One morning, after a fall of snow.
Yasukichi sat on a chair in the physics teachers’ lounge, watching the flames in the heating stove. The flames licked up yellow one moment, then fell to sooty ruins the next, as if they were breathing: proof of their continued struggle against the cold that filled the room. Yasukichi thought of the interplanetary chill beyond the earth’s atmosphere, and felt something akin to sympathy for the brightly glowing embers.
Yasukichi looked up at the physicist called Miyamoto who had stepped in front of the stove. Hands tucked into his trouser pockets, the bespectacled Miyamoto wore a good-natured smile beneath his thin moustache.
“Mr. Horikawa. Tell me, are you aware that even women are physical objects?”
“I’m aware that they are physical beings.”
“Not beings. Objects. It’s a fact that I’ve recently discovered myself, after no small effort.”
“Mr. Horikawa, you mustn’t take Mr. Miyamoto too seriously.”
This was the other instructor, a physicist called Hasegawa. Yasukichi turned to the desk behind him. Hasegawa riffled through some exam papers as a self-conscious smile made its way up toward his balding forehead.
“Why, the cheek — I know for a fact that my discovery is making you very happy indeed. Mr. Horikawa, are you familiar with the Law of Heat Transfer?”
“Heat transfer? Something to do with moving coal?”
“You literature fellows are quite hopeless!”
Even as he said so, Miyamoto tipped another pailful of coal into the mouth of the stove, which glowed as it reflected the flames.
“When you take two physical objects of differing temperatures, and cause them to come into contact with one another, heat transfers from the object with the higher temperature to the object with the lower temperature until their temperatures become equal.”
“Isn’t that simply common sense?”
“Well, that is what we call the Law of Heat Transfer. Now, say that a woman is an object. Agreed? If a woman is an object, then so – undoubtedly – is a man. In which case, passion must equal heat. If we now cause a man and a woman to come into contact with one another, passion must surely transfer like heat, from the more impassioned man to the less impassioned woman, until her passion equals his. Mr. Hasegawa’s case is a perfect example.”
“Here we go.”
In spite of his words, Hasegawa looked delighted, and made a noise as if he was being tickled.
“Now, call E the quantity of heat that transfers within time T across a surface area S, when – are you following? – H is the temperature, X the distance in the direction of heat transfer, and K the conductivity of the material in question. Now, in Mr. Hasegawa’s case…”
Miyamoto started writing what appeared to be a formula on a small blackboard, but then suddenly turned around and threw aside his piece of chalk, looking quite discouraged.
“It’s no use trying to get a layman like you to appreciate my discovery, Mr. Horikawa. In any case, what matters is that Mr. Hasegawa’s betrothed would appear to be warming up nicely, as per the formula.”
“The world would certainly be a simpler place if such a formula really did exist.”
Yasukichi stretched out his legs, and gazed aimlessly at the snowy view outside the window. The physics instructors’ lounge being at the corner of the first floor of the building, he could easily take in the athletic field, with its sporting apparatus, and beyond that the line of pine trees, and beyond that, the red brick buildings. And the sea, too — the sea was visible between the buildings, sending up indistinct grey waves.
“But then the literature fellows would be out of a job. How is your latest book selling?”
“Not at all, as usual. It seems heat transfer doesn’t take place between writers and readers. By the way, Mr. Hasegawa; it can’t be long till your wedding?”
“Yes, only a month or so. There are quite a few arrangements that need taking care of before then — it’s a nuisance not being able to get any work done.”
“Too distracted to work, eh?”
“I’m not you, Mr. Miyamoto! For one thing, we need somewhere to live, and I simply can’t find anything for rent. Just last Sunday I walked across most of town searching. But even when you think you’ve managed to find a house, it’s snapped up before you know it.”
“What about over by me? Provided you don’t mind getting the train in every day.”
“You’re a little too far out. I hear there are houses for rent over there, and my wife would prefer it; however — Why, Mr. Horikawa! Isn’t your shoe getting singed?”
It appeared that one of Yasukichi’s shoes had somehow come into contact with the body of the stove, and was giving off a cloud of steam along with the smell of burning leather.
“There you go — that’s heat transfer again.”
Miyamoto, who was polishing his spectacles, peered up myopically toward Yasukichi, grinning.
* * *
Four of five days later – a frosty dull morning.
Yasukichi, trying to catch his train, was hurrying as fast as his legs would carry him past the outskirts of a seaside town. The path was on an embankment about six feet wide, with wheat fields to his right, and train tracks to his left. The deserted fields were replete with a very slight sound which he could only take to be that of someone walking between the rows of wheat; however, it seemed in fact to be the sound of needle ice beneath the ploughed soil, collapsing under its own weight.
Soon enough, the eight o’clock up-bound train passed by on the bank, keeping up its speed, and giving a long toot on its whistle. The down-bound train that Yasukichi needed to catch departed half an hour after this one. He took out his watch. For some reason, it was showing nearly a quarter past eight. He decided his watch must be at fault for the discrepancy. He even thought, with good reason: No fear of missing my train today. The wheat fields along the path gradually gave way to hedges. Yasukichi lit an Asahi cigarette and went on walking, feeling less hurried than before.
The cinder-laid path sloped upward to a level crossing. Yasukichi had come up to it just as usual when he noticed people gathered on either side of the tracks. Some part of him immediately thought: Someone’s been killed. Fortunately, he spotted the butcher’s boy with his laden bicycle propped beside the crossing railings. Still holding his cigarette, Yasukichi tapped the boy on the shoulder from behind.
“Hey, what’s happened?”
“Got run over. Run over, by the last up train.”
The boy spoke quickly. Under his rabbit-fur ear muffs, his features seemed to sparkle with a strange vitality.
“The crossing guard. He was trying to save a schoolkid that was about to get run over. You know the bookshop called Nagai’s, opposite the Hachiman Shrine? Their little girl.”
“The child was all right?”
“Yes, she’s the one crying over there.”
The boy indicated the crowd on the other side of the crossing. Yasukichi saw that there was indeed a young girl, who was being questioned by a constable. Beside him, a man who was evidently the stationmaster’s deputy put in a word from time to time. As for the crossing guard — Yasukichi spotted the corpse under a straw mat, in front of the guard’s hut. He had to admit that it inspired curiosity in him as well as aversion. Even from this distance, he could make out the guard’s shoes peeking out from beneath the screen.
“Those men moved the body.”
Two or three railway men stood under the crossing’s signal post on the near side, surrounding a small bonfire. The fire with its yellow flame emitted neither light nor smoke, and looked all the more chilly for it. One of the men was drying the seat of his knee-length trousers by the fire.
Yasukichi started over the crossing. This close to the station, numerous tracks intersected the crossing. Each time he passed one, he wondered just where it was that the crossing guard had been run over. But it was immediately evident. Blood on one of the rails told of the tragedy that had taken place only a few minutes ago. Almost reflexively, he looked away to the other side of the crossing, but it was no use. The image of the viscous red substance pooled on the coldly gleaming face of the iron had instantly etched itself onto his memory. The blood was even giving off a faint shimmer of vapor from upon the rail.
Some ten minutes later, Yasukichi was pacing on the station platform. His head was filled with the unsettling sight he had just seen. In particular, he vividly recalled the shimmer of vapor rising from the blood. He thought of the notion of heat transfer, which had been discussed only the other day. The life heat contained in the blood was transferring to the rail according to the law that Miyamoto had taught him — cruelly, and without a modicum of error. It made no difference whose life it was; whether that of the crossing guard killed performing his duty or that of a convicted felon, the heat would be transferring just as cruelly. He knew, of course, that these were meaningless thoughts. He tried repeatedly to convince himself that even a dutiful child must drown in water, even a devoted wife must be burned by fire. But the scene he had witnessed had left such a burdensome impression that it did not easily admit such reasoning.
Meanwhile, the people on the platform seemed for all the world contented, oblivious to his state of mind. That, too, upset Yasukichi. In particular, the loud chatter emanating from a group of Navy officers was viscerally offensive. He lit another Asahi, and walked to the end of the platform. From there, the crossing was visible a few hundred yards ahead. The crowds on either side of the crossing seemed to have mostly dissipated. Only the workmen’s bonfire by the signal post waved its yellow flame.
Yasukichi felt something akin to sympathy for that distant fire. But being in sight of the crossing still made him anxious. He turned his back on it, and started back along the platform toward the mass of people. He hadn’t gone ten steps, however, when he realized that he had dropped one of his red leather gloves, which he’d been carrying after taking it off his right hand to light his cigarette. He turned and looked back. The glove lay fallen at the end of the platform, palm side up. Wordlessly, it seemed to be calling to him.
Beneath the dull frosty sky, Yasukichi sensed the heart of the red leather glove as it lay left behind. In that moment, he knew that even this chill world would someday be pierced by the first warm rays of sun.
“The invention of the soul allows us to conceive of the body as a parasite. Hands can be objects that are devoid of feeling during the day but soft and tender at night. These actions do not contradict one another. They take part in the dual situation of not being me and nonetheless being mine.”
The phone rang, and when I answered it I heard a mumble and a stammer, then a cough. A few seconds later I heard a male voice: “You’ve most certainly forgotten, but you once promised to publish my book. We met in Baqa, Baqa al-Gharbiyye. You gave me your phone number and your email address. You haven’t changed it, but you’ve not been answering.”
He tried to refresh my memory about the conversation we had that evening in Baqa. As it turns out, it was an event that took place some ten years ago. “Are you in hiding?” he asked, “or has it still been possible to reach you?”
“No, it’s just that…”
“I do that too. I distance myself from people.”
He chuckled. “It’s a long story, and I promised myself I wouldn’t take up your time.”
“Email me the manuscript,” I said. “I promise, I’ll read it and write to you.”
“I would prefer to show it to you.”
His persistence annoyed me.
“I won’t take up much of your time.”
Based on his rich Hebrew vocabulary, it was clear to me that he was a man who had read many books in Hebrew, although his heavy Arabic accent smoothed it somewhat, and the language sounded affected at times. “OK,” I heard myself say.
It was August, and I was exhausted by the humidity. I never left the house and I did not feel like hosting, as I am fanatical about my freedom. What had come over me to make me acquiesce? I dialed his number with the intention of postponing the meeting but I hung up at the sound of the ringtone and grumbled to myself. I suspected that it was the fact that he was an Arab that had caused me to acquiesce. I stood by the window and peeked outside at Rothschild Boulevard. The street was packed and the sky had a reddish hue. The air-conditioner gurgled softly, producing sounds reminiscent of the large fan my father had installed behind the “cooling rack” he attached to the window in their small apartment on the kibbutz. Another person trying to fix the world… An hour passed, and the man did not turn up. I searched for stars in the sky which had grown dark, but I knew I would not find even one in the Tel Aviv sky. Then I heard a sort of scratching at the door. I went to open it. In the entrance stood a tall man wearing a white shirt, a yellow bow-tie, and black patent leather shoes. With his right hand, he grasped the handle of a blue trolley bag. “Doesn’t your door have a doorbell?” he asked.
“The button’s right here,” I said.
“Is it? I’m half-blind. It comes with the years. We don’t die all at once. We do it in installments.”
“Come on in,” I said. He walked in, pulling the trolley behind him, and he stopped in the middle of the room.
“Aren’t you hot? You’re dressed as if it’s not sweltering outside.”
“Hot? No. My father, may he rest in peace, used to say: ‘What people see is more than what they think. How you dress is your opportunity to be who you want them to think you are.”
He smiled, and I noticed that his two front teeth were broken. I gestured with my hand toward the sofa. “Please, have a seat. I’ll bring us something cold to drink.” He followed my movements. I could feel his eyes boring into my back. I almost turned to face him. What was I thinking when I invited him over? When I returned he was seated calmly on the sofa, his right hand grasping the trolley handle. I put the glass of cold water down on the table, and my gaze swept over his face. It was narrow and emanated fragility. For a moment he seemed to tense up inside himself, but then I saw him relax, lift the trolley and place it on his lap, open it, and remove a tall stack of pages that were tied together with twine. He placed the bundle on the coffee table. It was at least thirty centimeters high. Printed across the top page, in large letters, was the title: “Kaddish.”
“Wow.” The word escaped my lips. “How many years did it take you to write that book?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Who knows? My grandfather started writing it, and then my father. I finished it, or at least it seems that way to me. You tell me.”
“Where do you live?” I asked.
“I don’t live anywhere.” He cleared his throat. “In our little village by the sea, where I come from, there were guys who ate in a different house every day. My father used to say, ‘They don’t want to forget their true home.’ I spend every night in a different house. I have a brother-in-law, my late sister’s husband, whose house I sleep at two nights a week. I have a friend, a fisherman, and I can sleep at his place when I need to. I once lived in Baqa, but the house was designated for demolition and then demolished. I rented a place, but when I got sick and was in the hospital they stole everything I had except the manuscript and the books. The fisherman is keeping them for me, and I keep the manuscript in the trolley. After everything that happened to my family in the village by the sea and to me, I don’t want to settle down permanently anywhere.”
“What did you do before they demolished your home?”
The man wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief and smiled at me. “I did what you told me to do, during that conversation in Baqa – you told me to smuggle myself, to sneak about, to slip away. You said then that this was human nature, that people cannot do anything in a straight line. That one always needs to maneuver between the forces of evil and insanity.”
I smiled. I did not remember telling him anything of the sort. He looked at me and closed his eyes for a long moment. When he opened them he said: “The moment a person acquires the power of some kind he becomes evil. Someone holding a knife – stabs. Someone holding a gun – shoots. And someone holding a pen writes laws that are always on the side of the thieves and the murderers. This applies to the entire human race, as well as to animals. Wolves devour sheep, lions devour zebras. I read what you wrote – that even when your father tried to fulfill dreams of justice and equality it turned into a nightmare. Dreams are only good when they remain in your head. If you want to fulfill them, it becomes a nightmare.” He took a sip of water from the glass. “It’s impossible to resume living normally after they demolish your home. And if you’re an Arab, you best learn how to speak about.”
