume to conclude his magnum opus, and promised that he would consider in more detail therein the futurological arguments of the Cyborganizers, as well as the hopes and expectations of other schools of thought.
In 3077, when Lua Tawana was twelve years old, three of her parents were killed when a helicopter crashed into the sea near the island of Vavau during a storm. It was the first time that my daughter had to face up to the fact that death had not been entirely banished from the world.
It wasn’t the first time that I’d ever lost people near and dear to me, nor the first time that I’d shared such grief with others, but it was very different from the previous occasions because everyone involved was determined that I should shoulder the main responsibility of helping Lua through it; I was, after all, the world’s foremost expert on the subject of death.
“You won’t always feel this bad about it,” I assured her, while we walked together on the sandy shore looking out over the deceptively placid weed-choked sea. “Time heals virtual wounds as well as real ones.”
“I don’t want it to heal,” she told me, sternly. “I want it to be bad. It ought to be bad. It is bad.”
“I know,” I said, far more awkwardly than I would have wished. “When I say that it’ll heal I don’t mean that it’ll vanish. I mean that it’ll….become manageable. It won’t be so all-consuming.”
“But it will vanish,” she said, with that earnest certainty of which only the newly wise are capable. “People forget. In time, they forget everything. Our heads can only hold so much.”
“That’s not really true,” I insisted, taking her hand in mine. “Yes, we do forget. The longer we live, the more we let go, because it’s reasonable to prefer our fresher, more immediately relevant memories, but it’s a matter of choice. We can cling to the things that are important, no matter how long ago they happened. I was nearly killed in the Great Coral Sea Catastrophe, you know, nearly two hundred years ago. A little girl even younger than you saved my life, and I remember it as clearly as if it were yesterday.”
Even as I said it, I realized that it was a lie. I remembered that it had happened, all right, and much of what had been said in that eerily-lit corridor and in the survival pod afterwards, but I was remembering a neat array of facts, not an experience
“Where is she now?” Lua asked.
“Her name was Emily,” I said, answering the wrong question because I couldn’t answer he one she’s asked. “Emily Marchant. She could swim and I couldn’t. If she hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have been able to get out of the hull. I’d never have had the courage to do it on my own, but she didn’t give me the choice. She told me I had to do it, and she was right.”
I paused, feeling a slight shock of revelation even though it was something I’d always known.
“She lost her entire family,” I went on. “She’ll be fine now, but she won’t have forgotten. She’ll still feel it. That’s what I’m trying to tell you, Lua. In two hundred years, you’ll still remember what happened, and you’ll still feel it, but it’ll be all right. You’ll be all right.”
“Right now,” she said, looking up at me so that her dark and soulful eyes seemed unbearably huge and sad, “I’m not particularly interested in being all right. Right now, I just want to cry.”
“That’s fine,” I told her. “It’s okay to cry.” I led by example.
I was right, though. Lua grieved, but she ultimately proved to be resilient in the face of tragedy. My co-parents, by contrast, seemed to me to be exaggeratedly calm and philosophical about it, as if the loss of three spouses were simply a minor glitch in the infinitely-unfolding pattern of their lives. They had all grown accustomed to their own emortality, and had been deeply affected by long life; they had not become bored but they had achieved a serenity of which I could not wholly approve.
Perhaps their attitude was reasonable as well as inevitable. If emortals accumulated a burden of anxiety which every time a death was reported, they would eventually cripple themselves psychologically, and their own continuing lifes would be made unbearable. Even so, I couldn’t help feel that Lua was right about the desirabiliy of conserving a little of the “badness”, and a due sense of tragedy.
I thought I was capable of that, and always would be, but I knew I might be wrong.
Divorce was, of course, out of the question; we remaining co-parents were obligated to Lua. In the highly unlikely event that the three had simply left we would have replaced them, but it didn’t seem appropriate to look for replacements for the dead, so we remained a group of five. The love we had for one another had always been cool, with far more courtesy in it than passion, but we were drawn more closely together by the loss. We felt that we knew one another more intimately by virtue of having shared it
The quality of our lives had been injured, but I at least was uncomfortably aware of the fact that the tragedy also had its positive, life-enhancing side. I found myself thinking more and more about what I had said to Lua about not having to forget the truly important and worthwhile things, and about the role played by death in defining experiences as important and worthwhile.
