“I’m a romantic, you brutes, and I adore Nizar Qabbani!”
This was Karim’s only reply to people’s accusations and taunts. And it was on the basis of this reply that the camp residents had added the epithet “the Romantic” to his name. Whenever I saw Karim the Romantic coming back to the camp along the same road other people used, I’d shout from a distance, “Hey, Karim, get off the road! People will get mad and hurt you.”
As a result, Karim found routes of his own back to his house in the camp. It was a solution he and other camp residents seemed to have resigned themselves to. If somebody from the camp happened to lose his way and went down Karim’s paths by mistake, he would yell out a warning from a distance, shouting, “Hey there boy, this is Karim the Romantic, bather of the dead. Get away! Get away!” This was his way of avoiding people’s disgust and fearful reaction to him.
Other times, either out of forgetfulness, or because he was just fed up with the situation, Karim would join us on our paths, and when that happened, people would go berserk. Frightened, they would yell at him and chase him from some ways off. Then Karim would scurry away, cursing the camp, his relatives, dead bodies and Palestine, and threatening them with a grisly fate.
At this point, scared to death and not knowing what to do, people would consult with each other: Should they make peace with Karim to keep him from mutilating their and their relatives’ corpses? Or should they complaint to the police? People knew Karim was the only person who washed corpses at the city hospital, and that next of kin weren’t allowed to come in when he was working, which gave Karim quite a winning card in the camp residents’ war against him. After all, nobody knew exactly what Karim did with the dead bodies he washed. Did he steal parts from them as rumor had it? Did he stuff their orifices with foreign objects as a creative way of insulting them? Did he spit on them, slap them, kick them, stab them? Whatever the case, Karim left people at the mercy of their imaginations, and the suspicions his threats had planted in their heads.
The horror stories revolving around Karim started with a rumor set loose by a young man from the camp who’d been undergoing treatment at the hospital. He told somebody, “I saw him carrying a human head down the hospital corridors, and people were running away from him!”
“You saw him with your own eyes?”
A few days after the rumor started, Karim the Romantic boarded the camp’s yellow Ford transit with a black plastic bag full of unidentified objects slung over his shoulder. Only the Lord Himself and Karim knew what was in there. Well, it so happened that one of the passengers was the guy who’d seen Karim with the human head. The minute Karim stepped on, the fellow let out a scream so loud that it shook the vehicle. “I swear I saw him holding somebody’s head!” he wailed. At that, everybody on board, the driver included, jumped out of their seats and scrambled off the van. They ran up to a traffic policeman and brought him back to the vehicle, pointing at Karim, who sat there alone, bewildered over what had happened. The policeman was as confused and frightened as everybody else.
Nobody in the camp liked Karim or wanted to talk to him because, simply put, he was a scary person. He lived in the camp with his wife and three children, but the windows to his house were closed most of the time, and his kids played alone in a back yard surrounded by a concrete wall. The rumors about Karim had evolved to the point where, as the story went, he would cut certain parts out of the bodies he washed and sell them to the Jews. The war against him had reached epic proportions, since introduction of the word “Jews” into the mix made the rumor that much more sensitive and added new tensions.
Intrigued by Karim’s drama with dead bodies and the people of the camp, I decided to walk down the paths he took and knock on his door. I wanted to find out what was really going on with him and write about it.
“Hi Karim,” I said to him one day. “I sympathize with your plight. And I love Nizar Qabbani just like you do. I’d like us to walk together and talk. And I’d like to write about you.”
“You’re crazy, then. Why would you want to go against everybody else? I stink, I’ve got human body parts in my pockets, and you’ll probably get sick if you come too close. Isn’t that what the rumors say? You’re better off going with the crowd.”
I’d been spurned. I saw Karim move away and stand by the side of the road, where an ambulance picked him up every morning to take him to the hospital. He’d tried to get there by taxi, but all the taxi drivers had refused to pick him up.
But one evening, much to the neighbors’ astonishment, I knocked on Karim’s door laden with a cardboard box full of books by Nizar Qabbani. I heard a woman say to her neighbor, “That man must trade in corpses with him. See the box in his hands?”
Karim opened the door and awkwardly welcomed me inside.
“Hello, sir,” he began. “What can I do for you?”
