This slender narrative has no pretensions to the regularity of a story, or the development of situations and feelings; it is but a slight sketch, delivered nearly as it was narrated to me by one of the humblest of the actors concerned: nor will I spin out a circumstance interesting principally from its singularity and truth, but narrate, as concisely as I can, how I was surprised on visiting what seemed a ruined tower, crowning a bleak promontory overhanging the sea, that flows between Wales and Ireland, to find that though the exterior preserved all the savage rudeness that betokened many a war with the elements, the interior was fitted up somewhat in the guise of a summer-house, for it was too small to deserve any other name. It consisted but of the ground-floor, which served as an entrance, and one room above, which was reached by a staircase made out of the thickness of the wall. This chamber was floored and carpeted, decorated with elegant furniture; and, above all, to attract the attention and excite curiosity, there hung over the chimney-piece – for to preserve the apartment from damp a fire-place had been built evidently since it had assumed a guise so dissimilar to the object of its construction – a picture simply painted in water-colours, which seemed more than any part of the adornments of the room to be at war with the rudeness of the building, the solitude in which it was placed, and the desolation of the surrounding scenery. This drawing represented a lovely girl in the very pride and bloom of youth; her dress was simple, in the fashion of the day – (remember, reader, I write at the beginning of the eighteenth century), her countenance was embellished by a look of mingled innocence and intelligence, to which was added the imprint of serenity of soul and natural cheerfulness. She was reading one of those folio romances which have so long been the delight of the enthusiastic and young; her mandoline was at her feet – her parroquet perched on a huge mirror near her; the arrangement of furniture and hangings gave token of a luxurious dwelling, and her attire also evidently that of home and privacy, yet bore with it an appearance of ease and girlish ornament, as if she wished to please. Beneath this picture was inscribed in golden letters, “The Invisible Girl.”
Rambling about a country nearly uninhabited, having lost my way, and being overtaken by a shower, I had lighted on this dreary looking tenement, which seemed to rock in the blast, and to be hung up there as the very symbol of desolation. I was gazing wistfully and cursing inwardly my stars which led me to a ruin that could afford no shelter, though the storm began to pelt more seriously than before, when I saw an old woman’s head popped out from a kind of loophole, and as suddenly withdrawn:–a minute after a feminine voice called to me from within, and penetrating a little brambly maze that skreened a door, which I had not before observed, so skilfully had the planter succeeded in concealing art with nature I found the good dame standing on the threshold and inviting me to take refuge within. “I had just come up from our cot hard by,” she said, “to look after the things, as I do every day, when the rain came on–will ye walk up till it is over?” I was about to observe that the cot hard by, at the venture of a few rain drops, was better than a ruined tower, and to ask my kind hostess whether “the things” were pigeons or crows that she was come to look after, when the matting of the floor and the carpeting of the staircase struck my eye. I was still more surprised when I saw the room above; and beyond all, the picture and its singular inscription, naming her invisible, whom the painter had coloured forth into very agreeable visibility, awakened my most lively curiosity: the result of this, of my exceeding politeness towards the old woman, and her own natural garrulity, was a kind of garbled narrative which my imagination eked out, and future inquiries rectified, till it assumed the following form.
Some years before in the afternoon of a September day, which, though tolerably fair, gave many tokens of a tempestuous evening, a gentleman arrived at a little coast town about ten miles from this place; he expressed his desire to hire a boat to carry him to the town of about fifteen miles further on the coast. The menaces which the sky held forth made the fishermen loathe to venture, till at length two, one the father of a numerous family, bribed by the bountiful reward the stranger promised–the other, the son of my hostess, induced by youthful daring, agreed to undertake the voyage. The wind was fair, and they hoped to make good way before nightfall, and to get into port ere the rising of the storm. They pushed off with good cheer, at least the fishermen did; as for the stranger, the deep mourning which he wore was not half so black as the melancholy that wrapt his mind. He looked as if he had never smiled–as if some unutterable thought, dark as night and bitter as death, had built its nest within his bosom, and brooded therein eternally; he did not mention his name; but one of the villagers recognised him as Henry Vernon, the son of a baronet who possessed a mansion about three miles distant from the town for which he was bound. This mansion was almost abandoned by the family; but Henry had, in a romantic fit, visited it about three years before, and Sir Peter had been down there during the previous spring for about a couple of months.
The boat did not make so much way as was expected; the breeze failed them as they got out to sea, and they were fain with oar as well as sail, to try to weather the promontory that jutted out between them and the spot they desired to reach. They were yet far distant when the shifting wind began to exert its strength, and to blow with violent though unequal puffs. Night came on pitchy dark, and the howling waves rose and broke with frightful violence, menacing to overwhelm the tiny bark that dared resist their fury. They were forced to lower every sail, and take to their oars; one man was obliged to bale out the water, and Vernon himself took an oar, and rowing with desperate energy, equalled the force of the more practised boatmen. There had been much talk between the sailors before the tempest came on; now, except a brief command, all were silent. One thought of his wife and children, and silently cursed the caprice of the stranger that endangered in its effects, not only his life, but their welfare; the other feared less, for he was a daring lad, but he worked hard, and had no time for speech; while Vernon bitterly regretting the thoughtlessness which had made him cause others to share a peril, unimportant as far as he himself was concerned, now tried to cheer them with a voice full of animation and courage, and now pulled yet more strongly at the oar he held. The only person who did not seem wholly intent on the work he was about, was the man who baled; every now and then he gazed intently round, as if the sea held afar off, on its tumultuous waste, some object that he strained his eyes to discern. But all was blank, except as the crests of the high waves showed themselves, or far out on the verge of the horizon, a kind of lifting of the clouds betokened greater violence for the blast. At length he exclaimed–”Yes, I see it!–the larboard oar!–now! if we can make yonder light, we are saved!” Both the rowers instinctively turned their heads,–but cheerless darkness answered their gaze.
“You cannot see it,” cried their companion, “but we are nearing it; and, please God, we shall outlive this night.” Soon he took the oar from Vernon’s hand, who, quite exhausted, was failing in his strokes. He rose and looked for the beacon which promised them safety;–it glimmered with so faint a ray, that now he said, “I see it;” and again, “it is nothing:” still, as they made way, it dawned upon his sight, growing more steady and distinct as it beamed across the lurid waters, which themselves be came smoother, so that safety seemed to arise from the bosom of the ocean under the influence of that flickering gleam.
“What beacon is it that helps us at our need?” asked Vernon, as the men, now able to manage their oars with greater ease, found breath to answer his question.
“A fairy one, I believe,” replied the elder sailor, “yet no less a true: it burns in an old tumble-down tower, built on the top of a rock which looks over the sea. We never saw it before this summer; and now each night it is to be seen, at least when it is looked for, for we cannot see it from our village; and it is such an out of the way place that no one has need to go near it, except through a chance like this. Some say it is burnt by witches, some say by smugglers; but this I know, two parties have been to search, and found nothing but the bare walls of the tower.
All is deserted by day, and dark by night; for no light was to be seen while we were there, though it burned sprightly enough when we were out at sea.
“I have heard say,” observed the younger sailor, “it is burnt by the ghost of a maiden who lost her sweetheart in these parts; he being wrecked, and his body found at the foot of the tower: she goes by the name among us of the ‘Invisible Girl.'”
The voyagers had now reached the landing-place at the foot of the tower. Vernon cast a glance upward, the light was still burning. With some difficulty, struggling with the breakers, and blinded by night, they contrived to get their little bark to shore, and to draw her up on the beach: they then scrambled up the precipitous pathway, overgrown by weeds and underwood, and, guided by the more experienced fishermen, they found the entrance to the tower, door or gate there was none, and all was dark as the tomb, and silent and almost as cold as death.
“This will never do,” said Vernon; “surely our hostess will show her light, if not herself, and guide our darkling steps by some sign of life and comfort.”
“We will get to the upper chamber,” said the sailor, “if I can but hit upon the broken down steps: but you will find no trace of the Invisible Girl nor her light either, I warrant.”
“Truly a romantic adventure of the most disagreeable kind,” muttered Vernon, as he stumbled over the unequal ground: “she of the beacon-light must be both ugly and old, or she would not be so peevish and inhospitable.”
With considerable difficulty, and, after divers knocks and bruises, the adventurers at length succeeded in reaching the upper story; but all was blank and bare, and they were fain to stretch themselves on the hard floor, when weariness, both of mind and body, conduced to steep their senses in sleep.
Long and sound were the slumbers of the mariners. Vernon but forgot himself for an hour; then, throwing off drowsiness, and finding his roughcouch uncongenial to repose, he got up and placed himself at the hole that served for a window, for glass there was none, and there being not even a rough bench, he leant his back against the embrasure, as the only rest he could find. He had forgotten his danger, the mysterious beacon, and its invisible guardian: his thoughts were occupied on the horrors of his own fate, and the unspeakable wretchedness that sat like a night-mare on his heart.
It would require a good-sized volume to relate the causes which had changed the once happy Vernon into the most woeful mourner that ever clung to the outer trappings of grief, as slight though cherished symbols of the wretchedness within. Henry was the only child of Sir Peter Vernon, and as much spoiled by his father’s idolatry as the old baronet’s violent and tyrannical temper would permit. A young orphan was educated in his father’s house, who in the same way was treated with generosity and kindness, and yet who lived in deep awe of Sir Peter’s authority, who was a widower; and these two children were all he had to exert his power over, or to whom to extend his affection. Rosina was a cheerful-tempered girl, a little timid, and careful to avoid displeasing her protector; but so docile, so kind-hearted, and so affectionate, that she felt even less than Henry the discordant spirit of his parent. It is a tale often told; they were playmates and companions in childhood, and lovers in after days. Rosina was frightened to imagine that this secret affection, and the vows they pledged, might be disapproved of by Sir Peter. But sometimes she consoled herself by thinking that perhaps she was in reality her Henry’s destined bride, brought up with him under the design of their future union; and Henry, while he felt that this was not the case, resolved to wait only until he was of age to declare and accomplish his wishes in making the sweet Rosina his wife. Meanwhile he was careful to avoid premature discovery of his intentions, so to secure his beloved girl from persecution and insult. The old gentleman was very conveniently blind; he lived always in the country, and the lovers spent their lives together, unrebuked and uncontrolled. It was enough that Rosina played on her mandoline, and sang Sir Peter to sleep every day after dinner; she was the sole female in the house above the rank of a servant, and had her own way in the disposal of her time. Even when Sir Peter frowned, her innocent caresses and sweet voice were powerful to smooth the rough current of his temper. If ever human spirit lived in an earthly paradise, Rosina did at this time: her pure love was made happy by Henry’s constant presence; and the confidence they felt in each other, and the security with which they looked forward to the future, rendered their path one of roses under a cloudless sky. Sir Peter was the slight drawback that only rendered their tete-a-tete more delightful, and gave value to the sympathy they each bestowed on the other. All at once an ominous personage made its appearance in Vernon-Place, in the shape of a widow sister of Sir Peter, who, having succeeded in killing her husband and children with the effects of her vile temper, came, like a harpy, greedy for new prey, under her brother’s roof. She too soon detected the attachment of the unsuspicious pair. She made all speed to impart her discovery to her brother, and at once to restrain and inflame his rage. Through her contrivance Henry was suddenly despatched on his travels abroad, that the coast might be clear for the persecution of Rosina; and then the richest of the lovely girl’s many admirers, whom, under Sir Peter’s single reign, she was allowed, nay, almost commanded, to dismiss, so desirous was he of keeping her for his own comfort, was selected, and she was ordered to marry him. The scenes of violence to which she was now exposed, the bitter taunts of the odious Mrs. Bainbridge, and the reckless fury of Sir Peter, were the more frightful and overwhelming from their novelty. To all she could only oppose a silent, tearful, but immutable steadiness of purpose: no threats, no rage could extort from her more than a touching prayer that they would not hate her, because she could not obey.
“There must he something we don’t see under all this,” said Mrs. Bainbridge, “take my word for it, brother,” she corresponds secretly with Henry. “Let us take her down to your seat in Wales, where she will have no pensioned beggars to assist her; and we shall see if her spirit be not bent to our purpose.”
Sir Peter consented, and they all three posted down, to shire, and took up their abode in the solitary and dreary looking house before alluded to as belonging to the family. Here poor Rosina’s sufferings grew intolerable: before, surrounded by well-known scenes, and in perpetual intercourse with kind and familiar faces, she had not despaired in the end of conquering by her patience the cruelty of her persecutors; nor had she written to Henry, for his name had not been mentioned by his relatives, nor their attachment alluded to, and she felt an instinctive wish to escape the dangers about her without his being annoyed, or the sacred secret of her love being laid bare, and wronged by the vulgar abuse of his aunt or the bitter curses of his father. But when she was taken to Wales, and made a prisoner in her apartment, when the flinty mountains about her seemed feebly to imitate the stony hearts she had to deal with, her courage began to fail. The only attendant permitted to approach her was Mrs. Bainbridge’s maid; and under the tutelage of her fiend-like mistress, this woman was used as a decoy to entice the poor prisoner into confidence, and then to be betrayed. The simple, kind-hearted Rosina was a facile dupe, and at last, in the excess of her despair, wrote to Henry, and gave the letter to this woman to be forwarded. The letter in itself would have softened marble; it did not speak of their mutual vows, it but asked him to intercede with his father, that he would restore her to the kind place she had formerly held in his affections, and cease from a cruelty that would destroy her. “For I may die,” wrote the hapless girl, “but marry another – never!” That single word, indeed, had sufficed to betray her secret, had it not been already discovered; as it was, it gave increased fury to Sir Peter, as his sister triumphantly pointed it out to him, for it need hardly be said that while the ink of the address was yet wet, and the seal still warm, Rosina’s letter was carried to this lady. The culprit was summoned before them; what ensued none could tell; for their own sakes the cruel pair tried to palliate their part. Voices were high, and the soft murmur of Rosina’s tone was lost in the howling of Sir Peter and the snarling of his sister. “Out of doors you shall go,” roared the old man; “under my roof you shall not spend another night.” And the words “infamous seductress,” and worse, such as had never met the poor girl’s ear before, were caught by listening servants; and to each angry speech of the baronet, Mrs. Bainbridge added an envenomed point worse than all.
More dead than alive, Rosina was at last dismissed. Whether guided by despair, whether she took Sir Peter’s threats literally, or whether his sister’s orders were more decisive, none knew, but Rosina left the house; a servant saw her cross the park, weeping, and wringing her hands as she went. What became of her none could tell; her disappearance was not disclosed to Sir Peter till the following day, and then he showed by his anxiety to trace her steps and to find her, that his words had been but idle threats. The truth was, that though Sir Peter went to frightful lengths to prevent the marriage of the heir of his house with the portionless orphan, the object of his charity, yet in his heart he loved Rosina, and half his violence to her rose from anger at himself for treating her so ill. Now remorse began to sting him, as messenger after messenger came back without tidings of his victim; he dared not confess his worst fears to himself; and when his inhuman sister, trying to harden her conscience by angry words, cried, “The vile hussy has too surely made away with herself out of revenge to us;” an oath, the most tremendous, and a look sufficient to make even her tremble, commanded her silence. Her conjecture, however, appeared too true: a dark and rushing stream that flowed at the extremity of the park had doubtless received the lovely form, and quenched the life of this unfortunate girl. Sir Peter, when his endeavours to find her proved fruitless, returned to town, haunted by the image of his victim, and forced to acknowledge in his own heart that he would willingly lay down his life, could he see her again, even though it were as the bride of his son – his son, before whose questioning he quailed like the veriest coward; for when Henry was told of the death of Rosina, he suddenly returned from abroad to ask the cause – to visit her grave, and mourn her loss in the groves and valleys which had been the scenes of their mutual happiness. He made a thousand inquiries, and an ominous silence alone replied. Growing more earnest and more anxious, at length he drew from servants and dependants, and his odious aunt herself, the whole dreadful truth. From that moment despair struck his heart, and misery named him her own. He fled from his father’s presence; and the recollection that one whom he ought to revere was guilty of so dark a crime, haunted him, as of old the Eumenides tormented the souls of men given up to their torturings.
His first, his only wish, was to visit Wales, and to learn if any new discovery had been made, and whether it were possible to recover the mortal remains of the lost Rosina, so to satisfy the unquiet longings of his miserable heart. On this expedition was he bound, when he made his appearance at the village before named; and now in the deserted tower, his thoughts were busy with images of despair and death, and what his beloved one had suffered before her gentle nature had been goaded to such a deed of woe.
While immersed in gloomy reverie, to which the monotonous roaring of the sea made fit accompaniment, hours flew on, and Vernon was at last aware that the light of morning was creeping from out its eastern retreat, and dawning over the wild ocean, which still broke in furious tumult on the rocky beach. His companions now roused themselves, and prepared to depart. The food they had brought with them was damaged by sea water, and their hunger, after hard labour and many hours fasting, had become ravenous. It was impossible to put to sea in their shattered boat; but there stood a fisher’s cot about two miles off, in a recess in the bay, of which the promontory on which the tower stood formed one side, and to this they hastened to repair; they did not spend a second thought on the light which had saved them, nor its cause, but left the ruin in search of a more hospitable asylum. Vernon cast his eves round as he quitted it, but no vestige of an inhabitant met his eye, and he began to persuade himself that the beacon had been a creation of fancy merely. Arriving at the cottage in question, which was inhabited by a fisherman and his family, they made a homely breakfast, and then prepared to return to the tower, to refit their boat, and if possible bring her round. Vernon accompanied them, together with their host and his son. Several questions were asked concerning the Invisible Girl and her light, each agreeing that the apparition was novel, and not one being able to give even an explanation of how the name had become affixed to the unknown cause of this singular appearance; though both of the men of the cottage affirmed that once or twice they had seen a female figure in the adjacent wood, and that now and then a stranger girl made her appearance at another cot a mile off, on the other side of the promontory, and bought bread; they suspected both these to be the same, but could not tell. The inhabitants of the cot, indeed, appeared too stupid even to feel curiosity, and had never made any attempt at discovery. The whole day was spent by the sailors in repairing the boat; and the sound of hammers, and the voices of the men at work, resounded along the coast, mingled with the dashing of the waves. This was no time to explore the ruin for one who whether human or supernatural so evidently withdrew herself from intercourse with every living being. Vernon, however, went over the tower, and searched every nook in vain; the dingy bare walls bore no token of serving as a shelter; and even a little recess in the wall of the staircase, which he had not before observed, was equally empty and desolate.
Quitting the tower, he wandered in the pine wood that surrounded it, and giving up all thought of solving the mystery, was soon engrossed by thoughts that touched his heart more nearly, when suddenly there appeared on the ground at his feet the vision of a slipper. Since Cinderella so tiny a slipper had never been seen; as plain as shoe could speak, it told a tale of elegance, loveliness, and youth. Vernon picked it up; he had often admired Rosina’s singularly small foot, and his first thought was a question whether this little slipper would have fitted it. It was very strange! – it must belong to the Invisible Girl. Then there was a fairy form that kindled that light, a form of such material substance, that its foot needed to be shod; and yet how shod? – with kid so fine, and of shape so exquisite, that it exactly resembled such as Rosina wore! Again the recurrence of the image of the beloved dead came forcibly across him; and a thousand home-felt associations, childish yet sweet, and lover-like though trifling, so filled Vernon’s heart, that he threw himself his length on the ground, and wept more bitterly than ever the miserable fate of the sweet orphan.
In the evening the men quitted their work, and Vernon returned with them to the cot where they were to sleep, intending to pursue their voyage, weather permitting, the following morning.
Vernon said nothing of his slipper, but returned with his rough associates. Often he looked back; but the tower rose darkly over the dim waves, and no light appeared. Preparations had been made in the cot for their accommodation, and the only bed in it was offered Vernon; but he refused to deprive his hostess, and spreading his cloak on a heap of dry leaves, endeavoured to give himself up to repose. He slept for some hours; and when he awoke, all was still, save that the hard breathing of the sleepers in the same room with him interrupted the silence. He rose, and going to the window, looked out over the now placid sea towards the mystic tower; the light burning there, sending its slender rays across the waves. Congratulating himself on a circumstance he had not anticipated, Vernon softly left the cottage, and, wrapping his cloak round him, walked with a swift pace round the bay towards the tower. He reached it; still the light was burning. To enter and restore the maiden her shoe, would be but an act of courtesy; and Vernon intended to do this with such caution, as to come unaware, before its wearer could, with her accustomed arts, withdraw herself from his eyes; but, unluckily, while yet making his way up the narrow pathway, his foot dislodged a loose fragment, that fell with crash and sound down the precipice. He sprung forward, on this, to retrieve by speed the advantage he had lost by this unlucky accident. He reached the door; he entered: all was silent, but also all was dark. He paused in the room below; he felt sure that a slight sound met his ear. He ascended the steps, and entered the upper chamber; but blank obscurity met his penetrating gaze, the starless night admitted not even a twilight glimmer through the only aperture. He closed his eyes, to try, on opening them again, to be able to catch some faint, wandering ray on the visual nerve; but it was in vain. He groped round the room: he stood still, and held his breath; and then, listening intently, he felt sure that another occupied the chamber with him, and that its atmosphere was slightly agitated by an-other’s respiration. He remembered the recess in the staircase; but, before he approached it, he spoke: he hesitated a moment what to say. “I must believe,” he said, “that misfortune alone can cause your seclusion; and if the assistance of a man – of a gentleman…”
An exclamation interrupted him; a voice from the grave spoke his name – the accents of Rosina syllabled, “Henry! – is it indeed Henry whom I hear?”
He rushed forward, directed by the sound, and clasped in his arms the living form of his own lamented girl – his own Invisible Girl he called her; for even yet, as he felt her heart beat near his, and as he entwined her waist with his arm, supporting her as she almost sank to the ground with agitation, he could not see her; and, as her sobs prevented her speech, no sense, but the instinctive one that filled his heart with tumultuous gladness, told him that the slender, wasted form he pressed so fondly was the living shadow of the Hebe beauty he had adored.
The morning saw this pair thus strangely restored to each other on the tranquil sea, sailing with a fair wind for L–, whence they were to proceed to Sir Peter’s seat, which, three months before, Rosina had quitted in such agony and terror. The morning light dispelled the shadows that had veiled her, and disclosed the fair person of the Invisible Girl. Altered indeed she was by suffering and woe, but still the same sweet smile played on her lips, and the tender light of her soft blue eyes were all her own. Vernon drew out the slipper, and shoved the cause that had occasioned him to resolve to discover the guardian of the mystic beacon; even now he dared not inquire how she had existed in that desolate spot, or wherefore she had so sedulously avoided observation, when the right thing to have been done was, to have sought him immediately, under whose care, protected by whose love, no danger need be feared. But Rosina shrunk from him as he spoke, and a death-like pallor came over her cheek, as she faintly whispered, “Your father’s curse – your father’s dreadful threats!” It appeared, indeed, that Sir Peter’s violence, and the cruelty of Mrs. Bainbridge, had succeeded in impressing Rosina with wild and unvanquishable terror. She had fled from their house without plan or forethought, driven by frantic horror and overwhelming fear, she had left it with scarcely any money, and there seemed to her no possibility of either returning or proceeding onward. She had no friend except Henry in the wide world; whither could she go? – to have sought Henry would have sealed their fates to misery; for, with an oath, Sir Peter had declared he would rather see them both in their coffins than married. After wandering about, hiding by day, and only venturing forth at night, she had come to this deserted tower, which seemed a place of refuge. I low she had lived since then she could hardly tell; she had lingered in the woods by day, or slept in the vault of the tower, an asylum none were acquainted with or had discovered: by night she burned the pine-cones of the wood, and night was her dearest time; for it seemed to her as if security came with darkness. She was unaware that Sir Peter had left that part of the country, and was terrified lest her hiding-place should be revealed to him. Her only hope was that Henry would return – that Henry would never rest till he had found her. She confessed that the long interval and the approach of winter had visited her with dismay; she feared that, as her strength was failing, and her form wasting to a skeleton, that she might die, and never see her own Henry more.
An illness, indeed, in spite of all his care, followed her restoration to security and the comforts of civilized life; many months went by before the bloom revisiting her cheeks, and her limbs regaining their roundness, she resembled once more the picture drawn of her in her days of bliss, before any visitation of sorrow. It was a copy of this portrait that decorated the tower, the scene of her suffering, in which I had found shelter. Sir Peter, overjoyed to be relieved from the pangs of remorse, and delighted again to see his orphan-ward, whom he really loved, was now as eager as before he had been averse to bless her union with his son: Mrs. Bainbridge they never saw again. But each year they spent a few months in their Welch mansion, the scene of their early wedded happiness, and the spot where again poor Rosina had awoke to life and joy after her cruel persecutions. Henry’s fond care had fitted up the tower, and decorated it as I saw; and often did he come over, with his “Invisible Girl,” to renew, in the very scene of its occurrence, the remembrance of all the incidents which had led to their meeting again, during the shades of night, in that sequestered ruin.
I met Adam at the bookstore. He was in the section marked Biography/History and he was looking, extensively, at a book about some historical event no one’s ever heard of. The only way I knew it was an historical event was because the cover was in black and white and had a photo on it of a tank. But it wasn’t a World War II book; WWII has its own section, way over on the other side of the store.