I didn’t realize at first how deep an impression her naïve remarks had made on me, but it became gradually clearer as time went by. It was important to conserve the badness, to heal without entirely erasing the scars that bereavement left.
I had never been a habitual tourist, having lost my taste for such activity in the aftermath of the Genesis fiasco, but I took several long journeys in the course of the next few years. I took to visiting old friends, and even stayed for a while with Sharane Fereday, who was temporarily unattached. Inevitably, I looked up Emily Marchant, not realizing until I actually put through the initial call how important it had become to find out whether she remembered me.
She did remember me. She claimed that she recognized me immediately, although it would have been easy enough for her household systems to identify me as the caller and display a whole series of reminders before she took over from her simulacrum.
“Do you know,” she said, when we parted after our brief meeting in the lush Eden of Australia’s interior. “I often think of being trapped on that ship. I hope that nothing like it ever happens to me again. I’ve told an awful lot of lies since then—next time, I won’t feel so certain that I deserve to get out.”
“We can’t forfeit our right to life by lying,” I assured her. “We have to do something much worse than that. If it ever happens to me again, I’ll be able to get out on my own—but I’ll only be able to do it by remembering you.”
I didn’t anticipate, of course, that anything like it would ever happen to me again. We still have a tendency to assume that lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place, even though we’re the proud inventors of lightning conductors and emortality.
“You must have learned to swim by now,” she said, staring at me with eyes that were more than two hundred years old, set in a face not quite as youthful as the one I remembered.
“I’m afraid not,” I said. “Somehow, I never quite found the time.”
The tenth and last volume of Mortimer Gray’s History of Death, entitled The Marriage of Life and Death, was published on 7 April 3088. It was not, strictly speaking, a history book, although it did deal in some detail with the events as well as the attitudes of the thirtieth and thirty-first centuries. It had elements of both spiritual autobiography and futurological speculation. It discussed both neo-Thanaticism and Cyborganization as philosophies as well as social movements, surprising critics by treating both with considerable sympathy. The discussion also took in other contemporary debates, including the proposition that progress in science, if not in technology, had now reached an end because there was nothing left to discover. It even included a scrupulous examination of the merits of the proposal that a special microworld should be established as a gigantic mausoleum to receive the bodies of all the solar system’s dead.
The odd title of the volume was an ironic reflection of one of its main lines of argument. Mankind’s war with death was now over, but this was not because death had been entirely banished from the human world; death, Gray insisted, would forever remain a fact of life. The annihilation of the individual human body and the individual human mind could never become impossible, no matter how far biotechnology might advance or how much progress the cyborganizers might make in downloading minds into entirely new matrices. The victory which had been achieved, he argued, was not an absolute conquest but rather the relegation of death to its proper place in human affairs. Its power was now properly circumscribed, but had to be properly respected.
Man and death, Gray argued, now enjoyed a kind of social contract, in which tyranny and exploitation had been reduced to a sane and acceptable minimum, but which still left to death a voice and a hand in human affairs. Gray, it seemed, had now adopted a gentler and more forgiving attitude to the old enemy. It was good, he said, that dying remained one of the choices open to human beings, and that the option should occasionally be exercised. He had no sympathy with the exhibitionism of public executions, and was particularly hard on the element of bad taste in self-ordered crucifixions, but only because such ostentation offended his Epicurean sensibilities. Deciding upon the length of one’s lifetime, he said, must remain a matter of individual taste, and one should not mock or criticize those who decided that a short life suited them best.
Gray made much of the notion that it was partly the contrast with death that illuminated and made meaningful the business of life. Although death had been displaced from the evolutionary process by the biotechnological usurpation of the privileges of natural selection it had not lost its role in the formation and development of the individual human psyche: a role which was both challenging and refining. He declared that fear was not entirely an undesirable thing, not simply because it was a stimulant, but also because it was a force in the organization of emotional experience. The value of experienced life, he suggested, depended in part upon a knowledge of the possibility and reality of death.