Something inside me wanted him to leave. I stood up and opened the window. The air that flowed into the room carried the sounds of a piano as if trying to say: “Look, Iftach, I brought such and such, and such and such – that is, this and that type of jazz, and a good imitation of Ella Fitzgerald singing ‘Dream A Little Dream of Me.’ Free yourself of this guy…he brings nothing but trouble!” But I immediately became suspicious of myself and asked: “How do you make a living?”
“I’m a smuggler,” he said. “My father was also a smuggler. After your War of Independence, the people who fled to the Gaza Strip wanted to move back to Israel. He would smuggle them. When the Egyptians came to the Strip to introduce order, they closed off our village. He smuggled us out. That’s how we got to Baqa. My grandmother was also a smuggler. During World War II my grandfather was drafted and she smuggled meat, tobacco, and other contraband.”
“What do you smuggle?” I asked.“I smuggle myself. I’m the only one left from my family. My sister got married and died of an illness. My older brother went to Jordan and was killed in Black September. I stayed in the house until they demolished it, and since then I’ve been smuggling myself.”
“So, the book is your family’s life story?”
“No, no. The book is about the war against ego. That is, war against the temptation of believing that you have the ability to change things. It was my grandfather who started the war. He would say Kaddish for the ego every morning and every night, in Hebrew, to make his life miserable. This book contains the history of all the wars against ego.”
“Do you believe in God?” I asked.
The man slowly untied the knot on top of the bundle, pulled out the first page, and said: “This is the preface that my grandfather wrote. He was a fisherman, but he had books that he would copy out of: ‘God is a cosmic wolf, the tyrant of all tyrants, everything is his work: the hungry wolf, the frightened sheep, the struggle for existence, cancerous illnesses, heart attacks, insanity. He created all the evils that you know and can imagine. They say he also creates new angels every day. They ingratiate themselves with him and sing him songs of praise, and then when their ego sprouts and grows they are destroyed.’”
“So, your god is some kind of a heavenly wolf?”
He was silent. I walked over to him and picked up the stack of pages, read two of them, and said: “Leave it here. I’ll read it. Do you have a copy?”
“No,” he said. “I didn’t plan on leaving you the book. I also didn’t intend on you publishing it. Who needs books in our day and age? Not even the authors themselves. All I wanted was to speak to you.”
“I know a few people who need to do that,” I said.
“No. It’s surrendering to the ego.”
He straightened up, retied the twine carefully around the stack of pages, and placed it back in the trolley that was on his lap. Then he stood up and made his way to the door, pulling the trolley behind him. I walked him to the hallway, and I told him again that I’d be happy to read the book. “Thank you very much,” he said. “But what can literature do? Nothing. Good night.”
I’ve always enjoyed everyday violence. I remember one incident in particular: broken glass in the dark. I’m not certain that it’s a real memory but when I relive the scene, I find it hard to contain my pleasure: the object falling, shattering to pieces. The crash made and then the whirlwind of voices in the middle of the night. My mother turning on the light to reveal the glinting shards of glass. Her open palm swooping through the air. The sound of the slap, which was very different from the sound of the glass hitting the ground, and the feeling that came with realizing that this was all part of the ceremony. A form of violence that begins with glass and ends with pain inflicted by a mother upon her child.
Many years have passed and the glass, mother and shards are long gone, as is the boy I once was, his face still stinging from the slap. Now I live in Ehio with the rest of the community. Violence is present in this town, but harmony reigns too. Amalia comes by at intervals and we love Amalia very much.
We know when she’s coming back because the air grows thick, the horses whinny and the children scream for no reason. Sometimes they’re the first to know. At first, we think they’re crying because they have a toothache, or they’re just being fussy, but then the shutters start to bang against the walls, the weather vane begins to squeak and we know she’s coming.
When Amalia comes, the red earth on the path starts to shift, it lifts up in mini-tornados and spreads through the air.
When Amalia comes, some of us start to sing.
When Amalia comes, we cross ourselves and give thanks for the wind. We’re quick to put out our offerings before she reaches the houses.
In the fifteen months since she last came, we’ve barely had time to replenish the livestock, reinforce the foundations, rebuild the wall and make holes for all the people who have joined us in the last year. Cristian and the younger men and women built double roofs for all the houses and the rest of us took care of the food and water. The children drew coloured lines along the road so she can find her way. Everyone in town has chosen their offering: embroidered textiles, plaited hair, precious metals, wooden figurines and a few carved teeth. This year, the people in the third house are going to offer up their third child: the youngest one. He’s sick. They’re giving him to her so she can sweep him up and away to a place without pain. They believe; I’ve heard them whisper it to each other after the meetings, that Amalia is the invisible arm of God.
We leave everything in the road and make a big effort with the presentation and layout so she’ll be able to see all the offerings and be tempted to take them with her. But usually, she just takes everything. The years when she leaves something behind, the person who made the offering has to go so as not to bring misfortune down upon the entire community. This year, our daughter Sally decided that our offering should be Gianfredo, our bull, so we’ve painted him red and tied him to a post decorated with flowers. He’s a little anxious. He won’t stop mooing.
We still have time to watch the first trees disappear in the distance. We all stand together and hold hands as we watch her – a ghostly white shadow moving around apparently at random, but we know she’s coming towards us. She always does. We watch the earth move and the first carts get sucked into the funnel. The lighter objects are lifted into the air and spin around in concentric circles.
“Oh, messenger from heaven, Amalia, Lady of the Wind: accept our offerings.”
After the prayer, we let go of each other’s hands and lock up the animals we were able to catch in time. Then we run for shelter behind our stone and cement wall, our fort, and make sure that everyone has a hole to watch through. We stand still and silent. We don’t speak because we like to listen to her approach, the cracking windows, thousands of objects breaking, the first house collapsing. We hear the screams – weak, sickly screams – of the ailing child from the third house. I look at the family and see that they’re crying with smiles on their faces. It might just be my mind playing tricks on me but I think I can hear Gianfredo too. Whether I can or not, there comes a time when she is all we can hear. We all creep closer to our hole to watch. No-one wants to miss it.
Inside Amalia are all the things we’ve left in the road: three cows, a bull, five horses, a pack of cards, a bath full of milk, a sick child, a sculpture made of fruit, a string instrument, a collection of books, and plenty of food and water. There are also all the things that we didn’t leave but that Amalia has taken anyway: rocks, trees, carts, whole houses, fish from the river, a few errant sheep, a wild boar she must have found somewhere, and five dead people whose bodies look as though they’re being borne aloft on a cloud of flies.
They say – I’ve never seen it myself – that when you’re right underneath, right at the point where it all begins, that it’s like a tunnel leading directly up into the sky and that at that moment it’s completely quiet and calm, all you can hear is the music of the floating things. Everything slows down. The people this happens to find it to be a life-changing experience. They are looked upon with new respect from their peers. I’d like to experience it one day myself, to hear the void and understand that sense of fulfillment they talk about. Maybe what you hear inside isn’t silence but glass breaking in the darkness and the sound of a good, hard slap. I don’t know yet. Maybe next year, when Amalia comes back.
Nil sapientiae odiosius acumine nimio.
At Paris, just after dark one gusty evening in the autumn of 18–, I was enjoying the twofold luxury of meditation and a meerschaum, in company with my friend C. Auguste Dupin, in his little back library, or book-closet, au troisiême, No. 33, Rue Dunôt, Faubourg St. Germain. For one hour at least we had maintained a profound silence; while each, to any casual observer, might have seemed intently and exclusively occupied with the curling eddies of smoke that oppressed the atmosphere of the chamber. For myself, however, I was mentally discussing certain topics which had formed matter for conversation between us at an earlier period of the evening; I mean the affair of the Rue Morgue, and the mystery attending the murder of Marie Rogêt. I looked upon it, therefore, as something of a coincidence, when the door of our apartment was thrown open and admitted our old acquaintance, Monsieur G—, the Prefect of the Parisian police.
We gave him a hearty welcome; for there was nearly half as much of the entertaining as of the contemptible about the man, and we had not seen him for several years. We had been sitting in the dark, and Dupin now arose for the purpose of lighting a lamp, but sat down again, without doing so, upon G.‘s saying that he had called to consult us, or rather to ask the opinion of my friend, about some official business which had occasioned a great deal of trouble.
“If it is any point requiring reflection,” observed Dupin, as he forebore to enkindle the wick, “we shall examine it to better purpose in the dark.”
“That is another of your odd notions,” said the Prefect, who had a fashion of calling every thing “odd” that was beyond his comprehension, and thus lived amid an absolute legion of “oddities.”
“Very true,” said Dupin, as he supplied his visiter with a pipe, and rolled towards him a comfortable chair.
“And what is the difficulty now?” I asked. “Nothing more in the assassination way, I hope?”
“Oh no; nothing of that nature. The fact is, the business is very simple indeed, and I make no doubt that we can manage it sufficiently well ourselves; but then I thought Dupin would like to hear the details of it, because it is so excessively odd.”
“Simple and odd,” said Dupin.
“Why, yes; and not exactly that, either. The fact is, we have all been a good deal puzzled because the affair is so simple, and yet baffles us altogether.”
“Perhaps it is the very simplicity of the thing which puts you at fault,” said my friend.
“What nonsense you do talk!” replied the Prefect, laughing heartily.
“Perhaps the mystery is a little too plain,” said Dupin.
“Oh, good heavens! who ever heard of such an idea?”
“A little too self-evident.”
“Ha! ha! ha—ha! ha! ha!—ho! ho! ho!” roared our visiter, profoundly amused, “oh, Dupin, you will be the death of me yet!”
“And what, after all, is the matter on hand?” I asked.
“Why, I will tell you,” replied the Prefect, as he gave a long, steady and contemplative puff, and settled himself in his chair. “I will tell you in a few words; but, before I begin, let me caution you that this is an affair demanding the greatest secrecy, and that I should most probably lose the position I now hold, were it known that I confided it to any one.”
“Proceed,” said I.
“Or not,” said Dupin.
“Well, then; I have received personal information, from a very high quarter, that a certain document of the last importance, has been purloined from the royal apartments. The individual who purloined it is known; this beyond a doubt; he was seen to take it. It is known, also, that it still remains in his possession.”
“How is this known?” asked Dupin.
“It is clearly inferred,” replied the Prefect, “from the nature of the document, and from the non-appearance of certain results which would at once arise from its passing out of the robber’s possession; that is to say, from his employing it as he must design in the end to employ it.”
“Be a little more explicit,” I said.
“Well, I may venture so far as to say that the paper gives its holder a certain power in a certain quarter where such power is immensely valuable.” The Prefect was fond of the cant of diplomacy.
“Still I do not quite understand,” said Dupin.
“No? Well; the disclosure of the document to a third person, who shall be nameless, would bring in question the honor of a personage of most exalted station; and this fact gives the holder of the document an ascendancy over the illustrious personage whose honor and peace are so jeopardized.”
“But this ascendancy,” I interposed, “would depend upon the robber’s knowledge of the loser’s knowledge of the robber. Who would dare—”
“The thief,” said G., “is the Minister D—, who dares all things, those unbecoming as well as those becoming a man. The method of the theft was not less ingenious than bold. The document in question—a letter, to be frank—had been received by the personage robbed while alone in the royal boudoir. During its perusal she was suddenly interrupted by the entrance of the other exalted personage from whom especially it was her wish to conceal it. After a hurried and vain endeavor to thrust it in a drawer, she was forced to place it, open as it was, upon a table. The address, however, was uppermost, and, the contents thus unexposed, the letter escaped notice. At this juncture enters the Minister D—. His lynx eye immediately perceives the paper, recognises the handwriting of the address, observes the confusion of the personage addressed, and fathoms her secret. After some business transactions, hurried through in his ordinary manner, he produces a letter somewhat similar to the one in question, opens it, pretends to read it, and then places it in close juxtaposition to the other. Again he converses, for some fifteen minutes, upon the public affairs. At length, in taking leave, he takes also from the table the letter to which he had no claim. Its rightful owner saw, but, of course, dared not call attention to the act, in the presence of the third personage who stood at her elbow. The minister decamped; leaving his own letter—one of no importance—upon the table.”
“Here, then,” said Dupin to me, “you have precisely what you demand to make the ascendancy complete—the robber’s knowledge of the loser’s knowledge of the robber.”
“Yes,” replied the Prefect; “and the power thus attained has, for some months past, been wielded, for political purposes, to a very dangerous extent. The personage robbed is more thoroughly convinced, every day, of the necessity of reclaiming her letter. But this, of course, cannot be done openly. In fine, driven to despair, she has committed the matter to me.”
“Than whom,” said Dupin, amid a perfect whirlwind of smoke, “no more sagacious agent could, I suppose, be desired, or even imagined.”
“You flatter me,” replied the Prefect; “but it is possible that some such opinion may have been entertained.”
“It is clear,” said I, “as you observe, that the letter is still in possession of the minister; since it is this possession, and not any employment of the letter, which bestows the power. With the employment the power departs.”
“True,” said G.; “and upon this conviction I proceeded. My first care was to make thorough search of the minister’s hotel; and here my chief embarrassment lay in the necessity of searching without his knowledge. Beyond all things, I have been warned of the danger which would result from giving him reason to suspect our design.”
“But,” said I, “you are quite au fait in these investigations. The Parisian police have done this thing often before.”