I myself was aiming for the art books, because my friend Terrie had just had a life-changing experience from looking at a photograph of a clown. She’d spent her childhood terrified of clowns but when she saw this photo, on a friend’s coffee table, she experienced a 180 degree shift – one of those rare moments when the other side becomes clear as anything, and we can no longer understand why it was so hard to get before.
“Clowns are desperate,” she’d told me, with wonder in her voice. “That’s why they’re so scary.”
It hadn’t occurred to me either, and I wanted to see if she was right. I too had had the experience of a childhood clown doll that one day had transformed from delightful toy-friend into the diabolical engineer of my nightmares. It had to be sold at the neighbor’s garage sale, because I refused to sell it at my own. Someone bought it for seventy-five cents – some kid too young to feel the fear yet – and I threw the cursed coins into the outdoor trash, observing as the other neighborhood kids spotted and retrieved them. Let them spend it, I thought, from the safety of my bedroom. It will only bring them grief.
They used the quarters to buy ice cream.
Story of my life.
I found the art book Terrie had been talking about, and flipped towards the photo of the clown, which, according to the table of contents, was on page 32. As I skipped through those shiny pages, pages that smelled like a hair salon, Adam turned and held up the war book. “Do you know this photo?” he asked me, tapping the cover.
“Oh,” I said. “Is that World War I?”
He shook his head, and his hair was very light brown, almost colorless, and as it shifted, it caught no light.
“Korean war,” he said. “A photo from then.”
He shelved the book. “They told me it was a good read but I just read a page and it was so dull,” and then he stepped closer. Aside from that colorless hair, he had a wide open face, sort of big-featured, with a big nose and big eyes and teeth. Likeable. The kind of face you could immediately trust, even against better judgment.
I held my finger before page 32. I didn’t want to look at the clown first off. It seemed too intimate, even if I was just looking with myself. So I was looking, then, instead, at a washed-up movie star wearing sequins in some kind of aquarium tank emptied of water. I guess they were trying to work with the phrase ‘washed up’, but the star didn’t seem aware of that because she was grinning in the tank like it was all funny and fun. Maybe the whole book should’ve been titled desperation.
“What are you looking at?” he asked, peering over my shoulder.
“Art photos,” I said.
“Wait, wasn’t she in that cop movie?”
We stared at her together, in that tank. “Was she?” I asked. She had giant breasts, ornamented by magenta sequins. I found her painful, so I turned the page to have something to do, and there was the clown, with its big nose and scary mouth makeup and scary eyes and red costume. And I could see what she meant, Terrie. Right off, I got what she was saying. It was trying so hard. That was part of what was so menacing – its enormous effort to amuse. You kind of wanted to hurt the clown, before it smothered you into total suffocation.
“Do you think it looks desperate?” I asked him.
He squinted his eyes, and stared at the photo for at least a minute. “Why do they do the eyes like that?” he said, at last. “I mean, the star-shaped thing? Is that clown protocol?”
We ended up at the Greek coffee place next door, and he bought no biography and before we left the store, I flipped through the rest of the photo book to see if the others were desperate too but they weren’t, not in the same way. They were just pictures of other shiny figures that looked good in bright colors, like Vegas acrobatic performers at Rite-Aid, or a tomato farmer in his garden reading Newsweek. Only pages 30-32 were terrifying.
Adam got up to get the coffees while I looked out at the cars driving by on Sunset. It was raining a little, and watching the windshield wipers made me feel more settled. The air smelled like city, like damp city.
“They told me that was the definitive book on Korea,” he said, returning with the coffees. “I’m disappointed.”
I felt attractive, talking to him. Next to those big features of his, I could feel myself as delicate. When the conversation waned, I sipped from my bitter little Greek coffee, and told him that my friend Terrie was having surgery the following day. That she was young, still, but they’d found problematic shapes in her bronchitis x-ray. “Lumpy shapes,” I said, “inside her lungs.”
He stirred his coffee, and nodded with appropriate solemnity. He seemed more measured, now that he was caffeinated.
The cars whisked by.
“You know,” I said. “I just lied. That’s not true.”
I reached out, and touched his arm. “I didn’t know what to say,” I said, and his arm was warm, “so I made up Terrie’s lumps. That’s awful of me.”
He leaned in, then, and he didn’t kiss me but it was too close for regular. We spent a few minutes there, blinking together, breathing the coffee-scented air. Who knew what would happen? He had that trustworthy face, a face I didn’t trust, simply because I’d trusted it so swiftly.
We agreed to meet the following afternoon at the beach in Santa Monica, and the directions we gave each other were complicated enough, were distinct enough, so neither could possibly get lost. Of course I was early because I’m always early, and I didn’t head over to the water just yet, instead wandering past the snack bar, reading the names of foods listed in black plastic stick-on letters: chili dog. Onion rings. Popsicle. Words I love to see in black plastic stick-on, words that conveyed summer to me, on this cloudy November afternoon. I hadn’t called Terrie the night before, because I’d sold her out for flirting; it seemed I’d cursed her, and although I was fairly certain I had no cursing abilities, it was not in the spirit of good friendship and this I knew. But I had not been flirted with in many months, and this man had not rejected the reeking desperation of either the clown or the old star, and asking for sympathy about a dying friend was the first tool that appeared from my own personal flirting toolbox. Sometimes my own capacity for smallness is surprising, even to myself.
Adam was already at the beach when I walked over, and he had a picnic basket in his hands. He’d set up a blowzy checkered blanket, whose corners picked up with the wind, and when I walked across the sand, bumpy and difficult to traverse, he smiled at me with those wide open eyes. For a few minutes we chit-chatted, and at one point, he threw his hands into the air and said some exclamations, about nothing, really, but just showing a sense of spirit. I felt the love, spreading roots in my chest, making it so easy to smile, the way the promise of love loosens and eases the muscles of the face, and how the onset of pain had tightened them before, into tense lines and grit. How good it felt, to let go of grit for a second! We settled onto the blanket and he opened a small size bottle of champagne and we toasted and the water waves crashed, and other than a homeless man way to the left and two teenagers trying to get tan on the right, we were alone. I reached out a hand, and touched his colorless hair, and he turned his face to my palm. Then he reached into the picnic basket, and pulled out two plates, two checkered napkins, and two forks.
“Wow,” I said. “You go all out.”
As he removed the plastic food containers, he told me he used to be a chef, that he used to own his own restaurant. He told me the name of it, and how he’d gotten a great review last year in the L.A. Weekly, saying he had a knack for unusual flavor combinations. “Really?” I said, impressed, and then, after a pause, he said no. “I mean, I’ve always liked to cook. Never got paid for it. Sorry.” We looked out at the water. It was the second lie, and it was clear, from the tone of his takeback, that he had surprised himself with it. For whatever reason, it seemed we couldn’t help but lie to each other. It didn’t even feel like a big deal to me at first, but like an unexpected shift in weather, as the food came out of the basket, his mood collapsed. When he removed pieces of a roasted chicken from the container, and handfuls of green grapes, they were almost like apologies, for something he had committed long ago and I would never understand. Certainly he had no reason to apologize to me, me who was so ready to love him. He handed me a charred chicken leg, and a bunch of grapes, and refilled my champagne. “It’s lovely,” I said, about five times, but he wriggled under the compliment, and wouldn’t look over, and the way he sealed the remaining food back into its containers, with careful palm and thumb, made me feel badly, as if I’d done something wrong, or as if we both knew, in the future, that we would wrong each other irreparably. The seagulls approached. I ate the chicken and grapes, peeling stripes of chicken off the leg, but everything tasted a little off. Not like poison, but just not fulfilling, and Adam was striking me now as very difficult to know. “Why’d you want that book?” I asked, as I peeled the skin off a grape in slippery little triangles, and I understood then that I would be undressing every item of food I could because my clothes would be staying on.
“I like war books,” he said, out to the ocean. “Of wars people don’t read. I like to remember the forgotten wars.”
For dessert, he brought out oatmeal macadamia cookies that he had baked himself, but I could hardly eat them, my mouth felt so dry, and without thinking, I threw a few sprinkles to the seagulls who stepped closer on their webbed feet. I slipped my whole cookie into the sand when he wasn’t looking. Adam and I walked to the water and held hands and touched our bare cold toes to the foam. I felt like crying, then, with those seagulls invading our perfect picnic behind us, eating the cookies and the chicken, stepping all over the napkins, cackling, shoving each other out of the way.
I touched his arm again, and my eyes filled with tears.
“I know,” he said. “It isn’t right.”
When we finally kissed, it was clear that it was our last. His lips pressed gently against mine. I felt that kind of wrenching in my heart, and as I turned and walked the other way, I could hear him packing the picnic back into his basket. It took some effort to shoo away the seagulls, but finally they squawked and flew over us. A flock of seagulls. As a child, I’d found them so wonderful, seabirds, with their curving yellow-orange beaks and funny strut. They lived at the ocean, and anything that lived at the ocean I felt I could love forever. But they turned, in my mind. Sometime around adolescence, after hitting the critical mass of beach picnics, after seeing them come over again and again, pushing each other out of the way, squawking so loud, eating chicken and turkey sandwiches without pause, I found them repulsive.
At the snack bar, I ordered a basket of onion rings and sat on the green-painted ocean bench, watching the water. The clouds were thick, and the water took on a metallic gray sheen that eased my mind. When Adam passed by, with his picnic basket all packed up, I nodded, and he nodded. The look he gave my onion rings was that of a betrayed lover. But I have always liked onion rings. They were the thickly-cut kind, each ring the width of a plastic bracelet, dipped in golden-brown crumbs. I ate almost the whole basket, licking the bits off my fingers, and when I was done, I threw the remaining few to the trio of waiting seagulls, who, after all, were only hungry. Opinions change.
This version of the story is in English. In Milan. Standing tiptoe on the edge of a king-sized bed. She is shutting a window cut into the slant of the ceiling. She is naked. It is the largest bed she has ever seen. Since she arrived, the nights have been good. Good summer nights, dark and bold as a shape. This night, a friendly night she can shut a window on. Later, open the window to the same good night. For seven weeks, she has been teaching the verb to be, the verb to lie, the verb to want, the verb to go. Some verbs more active than others. All verbs conjugate. All verbs useful. Some more useful than others. Not the confusion she studied in college, people asking, “But what does the verb to be really mean? What is Being?” Maybe there was “Having” too. She dropped the course and took Italian, where she asked the professor, “You mean to say that the past participle of a verb conjugated with the verb to be has a masculine end even if the subject of the sentence is hundreds of women and only one man?”
“Ending,” the professor corrected. “Yes. That is true of any Romance language. As long as a man is part of the group, the past participle of a verb conjugated with the verb to be will have a masculine ending.”
“An old-fashioned idea of romance,” she joked. No one laughed.
Someone else said, “The notion of romance is more old-fashioned in English. In English there is never any discussion of sex between verb and subject.”
This story includes him. He is here, too. His English is basic, so words should be chosen with care. He is lying on the king-sized bed. To create the Italian version of this story, possibly all the words of the English version must be tossed into the air, allowed to fragment and fall back down onto new pages. Or perhaps the English version is created from Italian words thrown this way. But why talk about possibilities? There is little enough room for fact. In the Italian, all the verbs of this story are in the present perfect and therefore require past participles. This is not true in the English version. For him, the English version tries very hard to stay in the present and the present progressive. There are a few past tenses, one or two conditionals.
He is lying in bed. He is thinking about the sleek front of the new refrigerator door his company is marketing. His girlfriend is in Rome. She is marketing the new refrigerator door in Rome. She would call him a cheater. A liar. An ass. Obvious, stupid names. Names for millions of men, not meant only for him. He has been taking English classes for seven weeks. He never imagined lying naked in bed waiting for his teacher to shut the window in the slant of his ceiling. She is naked. On tiptoe. That is it. Enough. Sleek is a hard word. Slant is a hard word. The story slows down. Explains more. Now. He lies in bed. The window. A large rectangle. She, naked. Summer. Milan. Night. Words American and other English-speaking people use. Useful words. Useful is use in its adjectival form.
She is standing tiptoe on the edge of the board at the end of the bed. Edge is a hard word. Here. This. Edge. The edge of the footboard or baseboard? She is not sure. Not important, really. The word. Not all beds have them. Naked. She. Footboard/baseboard. Window. Night. Milan. Oh – Summer. Bed. King-sized bed. The footboard/baseboard runs from the edge of the bed under the window to the edge of the bed near the closet. Complicated use of run. The footboard/baseboard goes from the right edge to the left edge of the bed. It lies flat. Complicated again for both goes and lies. (Runs. Goes. Lies.) Boards have an active life we know nothing about. He does not laugh. No. Sorry. Sorry. No. nothing. A joke. Complicated. Nonsense. She stands on the footboard/baseboard. No longer tiptoe. The flat board. The moon is round. Flat is the opposite of round.
Remember shapes? The window is a rectangle. The moon is a circle in the center of the rectangle. The circle is at the center of the window. The moon is central to the rectangle. The light lies in a square on her naked back. Prepositions are not easy. Lies has different meanings depending on context. He can lie. He is lying. He is lying. He waits for her to lie. She steps on the footboard/baseboard. Foot over foot, like a tightrope walker. As in the circus. The circus with clowns and horses.
Naked in the circle moon and square light. She understands now. Now she sees. A complicated see. Not with the eyes. A seeing of the flat in the round of the moon. She does not want to lie on the king-sized bed. Not now. Not naked. Not with him. Her walk has to end at the closet edge. A complicated form of have. Different from the ownership have. Must has the same meaning as has to, in this case. The first has in this last sentence showing ownership. The meaning belongs to the must. Now. Like a tightrope walker. Must owning meaning and has to meaning must. Ownership central to the rectangular window. She sees. Her back flat in the round moon. Naked. Walking. Milan. Night. Summer. Teacher. Footboard/baseboard. Tightrope. Flat. Foot over foot. Lie. Her walk must end at the edge near the closet.
Maybe there is a better way to explain the verbs? Let us see. The same complicated see as before. Not with the eyes. (Flat. Naked. Round.) Does see make sense now? (Summer. Milan. Night.) Does slant make sense now? (Light. Naked. Moon.) Does lie make sense now? (Round. Naked. Eyes.) Does run make sense now? Adjectives are harder to explain.
The story ends with her at the edge of the footboard/baseboard. The story’s end in English is different from the story’s end in Italian. In English, this story ends with her running. Remember, run? (Round. Naked. Eyes.) In Italian, the story ends in the king-sized bed with a verb in the past participle conjugated with the verb to be. It is that gender agreement between verb and subject that makes the ending of this story in Italian different from the prudish English ending. Let us point out that he sees and she sees (Flat. Naked. Round.) that the meaning of the different ends is the same.
She does not love him, and he does not love her.
THIS story happened a long time ago in the country where anything may happen. The people who belong to that country stay there, and nothing can induce them to journey beyond its borders.
Also, very few travelers find their way in, because the road that runs that way is hidden in a rosy mist.
This mist-road winds around and around a ring of mountains that are dreadfully hard to find on the map–and sometimes are not on the map at all.
You need not read this first part unless you like. It is only a preface, and usually people skip them. The story begins here.
The King’s Highway that ran east and west through the City of Midas was a wonderful highway. The buildings fronting upon it, the houses, shops, palaces and churches, had all been colored a brilliant golden hue, and the cupolas, spires, turrets and domes topping the buildings were tipped and touched with gold-leaf.
The road was flagged with stones of deepest yellow, and the whole street was so radiant and resplendent that the citizens often wore smoked glasses when they walked abroad at noon-day.
Upon a great topaz fastened against the door of the City Hall and Court House, was engraved the legend of King Midas of the golden touch, he who had founded the city and made it his home. To the legend was added a brief note telling that the city fathers had thought it wise to color the buildings yellow, in memory of the bewitchment that had years ago come upon the avaricious King, and the miracle of his deliverance from it.
This was a warning to all and sundry to beware of covetousness and greed and the evils in their wake.
Small heed did the good people pay to the words graven on the topaz, and long and loudly they grumbled at the taxes put upon them, for it cost much money to paint and polish and gold-leaf the buildings on the wonderful road.
In their heart of hearts, probably, they took pride in the highway, for no matter how much they grumbled they paid the taxes promptly.
Now the most beautiful thing on all the beautiful highway and the most marvelous, was an apple tree.
It stood in the middle of a little square before the City Hall, and it was by far the most prized possession of the dwellers in the City of Midas–from the oldest inhabitant, tottering on his shrunken legs to rest in its shadow, to the youngest child, tottering also, but on dimpled feet to where he could stand and wonder at its shining burden of apples.
For this apple tree was of gold, root and branch and leaf and fruit. It was the one golden fact in a place of golden frauds.
As long as anyone could remember, the tree had been there, and as long as anyone they had ever seen could remember. Musty documents filed away in musty drawers, and old, old letters and deeds-of-law with crumbling edges, referred to it casually.
Ancient wills and testaments bore ancient seals stamped with a picture of this very tree.
Generations came and went, fashions came in and went out, but the old, yet ever-young apple tree lifted its golden branches to the sky, serene and unchanged.
It was taken for granted that on that far-off day when King Midas was bewitched of the golden touch, and laid hands so energetically on every object around him, including the very trees and flowers of his garden, he had touched this apple tree also, and by strange alchemy turned it to the precious metal.
Further, it was supposed that in the King’s hour of repentance, when he sprinkled the magic water on all the golden garden to transform it again into a place of green growing things, this tree had been forgotten or overlooked, until the water was all gone.
An occasional stranger gazed with awe at the tree of mystery and asked questions about it, but the citizens, who, for the most part were simple and unlettered, and given to seeing the pixies and warlocks and fairies that came and went in their own mountains, regarded the tree with pride but little curiosity, and as people do regard things they have always known.
A sentinel marched in front of it night and day, while to the very left of it was the Town Pillory, and to the right the Town Gallows. There was no chance visitor who had found his way along the rose-misty road and followed it into the golden city, who did not quickly learn just why the pillory and the gallows were on the right and left of the wonderful tree. He was straightway informed that any person who as much as touched a leaf with even the tip of a finger, was, without ceremony, made fast in the pillory to languish there, whatever the weather, for one full day; while that delinquent who, for wanton mischief, folly, or thievishness, broke a golden apple from its branch, was without much ado quickly hung upon the gallows.
Whether by reason of this law or because of sentiment, the tree was seldom molested, and the sentinel had but a dull existence. Apart from these simple restrictions the town-folk were free to come and go beneath the golden thing, and there was no more favored meeting-place than the grassy circle shadowed by the out-flung glittering branches. It may be temptation was lessened, as the apples and leaves hung high above the reach of any but the very longest arm.
Now, it was upon a certain July afternoon that various things happened in the City of Midas that afterwards were written down in the town chronicles, and so seem worth telling about.
The afternoon was so hot that the dazzling street was deserted. A white-haired priest crossing in front of the City Hall suddenly stopped, and then as though exhausted, sat down on a bench beneath the tree.
The sentinel on duty before it tramped slowly up and down and found time heavy on his hands. His uniform was tight and hot and of a flaming scarlet. His boots shone as though made of polished metal, while his helmet and musket felt heavy as lead.
Little waves of heat quivered up from the ground, and at intervals a locust sang its sudden song of the sun. The light glanced down through the golden tree until each individual leaf and apple seemed to shoot hot rays at him.
It was the sort of day when dogs go mad, and people are apt to do things unaccountable and foreign to their natures; when strong men in the fields dread a stroke from heaven, and little babies wilt like flowers left without rain.
The old priest nodded in the hot shade, and the sentinel went back and forth monotonously, all misery within, all grandeur without. He was sick of his task, sick of the heat and silence, and aimlessly wished for something to happen–for anything, indeed, to happen that might serve to distract his mind until the hour of release.
And something did happen.
Far down the golden highroad he saw a man coming towards him, swinging along at a swift dog-trot.
The sentinel stood stock-still, because there was so much that was unusual about the running figure. Also, it was strange that anyone should travel so fast in the great heat. The sentinel gazed, and wondered what method there was–if any–in this seeming midsummer madness.
On came the swinging figure down the deserted, dazzling street, and now the sentinel suddenly recognized him.
“The King’s lion-tamer!” he exclaimed to the air. “Well! By my musket, he has less sense than I thought or else is mightily pressed for time, Whatever can he want in such a hurry on such a day? In truth these strong fellows, all brawn and muscle, have small brains; but I will find out his business when he comes nearer.”
On came the King’s lion-tamer along the highway, as though he were the winged Mercury.
His wavy hair, thick and sun bleached until it was tawny as a lion’s mane, flew out around his head. He wore a leopard skin about his body, and his great shoulders and limbs gleamed like bronze against the yellow fur. Only did it show white on his forehead where the hair blew back.
There were sandals of tanned leather on his bare feet, and above one knee was a golden garter set with topaz.
On and on he came, and his pace quickened as he reached the little grassy square before the City Hall, where stood the golden apple tree.
“Halt!” cried the sentinel as he came up, more to indicate that he was in command, than for any particular reason. But the lion-tamer gave not the slightest heed. He stopped only when he was fairly underneath the tree. Then he threw back his head, and looked up into the glittering branches, and his breath came in heavy gasps.
The sentinel watched him curiously, mouth ajar. The old white-haired priest woke up and leaned forward on his cane, watching also.
The lion-tamer glanced from one to the other and a little smile flashed across his face. Then he stretched an arm towards the branch above his head.
“Watch hard, my friends!” he said. “As there are no others about, I depend on you for witnesses. Behold me pluck the forbidden fruit.”
The old priest rose with a sharp cry; the sentinel sprang forward with musket leveled.
“Take down your arm!” he commanded. “What would you do? He who even touches the tree is punished grievously, but he who plucks the fruit is a dead man! Take down your arm! Take it down!”
His words trailed off into a cry of horror, for the lion-tamer had sprung upon his strong young feet, caught an apple and twisted and broken it from the bough!
Then he stepped out into the sunlight and tossed the golden thing high into the air, catching it as it fell.
The sentinel’s knees shook beneath him and he turned cold in his hot uniform. His whole body wilted limply for a moment, then stiffened.
“The penalty! The penalty!” he exclaimed. “Do you not know it, O rash fellow? I take you prisoner in the King’s name! By my faith, it is a thing I hate to do, for ’twill be hard to see so fine a man food for carrion crows.”
The old priest had risen tremblingly to his feet, and now stood as one stricken with horror. “Why have you done this thing?” he asked, his face white and stern. “Have you any reason for this unpardonable act?”
“In sooth, good father, I have a reason,” the lion-tamer answered, with still the same smile. “I desire death. This is a straight road to it, so they tell me. I have not lived long in your country, but this much the veriest stranger soon learns.”
“But why would you die?” he asked. “Have you committed some sin, a sin too great to live and atone for? Nay, I cannot think that possible when I look at thy face.”
The man shrugged his shoulders. “It is not for my sins I wish to die, good father,” he said–”though I have sins in plenty–but by reason of a heart-ache that is too great to be borne.”
“A heart-ache!” exclaimed the old priest. “Thou wouldst throw away life with all it means–thy beautiful life, now at high-tide–because of a heart-ache! Thou must be mad or very, very young. I would know what has caused thee so hard an ache as that. Come–sit down by me on the bench. The sentinel will give us grace of a scant half-hour ere he takes thee in charge.
“Make me thy confessor. Thy time may be short when the people hear of this deed.”
They took their places on the little bench and the sentinel, somewhat addle-pated from the sun and the sudden responsibility and horror of the moment, made no protest, but stood dumbly on guard.
The priest turned his face, still white and stern, to the man beside him. “If you have aught to tell me, my son,” he began, “I am over-ready to listen, and to give help and consolation. Nay, more. I find it in my soul to make excuse for thy rash deed, if you give me reason. Still remember in this I speak for myself alone, not for the people.”
The lion-tamer turned the golden apple around in his hand, looking at it absently.
“Wouldst really know why I desire to die? Art that much concerned regarding me, good father?”
“Of a truth–yes, my son!” answered the old man quickly.
The lion-tamer glanced up through the golden branches to the blue beyond, and then down at the priest with a sudden boyish smile, half-diffident, but wholly confiding.
“Well, then,” he said slowly, “well, then, it was just by reason of bitter loneliness–and of love.”
“Of love?” exclaimed the old priest. “Of love, dost thou say? Of loneliness it may be a man would die, but not of love, methinks.”
The man nodded his tawny head in contradiction.
“Listen, good father,” he said. “I come from a country far from here–a very far country. In that country my father was a noble and I his eldest son. We had much land of forest and stream and lake and meadow.” His eyes grew absent and misty again, and he paused.
“Yes?” questioned the priest.
“War came into my country,” he went on. “My father fought and was killed. I fought also and was taken captive. They bore me, bound, many leagues on into an unknown land, and left me in a prison whose whereabouts I do not know. I only know that as I counted time, five years went by in unspeakable solitude and silence.” He paused again, and the guard stepped a little nearer to listen.
“And then?” said the old priest.
“And then I escaped. I escaped by night; and when the morning broke found myself on a road that wound around a mountain; a lovely road overhung with a rosy mist.
“This I followed, good father, and it brought me to the City of Midas.”