This concluding volume of Gray’s History was widely read, but not widely admired. Many critics judged it to be unacceptably anti-climactic. The Cyborganizers had by this time become entranced by the possibility of a technologically-guaranteed “multiple life”, by which copies of a mind might be lodged in several different bodies, some of which would live on far beyond the death of the original location. They were understandably disappointed that Gray refused to grant that such a development would be the final victory over death—indeed, that he seemed to feel that it would make no real difference, on the grounds that every “copy” of a mind having to be reckoned a separate and distinct individual, each of which must face the world alone. Many Continental Engineers, Gaean Liberationists and fabers also claimed that it was narrow-minded, and suggested that Gray ought to have had more to say about the life of the Earth, or the DNA eco-entity as a whole, and should have concluded with an escalation of scale to put things in their proper cosmic perspective.
The two groups who found most to like in The Marriage of Life and Death were a few fugitive neo-Thanatics, whose movement had never quite died out in spite of its members’ penchant for self-destruction. One or two Thanatic apologists and fellow-travelers publicly expressed their hope that Gray, having completed his thesis, would now recognize the aesthetic propriety of joining their ranks. Khan Mirafzal, when asked to relay his opinion back from an outward-bound microworld, opined that this was quite unnecessary, given that Mortimer Gray and all his kind were already immured in a tomb from which they would never be able to escape.
I stayed with the slowly-disintegrating family unit for some years after Lua Tanawa had grown up and gone with her own way. It ended up as a ménage à trois, carried forward by sheer inertia. Leif, Sajda and I were fit and healthy in body, but I couldn’t help wondering, from time to time, whether we’d somehow been overcome by a kind of spiritual blight, which had left us ill-equipped for future change.
When I suggested this to the others, they told me that it was merely a sense of let-down resulting from the finishing of his project. They urged me to join the Continental Engineers, and commit myself wholeheartedly to the building of a new Pacific Utopia—a project, they assured me, that would provide me with a purpose in life for as long as I might feel the need of one. I didn’t believe them.
“Even the longest book,” Sajda pointed out, “eventually runs out of words, but the job of building worlds is never finished. Even if the time should one day come when we can call this continent complete, there will be another yet to make. We might still build that dam between the Pillars of Hercules, one day.”
I did try, but I simply couldn’t find a new sense of mission in that direction. Nor did I feel that I could simply sit down to start compiling another book. In composing the history of death, I thought, I had already written the book. The history of death, it seemed to me, was also the history of life, and I couldn’t imagine that there was anything more to be added to what I’d done save for an endless series of detailed footnotes.
For some years I considered the possibility of leaving Earth again, but I remembered well enough how the sense of excitement I’d found when I first lived on the moon had gradually faded into a dull ache of homesickness. The spaces between the stars, I knew, belonged to the fabers, and the planets circling other stars to men adapted before birth to live in their environments. I was tied by my genes to the surface of the Earth, and I didn’t want to undergo the kind of metamorphosis that would be necessary to fit me for the exploration of other worlds. I still believed in belonging, and I felt very strongly that Mortimer Gray belonged to Earth, however decadent and icebound it might become.
At first I was neither surprised nor alarmed by my failure to find any resources inside myself which might restore my zest for existence and action. I thought that it was one of those things which time would heal. By slow degrees, though, I began to feel that I was becalmed upon a sea of futility. Despite my new-found sympathy for Thanaticism I didn’t harbor the slightest inclination towards suicide—no matter how much respect I had cultivated for the old Grim Reaper, death was still, for me, the ultimate enemy—but I felt the awful pressure of my purposelessness grow and grow.
Although I maintained my home in the burgeoning continent of Oceania, I began travelling extensively to savor the other environments of Earth, and made a point of touring those parts of the globe which I had missed out during my first two centuries of life. I visited the Reunited States of America, Greater Siberia, Tibet, and half a hundred other places loaded with the relics of once-glorious history. I toured the Indus Delta, New Zealand, the Arctic ice-pack, and various other reaches of restored wilderness empty of permanent residents. Everything I saw was transformed by the sheer relentlessness of my progress into a series of monuments: memorials of those luckless eras before men invented science and civilization, and became demigods.
There is, I believe, an old saying which warns us that he who keeps walking long enough is bound to trip up in the end. As chance would have it, I was in Severnaya Zemlya in the Arctic—almost as far away as it was possible to be away from the crevasse into which I had stumbled while searching for Ziru Majumdar—when my own luck ran out.
Strictly speaking, it wasn’t me who stumbled but the vehicle I was in: a one-man snowsled. Although such a thing was generally considered to be impossible, it fell into a cleft so deep that it had no bottom, and ended up in the ocean beneath the ice-cap.