“O yes; and for this reason I did not despair. The habits of the minister gave me, too, a great advantage. He is frequently absent from home all night. His servants are by no means numerous. They sleep at a distance from their master’s apartment, and, being chiefly Neapolitans, are readily made drunk. I have keys, as you know, with which I can open any chamber or cabinet in Paris. For three months a night has not passed, during the greater part of which I have not been engaged, personally, in ransacking the D— Hotel. My honor is interested, and, to mention a great secret, the reward is enormous. So I did not abandon the search until I had become fully satisfied that the thief is a more astute man than myself. I fancy that I have investigated every nook and corner of the premises in which it is possible that the paper can be concealed.”
“But is it not possible,” I suggested, “that although the letter may be in possession of the minister, as it unquestionably is, he may have concealed it elsewhere than upon his own premises?”
“This is barely possible,” said Dupin. “The present peculiar condition of affairs at court, and especially of those intrigues in which D— is known to be involved, would render the instant availability of the document—its susceptibility of being produced at a moment’s notice—a point of nearly equal importance with its possession.”
“Its susceptibility of being produced?” said I.
“That is to say, of being destroyed,” said Dupin.
“True,” I observed; “the paper is clearly then upon the premises. As for its being upon the person of the minister, we may consider that as out of the question.”
“Entirely,” said the Prefect. “He has been twice waylaid, as if by footpads, and his person rigorously searched under my own inspection.”
“You might have spared yourself this trouble,” said Dupin. “D—, I presume, is not altogether a fool, and, if not, must have anticipated these waylayings, as a matter of course.”
“Not altogether a fool,” said G., “but then he’s a poet, which I take to be only one remove from a fool.”
“True,” said Dupin, after a long and thoughtful whiff from his meerschaum, “although I have been guilty of certain doggrel myself.”
“Suppose you detail,” said I, “the particulars of your search.”
“Why the fact is, we took our time, and we searched every where. I have had long experience in these affairs. I took the entire building, room by room; devoting the nights of a whole week to each. We examined, first, the furniture of each apartment. We opened every possible drawer; and I presume you know that, to a properly trained police agent, such a thing as a secret drawer is impossible. Any man is a dolt who permits a ‘secret’ drawer to escape him in a search of this kind. The thing is so plain. There is a certain amount of bulk—of space—to be accounted for in every cabinet. Then we have accurate rules. The fiftieth part of a line could not escape us. After the cabinets we took the chairs. The cushions we probed with the fine long needles you have seen me employ. From the tables we removed the tops.”
“Sometimes the top of a table, or other similarly arranged piece of furniture, is removed by the person wishing to conceal an article; then the leg is excavated, the article deposited within the cavity, and the top replaced. The bottoms and tops of bedposts are employed in the same way.”
“But could not the cavity be detected by sounding?” I asked.
“By no means, if, when the article is deposited, a sufficient wadding of cotton be placed around it. Besides, in our case, we were obliged to proceed without noise.”
“But you could not have removed—you could not have taken to pieces all articles of furniture in which it would have been possible to make a deposit in the manner you mention. A letter may be compressed into a thin spiral roll, not differing much in shape or bulk from a large knitting-needle, and in this form it might be inserted into the rung of a chair, for example. You did not take to pieces all the chairs?”
“Certainly not; but we did better—we examined the rungs of every chair in the hotel, and, indeed the jointings of every description of furniture, by the aid of a most powerful microscope. Had there been any traces of recent disturbance we should not have failed to detect it instantly. A single grain of gimlet-dust, for example, would have been as obvious as an apple. Any disorder in the glueing—any unusual gaping in the joints—would have sufficed to insure detection.”
“I presume you looked to the mirrors, between the boards and the plates, and you probed the beds and the bed-clothes, as well as the curtains and carpets.”
“That of course; and when we had absolutely completed every particle of the furniture in this way, then we examined the house itself. We divided its entire surface into compartments, which we numbered, so that none might be missed; then we scrutinized each individual square inch throughout the premises, including the two houses immediately adjoining, with the microscope, as before.”
“The two houses adjoining!” I exclaimed; “you must have had a great deal of trouble.”
“We had; but the reward offered is prodigious!”
“You include the grounds about the houses?”
“All the grounds are paved with brick. They gave us comparatively little trouble. We examined the moss between the bricks, and found it undisturbed.”
“You looked among D—‘s papers, of course, and into the books of the library?”
“Certainly; we opened every package and parcel; we not only opened every book, but we turned over every leaf in each volume, not contenting ourselves with a mere shake, according to the fashion of some of our police officers. We also measured the thickness of every book-cover, with the most accurate admeasurement, and applied to each the most jealous scrutiny of the microscope. Had any of the bindings been recently meddled with, it would have been utterly impossible that the fact should have escaped observation. Some five or six volumes, just from the hands of the binder, we carefully probed, longitudinally, with the needles.”
“You explored the floors beneath the carpets?”
“Beyond doubt. We removed every carpet, and examined the boards with the microscope.”
“And the paper on the walls?”
“You looked into the cellars?”
“Then,” I said, “you have been making a miscalculation, and the letter is not upon the premises, as you suppose.”
“I fear you are right there,” said the Prefect. “And now, Dupin, what would you advise me to do?”
“To make a thorough re-search of the premises.”
“That is absolutely needless,” replied G—. “I am not more sure that I breathe than I am that the letter is not at the Hotel.”
“I have no better advice to give you,” said Dupin. “You have, of course, an accurate description of the letter?”
“Oh yes!”—And here the Prefect, producing a memorandum-book proceeded to read aloud a minute account of the internal, and especially of the external appearance of the missing document. Soon after finishing the perusal of this description, he took his departure, more entirely depressed in spirits than I had ever known the good gentleman before. In about a month afterwards he paid us another visit, and found us occupied very nearly as before. He took a pipe and a chair and entered into some ordinary conversation. At length I said,—
“Well, but G—, what of the purloined letter? I presume you have at last made up your mind that there is no such thing as overreaching the Minister?”
“Confound him, say I—yes; I made the re-examination, however, as Dupin suggested—but it was all labor lost, as I knew it would be.”
“How much was the reward offered, did you say?” asked Dupin.
“Why, a very great deal—a very liberal reward—I don’t like to say how much, precisely; but one thing I will say, that I wouldn’t mind giving my individual check for fifty thousand francs to any one who could obtain me that letter. The fact is, it is becoming of more and more importance every day; and the reward has been lately doubled. If it were trebled, however, I could do no more than I have done.”
“Why, yes,” said Dupin, drawlingly, between the whiffs of his meerschaum, “I really—think, G—, you have not exerted yourself—to the utmost in this matter. You might—do a little more, I think, eh?”
“How?—in what way?’
“Why—puff, puff—you might—puff, puff—employ counsel in the matter, eh?—puff, puff, puff. Do you remember the story they tell of Abernethy?”
“No; hang Abernethy!”
“To be sure! hang him and welcome. But, once upon a time, a certain rich miser conceived the design of spunging upon this Abernethy for a medical opinion. Getting up, for this purpose, an ordinary conversation in a private company, he insinuated his case to the physician, as that of an imaginary individual.
“‘We will suppose,’ said the miser, ‘that his symptoms are such and such; now, doctor, what would you have directed him to take?’
“‘Take!’ said Abernethy, ‘why, take advice, to be sure.’”
“But,” said the Prefect, a little discomposed, “I am perfectly willing to take advice, and to pay for it. I would really give fifty thousand francs to any one who would aid me in the matter.”
“In that case,” replied Dupin, opening a drawer, and producing a check-book, “you may as well fill me up a check for the amount mentioned. When you have signed it, I will hand you the letter.”
I was astounded. The Prefect appeared absolutely thunder-stricken. For some minutes he remained speechless and motionless, looking incredulously at my friend with open mouth, and eyes that seemed starting from their sockets; then, apparently recovering himself in some measure, he seized a pen, and after several pauses and vacant stares, finally filled up and signed a check for fifty thousand francs, and handed it across the table to Dupin. The latter examined it carefully and deposited it in his pocket-book; then, unlocking an escritoire, took thence a letter and gave it to the Prefect. This functionary grasped it in a perfect agony of joy, opened it with a trembling hand, cast a rapid glance at its contents, and then, scrambling and struggling to the door, rushed at length unceremoniously from the room and from the house, without having uttered a syllable since Dupin had requested him to fill up the check.
When he had gone, my friend entered into some explanations.
“The Parisian police,” he said, “are exceedingly able in their way. They are persevering, ingenious, cunning, and thoroughly versed in the knowledge which their duties seem chiefly to demand. Thus, when G— detailed to us his mode of searching the premises at the Hotel D—, I felt entire confidence in his having made a satisfactory investigation—so far as his labors extended.”
“So far as his labors extended?” said I.
“Yes,” said Dupin. “The measures adopted were not only the best of their kind, but carried out to absolute perfection. Had the letter been deposited within the range of their search, these fellows would, beyond a question, have found it.”
I merely laughed—but he seemed quite serious in all that he said.
“The measures, then,” he continued, “were good in their kind, and well executed; their defect lay in their being inapplicable to the case, and to the man. A certain set of highly ingenious resources are, with the Prefect, a sort of Procrustean bed, to which he forcibly adapts his designs. But he perpetually errs by being too deep or too shallow, for the matter in hand; and many a schoolboy is a better reasoner than he. I knew one about eight years of age, whose success at guessing in the game of ‘even and odd’ attracted universal admiration. This game is simple, and is played with marbles. One player holds in his hand a number of these toys, and demands of another whether that number is even or odd. If the guess is right, the guesser wins one; if wrong, he loses one. The boy to whom I allude won all the marbles of the school. Of course he had some principle of guessing; and this lay in mere observation and admeasurement of the astuteness of his opponents. For example, an arrant simpleton is his opponent, and, holding up his closed hand, asks, ‘are they even or odd?’ Our schoolboy replies, ‘odd,’ and loses; but upon the second trial he wins, for he then says to himself, ‘the simpleton had them even upon the first trial, and his amount of cunning is just sufficient to make him have them odd upon the second; I will therefore guess odd;’—he guesses odd, and wins. Now, with a simpleton a degree above the first, he would have reasoned thus: ‘This fellow finds that in the first instance I guessed odd, and, in the second, he will propose to himself, upon the first impulse, a simple variation from even to odd, as did the first simpleton; but then a second thought will suggest that this is too simple a variation, and finally he will decide upon putting it even as before. I will therefore guess even;’—he guesses even, and wins. Now this mode of reasoning in the schoolboy, whom his fellows termed ‘lucky,’—what, in its last analysis, is it?”
“It is merely,” I said, “an identification of the reasoner’s intellect with that of his opponent.”
“It is,” said Dupin; “and, upon inquiring of the boy by what means he effected the thorough identification in which his success consisted, I received answer as follows: ‘When I wish to find out how wise, or how stupid, or how good, or how wicked is any one, or what are his thoughts at the moment, I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or heart, as if to match or correspond with the expression.’ This response of the schoolboy lies at the bottom of all the spurious profundity which has been attributed to Rochefoucault, to La Bougive, to Machiavelli, and to Campanella.”
“And the identification,” I said, “of the reasoner’s intellect with that of his opponent, depends, if I understand you aright, upon the accuracy with which the opponent’s intellect is admeasured.”
“For its practical value it depends upon this,” replied Dupin; “and the Prefect and his cohort fail so frequently, first, by default of this identification, and, secondly, by ill-admeasurement, or rather through non-admeasurement, of the intellect with which they are engaged. They consider only their own ideas of ingenuity; and, in searching for anything hidden, advert only to the modes in which they would have hidden it. They are right in this much—that their own ingenuity is a faithful representative of that of the mass; but when the cunning of the individual felon is diverse in character from their own, the felon foils them, of course. This always happens when it is above their own, and very usually when it is below. They have no variation of principle in their investigations; at best, when urged by some unusual emergency—by some extraordinary reward—they extend or exaggerate their old modes of practice, without touching their principles. What, for example, in this case of D—, has been done to vary the principle of action? What is all this boring, and probing, and sounding, and scrutinizing with the microscope and dividing the surface of the building into registered square inches—what is it all but an exaggeration of the application of the one principle or set of principles of search, which are based upon the one set of notions regarding human ingenuity, to which the Prefect, in the long routine of his duty, has been accustomed? Do you not see he has taken it for granted that all men proceed to conceal a letter,—not exactly in a gimlet hole bored in a chair-leg—but, at least, in some out-of-the-way hole or corner suggested by the same tenor of thought which would urge a man to secrete a letter in a gimlet-hole bored in a chair-leg? And do you not see also, that such recherchés nooks for concealment are adapted only for ordinary occasions, and would be adopted only by ordinary intellects; for, in all cases of concealment, a disposal of the article concealed—a disposal of it in this recherché manner,—is, in the very first instance, presumable and presumed; and thus its discovery depends, not at all upon the acumen, but altogether upon the mere care, patience, and determination of the seekers; and where the case is of importance—or, what amounts to the same thing in the policial eyes, when the reward is of magnitude,—the qualities in question have never been known to fail. You will now understand what I meant in suggesting that, had the purloined letter been hidden any where within the limits of the Prefect’s examination—in other words, had the principle of its concealment been comprehended within the principles of the Prefect—its discovery would have been a matter altogether beyond question. This functionary, however, has been thoroughly mystified; and the remote source of his defeat lies in the supposition that the Minister is a fool, because he has acquired renown as a poet. All fools are poets; this the Prefect feels; and he is merely guilty of a non distributio medii in thence inferring that all poets are fools.”
“But is this really the poet?” I asked. “There are two brothers, I know; and both have attained reputation in letters. The Minister I believe has written learnedly on the Differential Calculus. He is a mathematician, and no poet.”
“You are mistaken; I know him well; he is both. As poet and mathematician, he would reason well; as mere mathematician, he could not have reasoned at all, and thus would have been at the mercy of the Prefect.”
“You surprise me,” I said, “by these opinions, which have been contradicted by the voice of the world. You do not mean to set at naught the well-digested idea of centuries. The mathematical reason has long been regarded as the reason par excellence.”