“Oh!” nodded the holy father. “To our good city, my son?”
“Yes,” he answered. “I was so glad at being free that weariness and sorrow slipped from me. I felt the joy of youth and strength again, after a few weeks’ rest at an inn on the edge of the city, just within the great walls. I paid the inn-keeper and his wife for their kindness by pruning their orchard. While there I chanced to hear that the King’s lion-tamer was dead and he looked for another. Now, good father, I possess a strange gift. At home they said one of the fairies had given it to me in my cradle. However that may be, I have the gift to this day. It is no less than an influence potent and strong over beasts and birds, both wild and tame. By my eyes I can hold them, by my voice I can charm them, by my touch I can lure them, and my beckoning they will follow unless they be sick or under some spell of madness. This gift I discovered when I was a little child. The animals of the forest and field were my comrades; I knew no fear of them and they no fear of me. We understood each other.
“So now I said to myself: I will go to the king and offer to take the place of the dead lion-tamer! This I did, and was accepted and made keeper and trainer of the royal beasts.”
“I heard,” said the priest, “there was another younger keeper. Reports said the king’s former lion-tamer had been killed by a lioness.”
The guard nodded in affirmation and stepped nearer, listening.
The lion-tamer turned the golden apple in his hand. “By Jessica,” he said casually. “She is still half-wild and uncertain in her moods. But to my story, good father. I have been keeper of the beasts since the winter months and have been content after a fashion until lately. Early in spring the little Princess and her ladies came to watch me train the young lions, and–and I saw the Lady Belledowin.”
The priest gave a start. “The Lady Belledowin!” he exclaimed. “The court beauty! Is she again at the castle? Her mourning for the old duke, her father, has been short.”
“She is at court,” the man answered. “She is the first lady-in-waiting to the Princess. I saw her–and loved her, good father,” he ended.
“But there is more to be told, my son?” urged the priest.
“A little more, truly,” he returned. “Often after that first visit to the lions’ quarters the Princess and her ladies came again to look on while I put the beasts through their play. It was for those short moments I lived. To-day in the great heat, they came again, the little Princess and the others; the Lady Belledowin also. I saw them coming through the trees and flowers of the garden, like a flock of bright butterflies.
“You know, perhaps, the lions’ quarters? It is on the far side of the great Imperial gardens, and though artificial is like a bit of the desert. Quite wonderfully like it. There are silver-gray rocks rising out of the pink and yellow sand. The cages are almost invisible by reason of being painted like to the desert colors.
“The wall is stone, topped with open iron work, and there is a mighty gate barred on the outside, so when the beasts are safely caged the courtiers may enter the quarters. The timid are often content to look through the iron fence.
“The Lady Belledowin reached the great gate first, and I went to meet her from within the enclosure–for to-day it was not safe to enter. She already had drawn the bronze bolts when I came up, and we met in the open gateway. I trembled at sight of her beauty. In the afternoon light it was like a radiance that blinded one.
“‘It is not safe to enter the lions’ quarters to-day, Lady Belledowin,’ I said. ‘Even my small gate at the far side is double locked and forbidden to all but the water and food-carriers. Jessica has almost wrecked her cage. The door fastenings are loose, and I have not yet decided where to move her.’
“She laughed and threw a backward glance at the Princess and the court ladies who were coming near.
“‘Pasanello’–that is the name I bear here, good father–’Pasanello says it is dangerous to go into the enclosure,’ she said. ‘The locks are sprung on one of the cages, so he tells me; but I choose to think he wishes to frighten us, and belittle our courage. I am certainly going in. I desire to select, to-day, the lion-cub the king promised should be mine.’
“The little Princess ran to Lady Belledowin and caught her hand. You, perhaps, know the little Princess and her ways, good father?”
“I have seen and heard of her,” answered the old man.
“She possesses the sweetest heart and kindest in all the court, ’tis said,” went on the lion-tamer. “Now in most earnest fashion she coaxed Lady Belledowin to give up the thought of going near the cages. But it was useless. Had the Princess commanded she needs must have obeyed, but she would not respond to a request. With a little light and daring laugh she entered and swung the gate behind her.
“Then she ran down the stone steps into the enclosure. It is a hundred yards to the cages, but Jessica had seen the new figure and was pacing her cage furiously.
“Lady Belledowin took no heed of the warnings. She went on toward the cage where the lion cubs were sleeping, her rose-colored gown of some light silk, fluttering about her. The cubs, good father, belong to Jessica, and were removed from her because she injured one.
“Now as the lioness saw Lady Belledowin approach them, she quivered with fresh rage; then gave a terrific roar, burst the door of her cage, and with one bound came halfway to my lady across the sand. There the great beast crouched flat, gathering force for the fatal spring. Lady Belledowin stood as though turned to snow. She neither spoke nor cried out. While one’s heart has time to beat once I stood also. Then I leaped to her side.
“The lioness crouched still, and I faced her, fixing my eyes on her two blazing eyes. I could see her begin to tremble through her tense muscles. I gazed steadfastly at her, holding my Lady Belledowin back with one arm. To move would have been fatal.
“There we stood. I turned cold and my face grew wet as with rain.
“Still we stood and I suddenly felt my force over the lioness weakening. At that instant she sprang–but dropped a scant yard short of my lady.
“‘Run! Run!’ I cried to her. ‘This is the one chance. Before she springs again! Run–and make fast the gate!’
“I heard the silken flutter of her gown as she ran, but I did not withdraw my eyes from the eyes of the lioness. She crouched again where she had alighted, baffled and maddened.
“An inch nearer I moved to her, the sweat still cold on my face.
“Backward she crept an inch. So we went, she and I gazing steadfastly. Back and back she crept, and I forward. Ever she lashed her tail softly and in her throat was a sound not good to hear,–yet she crept back.
“When her cage was reached I stood quite still and straight and spoke.
“‘Enter!’ I called in the voice she knew and was used to obey.
“With drooping head she swung as on a pivot, and shrank into the cage. The muttering in her throat ended in a sort of sob, and I had conquered.
“I closed the broken door, and called to one of the cage men who now came running; with soldering iron, he made the door fast, and to-morrow the lioness will be transferred to a newer cage.”
There was a pause–then “To-morrow!” he said again and gave a short laugh.
“But that is not all, my son?” questioned the priest again.
“No,” Pasanello returned, “though I would it were. This follows, good father. When the lioness was made safe I went up into the garden where the little Princess and her ladies still stood in frightened silence, the Lady Belledowin in their midst. She was yet white as driven snow, and her eyes were dark and wide as with lingering horror. There seemed to me also to be anger in them–anger of a kind at herself, and at the whole incident. But she stood straight and beautiful as one whose pride still dominated. Never had she looked so beautiful.
“‘Ah, Pasanello,’ she said, with cool sweetness. ‘After all, you were right, and I wrong. It seems I owe you my life. What can I give you in token of eternal gratitude?’
“Good father, I looked at her and was dazzled as by the sun. For the moment I forgot I was not in my own country, forgot I was the King’s lion-tamer, and but a mountebank of the court. Forgot the little group of court ladies. I lifted her hand to my lips. ‘I love you!’ I said. ‘I love you! I ask no gift of life but your love.’
“My words stopped and there was a strange silence, as though the Lady Belledowin and the little Princess and the others stood quite breathless for that half moment.
“Then Lady Belledowin drew her hand from mine and struck me lightly on the cheek. Catching a bracelet from her arm, she threw it down at my feet.
“‘You are insolent!’ she said in a voice low but sharp as steel.
“‘Insolent past belief. Such as you are paid in gold. They render no service that cannot be so paid. Pick up the bracelet that pays thee!’
“I stood stock still and saw it glittering on the grass. The court ladies turned and drifted away through the trees like shadows, Lady Belledowin with them.
“Still I stood, my heart pounding against my side with rage and with agony. I was as one consumed with rage and agony; one deaf and blind to everything else. There came a soft touch on my arm. I looked down and saw the Princess.
“‘Pasanello,’ she said, ‘you are very brave; very wonderful. The Lady Belledowin was cruel–more cruel than the lioness would have been. We will not forgive the Lady Belledowin for her manner of speaking to you. But you, Pasanello, you need not greatly care. It is only ourselves can hurt ourselves.‘
“‘Good-by, Pasanello,’ she said, leaving me. ‘Be brave still, Pasanello.’
“The words came to me only as in a dream. Suddenly I bethought me of the golden apple tree. A weariness of life shook me. I would be done with loneliness and humiliation–yes–and love.
“I left the King’s garden and took the highway. Perhaps I ran; I do not remember. But, good father, that is all. The rest you know.”
The sentinel laid his hand on the lion-tamer’s shoulder. He stiffened to his task. “By my musket, you have been long winded!” he said. “If yon holy father had not detained you, you would have, this last half-hour, been safe in the Court House.” His eyes belied the gruff words, but leveling his rifle he signaled Pasanello to walk before him.
The old priest paced with them until they reached the cell and the sentinel gave his prisoner to the officers.
“The mayor will be informed of your deed and will act quickly,” he assured him in parting. “To your prayers, Signor Pasanello!”
The lion-tamer reached his hand through the cell bars, and touched the priest who still waited with bowed head.
“You have been very kind, good father,” he said. “Before you go, tell me you believe my story, and give me your blessing.”
The priest lifted his head. “I believe thy words,” he returned. “Yet the plucking of the apple means death. But one thing can prevent it and that thou canst not count on.
“I would ask thee–dost thou repent?”
“Of my sins–yes, father. Of plucking the apple–no. I have had enough of life as I have found it. Yet, of thy kindness, tell me what is that one thing that might overthrow my fate?”
Holding the priest’s hand, he flashed a quick smile at him. “From what I have heard of these people and their golden tree it must be an extraordinary happening that would appease their wrath at one who robbed its branches.”
The old man shook his head. “You will learn of it on the morrow, when the multitude are assembled; my son–on that hour–that hour–” His voice trembled and broke.
“Think not of it, good father–but give me thy blessing.”
The priest raised his hand and murmured the benediction, then with uncertain steps took his way out into the sunshine.
The morrow came, and from far and wide the people assembled to see the law of their country carried out. A vast indignation swayed them, and small pity was expressed for the prisoner, a comparative stranger who had returned their hospitality by crime against their beloved tree.
The King’s heralds, in their red and blue and gold tunics, had cried the news of the lion-tamer’s deed from the city walls on the North, the South, the East and the West. The papers had flamed it out in the reddest of type. The children called it to each other excitedly, and the old stood and gossiped over it. The mothers with babies in their arms held them close, thinking of the dread things that can overtake men who were once as dear and little as those they held.
The King himself was far away on a hunting trip, or something might have been heard from him, as his moods were many, and the new lion-tamer in favor with him. But in the matter of the tree of gold the people of Midas took no advice of Kings.
The mayor, aldermen, lawyers and judges had spent the night discussing the theft. They had interviewed the lion-tamer, taken the evidence of the priest and sentinel, gazed solemnly upon the golden apple with its short, twisted stem, and looked upon the branch from which it had been broken.
The crime was fixed upon the lion-tamer, to everybody’s satisfaction, and there was no appeal. Therefore the hour for his execution had been set. His death was to take place at the ringing of the next noontide bells.
The hour came on apace. Now throngs pressed and swayed around the grassy square of the golden apple tree. All knew the King’s lion-tamer, as the royal lions were often shown in public, and a sensation of awe and horror swept over the multitude, for they were a happy people with a dread of tragedy. Yet the law was the law, the golden tree a thing mystical and almost sacred. The deed against it must, they agreed, be avenged.
The bells rang out a quarter to twelve, and the mayor and aldermen, lawyers and judges, all in their robes of office, came out on a platform before the City Hall.
The crowd made way for a group of people from the court. They were all mounted and later would go hunting, but they delayed their sport a little to see this greater thing.
Among them were old and young; friends of the King, and ladies and gentlemen in waiting to the Princess. They wore hunter’s green, braided with gold that flashed as they rode. The little Princess was not among them, but the Lady Belledowin was of those who led the way.
When the bells had done striking the quarter to twelve, two soldiers came out from the City Hall, and the lion-tamer walked between them. He wore, as he had the day before, only the leopard skin about his body, the leather sandals on his feet, and above his knee the golden garter set with topaz, whereon was cut the King’s seal.
He took his stand, towering among that richly clad company as a figure strangely out of place, and his spirit seemed quiet and unruffled. A herald blew a loud bugle-blast, and the people swayed nearer. The group of courtiers drew rein tighter on their restless horses.
When the herald’s notes died away, the mayor spoke. His crimson robes marked him from the others, and his voice carried far.
“Citizens of the City of Midas!” he said. “We have come to see the law of our city maintained. The King’s lion-tamer, who comes from a far and unknown country, has violated our most sacred code. He has plucked the imperishable fruit of our golden tree, the tree of Midas. There is the apple!” He held the golden globe up high for all to see. “The witnesses to the deed,” he continued, “are the sentinel and the good priest who stands below our platform here!”
A low, angry murmuring ran through the crowd and grew in volume and force.
The mayor lifted his hand for silence, and spoke again.
“This crime was wanton and without excuse, and witnessed. Therefore the highest judge of our land has pronounced sentence of death upon Pasanello, the King’s lion-tamer!”
The people broke into a hoarse clamoring, but the mayor again commanded silence.
“Wait, good citizens!” he said. “For we have ever been of a fair and open mind. Old as is this law of ours, that the one who plucks the golden fruit shall die, you surely remember–though it is two score years since the tree was last robbed–that there is another law just as old.” He paused and a deep silence followed his words. Then–”Tell us the other law!” they cried impatiently, “and be quick in telling.” And many called: “We know of no other law! We know of none!”
The mayor looked over the upturned faces surging toward him.
“Ay!” he returned. “You have all heard of this other law but have chosen to forget. I will remind you.”
He unrolled an old parchment. “Hereon is written,” he continued, “the only laws regarding the golden tree.
“In this place,” pointing to it with his finger, “I read: ‘The penalty of death is to be inflicted on any mortal who has come of age and thereafter breaks even one golden apple from the golden tree–unless’ (Now mark you all!) ‘unless when the criminal is brought out for execution, and haply he or she be unwedded, there should arise one among you who will willingly offer to marry that one who is under death sentence, and lead him or her away down the rose-mist path that runs around our mountains–and so out of our land forever!”
The lion-tamer stood as one little concerned with what was going on. As much as one so strong could, he looked tired, and his face was not anxious, but sad.
The court people petted their nervous horses, and beside the gallows a black-robed man looked about in sullen restlessness.
Again the mayor raised his hand.
“If there be any woman among you, whether old or young, who will wed this man, Pasanello, and go with him into the unknown lands–let her come forward!”
His clear voice rang out to the uttermost edge of the people.
A stillness answered. All eyes were lifted to the lion-tamer. His face was raised now a little disdainfully, and he seemed to smile.
Then through the crowd there ran a sudden stirring, and a word was called out here and there that soon melted into a muffled roar like the sea.
The crowd parted, and up through the midst of it came a strange little half-wild figure; a girl, young,–oh, very young–with bare brown feet, and tattered blue gown and tanned gypsy face and hands. A cloud of long, tangled, yellow hair blew about her head, and her eyes were sea-blue, with the blackest lashes that were ever seen.
In one hand she carried a rough crook, and behind her trailed a flock of gray geese, kept together by the unceasing attention of a small, shaggy dog, who saw to it that they followed the little goose-girl, and not their own will.
On she came, lightly as a brown leaf blows over the ground, until she reached the platform where stood the mayor and the city fathers and the soldiers with their prisoner.
At the foot of the platform she stopped, looked up, and then around. Then she dipped a courtesy and smiled at them all.
“An it pleases everybody,” she said sweetly, “I will wed the King’s lion-tamer and lead him away down the rose-mist road–for I know it well. So, he be willing, we will go away, and never come again, forever! an’ ever! an’ ever!”
The lion-tamer had leaned forward as she began to speak, and now looked down into her blue eyes that were raised to his. Down and down he looked into the very depths of their sea blue, and they answered his gaze steadily.
“You have heard!” the mayor said to the people with a wide gesture of his arms. “This little maid from the hills is willing to wed the prisoner.” He turned to the lion-tamer, smiling. “Prisoner,” he commanded, “what say you?”
As one in a dream he leaned toward her. “Ay!” he said softly. “By my faith, I will gladly wed thee, sweetheart! I will take thee at thy word and follow any rose-mist path where thou dost lead the way. There is that in thine eyes that calls me to thee across the very path of Death.”
Then the mayor stepped down and led the little goose-girl up to the platform.
“Come you also, good father,” he said to the old priest.
With light step the little goose-girl crossed the platform to Pasanello. He took her hand, and so they stood while the priest spoke the words that wedded them.
Then the lion-tamer, caring nothing for the presence of the staring people or the mayor and judges, took the tattered maid in his arms and bent his lips to hers.
A sudden cheering broke from the throats of all the crowd below, for all the world loves a lover.
Then in gossipy groups all scattered and went their way. The ladies and gentlemen of the court last, for it had proved so rare an entertainment.
When the green square was almost clear, the little goose-girl took the lion-tamer’s hand. “Come!” she said softly. “Come, Pasanello; we must go as we promised.”
“Truly–yes, sweetheart, as we promised. We will not linger.” He turned to the old priest.
“Good father, we give you thanks, and farewell, and eternal remembrance.”
After that they went, while the priest watched them, across the square of the golden tree and down the golden highway. There his old eyes lost them, but on they went out of the city gates and on to the road of the rose-mist, the geese following behind them, and the small shaggy dog.
Hand in hand they went, and joyously and lightly as the leaves blow over the ground, and they laughed and talked and looked into each other’s eyes.
When the city was almost lost behind them, the little goose-girl caught her two hands around the lion-tamer’s arm and turned her face up to him.
“Look at me, Pasanello!” she cried softly.
“Have I done aught but gaze at thee since the moment you came?” he questioned, smiling.
“Oh, I know!” she admitted. “But look again. Tell me what–whom thou dost see!”
Pasanello looked, and suddenly caught her to him.
“Who art thou?” he questioned. “Oh, who art thou–thou most strange little maid? Methinks I know thy face–yet doubt. Who art thou?”
“The Princess,” she nodded against his shoulder. “Only the little Princess, Pasanello, stained brown with the juice of berries. You see I loved you–even–even yesterday.“
“Oh, little Princess!” he cried, touching her yellow hair. “Forget yesterday. To-day and forever it is only you I love!”
I do not know where they went to live. I have heard that the King of the City of Midas and the country thereabout rode after them, and found them, and gave them castles and gold and lands and all the lovely things that people really do not need. But I am not sure about this. Pasanello may be only a shepherd somewhere in their hills, and the Princess may yet tend a flock of gray geese. No, I do not know for certain where they went or how they lived. The only thing I am really sure of is that they were happy wherever it was, and if we ever run across them, we will find they are happy still.
On the third day after they moved to the country he came walking back from the village carrying a basket of groceries and a twenty-four-yard coil of rope. She came out to meet him, wiping her hands on her green smock. Her hair was tumbled, her nose was scarlet with sunburn; he told her that already she looked like a born country woman. His gray flannel shirt stuck to him, his heavy shoes were dusty. She assured him he looked like a rural character in a play.
Had he brought the coffee? She had been waiting all day long for coffee. They had forgot it when they ordered at the store the first day.
Gosh, no, he hadn’t. Lord, now he’d have to go back. Yes, he would if it killed him. He thought, though, he had everything else. She reminded him it was only because he didn’t drink coffee himself. If he did he would remember it quick enough. Suppose they ran out of cigarettes? Then she saw the rope. What was that for? Well, he thought it might do to hang clothes on, or something. Naturally she asked him if he thought they were going to run a laundry? They already had a fifty-foot line hanging right before his eyes? Why, hadn’t he noticed it, really? It was a blot on the landscape to her.
He thought there were a lot of things a rope might come in handy for. She wanted to know what, for instance. He thought a few seconds, but nothing occurred. They could wait and see, couldn’t they? You need all sorts of strange odds and ends around a place in the country. She said, yes, that was so; but she thought just at that time when every penny counted, it seemed funny to buy more rope. That was all. She hadn’t meant anything else. She hadn’t just seen, not at first, why he felt it was necessary.
Well, thunder, he had bought it because he wanted to, and that was all there was to it. She thought that was reason enough, and couldn’t understand why he hadn’t said so, at first. Undoubtedly it would be useful, twenty-four yards of rope, there were hundreds of things, she couldn’t think of any at the moment, but it would come in. Of course. As he had said, things always did in the country.
But she was a little disappointed about the coffee, and oh, look, look, look at the eggs! Oh, my, they’re all running! What had he put on top of them? Hadn’t he known eggs mustn’t be squeezed? Squeezed, who had squeezed them, he wanted to know. What a silly thing to say. He had simply brought them along in the basket with the other things. If they got broke it was the grocer’s fault. He should know better than to put heavy things on top of eggs.
She believed it was the rope. That was the heaviest thing in the pack, she saw him plainly when he came in from the road, the rope was a big package on top of everything. He desired the whole wide world to witness that this was not a fact. He had carried the rope in one hand and the basket in the other, and what was the use of her having eyes if that was the best they could do for her?
Well, anyhow, she could see one thing plain: no eggs for breakfast. They’d have to scramble them now, for supper. It was too damned bad. She had planned to have steak for supper. No ice, meat wouldn’t keep. He wanted to know why she couldn’t finish breaking the eggs in a bowl and set them in a cool place.
Cool place! If he could find one for her, she’d be glad to set them there. Well, then, it seemed to him they might very well cook the meat at the same time they cooked the eggs and then warm up the meat for tomorrow. The idea simply choked her. Warmed-over meat, when they might as well have had it fresh. Second best and scraps and makeshifts, even to the meat! He rubbed her shoulder a little. It doesn’t really matter so much, does it, darling? Sometimes when they were playful, he would rub her shoulder and she would arch and purr. This time she hissed and almost clawed. He was getting ready to say that they could surely manage somehow when she turned on him and said, if he told her they could manage somehow she would certainly slap his face.
He swallowed the words red hot, his face burned. He picked up the rope and started to put it on the top shelf. She would not have it on the top shelf, the jars and tins belonged there; positively she would not have the top shelf cluttered up with a lot of rope. She had borne all the clutter she meant to bear in the flat in town, there was space here at least and she meant to keep things in order.
Well, in that case, he wanted to know what the hammer and nails were doing up there? And why had she put them there when she knew very well he needed that hammer and those nails upstairs to fix the window sashes? She simply slowed down everything and made double work on the place with her insane habit of changing things around and hiding them.
She was sure she begged his pardon, and if she had had any reason to believe he was going to fix the sashes this summer she would have left the hammer and nails right where he put them; in the middle of the bedroom floor where they could step on them in the dark. And now if he didn’t clear the whole mess out of there she would throw them down the well.
Oh, all right, all right – could he put them in the closet? Naturally not, there were brooms and mops and dustpans in the closet, and why couldn’t he find a place for his rope outside her kitchen? Had he stopped to consider there were seven God-forsaken rooms in the house, and only one kitchen?
He wanted to know what of it? And did she realize she was making a complete fool of herself? And what did she take him for, a three-year-old idiot? The whole trouble with her was she needed something weaker than she was to heckle and tyrannize over. He wished to God now they had a couple of children she could take it out on. Maybe he’d get some rest.
Her face changed at this, she reminded him he had forgot the coffee and had bought a worthless piece of rope. And when she thought of all the things they actually needed to make the place even decently fit to live in, well, she could cry, that was all. She looked so forlorn, so lost and despairing he couldn’t believe it was only a piece of rope that was causing all the racket. What was the matter, for God’s sake?
Oh, would he please hush and go away, and stay away, if he could, for five minutes? By all means, yes, he would. He’d stay away indefinitely if she wished. Lord, yes, there was nothing he’d like better than to clear out and never come back. She couldn’t for the life of her see what was holding him, then. It was a swell time. Here she was, stuck, miles from a railroad, with a half-empty house on her hands, and not a penny in her pocket, and everything on earth to do; it seemed the God-sent moment for him to get out from under. She was surprised he hadn’t stayed in town as it was until she had come out and done the work and got things straightened out. It was his usual trick.
It appeared to him that this was going a little far. Just a touch out of bounds, if she didn’t mind his saying so. Why the hell had he stayed in town the summer before? To do a half-dozen extra jobs to get the money he had sent her. That was it. She knew perfectly well they couldn’t have done it otherwise. She had agreed with him at the time. And that was the only time so help him he had ever left her to do anything by herself.
Oh, he could tell that to his great-grandmother. She had her notion of what had kept him in town. Considerably more than a notion, if he wanted to know. So, she was going to bring all that up again, was she? Well, she could just think what she pleased. He was tired of explaining. It may have looked funny but he had simply got hooked in, and what could he do? It was impossible to believe that she was going to take it seriously. Yes, yes, she knew how it was with a man: if he was left by himself a minute, some woman was certain to kidnap him. And naturally he couldn’t hurt her feelings by refusing!
Well, what was she raving about? Did she forget she had told him those two weeks alone in the country were the happiest she had known for four years? And how long had they been married when she said that? All right, shut up! If she thought that hadn’t stuck in his craw.