I opened the box while Karim looked on, and out spilled Nizar’s books. Beside himself with delight, he ushered me all the way inside and called his children and his wife. The family, likewise delighted with the books, insisted that I have dinner with them. I ended up spending the entire night as Karim’s honored guest. He lavished me with fruits, helba, mixed nuts and tea, while I lavished him with anecdotes and stories about Nizar and his life. I also read him some poems he’d never read before. I saw tears in Karim’s eyes.
Then suddenly he hugged me. “Sir,” he said, “would it make any sense for somebody who loves Nizar to cut parts out of people’s dead bodies and sell them, or walk around holding a human head?”
“Of course not, Karim,” I said, “it wouldn’t make any sense at all. I was never convinced of those rumors in the first place. If I had been, I wouldn’t be spending the evening at your house.”
As I got ready to leave Karim’s house the next morning, he saw me to the door. Happy and at ease, he embraced me and whispered in my ear, “Rest assured, sir: I’ll show her the utmost respect. I’ll wash her well, and I’ll recite poems by Nizar that I love over her.”
“Who is that you’re going to respect and wash, dear Karim? I don’t understand.”
“Your wonderful corpse, sir!”
I held an unusually long reed in my hand and I dipped it as deep as I could into the river. It fell in and disappeared in front of me. I took my feet out of the water and stepped back a little, gripped by a powerful fear, which I recognized by the trembling of my hands. The river swallowing me up was a fear that had been with me ever since I heard Nanny Fanida’s story. She always retold the tale of a beautiful girl who just wanted to sleep for a little while in the river but drowned. Every time I saw the river when it was calm I would remember what my nanny had said: the river was at its most dangerous when it enticed you to sleep in its embrace.
I couldn’t play with the other children in our village, not when they tormented my beautiful friend every time they saw her. It was a sad day when I saw them fighting to be the one to seize hold of the ladybird. She had curled up her body until neither her head nor legs were visible. I rushed over to them and told them to let her go but they refused.
After that awkward day, I used to go out into the woods next to our house. The trees covered a large area and their thin twigs sprouted fresh shoots – I had never seen anything like them. I felt I was searching for that ladybird to prevent the village children from kicking her around every day. I really loved that tiny insect. I collected several of them in a big glass jar and put them on my balcony; I even brought them other insects to eat.
Now, I had made myself new friends of many different colours: red, yellow, orange – I liked the colour orange the most. I shut myself away with them in the boring evening hours that went by so slowly. Every evening, my father would put on his reading glasses and endeavour to keep them fixed on the tip of his nose. Then he would slowly peruse the newspapers, which used to arrive late in our village. He let out the most vitriolic curses and insults, followed by a loud grunt, which my mother always received with her usual composure. She had been doing embroidery for a long time and, in the next room, had built up several piles of headscarves – all the same colour but with different designs. (She did want some different colours but could not go into town to get them.)
I can still remember the clock striking eight, because I knew that after the eighth chime, my mother would call Nanny Fanida to put me to bed. I used to brush my teeth at four minutes to eight then rinse my mouth out with a handful of the sentences that my nanny used to repeat in those minutes before the clock struck eight, with its chimes that hammered in my chest every day. Once, I hid empty notebooks in my bedclothes, because I had begun to hate eight o’clock, the official time that announced the end of my childhood world around the house. I turned on the light and waited a while until any rustling had ended. Then, I got out my coloured pencils and began to draw pictures of my friend on the beautiful notebook. But, straightaway, my nanny came in to tell me that if I did not go to sleep she would lose her job. She put me back in bed at five past eight. That was the only time that I had the light on in my room past eight o’clock – for five minutes, or maybe a little more…
A few days later I put on my orange jacket with black spots, which I had gone to buy with my nanny in town. I loved that colour and I loved the way my friends wore it. My friends had got used to my balcony and had started to go away for a little while and come back, as if they knew it was their home. I got used to letting them climb up my finger and fly off on their little wings which helped them rise to the highest heights. They became closer to me once I had started to dress and even act like them. I would repeat this little song to them with all the kindness I could muster:
Laisse-moi compter tes vies sur tes ailes
Toi qui n’as jamais vu ta colère dis-moi
Dis-moi comment faire comme toi 1
The next night I couldn’t sleep, despite the darkness and constant chiming of hours. I could still hear the words of the children echoing loudly in my head. I could hear their laughs as they saw me wearing that jacket: “Ladybird … Ladybird … Ladybird.”
My mother did not notice me. She just stole glances at my father as she sewed her napkins, which had become so plentiful I could no longer count them; I don’t think my mother could either.