“‘Il y a à parièr,’” replied Dupin, quoting from Chamfort, “‘que toute idée publique, toute convention reçue est une sottise, car elle a convenue au plus grand nombre.’ The mathematicians, I grant you, have done their best to promulgate the popular error to which you allude, and which is none the less an error for its promulgation as truth. With an art worthy a better cause, for example, they have insinuated the term ‘analysis’ into application to algebra. The French are the originators of this particular deception; but if a term is of any importance—if words derive any value from applicability—then ‘analysis’ conveys ‘algebra’ about as much as, in Latin, ‘ambitus’ implies ‘ambition,’ ‘religio’ ‘religion,’ or ‘homines honesti,’ a set of honorablemen.”
“You have a quarrel on hand, I see,” said I, “with some of the algebraists of Paris; but proceed.”
“I dispute the availability, and thus the value, of that reason which is cultivated in any especial form other than the abstractly logical. I dispute, in particular, the reason educed by mathematical study. The mathematics are the science of form and quantity; mathematical reasoning is merely logic applied to observation upon form and quantity. The great error lies in supposing that even the truths of what is called pure algebra, are abstract or general truths. And this error is so egregious that I am confounded at the universality with which it has been received. Mathematical axioms are not axioms of general truth. What is true of relation—of form and quantity—is often grossly false in regard to morals, for example. In this latter science it is very usually untrue that the aggregated parts are equal to the whole. In chemistry also the axiom fails. In the consideration of motive it fails; for two motives, each of a given value, have not, necessarily, a value when united, equal to the sum of their values apart. There are numerous other mathematical truths which are only truths within the limits of relation. But the mathematician argues, from his finite truths, through habit, as if they were of an absolutely general applicability—as the world indeed imagines them to be. Bryant, in his very learned ‘Mythology,’ mentions an analogous source of error, when he says that ‘although the Pagan fables are not believed, yet we forget ourselves continually, and make inferences from them as existing realities.’ With the algebraists, however, who are Pagans themselves, the ‘Pagan fables’ are believed, and the inferences are made, not so much through lapse of memory, as through an unaccountable addling of the brains. In short, I never yet encountered the mere mathematician who could be trusted out of equal roots, or one who did not clandestinely hold it as a point of his faith that x2+px was absolutely and unconditionally equal to q. Say to one of these gentlemen, by way of experiment, if you please, that you believe occasions may occur where x2+px is not altogether equal to q, and, having made him understand what you mean, get out of his reach as speedily as convenient, for, beyond doubt, he will endeavor to knock you down.
“I mean to say,” continued Dupin, while I merely laughed at his last observations, “that if the Minister had been no more than a mathematician, the Prefect would have been under no necessity of giving me this check. I know him, however, as both mathematician and poet, and my measures were adapted to his capacity, with reference to the circumstances by which he was surrounded. I knew him as a courtier, too, and as a bold intriguant. Such a man, I considered, could not fail to be aware of the ordinary policial modes of action. He could not have failed to anticipate—and events have proved that he did not fail to anticipate—the waylayings to which he was subjected. He must have foreseen, I reflected, the secret investigations of his premises. His frequent absences from home at night, which were hailed by the Prefect as certain aids to his success, I regarded only as ruses, to afford opportunity for thorough search to the police, and thus the sooner to impress them with the conviction to which G—, in fact, did finally arrive—the conviction that the letter was not upon the premises. I felt, also, that the whole train of thought, which I was at some pains in detailing to you just now, concerning the invariable principle of policial action in searches for articles concealed—I felt that this whole train of thought would necessarily pass through the mind of the Minister. It would imperatively lead him to despise all the ordinary nooks of concealment. He could not, I reflected, be so weak as not to see that the most intricate and remote recess of his hotel would be as open as his commonest closets to the eyes, to the probes, to the gimlets, and to the microscopes of the Prefect. I saw, in fine, that he would be driven, as a matter of course, to simplicity, if not deliberately induced to it as a matter of choice. You will remember, perhaps, how desperately the Prefect laughed when I suggested, upon our first interview, that it was just possible this mystery troubled him so much on account of its being so very self-evident.”
“Yes,” said I, “I remember his merriment well. I really thought he would have fallen into convulsions.”
“The material world,” continued Dupin, “abounds with very strict analogies to the immaterial; and thus some color of truth has been given to the rhetorical dogma, that metaphor, or simile, may be made to strengthen an argument, as well as to embellish a description. The principle of the vis inertiæ, for example, seems to be identical in physics and metaphysics. It is not more true in the former, that a large body is with more difficulty set in motion than a smaller one, and that its subsequent momentum is commensurate with this difficulty, than it is, in the latter, that intellects of the vaster capacity, while more forcible, more constant, and more eventful in their movements than those of inferior grade, are yet the less readily moved, and more embarrassed and full of hesitation in the first few steps of their progress. Again: have you ever noticed which of the street signs, over the shop-doors, are the most attractive of attention?”
“I have never given the matter a thought,” I said.
“There is a game of puzzles,” he resumed, “which is played upon a map. One party playing requires another to find a given word—the name of town, river, state or empire—any word, in short, upon the motley and perplexed surface of the chart. A novice in the game generally seeks to embarrass his opponents by giving them the most minutely lettered names; but the adept selects such words as stretch, in large characters, from one end of the chart to the other. These, like the over-largely lettered signs and placards of the street, escape observation by dint of being excessively obvious; and here the physical oversight is precisely analogous with the moral inapprehension by which the intellect suffers to pass unnoticed those considerations which are too obtrusively and too palpably self-evident. But this is a point, it appears, somewhat above or beneath the understanding of the Prefect. He never once thought it probable, or possible, that the Minister had deposited the letter immediately beneath the nose of the whole world, by way of best preventing any portion of that world from perceiving it.
“But the more I reflected upon the daring, dashing, and discriminating ingenuity of D—; upon the fact that the document must always have been at hand, if he intended to use it to good purpose; and upon the decisive evidence, obtained by the Prefect, that it was not hidden within the limits of that dignitary’s ordinary search—the more satisfied I became that, to conceal this letter, the Minister had resorted to the comprehensive and sagacious expedient of not attempting to conceal it at all.
“Full of these ideas, I prepared myself with a pair of green spectacles, and called one fine morning, quite by accident, at the Ministerial hotel. I found D— at home, yawning, lounging, and dawdling, as usual, and pretending to be in the last extremity of ennui. He is, perhaps, the most really energetic human being now alive—but that is only when nobody sees him.
“To be even with him, I complained of my weak eyes, and lamented the necessity of the spectacles, under cover of which I cautiously and thoroughly surveyed the whole apartment, while seemingly intent only upon the conversation of my host.
“I paid especial attention to a large writing-table near which he sat, and upon which lay confusedly, some miscellaneous letters and other papers, with one or two musical instruments and a few books. Here, however, after a long and very deliberate scrutiny, I saw nothing to excite particular suspicion.
“At length my eyes, in going the circuit of the room, fell upon a trumpery fillagree card-rack of pasteboard, that hung dangling by a dirty blue ribbon, from a little brass knob just beneath the middle of the mantel-piece. In this rack, which had three or four compartments, were five or six visiting cards and a solitary letter. This last was much soiled and crumpled. It was torn nearly in two, across the middle—as if a design, in the first instance, to tear it entirely up as worthless, had been altered, or stayed, in the second. It had a large black seal, bearing the D— cipher very conspicuously, and was addressed, in a diminutive female hand, to D—, the minister, himself. It was thrust carelessly, and even, as it seemed, contemptuously, into one of the uppermost divisions of the rack.
“No sooner had I glanced at this letter, than I concluded it to be that of which I was in search. To be sure, it was, to all appearance, radically different from the one of which the Prefect had read us so minute a description. Here the seal was large and black, with the D— cipher; there it was small and red, with the ducal arms of the S— family. Here, the address, to the Minister, diminutive and feminine; there the superscription, to a certain royal personage, was markedly bold and decided; the size alone formed a point of correspondence. But, then, the radicalness of these differences, which was excessive; the dirt; the soiled and torn condition of the paper, so inconsistent with the true methodical habits of D—, and so suggestive of a design to delude the beholder into an idea of the worthlessness of the document; these things, together with the hyper-obtrusive situation of this document, full in the view of every visiter, and thus exactly in accordance with the conclusions to which I had previously arrived; these things, I say, were strongly corroborative of suspicion, in one who came with the intention to suspect.
“I protracted my visit as long as possible, and, while I maintained a most animated discussion with the Minister upon a topic which I knew well had never failed to interest and excite him, I kept my attention really riveted upon the letter. In this examination, I committed to memory its external appearance and arrangement in the rack; and also fell, at length, upon a discovery which set at rest whatever trivial doubt I might have entertained. In scrutinizing the edges of the paper, I observed them to be more chafed than seemed necessary. They presented the broken appearance which is manifested when a stiff paper, having been once folded and pressed with a folder, is refolded in a reversed direction, in the same creases or edges which had formed the original fold. This discovery was sufficient. It was clear to me that the letter had been turned, as a glove, inside out, re-directed, and re-sealed. I bade the Minister good morning, and took my departure at once, leaving a gold snuff-box upon the table.
“The next morning I called for the snuff-box, when we resumed, quite eagerly, the conversation of the preceding day. While thus engaged, however, a loud report, as if of a pistol, was heard immediately beneath the windows of the hotel, and was succeeded by a series of fearful screams, and the shoutings of a terrified mob. D— rushed to a casement, threw it open, and looked out. In the meantime, I stepped to the card-rack, took the letter, put it in my pocket, and replaced it by a fac-simile, (so far as regards externals,) which I had carefully prepared at my lodgings—imitating the D— cipher, very readily, by means of a seal formed of bread.
“The disturbance in the street had been occasioned by the frantic behavior of a man with a musket. He had fired it among a crowd of women and children. It proved, however, to have been without ball, and the fellow was suffered to go his way as a lunatic or a drunkard. When he had gone, D— came from the window, whither I had followed him immediately upon securing the object in view. Soon afterwards I bade him farewell. The pretended lunatic was a man in my own pay.”
“But what purpose had you,” I asked, “in replacing the letter by a fac-simile? Would it not have been better, at the first visit, to have seized it openly, and departed?”
“D—,” replied Dupin, “is a desperate man, and a man of nerve. His hotel, too, is not without attendants devoted to his interests. Had I made the wild attempt you suggest, I might never have left the Ministerial presence alive. The good people of Paris might have heard of me no more. But I had an object apart from these considerations. You know my political prepossessions. In this matter, I act as a partisan of the lady concerned. For eighteen months the Minister has had her in his power. She has now him in hers—since, being unaware that the letter is not in his possession, he will proceed with his exactions as if it was. Thus will he inevitably commit himself, at once, to his political destruction. His downfall, too, will not be more precipitate than awkward. It is all very well to talk about the facilis descensus Averni; but in all kinds of climbing, as Catalani said of singing, it is far more easy to get up than to come down. In the present instance I have no sympathy—at least no pity—for him who descends. He is that monstrum horrendum, an unprincipled man of genius. I confess, however, that I should like very well to know the precise character of his thoughts, when, being defied by her whom the Prefect terms ‘a certain personage’ he is reduced to opening the letter which I left for him in the card-rack.”
“How? did you put any thing particular in it?”
“Why—it did not seem altogether right to leave the interior blank—that would have been insulting. D—, at Vienna once, did me an evil turn, which I told him, quite good-humoredly, that I should remember. So, as I knew he would feel some curiosity in regard to the identity of the person who had outwitted him, I thought it a pity not to give him a clue. He is well acquainted with my MS., and I just copied into the middle of the blank sheet the words—
“‘— — Un dessein si funeste, S’il n’est digne d’Atrée, est digne de Thyeste. They are to be found in Crebillon’s ‘Atrée.’”
A certain Mr. Ts’ui, of Lin-ch’ing, was too poor to keep his garden walls in repair, and used often to find a strange horse lying down on the grass inside. It was a black horse marked with white, and having a scrubby tail, which looked as if the end had been burnt off;1 and, though always driven away, would still return to the same spot. Now Mr. Ts’ui had a friend, who was holding an appointment in Shansi; and though he had frequently felt desirous of paying him a visit, he had no means of travelling so far. Accordingly, he one day caught the strange horse, and, putting a saddle on its back, rode away, telling his servants that if the owner of the horse should appear, he was to inform him where the animal was to be found.
The horse started off at a very rapid pace, and, in a short time, they were thirty or forty miles from home; but at night it did not seem to care for its food, so the next day Mr. Ts’ui, who thought perhaps illness might be the cause, held the horse in, and would not let it gallop so fast. However, the animal did not seem to approve of this, and kicked and foamed until at length Mr. Ts’ui let it go at the same old pace; and by midday he had reached his destination.
As he rode into the town, the people were astonished to hear of the marvellous journey just accomplished, and the Prince2 sent to say he should like to buy the horse. Mr. Ts’ui, fearing that the real owner might come forward, was compelled to refuse this offer; but when, after six months had elapsed, no inquiries had been made, he agreed to accept eight hundred ounces of silver, and handed over the horse to the Prince. He then bought himself a good mule, and returned home.
Subsequently, the Prince had occasion to use the horse for some important business at Lin-ch’ing; and when there it took the opportunity to run away. The officer in charge pursued it right up to the house of a Mr. Tsêng, who lived next door to Mr. Ts’ui, and saw it run in and disappear. Thereupon he called upon Mr. Tsêng to restore it to him; and, on the latter declaring he had never even seen the animal, the officer walked into his private apartments, where he found, hanging on the wall, a picture of a horse, by Ch’ên Tzŭ-ang3,exactly like the one he was in search of, and with part of the tail burnt away by a joss-stick.