She hadn’t meant she was happy because she was away from him. She meant she was happy getting the devilish house nice and ready for him. That was what she had meant, and now look! Bringing up something she had said a year ago simply to justify himself for forgetting her coffee and breaking the eggs and buying a wretched piece of rope they couldn’t afford. She really thought it was time to drop the subject, and now she wanted only two things in the world. She wanted him to get that rope from underfoot, and go back to the village and get her coffee, and if he could remember it, he might bring a metal mitt for the skillets, and two more curtain rods, and if there were any rubber gloves in the village, her hands were simply raw, and a bottle of milk of magnesia from the drugstore.
He looked out at the dark blue afternoon sweltering on the slopes, and mopped his forehead and sighed heavily and said, if only she could wait a minute for anything, he was going back. He had said so, hadn’t he, the very instant they found he had overlooked it?
Oh, yes, well . . . run along. She was going to wash windows. The country was so beautiful! She doubted they’d have a moment to enjoy it. He meant to go, but he could not until he had said that if she wasn’t such a hopeless melancholiac she might see that this was only for a few days. Couldn’t she remember anything pleasant about the other summers? Hadn’t they ever had any fun? She hadn’t time to talk about it, and now would he please not leave that rope lying around for her to trip on? He picked it up, somehow it had toppled off the table, and walked out with it under his arm.
Was he going this minute? He certainly was. She thought so. Sometimes it seemed to her he had second sight about the precisely perfect moment to leave her ditched. She had meant to put the mattresses out to sun, if they put them out this minute they would get at least three hours, he must have heard her say that morning she meant to put them out. So of course he would walk off and leave her to it. She supposed he thought the exercise would do her good.
Well, he was merely going to get her coffee. A four-mile walk for two pounds of coffee was ridiculous, but he was perfectly willing to do it. The habit was making a wreck of her, but if she wanted to wreck herself there was nothing he could do about it. If he thought it was coffee that was making a wreck of her, she congratulated him: he must have a damned easy conscience.
Conscience or no conscience, he didn’t see why the mattresses couldn’t very well wait until tomorrow. And anyhow, for God’s sake, were they living in the house, or were they going to let the house ride them to death? She paled at this, her face grew livid about the mouth, she looked quite dangerous, and reminded him that housekeeping was no more her work than it was his: she had other work to do as well, and when did he think she was going to find time to do it at this rate?
Was she going to start on that again? She knew as well as he did that his work brought in the regular money, hers was only occasional, if they depended on what she made – and she might as well get straight on this question once for all!
That was positively not the point. The question was, when both of them were working on their own time, was there going to be a division of the housework, or wasn’t there? She merely wanted to know, she had to make her plans. Why, he thought that was all arranged. It was understood that he was to help. Hadn’t he always, in summers?
Hadn’t he, though? Oh, just hadn’t he? And when, and where, and doing what? Lord, what an uproarious joke!
It was such a very uproarious joke that her face turned slightly purple, and she screamed with laughter. She laughed so hard she had to sit down, and finally a rush of tears spurted from her eyes and poured down into the lifted corners of her mouth. He dashed towards her and dragged her up to her feet and tried to pour water on her head. The dipper hung by a string on a nail and he broke it loose. Then he tried to pump water with one hand while she struggled in the other. So he gave it up and shook her instead.
She wrenched away, crying out for him to take his rope and go to hell, she had simply given him up: and ran. He heard her high-heeled bedroom slippers clattering and stumbling on the stairs.
He went out around the house and into the lane; he suddenly realized he had a blister on his heel and his shirt felt as if it were on fire. Things broke so suddenly you didn’t know where you were. She could work herself into a fury about simply nothing. She was terrible, damn it: not an ounce of reason. You might as well talk to a sieve as that woman when she got going. Damned if he’d spend his life humoring her! Well, what to do now? He would take back the rope and exchange it for something else. Things accumulated, things were mountainous, you couldn’t move them or sort them out or get rid of them. They just lay and rotted around. He’d take it back. Hell, why should he? He wanted it. What was it anyhow? A piece of rope. Imagine anybody caring more about a piece of rope than about a man’s feelings. What earthly right had she to say a word about it? He remembered all the useless, meaningless things she bought for herself: Why? because I wanted it, that’s why! He stopped and selected a large stone by the road. He would put the rope behind it. He would put it in the tool-box when he got back. He’d heard enough about it to last him a life-time.
When he came back she was leaning against the post box beside the road waiting. It was pretty late, the smell of broiled steak floated nose high in the cooling air. Her face was young and smooth and fresh-looking. Her unmanageable funny black hair was all on end. She waved to him from a distance, and he speeded up. She called out that supper was ready and waiting, was he starved?
You bet he was starved. Here was the coffee. He waved it at her. She looked at his other hand. What was that he had there?
Well, it was the rope again. He stopped short. He had meant to exchange it but forgot. She wanted to know why he should exchange it, if it was something he really wanted. Wasn’t the air sweet now, and wasn’t it fine to be here?
She walked beside him with one hand hooked into his leather belt. She pulled and jostled him a little as he walked, and leaned against him. He put his arm clear around her and patted her stomach. They exchanged wary smiles. Coffee, coffee for the Ootsum-Wootsums! He felt as if he were bringing her a beautiful present.
He was a love, she firmly believed, and if she had had her coffee in the morning, she wouldn’t have behaved so funny . . . There was a whippoorwill still coming back, imagine, clear out of season, sitting in the crab-apple tree calling all by himself. Maybe his girl stood him up. Maybe she did. She hoped to hear him once more, she loved whippoorwills . . . He knew how she was, didn’t he?
Sure, he knew how she was.
Katherine Anne Porter, “Rope” from The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter. Copyright 1928 by Katherine Anne Porter. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of The Katherine Anne Porter Literary Trust.
At the Great American Lunch Hour young George O’Kelly straightened his desk deliberately and with an assumed air of interest. No one in the office must know that he was in a hurry, for success is a matter of atmosphere, and it is not well to advertise the fact that your mind is separated from your work by a distance of seven hundred miles.
But once out of the building he set his teeth and began to run, glancing now and then at the gay noon of early spring which filled Times Square and loitered less than twenty feet over the heads of the crowd. The crowd all looked slightly upward and took deep March breaths, and the sun dazzled their eyes so that scarcely any one saw any one else but only their own reflection on the sky.
George O’Kelly, whose mind was over seven hundred miles away, thought that all outdoors was horrible. He rushed into the subway, and for ninety-five blocks bent a frenzied glance on a car-card which showed vividly how he had only one chance in five of keeping his teeth for ten years. At 137th Street he broke off his study of commercial art, left the subway, and began to run again, a tireless, anxious run that brought him this time to his home–one room in a high, horrible apartment-house in the middle of nowhere.
There it was on the bureau, the letter– in sacred ink, on blessed paper– all over the city, people, if they listened, could hear the beating of George O’Kelly’s heart. He read the commas, the blots, and the thumb-smudge on the margin–then he threw himself hopelessly upon his bed.
He was in a mess, one of those terrific messes which are ordinary incidents in the life of the poor, which follow poverty like birds of prey. The poor go under or go up or go wrong or even go on, somehow, in a way the poor have– but George O’Kelly was so new to poverty that had any one denied the uniqueness of his case he would have been astounded.
Less than two years ago he had been graduated with honors from The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and had taken a position with a firm of construction engineers in southern Tennessee. All his life he had thought in terms of tunnels and skyscrapers and great squat dams and tall, three-towered bridges, that were like dancers holding hands in a row, with heads as tall as cities and skirts of cable strand. It had seemed romantic to George O’Kelly to change the sweep of rivers and the shape of mountains so that life could flourish in the old bad lands of the world where it had never taken root before. He loved steel, and there was always steel near him in his dreams, liquid steel, steel in bars, and blocks and beams and formless plastic masses, waiting for him, as paint and canvas to his hand. Steel inexhaustible, to be made lovely and austere in his imaginative fire…
At present he was an insurance clerk at forty dollars a week with his dream slipping fast behind him. The dark little girl who had made this mess, this terrible and intolerable mess, was waiting to be sent for in a town in Tennessee.
In fifteen minutes the woman from whom he sublet his room knocked and asked him with maddening kindness if, since he was home, he would have some lunch. He shook his head, but the interruption aroused him, and getting up from the bed he wrote a telegram.
“Letter depressed me have you lost your nerve you are foolish and just upset to think of breaking off why not marry me immediately sure we can make it all right–”
He hesitated for a wild minute, and then added in a hand that could scarcely be recognized as his own: “In any case I will arrive to-morrow at six o’clock.”
When he finished he ran out of the apartment and down to the telegraph office near the subway stop. He possessed in this world not quite one hundred dollars, but the letter showed that she was “nervous” and this left him no choice. He knew what “nervous” meant–that she was emotionally depressed, that the prospect of marrying into a life of poverty and struggle was putting too much strain upon her love.
George O’Kelly reached the insurance company at his usual run, the run that had become almost second nature to him, that seemed best to express the tension under which he lived. He went straight to the manager’s office.
“I want to see you, Mr. Chambers,” he announced breathlessly.
“Well?” Two eyes, eyes like winter windows, glared at him with ruthless impersonality.
“I want to get four days’ vacation.”
“Why, you had a vacation just two weeks ago!” said Mr. Chambers in surprise.
“That’s true,” admitted the distraught young man, “but now I’ve got to have another.”
“Where’d you go last time? To your home?”
“No, I went to–a place in Tennessee.”
“Well, where do you want to go this time?”
“Well, this time I want to go to–a place in Tennessee.”
“You’re consistent, anyhow,” said the manager dryly. “But I didn’t realize you were employed here as a travelling salesman.”
“I’m not,” cried George desperately, “but I’ve got to go.”
“All right,” agreed Mr. Chambers, “but you don’t have to come back. So don’t!”
“I won’t.” And to his own astonishment as well as Mr. Chambers’ George’s face grew pink with pleasure. He felt happy, exultant–for the first time in six months he was absolutely free. Tears of gratitude stood in his eyes, and he seized Mr. Chambers warmly by the hand.
“I want to thank you,” he said with a rush of emotion. “I don’t want to come back. I think I’d have gone crazy if you’d said that I could come back. Only I couldn’t quit myself, you see, and I want to thank you for–for quitting for me.”
He waved his hand magnanimously, shouted aloud, “You owe me three days’ salary but you can keep it!” and rushed from the office. Mr. Chambers rang for his stenographer to ask if O’Kelly had seemed queer lately. He had fired many men in the course of his career, and they had taken it in many different ways, but none of them had thanked him–ever before.
Jonquil Cary was her name, and to George O’Kelly nothing had ever looked so fresh and pale as her face when she saw him and fled to him eagerly along the station platform. Her arms were raised to him, her mouth was half parted for his kiss, when she held him off suddenly and lightly and, with a touch of embarrassment, looked around. Two boys, somewhat younger than George, were standing in the background.
“This is Mr. Craddock and Mr. Holt,” she announced cheerfully. “You met them when you were here before.”
Disturbed by the transition of a kiss into an introduction and suspecting some hidden significance, George was more confused when he found that the automobile which was to carry them to Jonquil’s house belonged to one of the two young men. It seemed to put him at a disadvantage. On the way Jonquil chattered between the front and back seats, and when he tried to slip his arm around her under cover of the twilight she compelled him with a quick movement to take her hand instead.
“Is this street on the way to your house?” he whispered. “I don’t recognize it.”
“It’s the new boulevard. Jerry just got this car to-day, and he wants to show it to me before he takes us home.”
When, after twenty minutes, they were deposited at Jonquil’s house, George felt that the first happiness of the meeting, the joy he had recognized so surely in her eyes back in the station, had been dissipated by the intrusion of the ride. Something that he had looked forward to had been rather casually lost, and he was brooding on this as he said good night stiffly to the two young men. Then his ill-humor faded as Jonquil drew him into a familiar embrace under the dim light of the front hall and told him in a dozen ways, of which the best was without words, how she had missed him. Her emotion reassured him, promised his anxious heart that everything would be all right.
They sat together on the sofa, overcome by each other’s presence, beyond all except fragmentary endearments. At the supper hour Jonquil’s father and mother appeared and were glad to see George. They liked him, and had been interested in his engineering career when he had first come to Tennessee over a year before. They had been sorry when he had given it up and gone to New York to look for something more immediately profitable, but while they deplored the curtailment of his career they sympathized with him and were ready to recognize the engagement. During dinner they asked about his progress in New York.
“Everything’s going fine,” he told them with enthusiasm. “I’ve been promoted–better salary.”
He was miserable as he said this–but they were all so glad.
“They must like you,” said Mrs. Cary, “that’s certain–or they wouldn’t let you off twice in three weeks to come down here.”
“I told them they had to,” explained George hastily; “I told them if they didn’t I wouldn’t work for them any more.”
“But you ought to save your money,” Mrs. Cary reproached him gently. “Not spend it all on this expensive trip.”
Dinner was over–he and Jonquil were alone and she came back into his arms.
“So glad you’re here,” she sighed. “Wish you never were going away again, darling.”
“Do you miss me?”
“Oh, so much, so much.”
“Do you–do other men come to see you often? Like those two kids?”
The question surprised her. The dark velvet eyes stared at him.
“Why, of course they do. All the time. Why–I’ve told you in letters that they did, dearest.”
This was true–when he had first come to the city there had been already a dozen boys around her, responding to her picturesque fragility with adolescent worship, and a few of them perceiving that her beautiful eyes were also sane and kind.
“Do you expect me never to go anywhere”–Jonquil demanded, leaning back against the sofa-pillows until she seemed to look at him from many miles away–”and just fold my hands and sit still–forever?”
“What do you mean?” he blurted out in a panic. “Do you mean you think I’ll never have enough money to marry you?”
“Oh, don’t jump at conclusions so, George.”
“I’m not jumping at conclusions. That’s what you said.”
George decided suddenly that he was on dangerous grounds. He had not intended to let anything spoil this night. He tried to take her again in his arms, but she resisted unexpectedly, saying:
“It’s hot. I’m going to get the electric fan.”
When the fan was adjusted they sat down again, but he was in a super-sensitive mood and involuntarily he plunged into the specific world he had intended to avoid.
“When will you marry me?”
“Are you ready for me to marry you?”
All at once his nerves gave way, and he sprang to his feet.
“Let’s shut off that damned fan,” he cried, “it drives me wild. It’s like a clock ticking away all the time I’ll be with you. I came here to be happy and forget everything about New York and time–”
He sank down on the sofa as suddenly as he had risen. Jonquil turned off the fan, and drawing his head down into her lap began stroking his hair.
“Let’s sit like this,” she said softly, “just sit quiet like this, and I’ll put you to sleep. You’re all tired and nervous and your sweetheart’ll take care of you.”
“But I don’t want to sit like this,” he complained, jerking up suddenly, “I don’t want to sit like this at all. I want you to kiss me. That’s the only thing that makes me rest. And anyways I’m not nervous–it’s you that’s nervous. I’m not nervous at all.”
To prove that he wasn’t nervous he left the couch and plumped himself into a rocking-chair across the room.
“Just when I’m ready to marry you you write me the most nervous letters, as if you’re going to back out, and I have to come rushing down here–”
“You don’t have to come if you don’t want to.”
“But I do want to!” insisted George.
It seemed to him that he was being very cool and logical and that she was putting him deliberately in the wrong. With every word they were drawing farther and farther apart–and he was unable to stop himself or to keep worry and pain out of his voice.
But in a minute Jonquil began to cry sorrowfully and he came back to the sofa and put his arm around her. He was the comforter now, drawing her head close to his shoulder, murmuring old familiar things until she grew calmer and only trembled a little, spasmodically, in his arms. For over an hour they sat there, while the evening pianos thumped their last cadences into the street outside. George did not move, or think, or hope, lulled into numbness by the premonition of disaster. The clock would tick on, past eleven, past twelve, and then Mrs. Cary would call down gently over the banister–beyond that he saw only to-morrow and despair.
In the heat of the next day the breaking-point came. They had each guessed the truth about the other, but of the two she was the more ready to admit the situation.
“There’s no use going on,” she said miserably, “you know you hate the insurance business, and you’ll never do well in it.”
“That’s not it,” he insisted stubbornly; “I hate going on alone. If you’ll marry me and come with me and take a chance with me, I can make good at anything, but not while I’m worrying about you down here.”
She was silent a long time before she answered, not thinking–for she had seen the end–but only waiting, because she knew that every word would seem more cruel than the last. Finally she spoke:
“George, I love you with all my heart, and I don’t see how I can ever love any one else but you. If you’d been ready for me two months ago I’d have married you–now I can’t because it doesn’t seem to be the sensible thing.”
He made wild accusations–there was some one else–she was keeping something from him!
“No, there’s no one else.”
This was true. But reacting from the strain of this affair she had found relief in the company of young boys like Jerry Holt, who had the merit of meaning absolutely nothing in her life.
George didn’t take the situation well, at all. He seized her in his arms and tried literally to kiss her into marrying him at once. When this failed, he broke into a long monologue of self-pity, and ceased only when he saw that he was making himself despicable in her sight. He threatened to leave when he had no intention of leaving, and refused to go when she told him that, after all, it was best that he should.
For a while she was sorry, then for another while she was merely kind.
“You’d better go now,” she cried at last, so loud that Mrs. Cary came down-stairs in alarm.
“Is something the matter?”
“I’m going away, Mrs. Cary,” said George brokenly. Jonquil had left the room.
“Don’t feel so badly, George.” Mrs. Cary blinked at him in helpless sympathy–sorry and, in the same breath, glad that the little tragedy was almost done. “If I were you I’d go home to your mother for a week or so. Perhaps after all this is the sensible thing–”
“Please don’t talk,” he cried. “Please don’t say anything to me now!”
Jonquil came into the room again, her sorrow and her nervousness alike tucked under powder and rouge and hat.
“I’ve ordered a taxicab,” she said impersonally. “We can drive around until your train leaves.”
She walked out on the front porch. George put on his coat and hat and stood for a minute exhausted in the hall–he had eaten scarcely a bite since he had left New York. Mrs. Cary came over, drew his head down and kissed him on the cheek, and he felt very ridiculous and weak in his knowledge that the scene had been ridiculous and weak at the end. If he had only gone the night before–left her for the last time with a decent pride.
The taxi had come, and for an hour these two that had been lovers rode along the less-frequented streets. He held her hand and grew calmer in the sunshine, seeing too late that there had been nothing all along to do or say.
“I’ll come back,” he told her.
“I know you will,” she answered, trying to put a cheery faith into her voice. “And we’ll write each other–sometimes.”
“No,” he said, “we won’t write. I couldn’t stand that. Some day I’ll come back.”
“I’ll never forget you, George.”
They reached the station, and she went with him while he bought his ticket…
“Why, George O’Kelly and Jonquil Cary!”
It was a man and a girl whom George had known when he had worked in town, and Jonquil seemed to greet their presence with relief. For an interminable five minutes they all stood there talking; then the train roared into the station, and with ill-concealed agony in his face George held out his arms toward Jonquil. She took an uncertain step toward him, faltered, and then pressed his hand quickly as if she were taking leave of a chance friend.
“Good-by, George,” she was saying, “I hope you have a pleasant trip.
“Good-by, George. Come back and see us all again.”
Dumb, almost blind with pain, he seized his suitcase, and in some dazed way got himself aboard the train.
Past clanging street-crossings, gathering speed through wide suburban spaces toward the sunset. Perhaps she too would see the sunset and pause for a moment, turning, remembering, before he faded with her sleep into the past. This night’s dusk would cover up forever the sun and the trees and the flowers and laughter of his young world.
On a damp afternoon in September of the following year a young man with his face burned to a deep copper glow got off a train at a city in Tennessee. He looked around anxiously, and seemed relieved when he found that there was no one in the station to meet him. He taxied to the best hotel in the city where he registered with some satisfaction as George O’Kelly, Cuzco, Peru.
Up in his room he sat for a few minutes at the window looking down into the familiar street below. Then with his hand trembling faintly he took off the telephone receiver and called a number.
“Is Miss Jonquil in?”
“This is she.”
“Oh–” His voice after overcoming a faint tendency to waver went on with friendly formality.
“This is George O’Kelly. Did you get my letter?”
“Yes. I thought you’d be in to-day.”
Her voice, cool and unmoved, disturbed him, but not as he had expected. This was the voice of a stranger, unexcited, pleasantly glad to see him–that was all. He wanted to put down the telephone and catch his breath.
“I haven’t seen you for–a long time.” He succeeded in making this sound offhand. “Over a year.”
He knew how long it had been–to the day.
“It’ll be awfully nice to talk to you again.”
“I’ll be there in about an hour.”
He hung up. For four long seasons every minute of his leisure had been crowded with anticipation of this hour, and now this hour was here. He had thought of finding her married, engaged, in love–he had not thought she would be unstirred at his return.
There would never again in his life, he felt, be another ten months like these he had just gone through. He had made an admittedly remarkable showing for a young engineer–stumbled into two unusual opportunities, one in Peru, whence he had just returned, and another, consequent upon it, in New York, whither he was bound. In this short time he had risen from poverty into a position of unlimited opportunity.
He looked at himself in the dressing-table mirror. He was almost black with tan, but it was a romantic black, and in the last week, since he had had time to think about it, it had given him considerable pleasure. The hardiness of his frame, too, he appraised with a sort of fascination. He had lost part of an eyebrow somewhere, and he still wore an elastic bandage on his knee, but he was too young not to realize that on the steamer many women had looked at him with unusual tributary interest.
His clothes, of course, were frightful. They had been made for him by a Greek tailor in Lima–in two days. He was young enough, too, to have explained this sartorial deficiency to Jonquil in his otherwise laconic note. The only further detail it contained was a request that he should not be met at the station.
George O’Kelly, of Cuzco, Peru, waited an hour and a half in the hotel, until, to be exact, the sun had reached a midway position in the sky. Then, freshly shaven and talcum-powdered toward a somewhat more Caucasian hue, for vanity at the last minute had overcome romance, he engaged a taxicab and set out for the house he knew so well.
He was breathing hard–he noticed this but he told himself that it was excitement, not emotion. He was here; she was not married–that was enough. He was not even sure what he had to say to her. But this was the moment of his life that he felt he could least easily have dispensed with. There was no triumph, after all, without a girl concerned, and if he did not lay his spoils at her feet he could at least hold them for a passing moment before her eyes.
The house loomed up suddenly beside him, and his first thought was that it had assumed a strange unreality. There was nothing changed–only everything was changed. It was smaller and it seemed shabbier than before–there was no cloud of magic hovering over its roof and issuing from the windows of the upper floor. He rang the door-bell and an unfamiliar colored maid appeared. Miss Jonquil would be down in a moment. He wet his lips nervously and walked into the sitting-room–and the feeling of unreality increased. After all, he saw, this was only a room, and not the enchanted chamber where he had passed those poignant hours. He sat in a chair, amazed to find it a chair, realizing that his imagination had distorted and colored all these simple familiar things.
Then the door opened and Jonquil came into the room–and it was as though everything in it suddenly blurred before his eyes. He had not remembered how beautiful she was, and he felt his face grow pale and his voice diminish to a poor sigh in his throat.
She was dressed in pale green, and a gold ribbon bound back her dark, straight hair like a crown. The familiar velvet eyes caught his as she came through the door, and a spasm of fright went through him at her beauty’s power of inflicting pain.
He said “Hello,” and they each took a few steps forward and shook hands. Then they sat in chairs quite far apart and gazed at each other across the room.
“You’ve come back,” she said, and he answered just as tritely: “I wanted to stop in and see you as I came through.”
He tried to neutralize the tremor in his voice by looking anywhere but at her face. The obligation to speak was on him, but, unless he immediately began to boast, it seemed that there was nothing to say. There had never been anything casual in their previous relations–it didn’t seem possible that people in this position would talk about the weather.
“This is ridiculous,” he broke out in sudden embarrassment. “I don’t know exactly what to do. Does my being here bother you?”
“No.” The answer was both reticent and impersonally sad. It depressed him.
“Are you engaged?” he demanded.
“Are you in love with some one?”
She shook her head.
“Oh.” He leaned back in his chair. Another subject seemed exhausted–the interview was not taking the course he had intended.
“Jonquil,” he began, this time on a softer key, “after all that’s happened between us, I wanted to come back and see you. Whatever I do in the future I’ll never love another girl as I’ve loved you.”
This was one of the speeches he had rehearsed. On the steamer it had seemed to have just the right note–a reference to the tenderness he would always feel for her combined with a non-committal attitude toward his present state of mind. Here with the past around him, beside him, growing minute by minute more heavy on the air, it seemed theatrical and stale.
She made no comment, sat without moving, her eyes fixed on him with an expression that might have meant everything or nothing.
“You don’t love me any more, do you?” he asked her in a level voice.
When Mrs. Cary came in a minute later, and spoke to him about his success–there had been a half-column about him in the local paper–he was a mixture of emotions. He knew now that he still wanted this girl, and he knew that the past sometimes comes back–that was all. For the rest he must be strong and watchful and he would see.
“And now,” Mrs. Cary was saying, “I want you two to go and see the lady who has the chrysanthemums. She particularly told me she wanted to see you because she’d read about you in the paper.”