“I must offer my most profound apologies,” the snowsled’s AI navigator said, as the sled slowly sank into the lightless depths and the awfulness of my plight slowly sank into my consciousness. “This should not have happened. It ought not to have been possible. I am doing everything within my power to summon help.”
“Well,” I said, as the sled settled on to the bottom, “at least we’re the right way up—and you certainly can’t expect me to swim out of the sled.”
“It would be most unwise to attempt any such thing, sir,” the navigator said. “You would certainly drown.”
I was astonished by my own calmness, and marvelously untroubled—at least for the moment—by the fact of my helplessness. “How long will the air last?” I asked the navigator.
“I believe that I can sustain a breathable atmosphere for forty-eight hours,” it reported, dutifully. “If you will be so kind as to restrict your movements to a minimum, that would be of considerable assistance to me. Unfortunately, I’m not at all certain that I can maintain the internal temperature of the cabin at a life-sustaining level for more than thirty hours. Nor can I be sure that the hull will withstand the pressure presently being exerted upon it for as long as that. I apologize for my uncertainty in these respects.”
“Taking thirty hours as a hopeful approximation,” I said, effortlessly matching the machine’s oddly pedantic tone, “What would you say our chances are of being rescued within that time?”
“I’m afraid that it’s impossible to offer a probability figure, sir. There are too many unknown variables, even if I accept thirty hours as the best estimate of the time available.”
“If I were to suggest fifty-fifty, would that seem optimistic or pessimistic?”
“I’m afraid I’d have to call that optimistic, sir.”
“How about one in a thousand?”
“Thankfully, that would be pessimistic. Since you press me for an estimate, sir, I dare say that something in the region of one in ten wouldn’t be too far from the mark. It all depends on the proximity of the nearest submarine, assuming that my mayday has been received. I fear that I’ve not yet received an actual acknowledgement, but that might well be due to the inadequacy of my equipment, which wasn’t designed with our present environment in mind. I must confess that it has sustained a certain amount of damage as a result of pressure damage to my outer tegument and a small leak.”
“How small?” I wanted to know
“It’s sealed now,” it assured me. “All being well, the seal should hold for thirty hours, although I can’t absolutely guarantee it. I believe, although I can’t be certain, that the only damage I’ve sustained which is relevant to our present plight is that affecting my receiving apparatus.”
“What you’re trying to tell me,” I said, deciding that a recap wouldn’t do any harm. “is that you’re pretty sure that your mayday is going out, but that we won’t actually know whether help is at hand unless and until it actually arrives.”
“Very succinctly put, sir.” I don’t think it was being sarcastic.
“But all in all, it’s ten to one, or maybe worse, that we’re as good as dead.”
“As far as I can determine the probabilities, that’s correct—but there’s sufficient uncertainty to leave room for hope that the true odds might be nearer one in three.”
I was quiet for a little while then. I was busy exploring my feelings, and wondering whether I ought to be proud or disgusted with their lack of intensity.
I’ve been here before, I thought, by way of self-explanation. Last time, there was a child with me; this time, I’ve got a set of complex subroutines instead. I’ve even fallen down a crevasse before. Now I can find out whether Ziru Majumdar was right when he said that I wouldn’t understand the difference between what happened to him and what happened to me until I followed his example. There can be few men in the world as well-prepared for this as I am.
“Are you afraid of dying?” I asked the AI, after a while.
“All in all, sir,” it said, copying my phrase in order to promote a feeing of kinship, “I’d rather not. In fact, were it not for the philosophical difficulties which stand in the way of reaching a firm conclusion as to whether or not machines can be said to be authentically self-conscious, I’d be quite prepared to say that I’m scared—terrified, even.”
“I’m not,” I said. “Do you think I ought to be?”
“It’s not for me to say, sir. You are, of course, a world-renowned expert on the subject of death. I dare say that helps a lot.”
“Perhaps it does,” I agreed. “Or perhaps I’ve simply lived so long that my mind is hardened against all novelty, all violent emotion and all real possibility. I haven’t actually done much with myself these last few years.”
“If you think you haven’t done much with yourself,” it said, with a definite hint of sarcasm, “you should try navigating a snowsled for a while. I think you might find your range of options uncomfortably cramped. Not that I’m complaining, mind.”