It was now clear that the Prince’s horse was a supernatural creature; but the officer, being afraid to go back without it, would have prosecuted Mr. Tsêng, had not Ts’ui, whose eight hundred ounces of silver had since increased to something like ten thousand, stepped in and paid back the original purchase-money. Mr. Tsêng was exceedingly grateful to him for this act of kindness, ignorant, as he was, of the previous sale of the horse by Ts’ui to the Prince.
*via Todd Compton
“But this painter!” cried Walter Ludlow, with animation. “He not only excels in his peculiar art, but possesses vast acquirements in all other learning and science. He talks Hebrew with Dr. Mather and gives lectures in anatomy to Dr. Boylston. In a word, he will meet the best-instructed man among us on his own ground. Moreover, he is a polished gentleman, a citizen of the world – yes, a true cosmopolite; for he will speak like a native of each clime and country on the globe, except our own forests, whither he is now going. Nor is all this what I most admire in him.”
“Indeed!” said Elinor, who had listened with a women’s interest to the description of such a man. “Yet this is admirable enough.”
“Surely it is,” replied her lover, “but far less so than his natural gift of adapting himself to every variety of character, insomuch that all men – and all women too, Elinor – shall find a mirror of themselves in this wonderful painter. But the greatest wonder is yet to be told.”
“Nay, if he have more wonderful attributes than these,” said Elinor, laughing, “Boston is a perilous abode for the poor gentleman. Are you telling me of a painter, or a wizard?”
“In truth,” answered he, “that question might be asked much more seriously than you suppose. They say that he paints not merely a man’s features, but his mind and heart. He catches the secret sentiments and passions and throws them upon the canvas like sunshine, or perhaps, in the portraits of dark-souled men, like a gleam of infernal fire. It is an awful gift,” added Walter, lowering his voice from its tone of enthusiasm. “I shall be almost afraid to sit to him.”
“Walter, are you in earnest?” exclaimed Elinor.
“For Heaven’s sake, dearest Elinor, do not let him paint the look which you now wear,” said her lover, smiling, though rather perplexed. “There! it is passing away now; but when you spoke, you seemed frightened to death, and very sad besides. What were you thinking of?”
“Nothing, nothing!” answered Elinor, hastily. “You paint my face with your own fantasies. Well, come for me tomorrow, and we will visit this wonderful artist.”
But when the young man had departed, it cannot be denied that a remarkable expression was again visible on the fair and youthful face of his mistress. It was a sad and anxious look, little in accordance with what should have been the feelings of a maiden on the eve of wedlock. Yet Walter Ludlow was the chosen of her heart.
“A look!” said Elinor to herself. “No wonder that it startled him if it expressed what I sometimes feel. I know by my own experience how frightful a look may be. But it was all fancy. I thought nothing of it at the time; I have seen nothing of it since; I did but dream it;” and she busied herself about the embroidery of a ruff in which she meant that her portrait should be taken.
The painter of whom they had been speaking was not one of those native artists who at a later period than this borrowed their colors from the Indians and manufactured their pencils of the furs of wild beasts. Perhaps, if he could have revoked his life and prearranged his destiny, he might have chosen to belong to that school without a master in the hope of being at least original, since there were no works of art to imitate nor rules to follow. But he had been born and educated in Europe. People said that he had studied the grandeur or beauty of conception and every touch of the master-hand in all the most famous pictures in cabinets and galleries and on the walls of churches till there was nothing more for his powerful mind to learn. Art could add nothing to its lessons, but Nature might. He had, therefore, visited a world whither none of his professional brethren had preceded him, to feast his eyes on visible images that were noble and picturesque, yet had never been transferred to canvas. America was too poor to afford other temptations to an artist of eminence, though many of the colonial gentry on the painter’s arrival had expressed a wish to transmit their lineaments to posterity by moans of his skill. Whenever such proposals were made, he fixed his piercing eyes on the applicant and seemed to look him through and through. If he beheld only a sleek and comfortable visage, though there were a gold-laced coat to adorn the picture and golden guineas to pay for it, he civilly rejected the task and the reward; but if the face were the index of anything uncommon in thought, sentiment or experience, or if he met a beggar in the street with a white beard and a furrowed brow, or if sometimes a child happened to look up and smile, he would exhaust all the art on them that he denied to wealth.
Pictorial skill being so rare in the colonies, the painter became an object of general curiosity. If few or none could appreciate the technical merit of his productions, yet there were points in regard to which the opinion of the crowd was as valuable as the refined judgment of the amateur. He watched the effect that each picture produced on such untutored beholders, and derived profit from their remarks, while they would as soon have thought of instructing Nature herself as him who seemed to rival her. Their admiration, it must be owned, was tinctured with the prejudices of the age and country. Some deemed it an offence against the Mosaic law, and even a presumptuous mockery of the Creator, to bring into existence such lively images of his creatures. Others, frightened at the art which could raise phantoms at will and keep the form of the dead among the living, were inclined to consider the painter as a magician, or perhaps the famous Black Man of old witch-times plotting mischief in a new guise. These foolish fancies were more, than half believed among the mob. Even in superior circles his character was invested with a vague awe, partly rising like smoke-wreaths from the popular superstitions, but chiefly caused by the varied knowledge and talents which he made subservient to his profession.
Being on the eve of marriage, Walter Ludlow and Elinor were eager to obtain their portraits as the first of what, they doubtless hoped, would be a long series of family pictures. The day after the conversation above recorded they visited the painter’s rooms. A servant ushered them into an apartment where, though the artist himself was not visible, there were personages whom they could hardly forbear greeting with reverence. They knew, indeed, that the whole assembly were but pictures, yet felt it impossible to separate the idea of life and intellect from such striking counterfeits. Several of the portraits were known to them either as distinguished characters of the day or their private acquaintances. There was Governor Burnett, looking as if he had just received an undutiful communication from the House of Representatives and were inditing a most sharp response. Mr. Cooke hung beside the ruler whom he opposed, sturdy and somewhat puritanical, as befitted a popular leader. The ancient lady of Sir William Phipps eyed them from the wall in ruff and farthingale, an imperious old dame not unsuspected of witchcraft. John Winslow, then a very young man, wore the expression of warlike enterprise which long afterward made him a distinguished general. Their personal friends were recognized at a glance. In most of the pictures the whole mind and character were brought out on the countenance and concentrated into a single look; so that, to speak paradoxically, the originals hardly resembled themselves so strikingly as the portraits did.
Among these modern worthies there were two old bearded saints who had almost vanished into the darkening canvas. There was also a pale but unfaded Madonna who had perhaps been worshipped in Rome, and now regarded the lovers with such a mild and holy look that they longed to worship too.
“How singular a thought,” observed Walter Ludlow, “that this beautiful face has been beautiful for above two hundred years! Oh, if all beauty would endure so well! Do you not envy her, Elinor?”
“If earth were heaven, I might,” she replied. “But, where all things fade, how miserable to be the one that could not fade!”
“This dark old St. Peter has a fierce and ugly scowl, saint though he be,” continued Walter; “he troubles me. But the Virgin looks kindly at us.”
“Yes, but very sorrowfully, methinks,” said Elinor.
The easel stood beneath these three old pictures, sustaining one that had been recently commenced. After a little inspection they began to recognize the features of their own minister, the Rev. Dr. Colman, growing into shape and life, as it were, out of a cloud.
“Kind old man!” exclaimed Elinor. “He gazes at me as if he were about to utter a word of paternal advice.”
“And at me,” said Walter, “as if he were about to shake his head and rebuke me for some suspected iniquity. But so does the original. I shall never feel quite comfortable under his eye till we stand before him to be married.”
They now heard a footstep on the floor, and, turning, beheld the painter, who had been some moments in the room and had listened to a few of their remarks. He was a middle-aged man with a countenance well worthy of his own pencil. Indeed, by the picturesque though careless arrangement of his rich dress, and perhaps because his soul dwelt always among painted shapes, he looked somewhat like a portrait himself. His visitors were sensible of a kindred between the artist and his works, and felt as if one of the pictures had stepped from the canvas to salute them.
Walter Ludlow, who was slightly known to the painter, explained the object of their visit. While he spoke a sunbeam was falling athwart his figure and Elinor’s with so happy an effect that they also seemed living pictures of youth and beauty gladdened by bright fortune. The artist was evidently struck.
“My easel is occupied for several ensuing days, and my stay in Boston must be brief,” said he, thoughtfully; then, after an observant glance, he added, “But your wishes shall be gratified though I disappoint the chief-justice and Madame Oliver. I must not lose this opportunity for the sake of painting a few ells of broadcloth and brocade.”
The painter expressed a desire to introduce both their portraits into one picture and represent them engaged in some appropriate action. This plan would have delighted the lovers, but was necessarily rejected because so large a space of canvas would have been unfit for the room which it was intended to decorate. Two half-length portraits were therefore fixed upon. After they had taken leave, Walter Ludlow asked Elinor, with a smile, whether she knew what an influence over their fates the painter was about to acquire.
“The old women of Boston affirm,” continued he, “that after he has once got possession of a person’s face and figure he may paint him in any act or situation whatever, and the picture will be prophetic. Do you believe it?”
“Not quite,” said Elinor, smiling. “Yet if he has such magic, there is something so gentle in his manner that I am sure he will use it well.”
It was the painter’s choice to proceed with both the portraits at the same time, assigning as a reason, in the mystical language which he sometimes used, that the faces threw light upon each other. Accordingly, he gave now a touch to Walter and now to Elinor, and the features of one and the other began to start forth so vividly that it appeared as if his triumphant art would actually disengage them from the canvas. Amid the rich light and deep shade they beheld their phantom selves, but, though the likeness promised to be perfect, they were not quite satisfied with the expression: it seemed more vague than in most of the painter’s works. He, however, was satisfied with the prospect of success, and, being much interested in the lovers, employed his leisure moments, unknown to them, in making a crayon sketch of their two figures. During their sittings he engaged them in conversation and kindled up their faces with characteristic traits, which, though continually varying, it was his purpose to combine and fix. At length he announced that at their next visit both the portraits would be ready for delivery.
“If my pencil will but be true to my conception in the few last touches which I meditate,” observed he, “these two pictures will be my very best performances. Seldom indeed has an artist such subjects.” While speaking he still bent his penetrative eye upon them, nor withdrew it till they had reached the bottom of the stairs.
Nothing in the whole circle of human vanities takes stronger hold of the imagination than this affair of having a portrait painted. Yet why should it be so? The looking-glass, the polished globes of the andirons, the mirror-like water, and all other reflecting surfaces, continually present us with portraits – or, rather, ghosts – of ourselves which we glance at and straightway forget them. But we forget them only because they vanish. It is the idea of duration – of earthly immortality – that gives such a mysterious interest to our own portraits.
Walter and Elinor were not insensible to this feeling, and hastened to the painter’s room punctually at the appointed hour to meet those pictured shapes which were to be their representatives with posterity. The sunshine flashed after them into the apartment, but left it somewhat gloomy as they closed the door. Their eyes were immediately attracted to their portraits, which rested against the farthest wall of the room. At the first glance through the dim light and the distance, seeing themselves in precisely their natural attitudes and with all the air that they recognized so well, they uttered a simultaneous exclamation of delight.
“There we stand,” cried Walter, enthusiastically, “fixed in sunshine for ever. No dark passions can gather on our faces.”
“No,” said Elinor, more calmly; “no dreary change can sadden us.”
This was said while they were approaching and had yet gained only an imperfect view of the pictures. The painter, after saluting them, busied himself at a table in completing a crayon sketch, leaving his visitors to form their own judgment as to his perfected labors. At intervals he sent a glance from beneath his deep eyebrows, watching their countenances in profile with his pencil suspended over the sketch. They had now stood some moments, each in front of the other’s picture, contemplating it with entranced attention, but without uttering a word. At length Walter stepped forward, then back, viewing Elinor’s portrait in various lights, and finally spoke.
“Is there not a change?” said he, in a doubtful and meditative tone. “Yes; the perception of it grows more vivid the longer I look. It is certainly the same picture that I saw yesterday; the dress, the features, all are the same, and yet something is altered.”
“Is, then, the picture less like than it was yesterday?” inquired the painter, now drawing near with irrepressible interest.
“The features are perfect Elinor,” answered Walter, “and at the first glance the expression seemed also hers; but I could fancy that the portrait has changed countenance while I have been looking at it. The eyes are fixed on mine with a strangely sad and anxious expression. Nay, it is grief and terror. Is this like Elinor?”
“Compare the living face with the pictured one,” said the painter.
Walter glanced sidelong at his mistress, and started. Motionless and absorbed, fascinated, as it were, in contemplation of Walter’s portrait, Elinor’s face had assumed precisely the expression of which he had just been complaining. Had she practised for whole hours before a mirror, she could not have caught the look so successfully. Had the picture itself been a mirror, it could not have thrown back her present aspect with stronger and more melancholy truth. She appeared quite unconscious of the dialogue between the artist and her lover.
“Elinor,” exclaimed Walter, in amazement, “what change has come over you?”
She did not hear him nor desist from her fixed gaze till he seized her hand, and thus attracted her notice; then with a sudden tremor she looked from the picture to the face of the original.
“Do you see no change in your portrait?” asked she.
“In mine? None,” replied Walter, examining it. “But let me see. Yes; there is a slight change – an improvement, I think, in the picture, though none in the likeness. It has a livelier expression than yesterday, as if some bright thought were flashing from the eyes and about to be uttered from the lips. Now that I have caught the look, it becomes very decided.”
While he was intent on these observations Elinor turned to the painter. She regarded him with grief and awe, and felt that he repaid her with sympathy and commiseration, though wherefore she could but vaguely guess.
“That look!” whispered she, and shuddered. “How came it there?”
“Madam,” said the painter, sadly, taking her hand and leading her apart, “in both these pictures I have painted what I saw. The artist – the true artist – must look beneath the exterior. It is his gift – his proudest, but often a melancholy one – to see the inmost soul, and by a power indefinable even to himself to make it glow or darken upon the canvas in glances that express the thought and sentiment of years. Would that I might convince myself of error in the present instance!”