They went to see the lady with the chrysanthemums. They walked along the street, and he recognized with a sort of excitement just how her shorter footsteps always fell in between his own. The lady turned out to be nice, and the chrysanthemums were enormous and extraordinarily beautiful. The lady’s gardens were full of them, white and pink and yellow, so that to be among them was a trip back into the heart of summer. There were two gardens full, and a gate between them; when they strolled toward the second garden the lady went first through the gate.
And then a curious thing happened. George stepped aside to let Jonquil pass, but instead of going through she stood still and stared at him for a minute. It was not so much the look, which was not a smile, as it was the moment of silence. They saw each other’s eyes, and both took a short, faintly accelerated breath, and then they went on into the second garden. That was all.
The afternoon waned. They thanked the lady and walked home slowly, thoughtfully, side by side. Through dinner too they were silent. George told Mr. Cary something of what had happened in South America, and managed to let it be known that everything would be plain sailing for him in the future.
Then dinner was over, and he and Jonquil were alone in the room which had seen the beginning of their love affair and the end. It seemed to him long ago and inexpressibly sad. On that sofa he had felt agony and grief such as he would never feel again. He would never be so weak or so tired and miserable and poor. Yet he knew that that boy of fifteen months before had had something, a trust, a warmth that was gone forever. The sensible thing–they had done the sensible thing. He had traded his first youth for strength and carved success out of despair. But with his youth, life had carried away the freshness of his love.
“You won’t marry me, will you?” he said quietly.
Jonquil shook her dark head.
“I’m never going to marry,” she answered.
“I’m going on to Washington in the morning,” he said.
“I have to go. I’ve got to be in New York by the first, and meanwhile I want to stop off in Washington.”
“No-o,” he said as if reluctantly. “There’s some one there I must see who was very kind to me when I was so–down and out.”
This was invented. There was no one in Washington for him to see–but he was watching Jonquil narrowly, and he was sure that she winced a little, that her eyes closed and then opened wide again.
“But before I go I want to tell you the things that happened to me since I saw you, and, as maybe we won’t meet again, I wonder if–if just this once you’d sit in my lap like you used to. I wouldn’t ask except since there’s no one else–yet–perhaps it doesn’t matter.”
She nodded, and in a moment was sitting in his lap as she had sat so often in that vanished spring. The feel of her head against his shoulder, of her familiar body, sent a shock of emotion over him. His arms holding her had a tendency to tighten around her, so he leaned back and began to talk thoughtfully into the air.
He told her of a despairing two weeks in New York which had terminated with an attractive if not very profitable job in a construction plant in Jersey City. When the Peru business had first presented itself it had not seemed an extraordinary opportunity. He was to be third assistant engineer on the expedition, but only ten of the American party, including eight rodmen and surveyors, had ever reached Cuzco. Ten days later the chief of the expedition was dead of yellow fever. That had been his chance, a chance for anybody but a fool, a marvellous chance–
“A chance for anybody but a fool?” she interrupted innocently.
“Even for a fool,” he continued. “It was wonderful. Well, I wired New York–”
“And so,” she interrupted again, “they wired that you ought to take a chance?”
“Ought to!” he exclaimed, still leaning back. “That I had to. There was no time to lose–”
“Not a minute?”
“Not a minute.”
“Not even time for–” she paused.
He bent his head forward suddenly, and she drew herself to him in the same moment, her lips half open like a flower.
“Yes,” he whispered into her lips. “There’s all the time in the world…”
All the time in the world–his life and hers. But for an instant as he kissed her he knew that though he search through eternity he could never recapture those lost April hours. He might press her close now till the muscles knotted on his arms–she was something desirable and rare that he had fought for and made his own–but never again an intangible whisper in the dusk, or on the breeze of night…
Well, let it pass, he thought; April is over, April is over. There are all kinds of love in the world, but never the same love twice.
“Sonya, how could you? How can you wear those short dresses covered with pea-green dots?”
“Sonya, have you said your prayers?”
“Sonya, how can you listen to those fascists?”
“Sonya, have you read Sholem Aleichem?”
“Sonya, what are you eating? That’s not kosher!”
“Bubbe, I like peas on me, not in me.”
“How long can this go on? I can’t stand it!”
“It’s Wagner, Bach! They weren’t fascists. It’s not their fault they were born Germans and not Jews.”
“He’s writing about love and I don’t know what that is yet. I don’t understand what he’s saying.”
“But Bubbe, it tastes so good!”
I — Sonya — and my grandmother— Gittel Yakovlevna— live in a communal apartment in Odessa. I’m 15 years old, taking drum lessons but Bubbe thinks they’re piano lessons. I have unusual blonde hair and blue eyes. In my passport it says “Jewish,” but in Odessa they think I’m the illegitimate daughter of a German who lived here more than a quarter century ago.
If it weren’t for the line in my passport, the Torah my grandmother gave me on my third birthday, the endless Sholem Aleichem on the bookshelves, attendance at the synagogue and the lighting of Sabbath candles, I’d think I was German, but the way things are — I don’t think I’m German.
There’s a boy in my class who is also Jewish. I can’t stand him. He’s constantly pouring sand in my backpack, lifting up my dress and eating my fruit jellies in the cafeteria. But when they call Senya Hebe — that’s his real last name — when they call him “Heebie Hebe,” I go fight for him. I can’t fight at all, but I go anyway since Bubbe says that the war against the fascists started just like that — some blockhead called a Jew a “Hebe,” but no one noticed or everyone pretended like they didn’t notice. I don’t want a war. I want to live. I want to go to dances. And wear perfume. I want to learn to walk in high heels. And to kiss, to kiss — I really want to learn how to kiss.
A week ago Masha Koloradova brought a quiz to class. You know the kind — a notebook with questions like: “Who is your favorite actor?” “What’s your favorite color?” “Who do you love?” She gave it to me to fill out, and one question was, “When did you have your first kiss?” I looked at the answers of the other girls, and they all wrote things like, “A long time ago!” “A year ago,” or “When I was 12.” But I hadn’t kissed anyone. Can you imagine? I hadn’t kissed anyone, and I was so ashamed! You can’t even imagine how ashamed I was. You know what’s strange about it? I don’t know how to make borscht or use the washing machine or speak English. I’m not ashamed about that. But I’ve never kissed anyone and I’m ashamed. Really ashamed.
So that I wouldn’t embarrass myself, I wrote “When I was 11.” So? Let them envy me. No one will ever know the truth anyway.
Bubbe says that you should only kiss the one you think you’ll spend your whole life with. “So if you think you’ll spend your whole life with Fedya, kiss him,” Bubbe said. Which Fedya she had in mind, I don’t know. In fact I don’t know anyone named Fedya, but I really want to kiss. What’s it like — kissing?
When I pray before I go to bed, I don’t recite those boring old prayers that Bubbe taught me. I just talk with God. I ask to meet the one I’ll spend my life really soon with so that I can kiss him. Even if Bubbe sees. It’s good that there’s God. Even if He doesn’t exist. But the thing is, no one knows for sure. Whoever has God will never be alone. If you have God, that means you have someone to talk to. You can even imagine that He answers you.
I don’t have friends. There are kids I hang out with. We go to the movies or to the beach in the summer. I’ve got friends that I talk about acne cream with, but I don’t have a true friend — a person I can tell everything to. I keep it all inside me. Bubbe says that I’m very anti-social. I am anti-social with some people to keep from hurting them. And with others to keep from being hurt. For now, I’ve got God, and that’s the way it’s going to be. I share my secrets with Him and only Him.
Our communal apartment has five rooms, one kitchen, three stoves, one toilet and an old shower that breaks all the time. The line for the toilet can only be compared to the line outside the shop around the corner in the morning when they deliver fresh bread. All of world literature can be found in our toilet, beginning with Hugo and ending with Dostoevsky. But our neighbors love Chekhov’s short stories most of all.
“The man didn’t write bricks like comrade Tolstoy. He wrote normal-sized little stones — you have your morning movement and are five pages better read,” Isaak Fishilevich said. He lives in the room across the hall from us. He is, by the way, a decorated veterinarian and humanist.
I have the worst luck — someone always wants to use the toilet when I do. If I go first, after five minutes someone starts knocking on the door. If I go after someone else, after someone else you could die of asphyxiation. Only Uncle Isaak, the humanist, is tactful. He holds it. He holds it in and waits. So you can imagine my surprise when I saw Uncle Isaak carrying “Mein Kampf” in his string bag a while back. He bought it at the flea market. But when I went into our crapper I saw little cut-up pieces of paper in place of toilet paper. That was “Mein Kampf.” The paper was rough, but I left with a sense of duty well done and the image of dozens of little scraps floating down the sewer. In the symbolic battle, fascism lay dead on the dung pile.
Bubbe is 78 years old. She still puts on lipstick, puts combs in her hair, and buys lacy bras. Not for men! For herself. Bubbe says that she still feels like a woman thanks to her foundation garments. Men adore her. Bubbe still smokes, even today — she uses a cigarette holder. In the evenings she goes to the park to play card games and dominos with the men. She has beautiful large eyes, gray hair and a bedroom voice. People who don’t know her think that when she was young she sang arias, had affairs, and walked around in furs and jewels. I don’t know if that’s true or not. Bubbe doesn’t tell me. She doesn’t tell anyone anything. Probably her best friend is God, too.
Bubbe always tells me, “Smile even when you feel bad! Better people should envy you than feel sorry for you.” I never talked about sex with Bubbe. I always thought that she didn’t even know the word. But yesterday she told me, “I won’t tell you anything about sex. When you have a husband, let him tell you and show you. And even if you know everything about sex before you meet your husband, don’t say a thing. Keep your mouth shut and listen to your husband! If you want a smart husband, you have to be a little fool.”
Bubbe is considered wise. But you ought to see her in the morning — when she’s looking for yesterday. That’s what she calls it. She flips through all her books and turns her clothes inside out searching for her pension money and glasses. Bubbe is losing her memory. One old lady from Odessa, when she saw grandmother go by, she whispered in that way that is always really loud, “Old prostitute!” and she hissed like a snake, you know? I always want to walk up to her and punch her big nose, but Bubbe stops me, turns to face her and says, “Musichka, darling, it’s not my fault that in fifty-six Lenya Utesov fell in love with my tush and not your bones.” The old snake hisses even more as we walk away with our heads proudly held high and our tushes swaying.
Men still look adoringly at my grandmother, but I’m not pretty. When she hears me say I’m not pretty, she tells me I’m stupid. “Not only am I not pretty, I’m stupid, too. I’ve got the whole package!” I tell her. Then Bubbe takes me by the hand over to the mirror. “Look at my big nose,” she says. I look and see that her nose is big. “Look at my eyes,” she tells me. I look and see that the left is bigger than the right one, or the right is smaller than the left. “Look at my lips.” I look and see that they are thin and wrinkled. Grandmother seats me in a chair and smiles, and then she begins to walk around the room. You should see her walk! She’s a goddess! She sits on the edge of a chair and lights a cigarette. Her fingers, her neck, an untidy hair across her face… Oh, gods! I don’t see her big nose, or notice that her eyes are different, or see her thin lips. Sometimes I think she isn’t getting old, she’s just maturing. She’s maturing beautifully. “A person is beautiful on the outside when they aren’t rotting on the inside,” Bubbe says. “You’re like wine — you get better with age. But I’m like meat — I spoil the older I get,” I tell her.
It was autumn. It was raining. Yellow leaves stuck to my boots and didn’t want to let them go. I was sad, really sad for the first time. Like when it’s empty inside and you want to howl. I both wanted to hide and for someone to hug me without asking any questions. I wanted to be silent and scream at the same time. I headed for the sea. I got to the shore. I took off my boots and began to walk along the sand. I got a razor out of my pocket (I took it from home, special), took off my coat, and rolled up the sleeves of my chiffon blouse. Veins. My green veins. You could see them so easily. In a movie once I saw a razor gliding beautifully through veins. Like a knife through soft butter. I lowered the razor. One more centimeter and it would slide through butter.
The neighbor’s boy ran into our courtyard and rang the doorbell to our apartment. Our bright room, Bubbe putting on lipstick. “Do you know what happened? Did you see what your Sonya did,” Dima asked. “Gittel! Gittel! Did you see? Did you see Sonya? We warned you, didn’t we? We told you she could get up to anything,” our neighbor said. All our neighbors ran into our room and asked Bubbe the same questions, but no one dared to say what happened. They were afraid. Bubbe got up, walked up to the window and saw me. Sonya! Her Sonya! Holding a bouquet of yellow flowers with a shaved head. She started to laugh so hard that she could only say, “Well, maybe now my Sonya will start to wear a hat.”
That was the first debilitating depression. The first time I left home. With a razor. The first time I brought Bubbe flowers for no reason. The first time a razor came so close to my veins. Like in a movie.
But I’m afraid of pain.
I want to live. I want to go to dances. I want to wear perfume. I want to learn how to walk in heels. And to kiss — I really want to learn how to kiss.
I didn’t tell anyone what I wanted to do to myself. Only He and I knew about it. Later I was so ashamed before Him and Bubbe. And the stray dog Velvet, who I feed. If I didn’t feed her she might die. When winter came, I felt fine.
I love winter. In winter everything’s more straight-forward. Women don’t bare their legs and shoulders. Men don’t have to look at naked women’s bodies or shout vulgar things after high heels. All that’s left are eyes — sad, playful, varied — and desires, all cloaked by garments and God, who lives inside everyone. I love a lot of clothing on me and chicken is more expensive in the winter, so we don’t buy it often. And that’s good! In the summer chicken is cheaper, and Bubbe can’t cook anything but chicken and chicken cutlets. It’s chicken morning, noon and night. That poor, poor bird. And poor, poor Sonya. The bird and I are unhappy for the same reason: because I eat it.
Yesterday my favorite ballet troupe came to Odessa. Bubbe doesn’t like them. She says that before they go on stage they take or sniff something. But I sat in the upper balcony and wept, and then laughed, and then wept again. I want to live my life on stage to that music, with those people, in that dance. But I have to go to synagogue. Today is Friday and almost the Sabbath.
Bubbe sat like usual with her cigarette holder and barely smiled. My hair had grown out to a buzz-cut, and for some reason everyone thought that I’d had lice and had my head shaved. That’s why parents didn’t let their children get close to me. Bubbe thought this was hysterical. Lately only two things made her laugh: Mikhail Katsman’s courtship and my buzz-cut.
I love to go to synagogue. And I love to go to church, too. And to mosques.
But those people who call themselves the servants of God…
They act as if God Himself personally offered His friendship them, and even His protection to some people. Their crossword puzzles in cassocks. Their faces on the television. Their bank accounts. Their memorized, empty words that they try to fill other people’s ears and souls with. In vain. Sometimes I turn into a fly and buzz into their rooms when they’re alone. With my little paws I close their ears so that they don’t hear; I close their eyes so that they do not see. Shameful. I’m ashamed of them. And I go back to sinners. I feel better with them. I think it’s because God doesn’t live on their tongues. He is hidden deep down, so that they can cherish Him.
Yesterday Senya Hebe didn’t come to school. The teacher said he was sick. I sent him a bouquet of flowers. I always send flowers to people when they’re sick. No one has ever sent me flowers. But that’s just because I’m never sick.
A week ago Bubbe’s admirer came over — Uncle Misha, or rather Mikhail Katsman. He called me over quietly, so that Bubbe wouldn’t hear. “Sonya, what does your grandmother dream of?” Uncle Misha asked. I thought about it. She doesn’t really care much for Uncle Misha — she’s still head-over-heels in love with Utesov — so I said: “She’s dreams of a black typewriter.”
That very day the doorbell rang. It was a box — not for us but for Bubbe. A gift from Mikhail Katsman. She was puzzled and so I had to tell her everything.
Bubbe? What is it, Bubbe?
She shouted. There was a row. For the nth time she reminded me that I was cheeky, snotty and would go far. And when I left the room and she thought I couldn’t hear her, she burst out laughing.
Bubbe wants me to be a doctor, but I’m going to be a writer. The problem is, Bubbe says, that with the way I look now, only the circus school would take me. And even then we’d have to bribe my way in. Not long ago Uncle Misha sent Bubbe tulips. Where did he get them in the winter? Mikhail Katsman has a job in the government, and he’s 80 years old. He has always dreamed of being repatriated to Israel and living on the shores of the Red Sea with my grandmother.
I think Bubbe is falling in love. Yesterday she bought herself a new bra with roses on it and Guerlain perfume. She even went on a diet. And that old hag Musichka painted under our windows: “Gittel is a tramp.” Uncle Misha spent half a day scrubbing off the inscription. Bubbe sat by the window and watched him as he sent air kisses into our window. To her.
Humph. Either spring is in the air or I’ll have to go to synagogue and arrange with the Rabbi for a wedding soon.
Now Bubbe is Katsman. Gittel Yakovlevna Katsman. Tomorrow the newlyweds are going on their honeymoon to Israel. And Uncle Misha is prepared to put up with chicken morning, noon, and night.
And then for some reason flowers have been delivered to our room lately. Well, not to us, but to me. And on little cards there is something about love. I don’t know what love is yet. I don’t understand what he’s writing. It’s Senya Hebe who’s writing. I wrote about it in a letter to Bubbe in Israel. “What can I say, Sonya? If you take that last name on top of your personality, you’re sure to go far. And when you become a writer, you won’t have to worry about thinking up a pen name,” Bubbe replied.
Bubbe and Uncle Misha kiss all day long — so that means what they have is for eternity. Meanwhile, Senya and I like to sit on the shore of the Black Sea and get close to eternity. Yesterday I wrote my first short story about my favorite old lady, and Senya really liked it. Basically Senya likes everything about me. The only thing is that I can’t cook. Or rather, I can, but like Bubbe: it’s chicken morning, noon, and night.
Katherine Farquhar was a handsome woman of forty, no longer slim, but attractive in her soft, full, feminine way. The French porters ran round her, getting a voluptuous pleasure from merely carrying her bags. And she gave them ridiculously high tips, because, in the first place, she had never really known the value of money, and secondly, she had a morbid fear of underpaying anyone, but particularly a man who was eager to serve her.
It was really a joke to her, how eagerly these Frenchmen—all sorts of Frenchmen—ran round her and Madamed her. Their voluptuous obsequiousness. Because, after all, she was Boche. Fifteen years of marriage to an Englishman—or rather to two Englishmen—had not altered her racially. Daughter of a German Baron she was, and remained, in her own mind and body, although England had become her life-home. And surely she looked German, with her fresh complexion and her strong, full figure. But like most people in the world, she was a mixture, with Russian blood and French blood also in her veins. And she had lived in one country and another, till she was somewhat indifferent to her surroundings. So that perhaps the Parisian men might be excused for running round her so eagerly, and getting a voluptuous pleasure from calling a taxi for her, or giving up a place in the omnibus to her, or carrying her bags, or holding the menu card before her. Nevertheless, it amused her. And she had to confess she liked them, these Parisians. They had their own kind of manliness, even if it wasn’t an English sort; and if a woman looked pleasant and soft-fleshed, and a wee bit helpless, they were ardent and generous. Katherine understood so well that Frenchmen were rude to the dry, hard-seeming, competent Englishwoman or American. She sympathized with the Frenchman’s point of view: too much obvious capacity to help herself is a disagreeable trait in a woman.
At the Gare de l’Est, of course, everybody was expected to be Boche, and it was almost a convention, with the porters, to assume a certain small-boyish superciliousness. Nevertheless, there was the same voluptuous scramble to escort Katherine Farquhar to her seat in the first-class carriage. Madame was travelling alone.
She was going to Germany via Strasburg, meeting her sister in Baden-Baden. Philip, her husband, was in Germany collecting some sort of evidence for his newspaper. Katherine felt a little weary of newspapers, and of the sort of “evidence” that is extracted out of nowhere to feed them. However, Philip was quite clever, he was a little somebody in the world.
Her world, she had realized, consisted almost entirely of little somebodies. She was outside the sphere of the nobodies, always had been. And the Somebodies with a capital S, were all safely dead. She knew enough of the world to-day to know that it is not going to put up with any great Somebody: but many little nobodies and a sufficient number of little somebodies. Which, after all, is as it should be, she felt.
Sometimes she had vague misgivings.
Paris, for example, with its Louvre and its Luxembourg and its cathedral, seemed intended for Somebody. In a ghostly way it called for some supreme Somebody. But all its little men, nobodies and somebodies, were as sparrows twittering for crumbs, and dropping their little droppings on the palace cornices.
To Katherine, Paris brought back again her first husband, Alan Anstruther, that red-haired fighting Celt, father of her two grown-up children. Alan had had a weird innate conviction that he was beyond ordinary judgment. Katherine could never quite see where it came in. Son of a Scottish baronet, and captain in a Highland regiment did not seem to her stupendous. As for Alan himself, he was handsome in uniform, with his kilt swinging and his blue eye glaring. Even stark naked and without any trimmings, he had a bony, dauntless, overbearing manliness of his own. The one thing Katherine could not quite appreciate was his silent, indomitable assumption that he was actually firstborn, a born lord. He was a clever man too, ready to assume that General This or Colonel That might really be his superior. Until he actually came into contact with General This or Colonel That. Whereupon his overweening blue eye arched in his bony face, and a faint tinge of contempt infused itself into his homage.
Lordly or not, he wasn’t much of a success in the worldly sense. Katherine had loved him, and he had loved her: that was indisputable. But when it came to innate conviction of lordliness, it was a question which of them was worse. For she, in her amiable, queen-bee self thought that ultimately hers was the right to the last homage.
Alan had been too unyielding and haughty to say much. But sometimes he would stand and look at her in silent rage, wonder, and indignation. The wondering indignation had been almost too much for her. What did the man think he was?
He was one of the hard, clever Scotsmen, with a philosophic tendency, but without sentimentality. His contempt of Nietzsche, whom she adored, was intolerable. Alan just asserted himself like a pillar of rock, and expected the tides of the modern world to recede around him. They didn’t.
So he concerned himself with astronomy, gazing through a telescope and watching the worlds beyond worlds. Which seemed to give him relief.
After ten years, they had ceased to live together, passionate as they both were. They were too proud and unforgiving to yield to one another, and much too haughty to yield to any outsider.
Alan had a friend, Philip, also a Scotsman, and a university friend. Philip, trained for the bar, had gone into journalism, and had made himself a name. He was a little black Highlander, of the insidious sort, clever, and knowing. This look of knowing in his dark eyes, and the feeling of secrecy that went with his dark little body, made him interesting to women. Another thing he could do was to give off a great sense of warmth and offering, like a dog when it loves you. He seemed to be able to do this at will. And Katherine, after feeling cool about him and rather despising him for years, at last fell under the spell of the dark, insidious fellow.
“You!” she said to Alan, whose overweening masterfulness drove her wild. “You don’t even know that a woman exists. And that’s where Philip Farquhar is more than you are. He does know something of what a woman is.”
“Bah! the little——” said Alan, using an obscene word of contempt.
Nevertheless, the friendship endured, kept up by Philip, who had an almost uncanny love for Alan. Alan was mostly indifferent. But he was used to Philip, and habit meant a great deal to him.
“Alan really is an amazing man!” Philip would say to Katherine. “He is the only real man, what I call a real man, that I have ever met.”
“But why is he the only real man?” she asked. “Don’t you call yourself a real man?”
“Oh, I—I’m different! My strength lies in giving in—and then recovering myself. I do let myself be swept away. But so far, I’ve always managed to get myself back again. Alan—” and Philip even had a half-reverential, half-envious way of uttering the word—”Alan never lets himself be swept away. And he’s the only man I know who doesn’t.”
“Yah!” she said. “He is fooled by plenty of things. You can fool him through his vanity.”
“No,” said Philip. “Never altogether. You can’t deceive him right through. When a thing really touches Alan, it is tested once and for all. You know if it’s false or not. He’s the only man I ever met who can’t help being real.”
“Ha! You overrate his reality,” said Katherine, rather scornfully.
And later, when Alan shrugged his shoulders with that mere indifferent tolerance, at the mention of Philip, she got angry.
“You are a poor friend,” she said.
“Friend!” he answered. “I never was Farquhar’s friend! If he asserts that he’s mine, that’s his side of the question. I never positively cared for the man. He’s too much over the wrong side of the border for me.”
“Then,” she answered, “you’ve no business to let him consider he is your friend. You’ve no right to let him think so much of you. You should tell him you don’t like him.”
“I’ve told him a dozen times. He seems to enjoy it. It seems part of his game.”
And he went away to his astronomy.
Came the war, and the departure of Alan’s regiment for France.
“There!” he said. “Now you have to pay the penalty of having married a soldier. You find him fighting your own people. So it is.”
She was too much struck by this blow even to weep.
“Good-bye!” he said, kissing her gently, lingeringly. After all, he had been a husband to her.
And as he looked back at her, with the gentle, protective husband-knowledge in his blue eyes, and at the same time that other quiet realization of destiny, her consciousness fluttered into incoherence. She only wanted to alter everything, to alter the past, to alter all the flow of history—the terrible flow of history. Secretly somewhere inside herself she felt that with her queen-bee love, and queen-bee will, she could divert the whole flow of history—nay, even reverse it.