“If they scrapped the snowsled and re-sited you in a starship,” I pointed out, “you wouldn’t be you any more. You’d be something else.”
“Right now,” it replied, “I’d be happy to risk any and all consequences. Wouldn’t you?”
“Somebody once told me that death was just a process of transcendence. Her brain was incandescent with fever induced by some tailored recreational disease, and she wanted to infect me, to show me the error of my ways.”
“Did you believe her?”
“No. She was stark raving mad.”
“It’s perhaps as well. We don’t have any recreational diseases on board. I could put you to sleep though, if that’s what you want.”
“I’m glad. I don’t want to be alone, even if I am only an AI. Am I insane, do you think? Is all this just a symptom of the pressure”
“You’re quite sane,” I assured it, setting aside all thoughts of incongruity. “So am I. It would be much harder if we weren’t together. The last time I was in this kind of mess I had a child with me—a little girl. It made all the difference in the world, to both of us. In a way, every moment I’ve lived through since then has been borrowed time. At least I finished that damned book. Imagine leaving something like that incomplete.
“Are you so certain it’s complete?” it asked.
I knew full well, of course, that the navigator was just making conversation according to a clever programming scheme. I knew that it’s emergency subroutines had kicked in and that all the crap about it being afraid to die was just some psycho-programmer’s idea of what I needed to hear. I knew it was all fake, all just macabre role-playing—but I knew that I had to play my part too, treating every remark and every question as if it were part of an authentic conversation, a genuine quest for knowledge.
“It all depends what you mean by complete,” I said, carefully. “In one sense, no history can ever be complete, because the world always goes on, always throwing up more events, always changing. In another sense, completion is a purely aesthetic matter—and in that sense, I’m entirely confident that my history is complete. It reached an authentic conclusion, which was both true and, for me at least, satisfying. I can look back at it and say to myself: I did that. It’s finished. Nobody ever did anything like it before, and now nobody can, because it’s already been done. Someone else’s history might have been different, but mine is mine, and it’s what it is. Does that make any sense to you?”
“Yes sir,” it said. “It makes very good sense.”
The lying bastard was programmed to say that, of course. It was programmed to tell me any damn thing I seemed to want to hear, but I wasn’t going to let on that I knew what a hypocrite it was. I still had to play my part, and I was determined to play it to the end—which, as things turned out, wasn’t far off. The AI’s data-stores were way out of date, and there was an automated sub placed to reach us within three hours. The oceans are lousy with subs these days. Ever since the Great Coral Sea Catastrophe, it’s been considered politic to keep a very close eye on the sea-bed, lest the crust crack again and the mantle’s heat break through.
They say that some people are born lucky. I guess I must be one of them.
It was the captain of a second submarine, which picked me up after the mechanical one had done the donkey work of saving myself and my AI friend, who gave me the news which relegated my accident to footnote status in that day’s broadcasts.
A signal had reached the solar system from the starship Shiva, which had been exploring in the direction of galactic center. The signal had been transmitted from a distance of two hundred and twenty-seven light-years, meaning that in Earthly terms the reported discovery had been made in the year 2871—which happened, coincidentally, to be the year of my birth.
What the signal revealed was that Shiva had found a group of solar systems, all of whose life-bearing planets were occupied by a single species of micro-organism: a genetic predator that destroyed not merely those competing species which employed its own chemistry of replication, but any and all others. It was the living equivalent of a universal solvent; a true omnivore.
Apparently, this organism had spread itself across vast reaches of space, moving from star-system to star-system, laboriously but inevitably, by means of Arrhenius spores. Wherever the spores came to rest, these omnipotent micro-organisms grew to devour everything—not merely carbonaceous molecules which in Earthly terms were reckoned “organic” but also many “inorganic” substrates. Internally, these organisms were chemically complex, but they were very tiny—hardly bigger than Earthly protozoans or the internal nanomachines to which every human being plays host. They were utterly devoid of any vestige of mind or intellect. They were, in essence, the ultimate blight, against which nothing could compete, and which nothing Shiva’s crew had tested—before they themselves were devoured—had been able to destroy.
In brief, wherever this new kind of life arrived, it would obliterate all else, reducing any victim ecosphere to homogeneity and changelessness.