It was eight o’clock when my husband shouted for me at the top of his voice. I didn’t want to answer him at that precise moment. I took my feet out from under the covers to combat the anxiety attacks that I slipped into whenever the clock struck eight. I hoped that I would not see him until the heart palpitations had subsided and I had finished the subsequent rituals. I have got used to these secret rituals. Now, I even do them without realising. Sometimes Nanny Fanida would appear to me, holding her pink towel to dry and rub my body. She would say in her soft voice: “Your body is getting bigger. You have become a beautiful young woman.”
But my father saw the insects flying about on the balcony. That was the moment he changed his usual evening routine. He went up to my room to discover the glass jar where those beautiful creatures were living. He shouted in the nanny’s face, “The daughter of the best family in the village is breeding these stupid insects…”
My nanny swallowed her words so far down that I thought she might never speak again. He called the gardener and told him to burn the insects so that they would never again come back to the house. Then he settled his reading glasses on their usual place and sank into his newspapers. But the gardener did not burn my friends, he just put them back in the fields. “They are all of our friends,” he told me, “because they eat the insects that destroy our crops. I put them back in the fields.”
A few days later Nanny Fanida felt giddy and almost fainted. So, I called her over so I could surprise her with a ladybird; I had drawn them in many different ways. The orange colours shone out in the night and eased my moments of fear in the overwhelming darkness. Little by little the colour returned to Nanny Fanida and she was no longer faint. She tried to make up excuses to prevent my mother coming up to my room.
My husband was waiting for me, wondering where I was, as he put his black gloves on the bedside table. He had just come back from hunting, which had been a serious hobby of his for a while. He would go out at the same time in the afternoon, wearing the same clothes, with the same friends who talked about the same wealth that their fathers had managed to accumulate through devoted hard-work, unceasing perseverance, and honest toil. They smoked black cigarettes, wore black hats and put black glasses over their eyes to protect them from the sun. Then they would hunt beautiful animals. They had no need to eat them and, most of the time, they hunted them only to discard their bodies on a piece of wasteland. They competed with each other, speaking in well-rehearsed words with tightly drawn lips.
My husband stroked my stomach with total calm. His well-trimmed moustache trembled a little. That was the sign that let me know he wanted something. His manner was calm, emotionless. I longed to be able to scream or laugh so loud that the neighbours would hear me. But my husband was as precise as the American watch that he hadn’t stopped talking about since he visited the USA. He would treat me every evening to the same, repeated stories that had helped him discover the world that lay far beyond our eyes. That was his prelude to the heated rituals of cold nights.
I curled up into a ball… In my belly, there were some rumblings around my intestines. I wished that I could bring my beautiful insects from my little old room. They were still there. My father had left them on the wall after I had begged him not to make them leave the room. He gave a humdrum laugh and said, “OK, I’ll leave them, seeing as you are the only daughter we have. But we will remember your silliness and laugh about it some evening.” Then he laughed heartily; my mother also laughed with well-trained effort and she pulled her mouth into a little smile. My father complimented her and the way she had raised me.
I could not avert my eyes from his strong forearms. He hid his own beautiful eyes because he was too shy to look a woman in the face. One day, I began to insist that he looked straight at me when he was talking to me. His eyes were enchanting; I hoped that they would never blink. At that moment, I felt confused about everything. The world was spinning around me. I rushed into my room and grabbed a piece of paper to draw those eyes. He was very close to my friends. He looked like me, even if I was far removed from him.
That night, I could not sleep. My husband saw my anxiety and, with his usual calmness, tried to absorb all the emotions I had bottled up inside me. But it was him I saw with me. I retraced the map of his rough arms, until I felt I was touching him. That day I followed him. He was running between the trees. When he saw me, he was confused. He said to me: “What does the lady command?”
I gave him a look of passion and he looked down at the ground, shyly. I grabbed his arm and placed my hand on his lips. I felt the violence hidden within him – something ready to explode inside. I began to run my lips along his and he did not resist. He grabbed me with all the force that I craved and enveloped me in his strong arms until I melted. That was the only moment that I have ever felt that I truly existed on the face of this small earth. His embrace was strange. I had never felt any like it in real life before, I had only dreamed of it. I said to myself: “What matters is that I have experienced this feeling, even if it was only for a minute.” Afterwards, he looked at me with fear, as if he had kissed me without knowing it. I put my hands on his lips and intimated to him not to speak. I had only been with him for a few minutes, but those minutes would never disappear.