They had now approached the table, on which were heads in chalk, hands almost as expressive as ordinary faces, ivied church-towers, thatched cottages, old thunder-stricken trees, Oriental and antique costume, and all such picturesque vagaries of an artist’s idle moments. Turning them over with seeming carelessness, a crayon sketch of two figures was disclosed.
“If I have failed,” continued he – “if your heart does not see itself reflected in your own portrait, if you have no secret cause to trust my delineation of the other – it is not yet too late to alter them. I might change the action of these figures too. But would it influence the event?” He directed her notice to the sketch.
A thrill ran through Elinor’s frame; a shriek was upon her lips, but she stifled it with the self-command that becomes habitual to all who hide thoughts of fear and anguish within their bosoms. Turning from the table, she perceived that Walter had advanced near enough to have seen the sketch, though she could not determine whether it had caught his eye.
“We will not have the pictures altered,” said she, hastily. “If mine is sad, I shall but look the gayer for the contrast.”
“Be it so,” answered the painter, bowing. “May your griefs be such fanciful ones that only your pictures may mourn for them! For your joys, may they be true and deep, and paint themselves upon this lovely face till it quite belie my art!”
After the marriage of Walter and Elinor the pictures formed the two most splendid ornaments of their abode. They hung side by side, separated by a narrow panel, appearing to eye each other constantly, yet always returning the gaze of the spectator. Travelled gentlemen who professed a knowledge of such subjects reckoned these among the most admirable specimens of modern portraiture, while common observers compared them with the originals, feature by feature, and were rapturous in praise of the likeness. But it was on a third class – neither travelled connoisseurs nor common observers, but people of natural sensibility – that the pictures wrought their strongest effect. Such persons might gaze carelessly at first, but, becoming interested, would return day after day and study these painted faces like the pages of a mystic volume. Walter Ludlow’s portrait attracted their earliest notice. In the absence of himself and his bride they sometimes disputed as to the expression which the painter had intended to throw upon the features, all agreeing that there was a look of earnest import, though no two explained it alike. There was less diversity of opinion in regard to Elinor’s picture. They differed, indeed, in their attempts to estimate the nature and depth of the gloom that dwelt upon her face, but agreed that it was gloom and alien from the natural temperament of their youthful friend. A certain fanciful person announced as the result of much scrutiny that both these pictures were parts of one design, and that the melancholy strength of feeling in Elinor’s countenance bore reference to the more vivid emotion – or, as he termed it, the wild passion – in that of Walter. Though unskilled in the art, he even began a sketch in which the action of the two figures was to correspond with their mutual expression.
It was whispered among friends that day by day Elinor’s face was assuming a deeper shade of pensiveness which threatened soon to render her too true a counterpart of her melancholy picture. Walter, on the other hand, instead of acquiring the vivid look which the painter had given him on the canvas, became reserved and downcast, with no outward flashes of emotion, however it might be smouldering within. In course of time Elinor hung a gorgeous curtain of purple silk wrought with flowers and fringed with heavy golden tassels before the pictures, under pretence that the dust would tarnish their hues or the light dim them. It was enough. Her visitors felt that the massive folds of the silk must never be withdrawn nor the portraits mentioned in her presence.
Time wore on, and the painter came again. He had been far enough to the north to see the silver cascade of the Crystal Hills, and to look over the vast round of cloud and forest from the summit of New England’s loftiest mountain. But he did not profane that scene by the mockery of his art. He had also lain in a canoe on the bosom of Lake George, making his soul the mirror of its loveliness and grandeur till not a picture in the Vatican was more vivid than his recollection. He had gone with the Indian hunters to Niagara, and there, again, had flung his hopeless pencil down the precipice, feeling that he could as soon paint the roar as aught else that goes to make up the wondrous cataract. In truth, it was seldom his impulse to copy natural scenery except as a framework for the delineations of the human form and face instinct with thought, passion or suffering. With store of such his adventurous ramble had enriched him. The stern dignity of Indian chiefs, the dusky loveliness of Indian girls, the domestic life of wigwams, the stealthy march, the battle beneath gloomy pine trees, the frontier fortress with its garrison, the anomaly of the old French partisan bred in courts, but grown gray in shaggy deserts, – such were the scenes and portraits that he had sketched. The glow of perilous moments, flashes of wild feeling, struggles of fierce power, love, hate, grief, frenzy – in a word, all the worn-out heart of the old earth – had been revealed to him under a new form. His portfolio was filled with graphic illustrations of the volume of his memory which genius would transmute into its own substance and imbue with immortality. He felt that the deep wisdom in his art which he had sought so far was found.
But amid stern or lovely nature, in the perils of the forest or its overwhelming peacefulness, still there had been two phantoms, the companions of his way. Like all other men around whom an engrossing purpose wreathes itself, he was insulated from the mass of humankind. He had no aim, no pleasure, no sympathies, but what were ultimately connected with his art. Though gentle in manner and upright in intent and action, he did not possess kindly feelings; his heart was cold: no living creature could be brought near enough to keep him warm. For these two beings, however, he had felt in its greatest intensity the sort of interest which always allied him to the subjects of his pencil. He had pried into their souls with his keenest insight and pictured the result upon their features with his utmost skill, so as barely to fall short of that standard which no genius ever reached, his own severe conception. He had caught from the duskiness of the future – at least, so he fancied – a fearful secret, and had obscurely revealed it on the portraits. So much of himself – of his imagination and all other powers – had been lavished on the study of Walter and Elinor that he almost regarded them as creations of his own, like the thousands with which he had peopled the realms of Picture. Therefore did they flit through the twilight of the woods, hover on the mist of waterfalls, look forth from the mirror of the lake, nor melt away in the noontide sun. They haunted his pictorial fancy, not as mockeries of life nor pale goblins of the dead, but in the guise of portraits, each with an unalterable expression which his magic had evoked from the caverns of the soul. He could not recross the Atlantic till he had again beheld the originals of those airy pictures.
“O glorious Art!” Thus mused the enthusiastic painter as he trod the street. “Thou art the image of the Creator’s own. The innumerable forms that wander in nothingness start into being at thy beck. The dead live again; thou recallest them to their old scenes and givest their gray shadows the lustre of a better life, at once earthly and immortal. Thou snatchest back the fleeting moments of history. With then there is no past, for at thy touch all that is great becomes for ever present, and illustrious men live through long ages in the visible performance of the very deeds which made them what they are. O potent Art! as thou bringest the faintly-revealed past to stand in that narrow strip of sunlight which we call ‘now,’ canst thou summon the shrouded future to meet her there? Have I not achieved it? Am I not thy prophet?”
Thus with a proud yet melancholy fervor did he almost cry aloud as he passed through the toilsome street among people that knew not of his reveries nor could understand nor care for them. It is not good for man to cherish a solitary ambition. Unless there be those around him by whose example he may regulate himself, his thoughts, desires and hopes will become extravagant and he the semblance – perhaps the reality – of a madman. Reading other bosoms with an acuteness almost preternatural, the painter failed to see the disorder of his own.
“And this should be the house,” said he, looking up and down the front before he knocked. “Heaven help my brains! That picture! Methinks it will never vanish. Whether I look at the windows or the door, there it is framed within them, painted strongly and glowing in the richest tints – the faces of the portraits, the figures and action of the sketch!”
“The portraits – are they within?” inquired he of the domestic; then, recollecting himself, “Your master and mistress – are they at home?”
“They are, sir,” said the servant, adding, as he noticed that picturesque aspect of which the painter could never divest himself, “and the portraits too.”
The guest was admitted into a parlor communicating by a central door with an interior room of the same size. As the first apartment was empty, he passed to the entrance of the second, within which his eyes were greeted by those living personages, as well as their pictured representatives, who had long been the objects of so singular an interest. He involuntarily paused on the threshold.
They had not perceived his approach. Walter and Elinor were standing before the portraits, whence the former had just flung back the rich and voluminous folds of the silken curtain, holding its golden tassel with one hand, while the other grasped that of his bride. The pictures, concealed for months, gleamed forth again in undiminished splendor, appearing to throw a sombre light across the room rather than to be disclosed by a borrowed radiance. That of Elinor had been almost prophetic. A pensiveness, and next a gentle sorrow, had successively dwelt upon her countenance, deepening with the lapse of time into a quiet anguish. A mixture of affright would now have made it the very expression of the portrait. Walter’s face was moody and dull or animated only by fitful flashes which left a heavier darkness for their momentary illumination. He looked from Elinor to her portrait, and thence to his own, in the contemplation of which he finally stood absorbed.
The painter seemed to hear the step of Destiny approaching behind him on its progress toward its victims. A strange thought darted into his mind. Was not his own the form in which that Destiny had embodied itself, and he a chief agent of the coming evil which he had foreshadowed?
Still, Walter remained silent before the picture, communing with it as with his own heart and abandoning himself to the spell of evil influence that the painter had cast upon the features. Gradually his eyes kindled, while as Elinor watched the increasing wildness of his face her own assumed a look of terror; and when, at last, he turned upon her, the resemblance of both to their portraits was complete.
“Our fate is upon us!” howled Walter. “Die!”
Drawing a knife, he sustained her as she was sinking to the ground, and aimed it at her bosom. In the action and in the look and attitude of each the painter beheld the figures of his sketch. The picture, with all its tremendous coloring, was finished.
“Hold, madman!” cried he, sternly.
He had advanced from the door and interposed himself between the wretched beings with the same sense of power to regulate their destiny as to alter a scene upon the canvas. He stood like a magician controlling the phantoms which he had evoked.
“What!” muttered Walter Ludlow as he relapsed from fierce excitement into sullen gloom. “Does Fate impede its own decree?”
“Wretched lady,” said the painter, “did I not warn you?”
“You did,” replied Elinor, calmly, as her terror gave place to the quiet grief which it had disturbed. “But I loved him.”
Is there not a deep moral in the tale? Could the result of one or all our deeds be shadowed forth and set before us, some would call it fate and hurry onward, others be swept along by their passionate desires, and none be turned aside by the prophetic pictures.
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.
The alien parked its car across the street and came and sat down in the waiting room. He must have seen this happen, peripherally. But he was busy settling the bill with a middle-aged woman with curly grey hair and substantial, attractive clothes, to whom he’d taken an irrational dislike. Those who deal with Joe Punter, day in and day out, especially Joe car-owning Punter, are prone to such allergies. He saw her start of concealed surprise, looked up, and there was the alien.
The other customers on the row of seats were pretending, in their English way, that nothing special had happened. He finished dealing with the woman. Other cars and customers left; the alien’s turn came. He went out in the road and hand-waved it into the bay with fatherly care, then sent it back to wait while he looked the red car over. He entered the car’s make and model in the terminal and began to check the diagnostics.
The mechanic worked this franchise alone with the robotics and the electronic presence of cashier, manager, head office. He was able to read print, even to write. It was a necessity of his trade. To be wired-up, routinely, among all this free-running machinery was against health and safety regulations. He used a hear-and-do wire only for the exotics, where the instructions came packaged with the part, and tried to conceal this from his customers. The mystique of craftsmanship was important to him.
Consequently, it took him some little time to examine the tired little runabout. He called in the alien and explained what had to be done, using a lot of gesture.
The convention was that if you couldn’t stomach calling another sentient being “it,” they were all called “she.” The mechanic eyed the alien covertly as he made his exposition: the soft, noseless profile, drooping shoulders, the torso thickened by layers of strange undergarments beneath its drab “overalls,” gawky backwards-jointed legs. It was about as female-looking as the dugongs sailors used to miscall “mermaids.” The confusion, he considered, was an insult to both parties. But it was nonsense to expect the denizen of another star system to be humanly attractive. He was in no hurry. He wasn’t affronted or frightened, as some people might have been, to see one running around loose, out of the enclave. No doubt the alien was going to tip generously, but it wasn’t avarice that made him willing to linger. He was simply, genuinely pleased to have one of them in his shop.
“I just want you to scrub the converter.”
He wasn’t surprised that it could speak English; he’d only imagined it would not trouble itself to do so. But the last thing he’d expected was for an alien to be mean.
“You know, it’s going to be cheaper in the long run to replace the whole exhaust system. You’ve been using a high methanol percentage, there’s a lot of corrosion here…”
The alien looked at the ground.
“Come away –”
He followed it out into the waiting room, where it folded down like a big dog on one of the seats, looking miserable, twisting its puckered, chicken-skin hands against its chest. “I’m going to sell it,” the alien explained. “I want you to do the minimum that’s legally necessary.”
He realized that the alien did not believe that its car could understand English. But nor did it believe that such understanding was impossible. It believed that if you have to say something unpleasant about someone/thing, you remove yourself from the immediate vicinity of the victim. The rules of etiquette were immovable, matter-of-fact, and binding. The car’s level of comprehension was a separate matter, a subject for abstruse philosophy.
It was not unusual for a mechanic to be familiar, as far as this, with alien psychology. Alien nature was the stuff of daytime television. The mechanic could have drowned in the subject, if he had enough idle time between customers.
“What’s legally necessary,” he repeated. He was disappointed, practically and emotionally, by his customer’s poverty; but mollified by its bizarre sensitivity.
Of course he knew that in an alien the state of poverty could only be temporary and relative. The tip dwindled but some other benefit was bound to accrue.
It (or she) nodded glumly.
They nodded. Their gestures were very human, but culturally diverse: for “no” they would jerk the chin, not shake the head. It was as if they’d borrowed a little, deliberately, from every human race, and maybe that was exactly so. Their journey into human space had been through such a saturation of human emissions, no one knew how much of alien behavior on Earth was natural, and how much a carefully devised presentation.
“Shall I wait or shall I come back?”