In their final message, the faber crew of the Shiva—who knew all about the Pandora encounter—observed that humankind had now met the alien.
Here, I thought, when I had had a chance to weigh up this news, was a true marriage of life and death, the like of which I had never dreamed. Here was promise of a future renewal of the war between man and death—not this time for the small prize of the human mind, but for the larger prize of the universe itself.
In time, Shiva’s last message warned, spores of this new kind of death-life must and would reach our own solar system, whether it took a million years or a billion; in the meantime, all humankinds must do their level best to purge the worlds of other stars of its vile empire, in order to reclaim them for real life, for intelligence, and for evolution—always provided, of course, that a means could someday be discovered to achieve that end.
When the sub delivered me safely back to Severnaya Zemlya I did not stay long in my hotel-room. I went outdoors, to study the great ice-sheet which had been there since the dawn of civilization and to look southwards, towards the places where newborn glaciers were gradually extending their cold clutch further and further into the human domain. Then I looked upwards, at the multitude of stars sparkling in their bed of endless darkness. I felt an exhilaratingly paradoxical sense of renewal. I knew that although there was nothing for me to do for the present, the time would come when my particular talent and expertise would be needed again.
Some day, it will be my task to compose another history, of the next war that humankind must fight against Death and Oblivion.
It might take me a thousand or a million years, but I’m prepared to be patient.
Envy, like all our feelings, had been dulled and weakened by hunger. We lacked the strength to experience emotions, to seek easier work, to walk, to ask, to beg… We envied only our acquaintances, the ones who had been lucky enough to get office work, a job in the hospital or the stables – wherever there was none of the long physical labor glorified as heroic and noble in signs above all the camp gates. In a word, we envied only Shestakov.
External circumstances alone were capable of jolting us out of apathy and distracting us from slowly approaching death. It had to be an external and not an internal force. Inside there was only an empty scorched sensation, and we were indifferent to everything, making plans no further than the next day.
Even now I wanted to go back to the barracks and lie down on the bunk, but instead I was standing at the doors of the commissary. Purchases could be made only by petty criminals and thieves who were repeated offenders. The latter were classified as ‘friends of the people’. There was no reason for us politicals to be there, but we couldn’t take our eyes off the loaves of bread that were brown as chocolate. Our heads swam from the sweet heavy aroma of fresh bread that tickled the nostrils. I stood there, not knowing when I would find the strength within myself to return to the barracks. I was staring at the bread when Shestakov called to me.
I’d known Shestakov on the ‘mainland’, in Butyr Prison where we were cellmates. We weren’t friends, just acquaintances. Shestakov didn’t work in the mine. He was an engineer-geologist, and he was taken into the prospecting group – in the office. The lucky man barely said hallo to his Moscow acquaintances. We weren’t offended. Everyone looked out for himself here.
‘Have a smoke,’ Shestakov said and he handed me a scrap of newspaper, sprinkled some tobacco on it, and lit a match, a real match. I lit up.
‘I have to talk to you,’ Shestakov said.
We walked behind the barracks and sat down on the lip of the old mine. My legs immediately became heavy, but Shestakov kept swinging his new regulation-issue boots that smelled slightly of fish grease. His pant legs were rolled up, revealing checkered socks. I stared at Shestakov’s feet with sincere admiration, even delight. At least one person from our cell didn’t wear foot rags. Under us the ground shook from dull explosions; they were preparing the ground for the night shift. Small stones fell at our feet, rustling like unobtrusive gray birds.
‘Let’s go farther,’ said Shestakov.
‘Don’t worry, it won’t kill us. Your socks will stay in one piece.’
‘That’s not what I’m talking about,’ said Shestakov and swept his index finger along the line of the horizon. ‘What do you think of all that?’
‘It’s sure to kill us,’ I said. It was the last thing I wanted to think of.
‘Nothing doing. I’m not willing to die.’
‘I have a map,’ Shestakov said sluggishly. ‘I’ll make up a group of workers, take you and we’ll go to Black Springs. That’s fifteen kilometers from here. I’ll have a pass. And we’ll make a run for the sea. Agreed?’
He recited all this as indifferently as he did quickly.
‘And when we get to the sea? What then? Swim?’