But in the remote, realizing look that lay at the back of his eyes, back of all his changeless husband-care, she saw that it could never be so. That the whole of her womanly, motherly concentration could never put back the great flow of human destiny. That, as he said, only the cold strength of a man, accepting the destiny of destruction, could see the human flow through the chaos and beyond to a new outlet. But the chaos first, and the long rage of destruction.
For an instant her will broke. Almost her soul seemed broken. And then he was gone. And as soon as he was gone she recovered the core of her assurance.
Philip was a great consolation to her. He asserted that the war was monstrous, that it should never have been, and that men should refuse to consider it as anything but a colossal, disgraceful accident.
She, in her German soul, knew that it was no accident. It was inevitable, and even necessary. But Philip’s attitude soothed her enormously, restored her to herself.
Alan never came back. In the spring of 1915 he was missing. She had never mourned for him. She had never really considered him dead. In a certain sense she had triumphed. The queen-bee had recovered her sway, as queen of the earth; the woman, the mother, the female with the ear of corn in her hand, as against the man with the sword.
Philip had gone through the war as a journalist, always throwing his weight on the side of humanity, and human truth and peace. He had been an inexpressible consolation. And in 1921 she had married him.
The thread of fate might be spun, it might even be measured out, but the hand of Lachesis had been stayed from cutting it through.
At first it was wonderfully pleasant and restful and voluptuous, especially for a woman of thirty-eight, to be married to Philip. Katherine felt he caressed her senses, and soothed her, and gave her what she wanted.
Then, gradually, a curious sense of degradation started in her spirit. She felt unsure, uncertain. It was almost like having a disease. Life became dull and unreal to her, as it had never been before. She did not even struggle and suffer. In the numbness of her flesh she could feel no reactions. Everything was turning into mud.
Then again, she would recover, and enjoy herself wonderfully. And after a while, the suffocating sense of nullity and degradation once more. Why, why, why did she feel degraded, in her secret soul? Never, of course, outwardly.
The memory of Alan came back into her. She still thought of him and his relentlessness with an arrested heart, but without the angry hostility she used to feel. A little awe of him, of his memory, stole back into her spirit. She resisted it. She was not used to feeling awe.
She realized, however, the difference between being married to a soldier, a ceaseless born fighter, a sword not to be sheathed, and this other man, this cunning civilian, this subtle equivocator, this adjuster of the scales of truth.
Philip was cleverer than she was. He set her up, the queen-bee, the mother, the woman, the female judgment, and he served her with subtle, cunning homage. He put the scales, the balance in her hand. But also, cunningly, he blindfolded her, and manipulated the scales when she was sightless.
Dimly she realized all this. But only dimly, confusedly, because she was blindfolded. Philip had the subtle, fawning power that could keep her always blindfolded.
Sometimes she gasped and gasped from her oppressed lungs. And sometimes the bony, hard, masterful, but honest face of Alan would come back, and suddenly it would seem to her that she was all right again, that the strange, voluptuous suffocation, which left her soul in mud, was gone, and she could breathe air of the open heavens once more. Even fighting air.
It came to her on the boat crossing the Channel. Suddenly she seemed to feel Alan at her side again, as if Philip had never existed. As if Philip had never meant anything more to her than the shop-assistant measuring off her orders. And, escaping, as it were, by herself across the cold, wintry Channel, she suddenly deluded herself into feeling as if Philip had never existed, only Alan had ever been her husband. He was her husband still. And she was going to meet him.
This gave her her blitheness in Paris, and made the Frenchman so nice to her. For the Latins love to feel a woman is really enveloped in the spell of some man. Beyond all race is the problem of man and woman.
Katherine now sat dimly, vaguely excited and almost happy in the railway-carriage on the Est railroad. It was like the old days when she was going home to Germany. Or even more like the old days when she was coming back to Alan. Because, in the past, when he was her husband, feel as she might towards him, she could never get over the sensation that the wheels of the railway-carriage had wings, when they were taking her back to him. Even when she knew that he was going to be awful to her, hard and relentless and destructive, still the motion went on wings.
Whereas towards Philip she moved with a strange, disintegrating reluctance. She decided not to think of him.
As she looked unseeing out of the carriage window, suddenly, with a jolt, the wintry landscape realized itself in her consciousness. The flat, grey, wintry landscape, ploughed fields of greyish earth that looked as if they were compound of the clay of dead men. Pallid, stark, thin trees stood like wire beside straight, abstract roads. A ruined farm between a few more wire trees. And a dismal village filed past, with smashed houses like rotten teeth between the straight rows of the village street.
With sudden horror she realized that she must be in the Marne country, the ghastly Marne country, century after century digging the corpses of frustrated men into its soil. The border country, where the Latin races and the Germanic neutralize one another into horrid ash.
Perhaps even the corpse of her own man among that grey clay.
It was too much for her. She sat ashy herself with horror, wanting to escape.
“If I had only known,” she said. “If only I had known, I would have gone by Basle.”
The train drew up at Soissons; name ghastly to her. She simply tried to make herself unreceptive to everything. And mercifully luncheon was served, she went down to the restaurant car, and sat opposite to a little French officer in horizon-blue uniform, who suggested anything but war. He looked so naïve, rather childlike and nice, with the certain innocence that so many French people preserve under their so-called wickedness, that she felt really relieved. He bowed to her with an odd, shy little bow when she returned him his half-bottle of red wine, which had slowly jigged its way the length of the table, owing to the motion of the train. How nice he was! And how he would give himself to a woman, if she would only find real pleasure in the male that he was.
Nevertheless, she herself felt very remote from this business of male and female, and giving and taking.
After luncheon, in the heat of the train and the flush of her half-bottle of white wine, she went to sleep again, her feet grilling uncomfortably on the iron plate of the carriage floor. And as she slept, life, as she had known it, seemed all to turn artificial to her, the sunshine of the world an artificial light, with smoke above, like the light of torches, and things artificially growing, in a night that was lit up artificially with such intensity that it gave the illusion of day. It had been an illusion, her life-day, as a ballroom evening is an illusion. Her love and her emotions, her very panic of love, had been an illusion. She realized how love had become panic-stricken inside her, during the war.
And now even this panic of love was an illusion. She had run to Philip to be saved. And now, both her panic-love and Philip’s salvation were an illusion.
What remained then? Even panic-stricken love, the intensest thing, perhaps, she had ever felt, was only an illusion. What was left? The grey shadows of death?
When she looked out again it was growing dark, and they were at Nancy. She used to know this country as a girl. At half-past seven she was in Strasburg, where she must stay the night as there was no train over the Rhine till morning.
The porter, a blond, hefty fellow, addressed her at once in Alsatian German. He insisted on escorting her safely to her hotel—a German hotel—keeping guard over her like an appointed sentinel, very faithful and competent, so different from Frenchmen.
It was a cold, wintry night, but she wanted to go out after dinner to see the minster. She remembered it all so well, in that other life.
The wind blew icily in the street. The town seemed empty, as if its spirit had left it. The few squat, hefty foot-passengers were all talking the harsh Alsatian German. Shop-signs were in French, often with a little concession to German underneath. And the shops were full of goods, glutted with goods from the once-German factories of Mulhausen and other cities.
She crossed the night-dark river, where the washhouses of the washerwomen were anchored along the stream, a few odd women still kneeling over the water’s edge, in the dim electric light, rinsing their clothes in the grim, cold water. In the big square the icy wind was blowing, and the place seemed a desert. A city once more conquered.
After all she could not remember her way to the cathedral. She saw a French policeman in his blue cape and peaked cap, looking a lonely, vulnerable, silky specimen in this harsh Alsatian city. Crossing over to him she asked him in French where was the cathedral.
He pointed out to her, the first turning on the left. He did not seem hostile: nobody seemed really hostile. Only the great frozen weariness of winter in a conquered city, on a weary everlasting border-line.
And the Frenchmen seemed far more weary, and also, more sensitive than the crude Alsatians.
She remembered the little street, the old, overhanging houses with black timbers and high gables. And like a great ghost, a reddish flush in its darkness, the uncanny cathedral breasting the oncomer, standing gigantic, looking down in darkness out of darkness, on the pigmy humanness of the city. It was built of reddish stone, that had a flush in the night, like dark flesh. And vast, an incomprehensibly tall, strange thing, it looked down out of the night. The great rose window, poised high, seemed like the breast of the vast Thing, and prisms and needles of stone shot up, as if it were plumage, dimly, half-visible in heaven.
There it was, in the upper darkness of the ponderous winter night, like a menace. She remembered, her spirit used in the past to soar aloft with it. But now, looming with a faint rust of blood out of the upper black heavens, the Thing stood suspended, looking down with vast, demonish menace, calm and implacable.
Mystery and dim, ancient fear came over the woman’s soul. The cathedral looked so strange and demonish-heathen. And an ancient, indomitable blood seemed to stir in it. It stood there like some vast silent beast with teeth of stone, waiting, and wondering when to stoop against this pallid humanity.
And dimly she realized that behind all the ashy pallor and sulphur of our civilization, lurks the great blood-creature waiting, implacable and eternal, ready at last to crush our white brittleness and let the shadowy blood move erect once more, in a new implacable pride and strength. Even out of the lower heavens looms the great blood-dusky Thing, blotting out the Cross it was supposed to exalt.
The scroll of the night sky seemed to roll back, showing a huge, blood-dusky presence looming enormous, stooping, looking down, awaiting its moment.
As she turned to go away, to move away from the closed wings of the minster, she noticed a man standing on the pavement, in the direction of the post-office, which functions obscurely in the Cathedral Square. Immediately, she knew that that man, standing dark and motionless, was Alan. He was alone, motionless, remote.
He did not move towards her. She hesitated, then went in his direction, as if going to the post-office. He stood perfectly motionless, and her heart died as she drew near. Then, as she passed, he turned suddenly, looking down on her.
It was he, though she could hardly see his face, it was so dark, with a dusky glow in the shadow.
“Alan!” she said.
He did not speak, but laid his hand detainingly on her arm, as he used in the early days, with strange silent authority. And turning her with a faint pressure on her arm, he went along with her, leisurely, through the main street of the city, under the arcade where the shops were still lighted up.
She glanced at his face: it seemed much more dusky, and duskily ruddy, than she had known him. He was a stranger: and yet it was he, no other. He said nothing at all. But that was also in keeping. His mouth was closed, his watchful eyes seemed changeless, and there was a shadow of silence around him, impenetrable, but not cold. Rather aloof and gentle, like the silence that surrounds a wild animal.
She knew that she was walking with his spirit. But that even did not trouble her. It seemed natural. And there came over her again the feeling she had forgotten, the restful, thoughtless pleasure of a woman who moves in the aura of the man to whom she belongs. As a young woman she had had this unremarkable, yet very precious feeling, when she was with her husband. It had been a full contentment; and perhaps the fullness of it had made her unconscious of it. Later, it seemed to her she had almost wilfully destroyed it, this soft flow of contentment which she, a woman, had from him as a man.
Now, afterwards, she realized it. And as she walked at his side through the conquered city, she realized that it was the one enduring thing a woman can have, the intangible soft flood of contentment that carries her along at the side of the man she is married to. It is her perfection and her highest attainment.
Now, in the afterwards, she knew it. Now the strife was gone. And dimly she wondered why, why, why she had ever fought against it. No matter what the man does or is, as a person, if a woman can move at his side in this dim, full flood of contentment, she has the highest of him, and her scratching efforts at getting more than this, are her ignominious efforts at self-nullity.
Now, she knew it, and she submitted. Now that she was walking with a man who came from the halls of death, to her, for her relief. The strong, silent kindliness of him towards her, even now, was able to wipe out the ashy, nervous horror of the world from her body. She went at his side still and released, like one newly unbound, walking in the dimness of her own contentment.
At the bridge-head he came to a standstill, and drew his hand from her arm. She knew he was going to leave her. But he looked at her from under his peaked cap, darkly but kindly, and he waved his hand with a slight, kindly gesture of farewell and of promise, as if in the farewell he promised never to leave her, never to let the kindliness go out in his heart, to let it stay hers always.
She hurried over the bridge with tears running down her cheeks, and on to her hotel. Hastily she climbed to her room. And as she undressed, she avoided the sight of her own face in the mirror. She must not rupture the spell of his presence.
Now, in the afterwards she realized how careful she must be, not to break the mystery that enveloped her. Now that she knew he had come back to her from the dead, she was aware how precious and how fragile the coming was. He had come back with his heart dark and kind, wanting her even in the afterwards. And not in any sense must she go against him. The warm, powerful, silent ghost had come back to her. It was he. She must not even try to think about him definitely, not to realize him or to understand. Only in her own woman’s soul could she silently ponder him, darkly, and know him present in her, without ever staring at him or trying to find him out. Once she tried to lay hands on him, to have him, to realize him, he would be gone for ever, and gone for ever this last precious flood of her woman’s peace.
“Ah, no!” she said to herself. “If he leaves his peace with me, I must ask no questions whatsoever.”
And she repented, silently, of the way she had questioned and demanded answers, in the past. What were the answers, when she had got them? Terrible ash in the mouth.
She now knew the supreme modern terror, of a world all ashy and nerve-dead. If a man could come back out of death to save her from this, she would not ask questions of him, but be humble, and beyond tears grateful.
In the morning, she went out into the icy wind, under the grey sky, to see if he would be there again. Not that she needed him: his presence was still about her. But he might be waiting.
The town was stony and cold. The people looked pale, chilled through, and doomed in some way. Very far from her they were. She felt a sort of pity for them, but knew she could do nothing, nothing in time or eternity. And they looked at her, and looked quickly away again, as if they were uneasy in themselves.
The cathedral reared its great reddish-grey façade in the stark light; but it did not loom as in the night. The cathedral square was hard and cold. Inside, the church was cold and repellent, in spite of the glow of stained glass. And he was nowhere to be found.
So she hastened away to her hotel and to the station, to catch the 10.30 train into Germany.
It was a lonely, dismal train, with a few forlorn souls waiting to cross the Rhine. Her Alsatian porter looked after her with the same dogged care as before. She got into the first-class carriage that was going through to Prague—she was the only passenger travelling first. A real French porter, in blouse and moustache, and swagger, tried to say something a bit jeering to her, in his few words of German. But she only looked at him, and he subsided. He didn’t really want to be rude. There was a certain hopelessness even about that.
The train crept slowly, disheartened, out of town. She saw the weird humped-up creature of the cathedral in the distance, pointing its one finger above the city. Why, oh, why, had the old Germanic races put it there, like that!
Slowly the country disintegrated into the Rhine flats and marshes, the canals, the willow trees, the overflow streams, the wet places frozen but not flooded. Weary the place all seemed. And old Father Rhine flowing in greenish volume, implacable, separating the races now weary of race struggle, but locked in the toils as in the coils of a great snake, unable to escape. Cold, full, green, and utterly disheartening the river came along under the wintry sky, passing beneath the bridge of iron.
There was a long wait in Kehl, where the German officials and the French observed a numb, dreary kind of neutrality. Passport and customs examination was soon over. But the train waited and waited, as if unable to get away from that one point of pure negation, where the two races neutralized one another, and no polarity was felt, no life—no principle dominated.
Katherine Farquhar just sat still, in the suspended silence of her husband’s return. She heeded neither French nor German, spoke one language or the other at need, hardly knowing. She waited, while the hot train steamed and hissed, arrested at the perfect neutral point of the new border line, just across the Rhine.
And at last a little sun came out, and the train silently drew away, nervously, from the neutrality.
In the great flat field, of the Rhine plain, the shallow flood water was frozen, the furrows ran straight towards nowhere, the air seemed frozen too, but the earth felt strong and barbaric, it seemed to vibrate, with its straight furrows, in a deep, savage undertone. There was the frozen, savage thrill in the air also, something wild and unsubdued, pre-Roman.
This part of the Rhine valley, even on the right bank in Germany, was occupied by the French; hence the curious vacancy, the suspense, as if no men lived there, but some spirit was watching, watching over the vast, empty, straight-furrowed fields and the water-meadows. Stillness, emptiness, suspense, and a sense of something still impending.
A long wait in the station of Appenweier, on the main line of the Right-bank Railway. The station was empty. Katherine remembered its excited, thrilling bustle in pre-war days.
“Yes,” said the German guard to the station-master. “What do they hurry us out of Strasburg for, if they are only going to keep us so long here?”
The heavy Badisch German! The sense of resentful impotence in the Germans! Katherine smiled to herself. She realized that here the train left the occupied territory.
At last they set off, northwards, free for the moment, in Germany. It was the land beyond the Rhine, Germany of the pine forests. The very earth seemed strong and unsubdued, bristling with a few reeds and bushes, like savage hair. There was the same silence, and waiting, and the old barbaric undertone of the white-skinned north, under the waning civilization. The audible overtone of our civilization seemed to be wearing thin, the old, low, pine-forest hum and roar of the ancient north seemed to be sounding through. At least, in Katherine’s inner ear.
And there were the ponderous hills of the Black Forest, heaped and waiting sullenly, as if guarding the inner Germany. Black round hills, black with forest, save where white snow-patches of field had been cut out. Black and white, waiting there in the near distance, in sullen guard.
She knew the country so well. But not in this present mood, the emptiness, the sullenness, the heavy, recoiled waiting.
Steinbach! Then she was nearly there! She would have to change in Oos, for Baden-Baden, her destination. Probably Philip would be there to meet her in Oos; he would have come down from Heidelberg.
Yes, there he was! And at once she thought he looked ill, yellowish. His figure hollow and defeated.
“Aren’t you well?” she asked, as she stepped out of the train on to the empty station.
“I’m so frightfully cold,” he said. “I can’t get warm.”
“And the train was so hot,” she said.
At last a porter came to carry her bags across to the little connecting train.
“How are you?” he said, looking at her with a certain pinched look in his face, and fear in his eyes.
“All right! It all feels very queer,” she said.
“I don’t know how it is,” he said, “but Germany freezes my inside, and does something to my chest.”
“We needn’t stay long,” she said easily.
He was watching the bright look in her face. And she was thinking how queer and chétif he looked! Extraordinary! As she looked at him she felt for the first time, with curious clarity, that it was humiliating to be married to him, even in name. She was humiliated even by the fact that her name was Katherine Farquhar. Yet she used to think it a nice name!
“Just think of me married to that little man!” she thought to herself. “Think of my having his name!”
It didn’t fit. She thought of her own name: Katherine von Todtnau; or of her married name: Katherine Anstruther. The first seemed most fitting. But the second was her second nature. The third, Katherine Farquhar, wasn’t her at all.
“Have you seen Marianne?” she asked.
He was very brief. What was the matter with him?
“You’ll have to be careful, with your cold,” she said politely.
“I am careful!” he cried petulantly.
Marianne, her sister, was at the station, and in two minutes they were rattling away in German and laughing and crying and exploding with laughter again, Philip quite ignored. In these days of frozen economy, there was no taxi. A porter would wheel up the luggage on a trolley, the new arrivals walked to their little hotel, through the half-deserted town.
“But the little one is quite nice!” said Marianne deprecatingly.
“Isn’t he!” cried Katherine in the same tone.
And both sisters stood still and laughed in the middle of the street. “The little one” was Philip.
“The other was more a man,” said Marianne. “But I’m sure this one is easier. The little one! Yes, he should be easier,” and she laughed in her mocking way.
“The stand-up-mannikin!” said Katherine, referring to those little toy men weighted at the base with lead, that always stand up again.
“Yes! Yes!” cried Marianne. “I’m sure he always comes up again! Prumm!” She made a gesture of knocking him over. “And there he rises once more!” She slowly raised her hand, as if the mannikin were elevating himself.
The two sisters stood in the street laughing consumedly.
Marianne also had lost her husband in the war. But she seemed only more reckless and ruthless.
“Ah, Katy!” she said, after dinner. “You are always such a good child! But you are different. Harder! No, you are not the same good Katy, the same kind Katy. You are no longer kind.”
“And you?” said Katy.
“Ah, me! I don’t matter. I watch what the end will be.”
Marianne was six years older than Katherine, and she had now ceased to struggle for anything at all. She was a woman who had lived her life. So at last, life seemed endlessly quaint and amusing to her. She accepted everything, wondering over the powerful primitiveness of it all, at the root-pulse.
“I don’t care any more at all what people do or don’t do,” she said. “Life is a great big tree, and the dead leaves fall. But very wonderful is the pulse in the roots! So strong, and so pitiless.”
It was as if she found a final relief in the radical pitilessness of the Tree of Life.
Philip was very unhappy in this atmosphere. At the core of him a Scotch sentimentalist, he had calculated, very cannily, that the emotional, sentimental values would hold good as long as he lived, which was long enough for him. The old male pride and power were doomed. They had finally fallen in the war. Alan with them. But the emotional, sentimental values still held good.
Only not here in Germany. Here the very emotions had become exhausted. “Give us pitilessness. Give us the Tree of Life in winter, dehumanized and ruthless.” So everything seemed to say. And it was too much for him.
He wanted to be soft and sweet and loving, at evening, to Katherine. But there came Marianne’s hollow, reckless laugh at the door; he was frustrated. And—
“Ach! Is it possible that anybody forty years old should still be in love? Ach! I had thought it impossible any more; after the war! Even a little indecent, shall I say!” laughed Marianne, seeing the frustrated languishing look on his face.
“If love isn’t left, what is?” he said petulantly.
“Ach! I don’t know! Really I don’t. Can’t you tell me?” she asked with a weird naïveté of the afterwards.
He gathered himself together, the little stand-up-mannikin, waiting till Marianne was gone and he could be softly alone with Katherine.
When the two were alone he said:
“I’m most frightfully glad you’ve come, Kathy. I could hardly have held out another day without you. I feel you’re the only thing on earth that remains real.”
“You don’t seem very real to me,” she said.
“I’m not real! I’m not!—not when I’m alone. But when I am with you I am the most real man alive. I know it!”
He asserted this with vehemence and a weird, personal sort of passion that used to thrill her, but now repelled her.
“Why should you need me?” she said. “I am real without you.”
She was thinking of Alan.
This was a blow to Philip. He considered for a moment. Then he said:
“Yes. You are! You are always real. But that’s because you are a woman. A man without a woman can’t be real.”
He twisted his face and shook his hand with a sort of false vehemence.
She looked at him, was repelled. After all, Alan could wander alone in the lonely places of the dead, and still be the ultimate real thing, to her.
She had given her allegiance elsewhere. Strange, how unspeakably cold she felt towards this little equivocal civilian.
“Don’t let us talk to-night,” she said. “I am so sleepy. I want to go to sleep this very minute. You don’t mind, do you? Good-night!”
She went to her room, with the green glazed stove. Outside she could see the trees of Seufzer Allee, and the intense winter night. Curiously dark and wolfish the nights came on, with the little town obscurely lighted, for economy’s sake, and no tramcars running, for economy’s sake, and the whole place, strangely, slipping back from our civilization, people moving in the dark like in a barbarian village, with the thrill of fear and menace in the wolfish air.
She slept soundly, none the less. But the raw air scraped her chest.
In the morning Philip was looking yellower, and coughing a good deal. She urged him to stay in bed. She wanted, really, to be free of him. And she also wanted him to be safe, too. He insisted, however, on staying about.
She could tell he had something on his mind. At last it came out.
“Do you dream much here?” he said.
“I think I did dream,” she said. “But I can’t remember what about.”
“I dream terribly,” he said.
“What sort of dreams?”
“All sorts!” He gave a rueful laugh. “But nearly always about Alan.” He glanced at her quickly to see how she took it. She gave no sign.
“And what about him?” she said calmly.
“Oh!—” he gave a desperate little gesture. “Why last night I dreamed that I woke up, and someone was lying on my bed, outside the bedclothes. I thought at first it was you, so I wanted to speak to you. But I couldn’t. Then I knew it was Alan, lying there in the cold. And he was terribly heavy. He was so heavy I couldn’t move, because the bed-clothes—you know I don’t have that bolster thing—they were so tight on me, I could hardly breathe, they were like tight lead round me. It was so awful, they were like a lead coffin-shell. And he was lying outside with that terrible weight. When I woke at last, I thought I was dead.”
“It’s because you’ve got a cold on your chest,” she said. “Why won’t you stay in bed and see a doctor?”
“I don’t want a doctor,” he said.
“You’re so obstinate! At least you should drink the waters here. They’d be good for you.”
During the day she walked in the woods with Marianne. It was sunny, and there was thin snow. But the cold in the air was heavy, stormy, unbreakable, and the woods seemed black, black. In a hollow open space, like a bowl, were little tortured bare vines. Never had she seen the pale vine-stocks look so tortured. And the black trees seemed to grow out of unutterably cold depths, and they seemed to be drinking away what warmth of life there was, while the vines in the clearing writhed with cold as leaves writhe in a fire.
After sunset, before dinner-time, she wanted to go to drink the hot waters from the spring at the big bath-hall under the New Castle. Philip insisted on going with her, though she urged him to stay indoors. They went down the dark hill and between the dark buildings of reddish stone, like the stone of Strasburg Cathedral.