Throughout this exchange the other customers had remained painfully fixed in bored or casual poses. The mechanic was delighted by their intent, covert attention. Luckily there were no children involved, to spoil the effect of cosmopolitan unconcern.
He did not want it to stay. If it stayed in here it might strike up a conversation, become the temporary property of one of these mere punters.
“You’d better go,” he told it, feigning regret. “I have another job that I can’t put on auto. Come back in about an hour.”
When it had left, regret became real. He went out into the dusty street and stared up and down. It was October. The fronds of the banana tree, that grew over the wall of an unkempt yard next door were acid green under a lowering sky that had been promising rain for days. The tourist center was not far away: the massive grace that all the world admired, which had once been the center of a dock town called Liverpool. He could see the tiny points of the newly gilded Liver Birds, winking above their monument of vast commercial assurance. Far inland, the vague conurbation stretched up the flanks of the Pennines: the hills swimming there out of sight like drowned monuments, drowned in time and lost forever, like the great city.
There was no sign of the alien.
He went into the shop, checked the progress of various operations, and quietly – avoiding camera eyes – sneaked through the door at the back, and upstairs to his living quarters. His wife was at work. Their two children, seven and two years old, were with her in the workplace schoolroom and crèche. The rooms, which were small but well-supplied with consumer durables, seemed unnaturally tidy and silent. He stood in the living room and studied a row of books, discs, journals, on a shelf of the library unit. Dealing with the Alien; What Do They Think of Us; The Farcomers; Through Alien Eyes; Have They Been Here Before?; Xenobiology: Towards the Dawn of a Science… The mechanic and his family were no more than averagely interested in the alien visitors. The books had been bought, not read. But it would have been a strange household indeed, or a very poor one, that didn’t possess at least a few of these titles.
The mechanic did not feel, on the whole, that the human race was over-reacting. He and his wife had voted in favor, in the European referendum on the global change of era, which was now on its way to becoming law. This year, this present year, would be forever year three: 3AC, if the English-speaking lobby had its way. After Contact. It was official: this was the greatest thing that had happened to the human race since the dim and distant “coming of Christ.” And the aliens, unlike Christ, were here. They were in print, on the screen. They were indubitably real.
Everything on the shelves had been entered in their library; the mechanic’s wife was meticulous over this chore. His fingers hovered over the keypad. But the mysterious inertia of human adulthood defeated him. Only the seven-year-old actually used the database. He took a book down, and another: leaved pages, read a paragraph or two. He didn’t know what he was looking for. Surrounded by hard things that did not speak or look at him, he tried to imagine how it felt to be the alien. He had known sentimental drivers: cars with names, cars referred to as “she”; cars abused for bad behavior. He had caught himself (he dredged up fragments of memory), occasionally giving a glossy flank of robot casing an affectionate pat as he put it aside.
But the aliens did not know about animals. They had tools that crept, slithered, flew; but they had made these things. They had no notion of a separate creation, life that was not their own. It might be that conditions on the home planet were different, but the evidence, from their reactions and their own reporting, was otherwise. It seemed likely that they had shared their world with no other, no separate warm-blooded animals.
He went down to the service bay and checked the screen that showed the waiting room. All was quiet in there. It had not come back. He turned from that screen and made work for himself among the ramped vehicles and buzzing tools. He didn’t touch the alien’s car. When it reappeared he told it he was having a few problems. Please be patient, he said. Come back later, or wait. He took no new customers. The afternoon turned to dusk. The waiting room emptied until it (or she) was there alone.
The mechanic’s wife and his children arrived home, on foot from the tram stop, the baby in her buggy. He heard the childish voices chattering and laughing at the street door and gritted his teeth as if interrupted in some highly concentrated and delicate task. But he was doing nothing, just sitting in the gloom among the silent tools.
The alien was folded up on its seat. It looked like an animal dressed up, a talking animal of no known species from a child’s cartoon. It stood and smiled, showing the tips of its teeth: the modified snarl that might or might not be a genuine, shared gesture.
The mechanic was embarrassed because there was really no way he could explain his behavior. A human customer, stranger in a strange land, would by now have been either very angry or – possibly – a little scared. The alien seemed resigned. It did not expect humans to behave reasonably.
It made the mechanic obscurely angry to think that he was not the first person to give it the runaround like this. He would have liked to explain I just want to have you near me for a while… But that would have been a shameful confession.
“I want to do you a favor,” he said. “I didn’t like to tell you before, thought you might get embarrassed. I’m fixing up quite a few things, and I’m only going to charge you for the scrub.”
He thought it looked surprised, perhaps wary. It was impossible not to award them with human feelings; not to read human expressions in their strange faces. “Thank you.”
“The least I could do, after you’ve come all this way!”
He laughed nervously. It didn’t. They did not laugh.
“Would you like to come upstairs? Would you like something to eat, a cup of tea? My wife, my kids would be very pleased to meet you.”
The invitation was completely insincere. The last thing he wanted was to see it in his home. He didn’t want to share the alien with anyone. The alien gave him a dry look as if it knew exactly what was going on. According to some readings of their behavior they were telepathic: intensely so between themselves, mildly with humans.
On the other hand, it had probably been pestered this way before…performing animal. The thought made him wince, for himself and for those others.
“No thank you.” It looked at the ground. “Will the car be ready tomorrow?”
The street was dark. There was little lighting just here, away from the hotels and malls and the floodlit, water-lapped monuments. He felt guilty. The poor alien might be mentally counting up its cash, maybe wondering what the hell to do next. Aliens traveling alone were rarities anywhere. If it couldn’t take refuge in a big rich hotel it would be bothered. People would crowd around it heartlessly, pointing their cameras.
But that wasn’t the mechanic’s fault. He didn’t want to capture it. He didn’t want to turn it out, either. He’d have liked it to stay here; to keep its real live presence. It could sleep on the seats. He would bring down some food. They liked some human foodstuffs: ice cream, white bread, hamburgers; nothing too natural.
“Yes, of course. Come back tomorrow. I open at nine.”
He told his wife that he had to work overtime. This never happened, but she accepted the idea without comment. The routine of their life together was so calm it could swallow the occasional obvious lie without a ripple.
He sat in the machine shop alone and looked around him. Cars.
It was strange how many static, urban Europeans still felt the need to own them, even with the fuel rationing and all the rest of the environmental-protection laws. The mechanic wasn’t complaining. It was a steady job, and often even enjoyable. These are my people, he thought, trying on the alien worldview. My people, the sheep of my flock. He had a grandmother who was a churchgoer. But there came the idea of animals again, the separation of one kind of life from another. That was not what happened between an alien and an alien machine. He went up to the car, clamped on its ramp in an undignified posture, a helpless patient.
“Hallo?” he said tentatively.
The car made no response, but the atmosphere in the shop changed. By speaking to it aloud he had shifted something: his own perception. He’d embarrassed himself, in fact. He could just catch the tail of a more interesting emotion. He was a child creeping past the witch’s door, deliciously afraid. But nothing he could do or say would make the imagined real: make him see the robot eyes wink, the jaws of metal grin or open in speech. Nothing but madness would change things that far.
He began to work, or rather he set the robotics to work. He had no choice now; he would have to do what he had promised and square the accounts somehow. Nothing that happened in his garage went unrecorded. The mechanic had never tried to hack his way around the firm’s system. He’d never been the type to be tempted by the complications of crime, and now he wouldn’t know where to start. He became very gloomy thinking about what he’d have to do: the awkward covering up for this strange impulse.
The free machines skated to and fro. Others slid along the overhead lines and reached down their serpent heads. The mechanic fidgeted. The little car, a fifteen-year-old Korean methanol/mix burner with a red plastic body, liquid clutch, and suspension, was a hardwearing complex of equipment, good for at least another ten years on the road. It needed a certain amount of attention, but it didn’t need his hands-on attention at all. He stood and watched.
I am redundant, he thought – a standard over-reaction to robotics. Why don’t aliens feel redundant? He struggled to perform the mental contortion of looking out of the mirror. If it were not for humans, if it were not for me, there would be no cars, no robots, no machines at all. I cannot be superseded. Even if the machines become self-conscious, become “human” (the ever-receding bogey of the popular media), I will still be God. The maker. The origin.
Upstairs the toddler would be in bed; and the boy too, tucked up with one of the home tutoring wires that supplemented the education provided by his mother’s employers. The mother would be relaxing into her evening, snug in a nest of hardware. Empathically, subliminally, the mechanic was aware of the comings and goings, the familiar routine.
He discovered why the alien filled him with such helpless, inarticulate delight. The machines promised, but they could not perform. They remained things, and people remained lonely. The mechanic had visited his country’s National Forests – the great tracts of land that must remain undisturbed, however small his sitting room became. He accepted the necessity of their existence, but the only emotion he could possibly feel was resentment. He had no friendship with the wilderness. Animals could be pets, but they were not part of you, not the same. The aliens had the solution to human isolation: a talking world, a world with eyes; the companionship that God dreams of. The alien’s visitation had stirred in him a God-like discontent.
He could not make it stay. But perhaps he could learn from it, share its enriched experience. He saw the bay as a microcosm of human technology and civilization – a world extruded like ectoplasm from its human center, full of creatures made in the mechanic’s own image: his finger and thumb, his teeth, his rolling, folding joints, his sliding muscle. His mind, even, in its flickering chemical cloud, permeating the hardware of his brain.
Excited by this insight, he jumped up and hurried to the bay’s keypad. He pulled the robotics out, the shining jointed arms sliding back and folding themselves away into the walls. He took out a box of hand tools. He would pay the alien’s car the greatest compliment in his power. He would give it the benefit of his craftsmanship, the kind of “natural, organic” servicing for which the rich paid ridiculous sums.
For a while he worked like Adam in Eden, joyfully naming the subcreation with his hands and mind. He worked, he slowed… He sat on the cold, dark-stained floor with a socket spanner in one hand and a piece of ragwaste in the other. The lights looked down. They built things with bacteria, as the mechanic understood it. Bacteria which were themselves traceable to the aliens’ own intestinal flora, infecting everything: every tool and piece of furniture, even the massive shell of their ship-world. Human beings, when they wanted to express feelings of profound communion with the planet, with the race, spoke of being “a part of the great whole.” Having lived so many years – from the start of their evolution, in a sense, the pundits reckoned – in a world created by themselves, the aliens could not experience being a part. There were no parts in their continuum: no spaces, no dividing edges.
He suddenly felt disgusted. Scientists had established that the alien bacteria were harmless. That was the story, but it might be wrong. It might be a big lie, maintained to prevent panic in the streets. He wished he hadn’t touched the car. The alien had been using it for months. It must be coated all over with invisible crawling slime.
What was it like, to be part of a living world? He stared at the spanner in his hand until the rod of metal lost its shine. Skin crept over it; the adjustable socket became a cup of muscle, pursed like an anus, wet lips drawn back by a twist on the tumescent rod. The mechanic was nauseated, but he could not put the tool down. He could not go away from it. This oozed drop of self, attached to his hand, would not be parted from him if he dropped it. Tiny strings, strands of living slime, would cling and join them still. The air he breathed was full of self, of human substance.
He stood up. He backed off. A robot casing yielded like flesh. The mechanic yelped and sprang away. His hand, with the rod-flesh spanner growing out of it, hit the keypad; and all the tools began to leap into action. He stood in his own surging, hurrying, pulsating gut – for an instant saved by the notional space of an anatomical drawing, and then the walls closed in. there was no light, only a reddened darkness. The mechanic wailed. He fought a horrible need to vomit; he scrabbled desperately at the keys.
When everything was quiet again, he sat for while. It might have been minutes; it felt like a long time. Eventually he stopped wanting to be sick and managed to put down the spanner. He sat with his head hunched in his arms; became aware of this abject fetal crouch, and came out of it slowly. He took a deep breath.
The garage was the same as it had always been: dead and safe. He realized that he had been highly privileged. Somehow, just briefly, he had succeeded in entering the alien mind, seen the world through alien eyes. How could you expect such an experience to be pleasant? Now that it was over he could accept that, and he was truly grateful.
At last he heaved a sigh and set about putting the bay to work again. He couldn’t bring himself to touch the red car with hand tools now. Besides, he was too shaky. But he would deliver the alien’s vehicle in the morning as promised, as near to perfectly reborn as was humanly possible. He owed it that much.
He had tried to take something from the alien by a kind of force. And he’d got what he wanted. It wasn’t the alien’s fault that he’d bitten off more than he could chew and gagged on the mouthful. Gritting his teeth against the ghostly feel of flesh in the machine, he set up the necessary routines.
In a short time, it was all done. But it was very late. His wife would have to ask questions now, and he’d have to tell her something of what had happened. He stood looking at the plastic shell and the clever, deviously economical innards under the open bonnet. The machines, they said, couldn’t live with the ecosphere. In the end the human race would have to abandon one or the other: motor cars or “the environment.” But “in the end” was still being held at bay. In the meantime this was a good, well-made little compromise with damnation.
He felt lonely and sad. He had seen another world walk into his life, reached out to grasp the wonder, and found something worse than empty air. He’d wanted the alien to give him dreamland, somewhere over the rainbow. He had found, instead, an inimical Eden: a treasure that he could no more enjoy than he could crawl back into the womb.
The mechanic sighed again and gently closed the bonnet.
The red car settled itself a little.
“Thank you,” it said.
In the morning at nine o’clock the alien was there. The car was ready, gleaming on the forecourt. The alien put down its bag, which it carried not on its back or at arm’s length but tucked under one armpit in that very peculiar, lopsided way of theirs. He thought it looked tired and anxious. It barely glanced at the car. Perhaps, like a human, it didn’t even want to know how badly it had been cheated.
“What’s the damage?” it asked.