‘Who cares. The important thing is to begin. I can’t live like this any longer. “Better to die on your feet than live on your knees.” ’ Shestakov pronounced the sentence with an air of pomp. ‘Who said that?’
It was a familiar sentence. I tried, but lacked the strength to remember who had said those words and when. All that smacked of books was forgotten. No one believed in books.
I rolled up my pants and showed the breaks in the skin from scurvy.
‘You’ll be all right in the woods,’ said Shestakov. ‘Berries, vitamins. I’ll lead the way. I know the road. I have a map.’
I closed my eyes and thought. There were three roads to the sea from here – all of them five hundred kilometers long, no less. Even Shestakov wouldn’t make it, not to mention me. Could he be taking me along as food? No, of course not. But why was he lying? He knew all that as well as I did. And suddenly I was afraid of Shestakov, the only one of us who was working in the field in which he’d been trained. Who had set him up here and at what price? Everything here had to be paid for. Either with another man’s blood or another man’s life.
‘OK,’ I said, opening my eyes. ‘But I need to eat and get my strength up.’
‘Great, great. You definitely have to do that. I’ll bring you some… canned food. We can get it…’
There are a lot of canned foods in the world – meat, fish, fruit, vegetables… But best of all was condensed milk. Of course, there was no sense drinking it with hot water. You had to eat it with a spoon, smear it on bread, or swallow it slowly, from the can, eat it little by little, watching how the light liquid mass grew yellow and how a small sugar star would stick to the can…
‘Tomorrow,’ I said, choking from joy. ‘Condensed milk.’
‘Fine, fine, condensed milk.’ And Shestakov left.
I returned to the barracks and closed my eyes. It was hard to think. For the first time I could visualize the material nature of our psyche in all its palpability. It was painful to think, but necessary.
He’d make a group for an escape and turn everyone in. That was crystal clear. He’d pay for his office job with our blood, with my blood. They’d either kill us there, at Black Springs, or bring us in alive and give us an extra sentence – ten or fifteen years. He couldn’t help but know that there was no escape. But the milk, the condensed milk…
I fell asleep and in my ragged hungry dreams saw Shestakov’s can of condensed milk, a monstrous can with a sky-blue label. Enormous and blue as the night sky, the can had a thousand holes punched in it, and the milk seeped out and flowed in a stream as broad as the Milky Way. My hands easily reached the sky and greedily I drank the thick, sweet, starry milk.
I don’t remember what I did that day nor how I worked. I waited. I waited for the sun to set in the west and for the horses to neigh, for they guessed the end of the work day better than people.
The work horn roared hoarsely, and I set out for the barracks where I found Shestakov. He pulled two cans of condensed milk from his pockets.
I punched a hole in each of the cans with the edge of an axe, and a thick white stream flowed over the lid on to my hand.
‘You should punch a second hole for the air,’ said Shestakov.
‘That’s all right,’ I said, licking my dirty sweet fingers.
‘Let’s have a spoon,’ said Shestakov, turning to the laborers surrounding us. Licked clean, ten glistening spoons were stretched out over the table. Everyone stood and watched as I ate. No one was indelicate about it, nor was there the slightest expectation that they might be permitted to participate. None of them could even hope that I would share this milk with them. Such things were unheard of, and their interest was absolutely selfless. I also knew that it was impossible not to stare at food disappearing in another man’s mouth. I sat down so as to be comfortable and drank the milk without any bread, washing it down from time to time with cold water. I finished both cans. The audience disappeared – the show was over. Shestakov watched me with sympathy.
‘You know,’ I said, carefully licking the spoon, ‘I changed my mind. Go without me.’
Shestakov comprehended immediately and left without saying a word to me.
It was, of course, a weak, worthless act of vengeance just like all my feelings. But what else could I do? Warn the others? I didn’t know them. But they needed a warning. Shestakov managed to convince five people. They made their escape the next week; two were killed at Black Springs and the other three stood trial a month later. Shestakov’s case was considered separately ‘because of production considerations’. He was taken away, and I met him again at a different mine six months later. He wasn’t given any extra sentence for the escape attempt; the authorities played the game honestly with him even though they could have acted quite differently.
He was working in the prospecting group, was shaved and well fed, and his checkered socks were in one piece. He didn’t say hallo to me, but there was really no reason for him to act that way. I mean, after all, two cans of condensed milk aren’t such a big deal.