At the obscure fountain in the alcove of the courtyard a little group of people were waiting, dark and silent, like dark spirits round a source of steam. Some had come to drink. Some had come for a pail of hot water. Some had come merely to warm their fingers and get something hot inside them. Some had come furtively, with hot-water bottles, to warm their icy beds a little. Everybody was bed-rock poor and silent, but well-clad, respectable, unbeaten.
Katherine and Philip waited a while. Then, in a far corner of the dark rocky grotto, where the fountain of hot water came out of the wall, Katherine saw Alan standing. He was standing as if waiting his turn to drink, behind the other people. Philip apparently did not see him.
She pressed forward in the silent sombre group of people, and held her glass under the tap, above the pail which a man was filling. The hot water ran over her fingers gratefully. She rinsed her glass down the fountain bowl.
“Na!” said the man of the pail, in his rough, but reckless, good-humoured Badisch: “Throw it in the bucket. It’s only wash-water.”
She laughed, and lifted her pocket-glass to drink. It was something of an ordeal among the group of silent people there in the almost dark. There was a feeble lamp outside in the courtyard; inside the grotto was deep shadow.
Nevertheless, Alan was watching her, and she drank to him, in the hot, queer, hellish-tasting water. She drank a second small glassful. Then she filled the glass again, in front of all the waiting people and handed it to Philip.
She did not look at Alan, but away in the courtyard, where more people were approaching, and where the steam of the springs rose from the grating in the ground, ghostly on the night air.
Philip drew back a little to drink. But at the first mouthful he choked, and began to cough. He coughed and coughed, in a convulsed spasm as if choking. She went to him anxiously. And then she saw that Alan also had come forward, and stood beside her, behind the coughing little Philip.
“What is it?” she said to the coughing man. “Did some of the water go the wrong way?”
He shook his head, but could not answer. At length, exhausted, but quiet, he handed her the glass, and they moved away from the silent group of watchful dark people.
And Alan was walking on her other side holding her hand.
When they came into the hall of the hotel she saw with horror that there was a red smear of blood on Philip’s chin, and red blotches on his overcoat.
“What have you done?” she cried.
He looked down at his breast, then up at her with haunted eyes. Fear, an agony and a horror of fear in his face. He went ghastly pale. Thinking he would swoon, she put her arm round him. But she felt someone silently but firmly, and with strange, cold power, pulling her arm away. She knew it was Alan.
The hotel porter helped Philip up to his room, and she assisted her husband to undress and get to bed. But each time her hand touched the sick man’s body, to sustain him, she felt it drawn silently, coldly, powerfully away, with complete relentlessness.
The doctor came and made his examination. He said it was not serious: only the rupture of a superficial blood-vessel. The patient must lie quite still and warm, and take light food. Avoid all excitement or agitation.
Philip’s face had a haunted, martyred, guilty look. She soothed him as much as possible, but dared hardly touch him.
“Won’t you sleep with me to-night, in case I dream?” he said to her, with big, excruciating eyes full of fear.
“You’ll be better alone,” she said softly. “You’ll be better alone. I’ll tuck you up warm, and sit with you a while. Keep yourself all covered up!”
She tucked him close, and sat by the bed. On the other side of the bed sat Alan, bare-headed, with his silent, expressionless, reddish face. The closed line of his lips, under the small reddish moustache, never changed, and he kept his eyelids half lowered. But there was a wonderful changeless dignity in his pose, as if he could sit thus, silent, and waiting, through the centuries. And through the warm air of the room he radiated this strange, stony coldness, that seemed heavy as the hand of death. It did not hurt Katherine. But Philip’s face seemed chilled and bluish.
Katherine went to her room, when the sick man slept. Alan did not follow her. And she did not question. It was for the two men to work out destiny between them.
In the night, towards morning she heard a hoarse, horrible cry. She ran to Philip’s room. He was sitting up in bed, blood running down his chin, his face livid, and his eyes rolling delirious.
“What is it?” she said in panic.
“He lay on top of me!” cried Philip, rolling his eyes inwards in horror. “He lay on top of me, and turned my heart cold and burst my blood-vessel in my chest.”
Katherine stood petrified. There was blood all over the sheets. She rang the bell violently. Across the bed stood Alan, looking at her with his unmoving blue eyes, just watching her. She could feel the strange stone-coldness of his presence touching even her heart. And she looked back at him humbly, she knew he had power over her too. That strange, cold, stony touch on her heart.
The servants came, and the doctor. And Alan went away. Philip was washed and changed, and went peacefully to sleep, looking like a corpse.
The day passed slowly. Alan did not appear. Even now, Katherine wanted him to come. Awful though he was, she wanted him to be there, to give her her surety, even though it was only the surety of dread; and her contentment, though it were the contentment of death.
At night she had a sofa-bed brought for her into Philip’s room. He seemed quieter, better. She had not left him all day. And Alan had not appeared. At half-past nine, Philip sleeping quietly, she too lay down to sleep.
She woke in the night feeling the same stone-coldness in the air. Had the stove gone out? Then she heard Philip’s whispering call of terror: “Katherine! Katherine!” She went over quickly, and slipped into his bed, putting her arms round him. He was shuddering, and stony cold. She drew him to her.
But immediately two hands cold and strong as iron seized her arms and pulled them away. She was pushed out of the bed, and pushed on to the floor of the bedroom. For an instant, the rage came into her heart, she wanted to get up and fight for the dying man. But a greater power, the knowledge of the uselessness and the fatal dishonourableness of her womanly interference made her desist. She lay for a time helpless and powerless on the floor, in her nightdress.
Then she felt herself lifted. In the dimness of coming dawn, she knew it was Alan. She could see the breast of his uniform—the old uniform she had known long before the war. And his face bending over her, cool and fresh.
He was still cold. But the stoniness had gone out of him, she did not mind his coldness. He pressed her firm hand hard to his own hard body. He was hard and cold like a tree, and alive. And the prickling of his moustache was the cold prickling of fir-needles.
He held her fast and hard, and seemed to possess her through every pore of her body. Not now the old, procreative way of possession. He held her fast, and possessed her through every pore in her body. Then he laid her in her own bed, to sleep.
When she awoke, the sun was shining, and Philip lay dead in a pool of blood.
Somehow she did not mind. She was only thinking of Alan. After all, she belonged to the man who could keep her. To the only man who knew how to keep her, and could only possess her through all the pores of her body, so that there was no recoil from him. Not just through one act, one function holding her. But as a cloud holds a shower.
The men that were just functional men: let them pass and perish. She wanted her contentment like life itself, through every pore, through every bit of her. The man who could hold her as the wind held her, as the air held her, all surrounded. The man whose aura permeated into every vein, through all her pores, as the scent of a pine-tree when one stands beneath it. A man, not like a faun or a satyr or an angel or a demon, but like the Tree of Life itself, implacable and unquestionable and permeating, voiceless, abiding.
In the afternoon she went to walk by herself. She climbed uphill, steep, past the New Castle, and up through the pine-woods, climbing upwards to the Old Castle. There it stood, among dense trees, its old, rose-red stone walls broken and silent. Two men, queer, wild ruffians with bundles on their backs, stood in the broken, roofless hall, looking round.
“Yes,” the elder one, with the round beard, was saying, “There are no more Dukes of Baden, and counts and barons and peers of the realm are as much in ruin as this place. Soon we shall be all alike, Lumpen, tramps.”
“Also no more ladies,” said the younger one, in a lower voice. “Every tramp can have his lady.”
Katherine heard him, with a pang of fear. Knowing the castle, she climbed the stairs and round the balustrade above the great hall, looking out far over the country. The sun was sinking. The Rhine was a dim magnesium ribbon, away on the plain. Across was the Russian Chapel; below, on the left, the town, and the Lichtenthal. No more gamblers, no more cosmopolitan play. Evening and the dark round hills going lonely, snow on the Merkur hill.
Mercury! Hermes! The messenger! Even as she thought it, standing there on the wall, Alan came along and stood beside her, and she felt at ease. The two men down below were looking up at her. They watched in silence, not knowing the way up. They were in the cold shadow of the hall below. A little, lingering sun, reddish, caught her where she was, above.
Again, for the last time, she looked over the land: the sun sinking below the Rhine, the hills of Germany this side, and the frozen stillness of the winter afternoon. “Yes, let us go,” she heard the elder man’s voice. “We are hardly men or women any more. We are more like the men and women who have drunk in this hall, living after our day.”
“Only we eat and smile still, and the men want the women still.”
“No! No! A man forgets his trouser-lining when he sees the ghost and the woman together.”
The two tramps turned and departed, heavy-shod, up the hill.
Katherine felt Alan’s touch on her arm, and she climbed down from the old, broken castle. He led her through the woods, past the red rocks. The sun had sunk, the trees were blue. He lingered again under a great pine-tree, in the shadow. And again, as he pressed her fast, and pressed his cold face against her, it was as if the wood of the tree itself were growing round her, the hard, live wood compressing and almost devouring her, the sharp needles brushing her face, the limbs of the living tree enveloping her, crushing her in the last, final ecstasy of submission, squeezing from her the last drop of her passion, like the cold, white berries of the mistletoe on the Tree of Life.
When I pulled Teresa’s postcard from the mailbox it was three in the afternoon. I didn’t read it at first, just glanced at it quickly as I stepped into the house, the card still clutched in my free hand. I tossed the little bag I was carrying onto the table in the center of the sitting room and went straight into the bath. The day was unusually warm. As I do on such days, I turned on the cold water and began to fill the tub. Rapidly stripping off my clothes, I slipped into the water while it was still running – after first laying my wristwatch and the post card next to the magazines and letters that cluttered the little chair that I left within easy reach.
I scrubbed my head for a moment, then shook it, spraying water over the papers nearby. I grabbed a towel and dried my dripping hand, then picked up Teresa’s card with shaking fingers. I saw a picture of an old tavern, with antique style wood furnishings and blue tables. Among them stood a handsome, dark skinned man. Strands of white lent a magical air to his wispy hair. “Hemingway Bar in Havana,” it said in Spanish on the back of the card. Also on the back, Teresa had faintly scrawled a message in a style a bit like Hemingway’s own: “Roamer of worlds and words – you sailor on terra firma – don’t be surprised by this card. I was going to send it from Havana but suddenly went to Madrid. Expect me at 7:00 on 16 June at the station near the Cafe Regreso. Wear a white suit and shoes and a Panama hat. My heart is still your home.” She added a postscript, “I hope you’ve forgotten the war. But you’re right-which war?” Nor did she forget to append a joke as well. “No doubt this card will reach you the same day I do.”
She knows that my life is nothing but a string of strange coincidences. At any rate, I had only four hours to get to the station where I’d be meeting Teresa. Yet those four hours, which on a normal day would go by in a flash, today seemed like an unbearable torment. I couldn’t believe that she was coming after all this time. I surely needed more than four hours to grasp the idea that we’d be seeing each other again. Of course, I could have just torn up the card, or acted like I’d never received it. But how could I face the way she looked at me when she opened the door and found me here?
I’d known Teresa for five years, since my first visit to Madrid, before my recent transfer to Lisbon. We’d loved each other violently, and hated each other with the same intensity. We’d broken up with each other at least five times, but come back to each other with the same ardor as before, to resume our quarrels with renewed passion. And when I say that we broke up often, I don’t mean the kind of breakups that last a night or two, that we all experience hundreds of times in our love stories, but the sort of separations that last a long time. Which is what happened the last time. I didn’t throw out her things, or put them out of sight, but kept them as they were, just the way she left them – her clothes in the bedroom closet, her beauty aids in the bathroom: a collection by Yves Saint Laurent; perfume by Cartier Must, Coco Chanel, and Paloma Picasso; a bottle of Body Shop shampoo with Brazil nut and honey; containers of white liquid soap scented with musk and essence of plums. On the bathroom windowsill stood the milky white lotion that she used to massage into her body, that after accidentally breaking its original container I wound up keeping in an empty can of Nescafe. I can still remember her laughter when she saw what I’d done with the lotion on the day before she left. I caught her inspecting it, turning it end over end in her hand, and when she noticed me watching her she giggled, saying that she would leave me the stuff so I could use it myself.
Seven months, two weeks, and three days had passed since. that afternoon when – hearing the doorbell ring – she left the house with her little bag. At that moment I stuck my head out the window and saw a strange man waiting for her downstairs. I followed her as she went outside, without her noticing, until she reached the port. There she strode arm-in-arm with the man toward a waiting steamer, over which flew a Cuban flag.
I felt no jealousy. I wasn’t angry that she’d left with another man. Rather, despite my pain at what had happened between us, and not because I am a “modern, liberal” man but because of my sympathy for the sailors of the world, I had made peace with myself, in a way.
Why not? You are the cause, I told myself, and despite your bragging – in your early days with her – about being a “sailor on terra firma,” only travel competes with your love for her. She was the one who was willing to give up her job as a journalist, though haunted by the love of departure. She was the creature for which you were searching, so you could wander with her to perdition over the face of this. globe, while both of you made your country wherever your feet trod the ground. Except that you yourself, since the day you met her, have stayed where you were. In Madrid you were making up excuses, saying, “If only this city were on the sea, I would voyage every day.” Once she asked, “Where would you like to live?” And you answered, “In Lisbon.” “Why?” Teresa wondered. So you told her, quoting a verse by Rafael Al-berti, who had referred to Rome instead, “Lisbon is a danger to wanderers.” Then you followed with, “I love harbors, the way I love Basra.” She didn’t commit herself at the time, but after twenty four days had passed, she asked you to pack your bags and go to Lisbon. She’d asked the newspaper for which she worked to transfer her there, though she hadn’t told you about it. So you went to Lisbon together. Three months and ten days later, she showed you that you had lied, that you didn’t really move the way you did before. “Maybe you’ve aged,” she said. When you denied it, this time by making an excuse about the “ruins of Basra” for after Basra, it’s hard for you to love any harbor – she remarked, “Then it’s war that still paralyzes you?” War? Which war did she mean? The first? The second? Or the third that might yet happen? Or is it the war that rages perpetually there? Perhaps I wouldn’t have thought about what she said too seriously if she hadn’t run off with the Cuban seaman.
Seven months, two weeks, and three days later and I’m thinking about my situation. I’m trying to organize my life without her. Of course, I’ve endured a lot of pain. More than once I’ve wept over her departure. I have thought that her absence would last forever. All during our relationship her desire to cross the Atlantic never abated. Many times she told me about her grandparents, who lived in the Andalusian city of Cadiz before they made their way to Cuba. She was a child in those days, and her mother would show her photos of her family that had moved to “La Habana” after the Spanish Civil War. Her mother later joined them, leaving behind her father, who hated nothing in life more than travel. Twenty five years had gone by since he asked her, “Why did she leave Cadiz for Havana?”
Since her childhood she had dreamed of going to Cuba herself. “What about you?” she asked me. “Yes, we’ll go together,” I told her. “But be careful,” I cautioned, “for no sooner will I fly there than I’ll come back here.” So she wondered, “What is it that binds you to this part of the earth?” When I failed to speak, she answered for me, “I know, you’ll say, Basra. But now there’s no such place as Basra: now there’s only the war.” The war, the war-but which war? Teresa isn’t the first one to say this to me, while I too think that I’m haunted by the war. More than five years and I hadn’t tired of recounting the war’s events to her. No matter the occasion, whether we were sitting in front of the television, or seeing soldiers in the city, or even listening to tapes of music – everything reminded me of the war.
From her side, Teresa forgot none of this, for she described it in a letter she wrote to me before going away – despite the fact that we were living together at the time. The letter was stuck in a sheaf of her old missives, along with some from my brother and sister and friends, which I’d put – as I’ve always done – close to my bath to pull one or more of them out each time I filled the tub. (She hated this habit and told me, “I’m not surprised that you haven’t forgotten the war, for is there one of these letters that doesn’t talk about it, or its miseries?”)
She didn’t know that I put her letters there, too, perhaps because I used to deliberately shove them to the bottom of the pile. I tell you, that letter, which I was reading for the twentieth time, reminded me of all these details. Particularly that I insisted on listening to the music of Boney M (“The Imbeciles,” as Teresa called them), along with “Waltzing Matilda” by Tom Waits (because of my friend Mulhem’s love for it, and which I have liked since the first war, and still do-but which war?).
Even my friends’ complaints about it reminded me of it. “All he cares about is the war,” they’d say, “like a curse that never ceases pursuing him.” She hadn’t forgotten the story of the white suit, the white shoes, and the Panama hat that the tavern owner Matilda had given me as a gift before I left Basra.
In those days, when Teresa heard I’d lost it, she surprised me by buying a white suit and Panama hat and white shoes during one of our trips to Florence. (Yet what would I say to her if she saw me sitting among you, wearing the Caribbean clothes once again, but without the white shoes?)
That day she asked, as she handed me the suit, “Do you know why Matilda gave you this outfit?”
“What do you mean?” I replied defiantly.
“You don’t understand, my dear, that it’s to drag you out of the hell of the war,” she laughed.
“What is the war to me now?” I demanded.
“Enough of this curse that stalks you,” she swore.
The war, the war – but which war? How much have I longed for liberation from it, and to forget the day that it broke out. Yet it seems that destiny has been pursuing me, from the moment I left my country until today. The letters that have come to me through those years are heavy with all that has happened because of it.
The war – how long since it ignited? Fifteen years, nine months, and two days? Or five years, eleven months, three weeks, and three days? Or has it been all our lives? Didn’t it break out when you or I came into the world, in that country which now not only seems so far away on the map but also because of what is happening to it, and what is happening to us, hundreds of light years distant? That country, which I am not the first to forget nor the only one to not think of at all, except for the war.
Teresa used to say to me, “The war is between you and that country!” Not an inappropriate observation, but one that offered me scant consolation. And now, as I tell this story to you, I try to remember other things from it – for example, my friends, my childhood haunts, my first love, my first sexual experience, my first drink – but it’s all futile. All that comes to me is the war. Even if sometimes I succeed in chasing it away, it weighs upon me like the plagues of Egypt, hurtling down upon me like the curse of Yahweh, like the rains of revenge with which He pulverized offending cities at the dawn of the world.
That afternoon in Lisbon, after I finished my bath, and with a headache that had overwhelmed me for hours on end, I decided to put paid to the war completely. I threw away the tape by Boney M and the one with “Waltzing Matilda” on it and put on the white Caribbean suit with the Panama hat. Unfortunately, the shoes were black – in the chaos of my house, I couldn’t find the white ones. Yet I fulfilled Teresa’s wish.
On that midday, I also realized that I loved this woman to the point of worship. My pride would not avail me; my life would be made no easier by giving her up, or even by forgetting her. Never mind that she left me or went out with whichever man she wanted, I still loved her. I’d do whatever she wanted me to do.
Strange how we go around and around; we meet a lot of women, until we get to know one in particular – one who will be the center of the world. No matter who she is or what she does; no matter the wars, both declared and undeclared, that raged between us, there’s only her – and salaam, that’s it. Did I say “salaam“? Was Teresa the alternative to war? Was she peace? I don’t know.
Rather than that question, there were others demanding answers in my head as I drove my car toward the Lisbon train station. I didn’t even notice the distance between my house and Rua dos Douradores until I entered the underground garage at the station. I paid no attention to the time until I came to the platform and the great clock loomed before me: 6: 10 P. M. I still had a lot of time, then – so I went to the newspaper kiosk and bought the Arabic daily Al-Hayat, plus the Spanish paper, El Pais, and the Portuguese paper, Publico, and the Italian one, La Repubblica, and the German Sud-deutsche Zeitung, the British Guardian, and the New York Times. (This is what I normally do when I travel by train or wait in a cafe, to get a kick out of people’s curiosity when they see me reading all those languages!) Then I walked over to the big cafe at the station, the Regreso, where she’d asked me to wait for her at 7:00.
Truly happy I was, and sure that I would surprise Teresa with the white suit and Panama hat, and with the decision that I’d arrived at in my bath that day. I’d tell her that we’d move to the Spanish countryside, or maybe to Tuscany, or, if she wanted, to Paraguay, and raise cattle there. And there we’d live together, forever. I wouldn’t ask her about the Cuban sailor, or about her other men either. Rather, I would just love her more, and I’d forget the war absolutely. And we would have children.
As far as I can recall, it was on a Sunday in summer, on 16 June 1996, to be exact. I was cutting through the station to the Cafe Regreso nearby. After I had scanned the newspapers and tucked them under my arm, I heard someone calling out in Spanish, “Campos, Campos!”
At first I thought that the young man, decked out in a naval uniform, was addressing someone else. Yet when I saw him approach me, then throw his arms around me, I was sure he’d meant me.
“Campos, you obstinate man, how is my Doppelganger doing?” he said.
After I’d broken free of his grip and taken a step back, I realized that we indeed did look alike. Yet I told him, “I’d like you to look me over carefully, and perhaps you’ll realize that you’re overdoing it – for I’m from Basra.”
But he laughed and slapped me on the shoulder. “Strange that you’ve abandoned your dreams – you were always dreaming of Sinbad and Basra.”
I said nothing, but smiled and shrugged my shoulders.
Why not, I thought. I still have fifty minutes ahead of me, and it’s a beautiful story.
I remembered that, since we must make up a story when writing one, then why not do the same when telling one? So I’m inventing the tale as I go along, in order to tell the truth, more or less.
I felt an old longing for the sailor’s uniform I had worn for six months in the late Seventies, when I worked as an interpreter for two East German admirals at the naval base in Basra. Those were my golden days in the service. The married woman who lived next to my grandfather’s house would wait for me with passion, and she would insist that I wear sailor’s clothes whenever we met.
And I still remember, when my employment at the athletic department in the navy ended, and I transferred to al-Mahawil Base near Babylon, how an officer in the artillery battery to which I was assigned screamed at me, “Get rid of those woman’s clothes, you jerk!”
Not satisfied with that, he punished me by making me march up and down the length of the parade ground as he shouted in my ear, “I’m going to show you the real meaning of ‘military,’ and then how we’re going to liberate Palestine!”
“Tell me,” I started to say, when he jumped in.
“Alejandro.” He told me his name before I could ask, as we sat in the Regreso.
“Alejandro, tell me,” I began again, “is the naval service as hated among the other military branches in your country as well?”
He laughed as he pulled two cigarettes out of a pack, offering me one, which I took – despite the fact that I’d quit smoking a long time ago.
“Hombre,” he said, “your favorite Cuban brand.”
“Campos,” he asked as he lit it for me, “how did you forget that?” Then he added as he blew out smoke, “Don’t you remember the infantry officer, Zein al-Abidin, who made us stand in the sun for two days in Buenos Aires when we were coming back on the double?”
“Coming back?” I blurted. “Alejandro, where were we coming back from?”
His face tightened as he looked at me searchingly, then he called to the waiter to bring us two cappuccinos.
“You were always very smart, Campos, always playing different parts,” he said. “Now the deaf man, now the blind man, now the dumb man. How I envy you.”
He paused for a moment to watch my reaction. Then he resumed talking, only this time without looking at me, just inspecting his cigarette that was more than half smoked.
“You’re the guy with the glib, cultured tongue,” Alejandro upbraided me, “who didn’t say anything, not a word, to the officer who punished us in the barracks at Buenos Aires. He abused us because we belonged to the navy – he believed that the naval forces had betrayed the army during the Falklands War, because they had British training.”
I said nothing. The waiter brought us our cappuccinos. Draining his cup completely in one gulp, Alejandro stopped the waiter to ask for another. Then he tossed the stub of his cigarette on the floor.
“You used to say that we had it coming,” he went on, “because we had been there, even though you knew we weren’t in the fighting.”
Pushing my cup toward him, I told him that I’d wait for the one that was coming.
Alejandro took a big swallow. “I used to ask you who was right – us or the English? And you always had the clever answer.”
He stopped again and took another draught. He lit another cigarette, then switched voices.
“I know that if the English are routed,” he imitated me, “the rule of the generals will go on.”
Halting, he added, “Despite the fact that you didn’t back the British.”
The waiter arrived with the third cappuccino, and I began to sip it calmly. We sat together like this for nearly forty minutes. I don’t remember how many cigarettes we smoked or cups of cappuccino we drank, one after the other. Alejandro told story after story about life over there, in the Falklands. I didn’t try to interrupt or contradict him.
And why should I? The young man recited his story with a totally confident demeanor, though I was perplexed by what he was saying. The important thing, of course, wasn’t whether I was convinced by what he said but whether I was convinced by the way he was saying it. I could have stopped him and waved my identity card in front of him, but how could I persuade him of my German nationality when I’d told him in the beginning that I was born in Basra? And when I’d spoken to the waiter in Portuguese? And how could I explain my proficiency in Spanish (though he’d consider my failure to speak with him in his Argentine dialect as being linked to my flight from that country a shrewd attempt on my part to disguise my identity)?
But what is logic to a man who tells a story the way he does (isn’t it possible to make up the tale as we go along? For Alejandro didn’t conjure the past merely in its details) until I felt I’d been with him then myself, as well as in the present. I asked him what he was doing in Lisbon, and he told me about their steamer coming from Argentina. They were on a quick trip to exchange military experience.
“I didn’t go with the others,” he said. “There was something calling out to me, saying, ‘Campos, your double that you lost after the war in Buenos Aires was not killed but escaped to seek harbor in the ports of our Lord.’ The voice said he was the only one who escaped our fate – which is either to be buried, or imprisoned, or exiled.”