I took my cold feet out of the depths of the river and laughed, then screamed. Everyday, I go back to my house and, once sleep has caressed my husband’s eyelids, for a while I curl up into a ball.
Tommy’s cousin Gabe. Tommy’s distant cousin Gabe from Stillwater, Minnesota. Tommy’s cousin Gabe, related to my husband through divorce and remarriage, in lieu of actual blood, who arrives on my front porch at dinnertime with a duffel bag and fanny pack. Industrial-sized.
Gabe. Two hungry blue eyes, trapped in a giant body. Infinite, knowing eyes of an orca whale. This is Gabe.
Sea monster son of Vickie, the housewife, and Gary, the unemployed architect. Grandson of Lillith, the secretary, and Chester, the inventor of the lightning rod.
Gabe, clinically depressed, he announces at the table after Tommy gets up to go check his e-mail, and not taking his Paxil.
Tommy’s cousin Gabe, who admits to falling in love with married women only, who has flown out to Los Angeles this time to deliver a hardbound copy of The Celestine Prophecy to a married woman he knows in Calabasas.
Strawberry blond, 275-pound Gabe, whose job it is to run employee vacation and incentive programs for Buy Rite International Corporation. Gabe, who can, on any given weekend, fly down to Fort Worth in order to tell several people (always women and usually married) that they have just won a free weekend trip to Cabo San Lucas.
Gabe, who tells me (and my husband’s currently empty dining room chair) that he gives all the women he loves a copy of The Celestine Prophecy. Laurie, Molly, Susan.
GABE EDWARD ARTHUR KAKE. Twenty-four years of age. Recent graduate of a Lutheran university, which he attended over the dead, severely diabetic body of his Catholic father, Gary, the unemployed architect. With undergrad friends from around the globe who were all deported last year, leaving him with absolutely “zero” people.
Gabe, who will be the first to admit he has a problem with Pop-Tarts sometimes, and who asks me, did I know, was I aware, that after he gives out trips to Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco to these married women he knows are married (that he has read about in the personnel files), after they scream and laugh and he gets, quote, “a free hug,” after he asks these selfsame women out for a celebratory drink or dinner and they say no, they are engaged, betrothed, previously committed, whatever! After that did I know that then, stranded in these very foreign American places, did I know that he, Gabe, always goes back to his second-class hotel with no toaster in sight and eats raw Pop-Tarts and turns on the water of the sink full-blast so nobody can hear him crying? Did I know that? Could I guess?
“No, Gabe,” I say. “I couldn’t have guessed.”
Gabe: moving from topic to topic without changing tone, taking a breath, or blinking, who has had more than just one psychic dream come true in his life, and who, more than anything, wants an Irish setter, because they were described in the Dog Fancier’s book he got free from a friend at work as being full of abounding love, even if there is no one there to receive it.
Gabe, who tells me all of the above while Tommy is still conveniently in his office, MIA. And who tells me, in addition to all of this, that every single untouchable married woman in his life, the Lauries Mollys Susans, he has just now, this very second, realized, remind him of me.
Gabe tells me he is aware that I am married and that I am also thirty-six. “The age difference would be a problem, wouldn’t it?” he asks, and I answer him in all seriousness over the sound of Tommy washing his hands in the bathroom.
Gabe, who follows me through the house after dinner while I sweep. Who trails out into the driveway after me when I take out the recycling. Who puts his pistachio shells down the garbage disposal even though I tell him, “Gabe, please don’t put your pistachio shells down the garbage disposal.”
Gabe, who would climb into a woman and live there forever like a castaway if she’d let him. Gabe, who has scurvy, practically, from his desire for these pirate-fantasy women he cannot touch.
“I guess I’ll take this as a compliment, Gabe,” I say, when I turn around and find him four inches from me as I finish the dishes.
“Do so,” he says quietly. And then winks.
Porous, soft, almost albino Gabe. Who leaves his advice books about women on the coffee table for me to find after he unpacks. Like Maxim’s Pocket Book of Women, and WOMEN: The Unauthorized Guide, which when I do find them, and of course, open them once Tommy and I are in the bedroom, advise men to speak in a lower register to women because it reminds them of their father’s authority, and to speak in rhythmic tones to women because it lulls them into feeling comforted and protected, and quote, “ready for anything.”
“There’s someone I want to show you to, okay?” Tommy whispers after we hear the squish of Gabe in the living room, lowering himself onto the blow-up mattress, and as he points the webcam toward my side of the bed, I roll my eyes at him before I pull off my shirt.