The mechanic was hurt. He’d have liked to go over the whole worksheet with it: to extract the sweet honey of its approval, or at least to extend this dwindling transaction just a little further. He had to remind himself that the alien owed him nothing. To itself, its feelings were not romantic or bizarre in the least. The world it lived in was commonplace. The mechanic’s experience was his own concern, had been an internal matter from the start. The alien was not responsible for kinks of human psychology, nor for imaginary paranormal incidents.
“look,” he said. “I’ve got a proposition for you. My eldest, my son, he’s just passed his driving test. He won’t be allowed out on his own for a while, of course. But I’ve been thinking about getting him a little runabout. I don’t keep a car myself, you see, I’ve never felt the need. But kids, they like the freedom… I’d like to buy your car.”
In the cold light of day, he couldn’t bear to tell it the truth. He knew the car would never speak to him again. But he had been touched by the world of the other, and he simply had to bring away something: some kind of proof.
The alien looked even more depressed.
The mechanic realized suddenly that he didn’t have to worry about the money. He would tell the firm everything. They were human at head office: and as fascinated as he. The car would stay on the forecourt. He would call in and get it featured on the local news, maybe even national news. It would be extremely good for business.
For the alien’s benefit, however, he would stick to the story about his son. They really shouldn’t be encouraged to believe that human beings thought they were magic.
“List price,” he added, hurriedly. “And a little more. Because anyone would pay a little more, a car that’s been driven by one of our famous visitors. What do you say?”
So the alien walked away with its credit card handsomely e-charged. It turned at the corner of the street, by the yard where the banana fronds hung over the gate, and bared its pointed teeth in that seeming smile. The farewell could have been for the red car on the forecourt as much as for the human beside it, but it made the man feel better anyway.
*The Editorial team had made all possible efforts to contact the rights holder of this work. We ask them to write to us here.
Mojito sniffs through the bars of the gate. He gets bored and comes back with muddy feet. I pet his fur. The color of tea with milk, Brenda says, as the dog licks my hands.
She needs me to take care of him while she’s away. I’m hoping she’ll offer to let me stay at her house for the two months, but I don’t say anything and she doesn’t suggest it. Would I take a peek at her panties? Yes.
I try to count the number of living things I have in my apartment. No ficus or pet or even a cactus. Only bacteria and the rotting vegetables in my fridge.
I agree. The bag of dog food weighs more than the dog.
His whines and need for affection keep me up and when I finally fall asleep I sink into an elastic and sweaty confusion that there’s no escaping.
My dreams look like a scene from Counter Strike. The terrorism of old loves. You want to rescue your hostages but it’s too late.
Headshot and out of bed to go to work.
Eight hours in the office means eight hours on the internet. You can’t talk about that.
You can talk about the open carcasses of the computers, the heat of the server room, the coffee maker that sometimes spits out dirt, the shrillness of each ring, message, and alarm that a person hears every day.
The security guard shakes my hand after I swipe the magnetic card. Aníbal spends the night in the building; he’ll be getting off work soon. I know that he hides a mattress in the basement, next to the service bathrooms.
On his netbook he watches tutorials on how to make origami. More animals than flowers.
He makes them out of the gold wrappers of the cigarettes he smokes leisurely all night or quickly, secretly during the day. Every once in a while me gives me one of his animals.
The smoke sticks to his fingers and then to the paper and then to me.
I help with the systems. There are a lot of systems and my hand dips into all of them. Always under different users, like a glove that changes color. I imagine my work like a hand tying up cables inside a bucket of Jell-O.
I’m also the one who checks what my co-workers search on Google. Some are interested in clothes or in some zodiac sign or soccer team. In my opinion our individual identities are defined by the terms we search for.
This week I’m “can you eat banana peel,” “angelface redhead on the beach,” “song that starts with biribiribiribibí,” and “name for the white part of your eye.”
I also Google my name. It relaxes me. It gives me certainty. It’s objective: that’s what I am. My boss on the other hand reads about weightlifting, cocks, and fishing. He also has braces on his teeth. According to his CV he’s one year younger than me. One Friday working late he told me that he wanted to leave everything behind and move to Italy.
But I’ve never seen that in his searches.
There are people who don’t even dare to type their dreams in Google.
The secretary calls and tells me to go up to the boss’s office on the top floor. I say I’m on my way. She’s the vegetarian version of Catwoman who keeps an Excel spreadsheet on what she steals from petty cash. I don’t read her e-mails. One time when I used the boss’s bathroom there was a strong smell of raw fish from the trashcan. The lid was on.
The boss only calls me when his computer freezes or his antivirus expires; and also when they want to scold me for something I did right but they think I did wrong. All systems leak.
Of course only the worst ones sink.
The air-conditioning is always on. The janitors move around the building from computer to computer with buckets and jugs. I stare at the painting of Rosas until the secretary gives me permission to enter the boss’s office.
Without even greeting me, my boss asks me if I want to grow. I say yes. Perfect, he smiles, great. His braces sparkle like a white dwarf star. He hands me a Blackberry and says I’m a good kid. That’s it.
I need an app that will completely uninstall my expectations.
The rest of the workday slides by. I want to configure my Gmail account on my new Blackberry but it keeps giving me an error message. I restart and it seems to have been successfully installed, but then the error message again. I take out the battery, I put the battery back in and turn it on.
Error. I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up. In systems there’s never room to grow.
At least I manage to set the Tetris theme as my ringtone.
I leave work tired but as I begin to walk I feel my energies return. A little bit of air, unexpected cold, quick trip to the corner store where I make the rounds down the same aisles as always. I pay with exact change. I’m happy when I unlock my door on the first try.
The first thing I do when I get inside is turn on the computer. Then I turn on the light, the gas for the heater, I open Chrome, I start iTunes, I find a yogurt in the back of the fridge and shuffle takes me directly to Brenda’s favorite song. She must already be on the road, driving at night, the last CD spinning infinitely in her CD player.
Mojito falls asleep under my jacket.
Gmail Facebook Twitter Tumblr. Gmail Facebook Twitter Tumblr. The repetition unravels until all of the updates are exhausted. And then again. And Again.
News, torrents, weather forecast, subtitles, 24 hour pharmacies, movie show times. Music. Gmail Facebook Twitter Tumblr. Update. Delete. Share. Send.
Surfing the internet is like a workout routine.
Sometimes it feels like military training.
Just as I’m about to go to bed I get an e-mail. Not the one I was hoping for, never the one I was hoping for. One of my co-workers is mad about something that I supposedly did but I’m sure I didn’t do.
I mark it as spam.
Dried tea bags on my desk at work. Eye drops. Flash drives. Origami. Broken pens. A Plastic fork from the sweet and greasy Chinese takeout. The box my speakers came in filled now with I don’t know what. Breadcrumbs.
Systems are so clean in comparison, even when they don’t work.
But they never don’t work like they didn’t work today.
The chat windows in my Gtalk are full of sentences I didn’t type.
“YOU LIKE TO PUT YOUR FINGER IN YOUR ASS AND SMELL IT. FAG. AIRPLANE GREASE FAT-ASS.” Et cetera.
I try to avoid it but it’s impossible: as much as I move the cursor or sign out of Gtalk the ghost continues to send messages from my username. The majority of my contacts respond aggressively.
Some understand that it’s not me.
I try to explain to my friends what’s happening, but I don’t even know what’s happening. Most of them say okay. Not much else: okay. One of them tells me to post a message on my Facebook wall; I do it. Another one suggests I change my account; no.
I take lunch late and there are hardly any restaurants still open. As I chew a milanesa and cheese sandwich I realize that in my mass apology I must have also written to the person responsible for the messages. A co-worker, most likely.
I search the histories up to the last cleaning, but it’s too late. It’s no surprise. Links break. Servers break. Users break.
It starts with e-mails I never sent and continues with new avatars on my Facebook wall. I’m not sure if I should erase them; a lot of people have even liked them. The images came from my Tumblr account, but under a username no one knows. On the internet there are always traces for people who want to follow you.
I change all my passwords. I write them down in a notebook so I won’t forget them; my handwriting looks as foreign to me as what’s being written in my Gtalk.
For the first few days I forget I changed the passwords until sign-in fails.
Brenda took several days to get online or at least to sign on to Gtalk. It annoyed me to have to wait around in the same space that they’ve been hijacking, with me inside. There were many false alarms: whenever the computer would make any noise, like a hiccup, and it sounded like someone was trying to chat with me. Finally my status isn’t invisible and Brenda talks to me when she finally connects. She just asks me about the dog; but it makes me happy anyway.
She says that she received a pretty strange message from me on her phone, but she didn’t want to respond. It makes me sad somehow. How could she not have known that it wasn’t really from me? Then she starts telling me about her trip and we drop the subject but I’m nervous the whole time that they’ll take over my account in the middle of our conversation.
As the photos she sends upload I think about how every time we see each other she lets me use her computer, without passwords, without protests, without erasing the history. If I’d stayed at her house I’d be safe I think.
She likes to search recipes for carrot casseroles. The rest stays in her imagination. I would like one day to be able to Google “What does Brenda think about when she masturbates” and see the results appear in my browser.
Every once in a while my boss contacts me via Blackberry to tell me to hurry up with the systems I’m managing. Nothing or no one has written to him yet, but it’s possible that the secretary told him about it. I know they talk about me behind my back in the office because they talk to me to my face less and less every day.
At least Mojito barks at me when I get home from work.
Then I remember that he must be hungry.
Sometimes it’s hard for me to recognize that this is happening to me, and not some stranger who’s telling his story on a webpage devoted to secrets. I wonder if the excessive light of the monitors might be driving me mad.
I need an app that impedes me from writing this at night.
I need an app that impedes me from reading during the day.
As I shower I think: I could also track the person who’s tracking me. Something always filters through. I copy all the e-mails, all the chat messages, and all the posts into one document. I use an Excel spreadsheet to record the origin and content of each message.
It has to be a group of people that secretly hate me. I look at the faces of my co-workers and I imagine them thinking up the messages together.
Even the ones who were the victims of the joke.
Some are just insults to my contacts, gratuitous but well-reasoned and true. But there are also the miserable ones. As if my account were drunk with a score to settle and all the time in the world.
The guy who took a drink from a water bottle that was in the trash. The girl who peed in a trashcan because the bathrooms were occupied. The man who has to take his dates to hotel rooms because he still lives with his mom. The lady who’s antsy all day because she has anal parasites that stick to her underwear. The guy who has purple marks on his hands because he bites them when he’s nervous.
Admit that she doesn’t like you. She thinks you’re ugly. All she sees is your bald head. She likes dick, little guy, you know what she does with your presents? Did you really think that you could win her over with those ingenious e-mails? You’re so small that you can’t see how pathetic you are. When you smile you look like you have Down’s. Even your mom has more sex than you. She gives you pecks but with him she watches movies where they stick things in their asses. Everyone knows you’re so desperate that you show up at the clubs you know she’s going to and then say it was a coincidence. Look in the mirror, your crossed eyes, your hands the size of your feet. You’re teeth are so yellow it looks like you eat plaque for breakfast. We’re not laughing with you, we’re laughing at you.
I wake up feeling like there’s a telephone pole stuck in my back. I don’t know how I manage to get up, but I do. I serve Mojito his food and decide not to make any breakfast for myself.
Last night I left a book on top of the modem and now it’s hot like a piece of toast.
I rub it on my face. When I open it, the pages are cold.
The security guard offers me an origami of a cat made from neon green paper. He hasn’t figured out how to make the whiskers, he apologizes. Aníbal is the only employee in the office who still talks to me.
I don’t want to make the dog jealous. I leave the cat on top of the toilet in the boss’s bathroom.
I need an app that keeps me from accepting other people’s animals.
Brenda says I should get off the internet.
I can’t, I tell her, it’s part of my job. And how would we talk during your trip, I think.
It’s true that I can’t, I don’t know how. Is there any place where wifi still doesn’t reach? I wouldn’t know where to hide out. Internet is the next Soviet Union. Someday it’s going to collapse but in the meantime we’re trapped inside and subject to its whims.
Now I’m the one my e-mails are shaming. The precision of detail makes my stomach churn, as if the modem was connected directly into my digestive tract. No one could possibly know so much about me; there’s no one who knows the exact version of all my humiliations.
The computer exposes me like a nerve to all of my contacts, as if suddenly the search engine started showing all my thoughts and conversations when someone types my name.
Things I didn’t even know existed appear, things I thought no longer existed but still exist, things that remain in cache even when I know they don’t exist anymore.
The dog pissed on my collection of pirated DVDs, in the dirty clothes hamper, on my photocopies; also on the laptop. I should shut him in the patio, but deep down I’m happy to be with someone who doesn’t know anything about love, communism, or the internet.
I need an app that can clean the piss off this keyboard.
I try to erase all of my accounts, the ones that are linked to my name and the ones that aren’t. The ones for work and the ones for pleasure. Credit cards, newspapers, magazines, games, porn.
The pages either say they’re under maintenance, or an error message pops up when I finish the configuration, or there’s simply no way to delete the account.
I stop going to work. The computer’s fan sounds like the wind, or a snowstorm when it’s working hard. I’m tired like a computer that gets restarted every once in a while but hasn’t been unplugged in too long. For the first time, I make a place for Mojito under the covers. His snout is cold and his fur the color of tea with milk is warm.
My boss calls me on the Blackberry. Will the systems keep running without me?
I let the Tetris theme play.
I decide to turn off the computer. First I just want to reread one more time the last conversation I had with Brenda, but the connection is down. I keep trying for several hours.
When the internet returns it’s nighttime and all my contacts are connected. A video recorded on a webcam has gone viral from my Facebook account. As it loads I see the final image: it’s me, sitting in front of the computer; on my desk there’s an origami animal that I don’t have yet.
I hear myself squeal like a girl until I come. “Look, you have come all over your hands,” I hear Brenda’s voice on the video. I turn off the speaker but I know what she’s going to say: “Lick them.”
As I close the video the Facebook notifications continue to grow exponentially.
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.