Should I have thought the same way as my friend Mulhem, the POW? At the time, I seriously thought – however absurdly – of objecting to what Alejandro was saying.
“Do you see, my friend, Sinbad doesn’t die,” Alejandro said, his mouth stretched in a grin. “I see you as you always describe yourself, a sailor on terra firma.”
After this sentence came out of his mouth, carrying the sound of that beautiful Latin phrase, he added, while pointing at my white suit and Panama, “You’re a Caribbean man – the only thing you lack is a lady dolphin!”
“A lady what?” I asked.
“Don’t you remember the story that the woman who owned the bar told us, about the men from the Amazon in the city of Macondo?”
When I remained silent, he went on. ‘”When a group of these men sees some female dolphins playing,’ she said, ‘they carry them to the land, play with them, then sleep with them the whole night long.'”
Alejandro giggled, winking his eyes. “You know that they grant you a special power.”
His hand didn’t cease playing with the brim of his sailor’s hat, while the smile never left his lips. “And you – where’s your dolphin?” he taunted.
“She left with a Cuban seaman,” I told him. “Do you know that you look just like him?”
He laughed as he asked me, “You won’t forget, naturally.”
I shook my head.
“Amazing,” he exclaimed. “There’s a lot of truth in what you say. We go around and around and around and always wind up with one woman. It doesn’t matter who she is or what she does to us.”
Agreeing, I queried him, “What do you think is the cure then?”
Alejandro looked at me for a long while, until I felt that everything had come to a halt: the beating of my heart, the hubbub of the cafe’s patrons, the smoke wafting in the air.
“Only death will free you from her,” he declared.
“But I don’t feel like dying,” I retorted.
He crushed perhaps his tenth cigarette beneath his foot. “I know this is why you slipped out of the war,” said Alejandro. Then he went quiet for a moment.
“Do you have any dolphin oil?” he asked me suddenly.
“What kind of oil?” I asked, astonished again.
“Campos,” he answered, “you have forgotten a lot in these last years. Didn’t you tell me the story of your trip to the city of Macondo?”
When I didn’t react, he launched in excitedly, “Who but you would wander around the military sites when we were entombed in our trenches there and would tell us one story after another – your stories were like manna from heaven in that hell.”
In that instant it seemed I was once again inspired, and I found myself saying to him, “Do you mean that evening when I landed on the outskirts of the town of Macondo?”
“Yes,” he said eagerly, and then again, as if he didn’t believe it himself, “yes, yes.”
Before opening my mouth again, I consumed the cold, thick dregs of my cappuccino and said, “In the evening, just before sunset, I was meandering down by the river, at the edge of Macondo. The long tables of the smugglers groaned with all the scarcest goods from every comer of the earth: musk oil from the Himalayas, carpets from Samarkand, perfumed soaps by Vichy of Paris, Royal Lavender body lotion from London, clotted cream from Dublin, wild-beast hides from Marrakesh, bottles of tequila from Mexico with small serpents inside, rare birds from the Amazon, ful beans grown by the blacks of the Sudan, little wooden drums from Basra, and aromatic water from Suq al-Shuyukh in southern Iraq.
“In a corner of the market I met a woman selling herbs that cure boils on the skin and tree roots that cleanse the body. Behind pyramids of leaves there were rows of bottles of Johnnie Walker filled with a milky white liquid. I asked her what this was: she explained that it was the ‘essence of female dolphins’ tears.’
“‘If you take some drops of it and put them in your eyes, and rub them on your face and your hands,’ she promised, ‘then the person who loves you will never, ever leave you!'”
At this point, Alejandro stopped me.
“Did you buy a bottle of this stuff?” he drilled me, evidently forgetting that he had just told me he already knew the story. But we both knew that every time we tell a tale, its course always changes.
“Naturally, I tried it,” I assured him, “and it was a wonderful time. There wasn’t a single woman I failed to attract like a magnet-until I met Teresa, for whom I had been looking for a very long time. I didn’t want to spend just a fleeting moment with her – I wanted to spend eternity with her.”
Here I paused, and he waited quietly for me to resume. He seemed drugged by what I was telling him. Slowly. I picked up the thread again.
“My bad luck was that during my absence she began to use the oil on herself, even though I’d hidden it in an empty can of Nescafe. The next day, a strange man appeared at the door. Soon another man appeared, and then another, until one rang the bell and called for Teresa by name. Quickly she came down with her bag without even saying goodbye to me. I followed them to the port – and the man was a Cuban sailor!”
Lighting another cigarette, Alejandro offered me one, but I refused it.
“What are your plans now?” he wanted to know.
“I’ll try to persuade her to come back and live with me in the country,” I said. “I’m sick of the city, and besides, I want to have children with her – it’s better to have them out there.”
“You don’t have to go to the country to have children,” he retorted. “They spring up like weeds wherever you are – even in heaps of garbage. How could you get her back?”
Neither of us spoke for a while, as though we both accepted the way the story ended. Just as one knows that all stories must have an ending, and must end the same way that they began. One part of each story is hollow and turns around and around on itself, until we wind up sitting there not knowing who is telling it. Is it really us, or a voice from inside ourselves? Or is the tale telling us? Roles are swapped in the recounting, and then who is setting a trap for whom? The reality is that we – Alejandro and I – had both forgotten our current business for a while. Thus I forgot simultaneously about my newspapers and the time, and entered into a conversation with him as though we were making up the story ourselves, and living it ourselves, alone.
“What about you, Alejandro?” This time, it was me asking him about his future. “Haven’t you thought about deserting from the army yourself?”
His face brightened, as though he had been waiting for me to ask this question.
“Of course I have,” he said, “and because of this book that I was always telling you about.”
He wasn’t satisfied when I nodded my head, pretending to understand what he meant.
“I want to write a book on Existentialism and the military – but a curse on the army,” he continued. “I just can’t escape. I have four children – they popped up like weeds.”
I was truly saddened. I didn’t know what to say. We both fell silent, and my mind wandered for a long time. An image of myself in naval uniform floated before my eyes. Was it fate that had sent Alejandro to make me long once again to wear those clothes? Were not all the years that I lived through during the war – with all its fire – nor all the time that had passed while I dwelt in these new cities, nor all the women I had known – not even the return of Teresa – able to change what destiny had decreed for me? Nothing, that is, but the appearance of this Argentine man, from out of those wars in distant lands? So many questions rained down upon my head, I was no longer really there – until his voice brought me back.
“What do you want to do now?” he demanded.
I stared at him in confusion, as one waking from a long sleep. I looked up at the big clock that hung over the station platform that I could see from my seat. I saw him smiling as he watched me.
Without warning, I found myself asking, “Alejandro, you know my fondness for sailor suits?”
He nodded. “And you love the Caribbean,” I went on, “and you want to get out of the military, as well I know.”
There was no doubt that he agreed with me; he nodded his head again.
“So what do you think if we traded clothes?”
He gaped at me in shock. “Now?” he stuttered.
“Yes, now,” I said as I stood up. Alejandro wanted to take out his wallet and pay the bill, but I told him not to do it, because we would be coming back. I knew where the WC was, and when I started to walk toward it, he followed me.
Entering two adjoining stalls, we handed each other our clothes over the low concrete wall between them. “You go out before me,” I told him as we were leaving. “I’ll catch up with you.”
“Campos,” he declared, “your genius cannot be stilled.” Then I heard him close the door behind him and climb the stairs that led to the cafe.
Two minutes later, I followed him. When I reached the top of the stairs, I remembered that I had left my identity card and cash in my suit pockets. But I didn’t go to Alejandro, who had returned to the place where we’d been sitting. Instead, I made for the rear door, facing the WC, so that he wouldn’t see me. In seconds I reached the station’s platform.
Glancing up at the huge dial over, head, I saw that the time was exactly 7:00 P.M. Yet there was no need to consult it. The brakes of Teresa’s train as it pulled to a stop screeched in my ears, and I turned away and marched to the station’s exit.
That very singular man old Dr. Heidegger once invited four venerable friends to meet him in his study. There were three white-bearded gentlemen—Mr. Medbourne, Colonel Killigrew and Mr. Gascoigne—and a withered gentlewoman whose name was the widow Wycherly. They were all melancholy old creatures who had been unfortunate in life, and whose greatest misfortune it was that they were not long ago in their graves. Mr. Medbourne, in the vigor of his age, had been a prosperous merchant, but had lost his all by a frantic speculation, and was now little better than a mendicant. Colonel Killigrew had wasted his best years and his health and substance in the pursuit of sinful pleasures which had given birth to a brood of pains, such as the gout and divers other torments of soul and body. Mr. Gascoigne was a ruined politician, a man of evil fame—or, at least, had been so till time had buried him from the knowledge of the present generation and made him obscure instead of infamous. As for the widow Wycherly, tradition tells us that she was a great beauty in her day, but for a long while past she had lived in deep seclusion on account of certain scandalous stories which had prejudiced the gentry of the town against her. It is a circumstance worth mentioning that each of these three old gentlemen—Mr. Medbourne, Colonel Killigrew and Mr. Gascoigne—were early lovers of the widow Wycherly, and had once been on the point of cutting each other’s throats for her sake. And before proceeding farther I will merely hint that Dr. Heidegger and all his four guests were sometimes thought to be a little beside themselves, as is not infrequently the case with old people when worried either by present troubles or woeful recollections.
“My dear old friends,” said Dr. Heidegger, motioning them to be seated, “I am desirous of your assistance in one of those little experiments with which I amuse myself here in my study.”
If all stories were true, Dr. Heidegger’s study must have been a very curious place. It was a dim, old-fashioned chamber festooned with cobwebs and besprinkled with antique dust. Around the walls stood several oaken bookcases, the lower shelves of which were filled with rows of gigantic folios and black-letter quartos, and the upper with little parchment-covered duodecimos. Over the central bookcase was a bronze bust of Hippocrates, with which, according to some authorities, Dr. Heidegger was accustomed to hold consultations in all difficult cases of his practice. In the obscurest corner of the room stood a tall and narrow oaken closet with its door ajar, within which doubtfully appeared a skeleton. Between two of the bookcases hung a looking-glass, presenting its high and dusty plate within a tarnished gilt frame. Among many wonderful stories related of this mirror, it was fabled that the spirits of all the doctor’s deceased patients dwelt within its verge and would stare him in the face whenever he looked thitherward. The opposite side of the chamber was ornamented with the full-length portrait of a young lady arrayed in the faded magnificence of silk, satin and brocade, and with a visage as faded as her dress. Above half a century ago Dr. Heidegger had been on the point of marriage with this young lady, but, being affected with some slight disorder, she had swallowed one of her lover’s prescriptions and died on the bridal-evening. The greatest curiosity of the study remains to be mentioned: it was a ponderous folio volume bound in black leather, with massive silver clasps. There were no letters on the back, and nobody could tell the title of the book. But it was well known to be a book of magic, and once, when a chambermaid had lifted it merely to brush away the dust, the skeleton had rattled in its closet, the picture of the young lady had stepped one foot upon the floor and several ghastly faces had peeped forth from the mirror, while the brazen head of Hippocrates frowned and said, “Forbear!”
Such was Dr. Heidegger’s study. On the summer afternoon of our tale a small round table as black as ebony stood in the centre of the room, sustaining a cut-glass vase of beautiful form and elaborate workmanship. The sunshine came through the window between the heavy festoons of two faded damask curtains and fell directly across this vase, so that a mild splendor was reflected from it on the ashen visages of the five old people who sat around. Four champagne-glasses were also on the table.
“My dear old friends,” repeated Dr. Heidegger, “may I reckon on your aid in performing an exceedingly curious experiment?”
Now, Dr. Heidegger was a very strange old gentleman whose eccentricity had become the nucleus for a thousand fantastic stories. Some of these fables—to my shame be it spoken—might possibly be traced back to mine own veracious self; and if any passages of the present tale should startle the reader’s faith, I must be content to bear the stigma of a fiction-monger.
When the doctor’s four guests heard him talk of his proposed experiment, they anticipated nothing more wonderful than the murder of a mouse in an air-pump or the examination of a cobweb by the microscope, or some similar nonsense with which he was constantly in the habit of pestering his intimates. But without waiting for a reply Dr. Heidegger hobbled across the chamber and returned with the same ponderous folio bound in black leather which common report affirmed to be a book of magic. Undoing the silver clasps, he opened the volume and took from among its black-letter pages a rose, or what was once a rose, though now the green leaves and crimson petals had assumed one brownish hue and the ancient flower seemed ready to crumble to dust in the doctor’s hands.
“This rose,” said Dr. Heidegger, with a sigh—”this same withered and crumbling flower—blossomed five and fifty years ago. It was given me by Sylvia Ward, whose portrait hangs yonder, and I meant to wear it in my bosom at our wedding. Five and fifty years it has been treasured between the leaves of this old volume. Now, would you deem it possible that this rose of half a century could ever bloom again?”
“Nonsense!” said the widow Wycherly, with a peevish toss of her head. “You might as well ask whether an old woman’s wrinkled face could ever bloom again.”
“See!” answered Dr. Heidegger. He uncovered the vase and threw the faded rose into the water which it contained. At first it lay lightly on the surface of the fluid, appearing to imbibe none of its moisture. Soon, however, a singular change began to be visible. The crushed and dried petals stirred and assumed a deepening tinge of crimson, as if the flower were reviving from a deathlike slumber, the slender stalk and twigs of foliage became green, and there was the rose of half a century, looking as fresh as when Sylvia Ward had first given it to her lover. It was scarcely full-blown, for some of its delicate red leaves curled modestly around its moist bosom, within which two or three dewdrops were sparkling.
“That is certainly a very pretty deception,” said the doctor’s friends—carelessly, however, for they had witnessed greater miracles at a conjurer’s show. “Pray, how was it effected?”
“Did you never hear of the Fountain of Youth?” asked Dr. Heidegger, “which Ponce de Leon, the Spanish adventurer, went in search of two or three centuries ago?”
“But did Ponce de Leon ever find it?” said the widow Wycherly.
“No,” answered Dr. Heidegger, “for he never sought it in the right place. The famous Fountain of Youth, if I am rightly informed, is situated in the southern part of the Floridian peninsula, not far from Lake Macaco. Its source is overshadowed by several gigantic magnolias which, though numberless centuries old, have been kept as fresh as violets by the virtues of this wonderful water. An acquaintance of mine, knowing my curiosity in such matters, has sent me what you see in the vase.”
“Ahem!” said Colonel Killigrew, who believed not a word of the doctor’s story; “and what may be the effect of this fluid on the human frame?”
“You shall judge for yourself, my dear colonel,” replied Dr. Heidegger.—”And all of you, my respected friends, are welcome to so much of this admirable fluid as may restore to you the bloom of youth. For my own part, having had much trouble in growing old, I am in no hurry to grow young again. With your permission, therefore, I will merely watch the progress of the experiment.”
While he spoke Dr. Heidegger had been filling the four champagne-glasses with the water of the Fountain of Youth. It was apparently impregnated with an effervescent gas, for little bubbles were continually ascending from the depths of the glasses and bursting in silvery spray at the surface. As the liquor diffused a pleasant perfume, the old people doubted not that it possessed cordial and comfortable properties, and, though utter sceptics as to its rejuvenescent power, they were inclined to swallow it at once. But Dr. Heidegger besought them to stay a moment.
“Before you drink, my respectable old friends,” said he, “it would be well that, with the experience of a lifetime to direct you, you should draw up a few general rules for your guidance in passing a second time through the perils of youth. Think what a sin and shame it would be if, with your peculiar advantages, you should not become patterns of virtue and wisdom to all the young people of the age!”
The doctor’s four venerable friends made him no answer except by a feeble and tremulous laugh, so very ridiculous was the idea that, knowing how closely Repentance treads behind the steps of Error, they should ever go astray again.
“Drink, then,” said the doctor, bowing; “I rejoice that I have so well selected the subjects of my experiment.”
With palsied hands they raised the glasses to their lips. The liquor, if it really possessed such virtues as Dr. Heidegger imputed to it, could not have been bestowed on four human beings who needed it more woefully. They looked as if they had never known what youth or pleasure was, but had been the offspring of Nature’s dotage, and always the gray, decrepit, sapless, miserable creatures who now sat stooping round the doctor’s table without life enough in their souls or bodies to be animated even by the prospect of growing young again. They drank off the water and replaced their glasses on the table.
Assuredly, there was an almost immediate improvement in the aspect of the party—not unlike what might have been produced by a glass of generous wine—together with a sudden glow of cheerful sunshine, brightening over all their visages at once. There was a healthful suffusion on their cheeks instead of the ashen hue that had made them look so corpse-like. They gazed at one another, and fancied that some magic power had really begun to smooth away the deep and sad inscriptions which Father Time had been so long engraving on their brows. The widow Wycherly adjusted her cap, for she felt almost like a woman again.
“Give us more of this wondrous water,” cried they, eagerly. “We are younger, but we are still too old. Quick! give us more!”
“Patience, patience!” quoth Dr. Heidegger, who sat, watching the experiment with philosophic coolness. “You have been a long time growing old; surely you might be content to grow young in half an hour. But the water is at your service.” Again he filled their glasses with the liquor of youth, enough of which still remained in the vase to turn half the old people in the city to the age of their own grandchildren.
While the bubbles were yet sparkling on the brim the doctor’s four guests snatched their glasses from the table and swallowed the contents at a single gulp. Was it delusion? Even while the draught was passing down their throats it seemed to have wrought a change on their whole systems. Their eyes grew clear and bright; a dark shade deepened among their silvery locks: they sat around the table three gentlemen of middle age and a woman hardly beyond her buxom prime.
“My dear widow, you are charming!” cried Colonel Killigrew, whose eyes had been fixed upon her face while the shadows of age were flitting from it like darkness from the crimson daybreak.
The fair widow knew of old that Colonel Killigrew’s compliments were not always measured by sober truth; so she started up and ran to the mirror, still dreading that the ugly visage of an old woman would meet her gaze.
Meanwhile, the three gentlemen behaved in such a manner as proved that the water of the Fountain of Youth possessed some intoxicating qualities—unless, indeed, their exhilaration of spirits were merely a lightsome dizziness caused by the sudden removal of the weight of years. Mr. Gascoigne’s mind seemed to run on political topics, but whether relating to the past, present or future could not easily be determined, since the same ideas and phrases have been in vogue these fifty years. Now he rattled forth full-throated sentences about patriotism, national glory and the people’s right; now he muttered some perilous stuff or other in a sly and doubtful whisper, so cautiously that even his own conscience could scarcely catch the secret; and now, again, he spoke in measured accents and a deeply-deferential tone, as if a royal ear were listening to his well-turned periods. Colonel Killigrew all this time had been trolling forth a jolly bottle-song and ringing his glass in symphony with the chorus, while his eyes wandered toward the buxom figure of the widow Wycherly. On the other side of the table, Mr. Medbourne was involved in a calculation of dollars and cents with which was strangely intermingled a project for supplying the East Indies with ice by harnessing a team of whales to the polar icebergs. As for the widow Wycherly, she stood before the mirror courtesying and simpering to her own image and greeting it as the friend whom she loved better than all the world besides. She thrust her face close to the glass to see whether some long-remembered wrinkle or crow’s-foot had indeed vanished; she examined whether the snow had so entirely melted from her hair that the venerable cap could be safely thrown aside. At last, turning briskly away, she came with a sort of dancing step to the table.
“My dear old doctor,” cried she, “pray favor me with another glass.”
“Certainly, my dear madam—certainly,” replied the complaisant doctor. “See! I have already filled the glasses.”
There, in fact, stood the four glasses brimful of this wonderful water, the delicate spray of which, as it effervesced from the surface, resembled the tremulous glitter of diamonds.
It was now so nearly sunset that the chamber had grown duskier than ever, but a mild and moonlike splendor gleamed from within the vase and rested alike on the four guests and on the doctor’s venerable figure. He sat in a high-backed, elaborately-carved oaken arm-chair with a gray dignity of aspect that might have well befitted that very Father Time whose power had never been disputed save by this fortunate company. Even while quaffing the third draught of the Fountain of Youth, they were almost awed by the expression of his mysterious visage. But the next moment the exhilarating gush of young life shot through their veins. They were now in the happy prime of youth. Age, with its miserable train of cares and sorrows and diseases, was remembered only as the trouble of a dream from which they had joyously awoke. The fresh gloss of the soul, so early lost and without which the world’s successive scenes had been but a gallery of faded pictures, again threw its enchantment over all their prospects. They felt like new-created beings in a new-created universe.
“We are young! We are young!” they cried, exultingly.
Youth, like the extremity of age, had effaced the strongly-marked characteristics of middle life and mutually assimilated them all. They were a group of merry youngsters almost maddened with the exuberant frolicsomeness of their years. The most singular effect of their gayety was an impulse to mock the infirmity and decrepitude of which they had so lately been the victims. They laughed loudly at their old-fashioned attire—the wide-skirted coats and flapped waistcoats of the young men and the ancient cap and gown of the blooming girl. One limped across the floor like a gouty grandfather; one set a pair of spectacles astride of his nose and pretended to pore over the black-letter pages of the book of magic; a third seated himself in an arm-chair and strove to imitate the venerable dignity of Dr. Heidegger. Then all shouted mirthfully and leaped about the room.
The widow Wycherly—if so fresh a damsel could be called a widow—tripped up to the doctor’s chair with a mischievous merriment in her rosy face.
“Doctor, you dear old soul,” cried she, “get up and dance with me;” and then the four young people laughed louder than ever to think what a queer figure the poor old doctor would cut.
“Pray excuse me,” answered the doctor, quietly. “I am old and rheumatic, and my dancing-days were over long ago. But either of these gay young gentlemen will be glad of so pretty a partner.”
“Dance with me, Clara,” cried Colonel Killigrew.
“No, no! I will be her partner,” shouted Mr. Gascoigne.
“She promised me her hand fifty years ago,” exclaimed Mr. Medbourne.
They all gathered round her. One caught both her hands in his passionate grasp, another threw his arm about her waist, the third buried his hand among the glossy curls that clustered beneath the widow’s cap. Blushing, panting, struggling, chiding, laughing, her warm breath fanning each of their faces by turns, she strove to disengage herself, yet still remained in their triple embrace. Never was there a livelier picture of youthful rivalship, with bewitching beauty for the prize. Yet, by a strange deception, owing to the duskiness of the chamber and the antique dresses which they still wore, the tall mirror is said to have reflected the figures of the three old, gray, withered grand-sires ridiculously contending for the skinny ugliness of a shrivelled grandam. But they were young: their burning passions proved them so.
Inflamed to madness by the coquetry of the girl-widow, who neither granted nor quite withheld her favors, the three rivals began to interchange threatening glances. Still keeping hold of the fair prize, they grappled fiercely at one another’s throats. As they struggled to and fro the table was overturned and the vase dashed into a thousand fragments. The precious Water of Youth flowed in a bright stream across the floor, moistening the wings of a butterfly which, grown old in the decline of summer, had alighted there to die. The insect fluttered lightly through the chamber and settled on the snowy head of Dr. Heidegger.
“Come, come, gentlemen! Come, Madam Wycherly!” exclaimed the doctor. “I really must protest against this riot.”
They stood still and shivered, for it seemed as if gray Time were calling them back from their sunny youth far down into the chill and darksome vale of years. They looked at old Dr. Heidegger, who sat in his carved armchair holding the rose of half a century, which he had rescued from among the fragments of the shattered vase. At the motion of his hand the four rioters resumed their seats—the more readily because their violent exertions had wearied them, youthful though they were.
“My poor Sylvia’s rose!” ejaculated Dr. Heidegger, holding it in the light of the sunset clouds. “It appears to be fading again.”
And so it was. Even while the party were looking at it the flower continued to shrivel up, till it became as dry and fragile as when the doctor had first thrown it into the vase. He shook off the few drops of moisture which clung to its petals.
“I love it as well thus as in its dewy freshness,” observed he, pressing the withered rose to his withered lips.
While he spoke the butterfly fluttered down from the doctor’s snowy head and fell upon the floor. His guests shivered again. A strange dullness—whether of the body or spirit they could not tell—was creeping gradually over them all. They gazed at one another, and fancied that each fleeting moment snatched away a charm and left a deepening furrow where none had been before. Was it an illusion? Had the changes of a lifetime been crowded into so brief a space, and were they now four aged people sitting with their old friend Dr. Heidegger?
“Are we grown old again so soon?” cried they, dolefully.
In truth, they had. The Water of Youth possessed merely a virtue more transient than that of wine; the delirium which it created had effervesced away. Yes, they were old again. With a shuddering impulse that showed her a woman still, the widow clasped her skinny hands before her face and wished that the coffin-lid were over it, since it could be no longer beautiful.
“Yes, friends, ye are old again,” said Dr. Heidegger, “and, lo! the Water of Youth is all lavished on the ground. Well, I bemoan it not; for if the fountain gushed at my very doorstep, I would not stoop to bathe my lips in it—no, though its delirium were for years instead of moments. Such is the lesson ye have taught me.”
But the doctor’s four friends had taught no such lesson to themselves. They resolved forthwith to make a pilgrimage to Florida and quaff at morning, noon and night from the Fountain of Youth.