“You better do it fast.”
Gabe: in the house for eight days so far. Who eats entire bags of sesame sticks covered with Italian dressing and calls this dinner. Who says even though we’ve met him only once before, that Tommy and me, we feel like his only family.
“We should introduce him to Summer,” Tommy says. “Remember? That girl with the e-tutorial for virgins?”
But God knows he’d fall in love with her. He’d fall in love with a woman in a Crisco commercial. He’d send her fan letter after fan letter: “When you picked up the corncob that way, I found you beautiful.”
Gabe, reviled by his own body. Gabe, who looks unlived, whose skin is pale, fetal-looking. Whose skin has the milky quality of having been tom from the womb too soon. Gabe, who barely has palm lines, whose eyes trace my silhouette at the sink as he picks gum off the lining of his ski jacket with a butter knife. Gum that got stuck there when he went alone to see Unleashed at the 22-plex because we had to go to one of Tommy’s parties and couldn’t take him.
And finally, Gabe. Who is sitting in the living room with all the lights off when I come home from work on the afternoon of Day 9, cradling my sixty-pound pit bull in his lap.
“How’s it going, Gabe,” I ask, and when he hears my voice, he looks up and smiles beatifically.
And this is when Gabe tells me about “recently,” when he was just sitting at his desk inside Buy Rite corporate headquarters. How he was just sitting there, in his cubby, when he, quote, “hit a wall.” Literally. And his hand popped straight through the particleboard in a geometric circle. Perfectly round.
And at that precise moment, he had to get away from Laurie, typing away in the cubby right next to him. Married Laurie. Wife of somebody else. Laurie, who owns one shepherd mix and one full-bred shepherd, and who, if he’s honest with himself, is actually the one who gave Gabe the idea about the Irish setter and the Dog Fancier’s book too, in fact, when she and the husband invited him over that one great year on Super Bowl Sunday.
Laurie, who was diagnosed recently with both breast and ovarian malignancies. Laurie, who is getting radiation here in Calabasas, by the way, where she is currently staying with her cousin Molly, and her cousin Susan. Cousins and next-door neighbors, he adds. Both already married.
“Calabasas?” I say, before it occurs to me. “Oh.”
“But it wasn’t stalking her to come here,” Gabe assures me. “Not by a long shot.” They worked together at the Buy Rite. She was sick and it was obvious. Before he punched a hole in it, their cubbies used to share a common wall.
Gabe sighs and nuzzles the dog, who lathers him with her tongue from chin to forehead. “If you hear someone throwing up in the women’s bathroom,” he says, “and you can recognize from the sound of the retching who it is, shouldn’t you go in? Following someone you love to the bathroom isn’t inappropriate. In a perfect, evolving world like the one in The Celestine Prophecy, this kind of service would be called ‘friendship slash concern.’”
“People don’t get fired because they walk into the women’s room, though.”
Gabe pushes the dog from his lap and his shoulders droop. “It was just an e-mail to a few people on the sales floor,” he says. “If someone cares whether or not you die, I don’t see the problem with letting several key individuals know about it, do you?”
“Wow, Gabe,” I say, staring across the coffee table at him without blinking. “A group e-mail.”
“I know,” Gabe sighs, bowing his head. “Do you think I could get a free hug?”
Gabe, in my living room with a swirl of black dog hair on the pocket of his button-down.
Gabe, who promises, as our arms jerk uncomfortably around each other, that on his next visit he will definitely give me a copy of The Celestine Prophecy, or have one of Laurie’s cousins from Calabasas drop it by. Either one.
Gabe, who leaves on Day 10 while Tommy is doing errands, requesting a ride to LAX five and a half hours before the departure of his plane. Who we will not hear from him again until we receive his family’s Christmas letter two months later. “Gabe got fired from Buy Rite for some reason,” it says, “and Gary has to get his leg amputated in April from the diabetes. His attitude is positive and he wants to start playing golf.”
Gabe, who tells me at curbside check-in that he may try for an accounting position at Fingerhut, a company that sells women’s clothing patterns throughout the Midwest. Gabe, who I wish I could tell, before he departs this less than clean Nissan, that Tommy, he never leaves the house to do errands without his laptop, not anymore. Gabe, who makes me think:
Why are we put here if not to live in torment?
Who makes me wonder: How can our gods bear to watch us do it?
God, up there in the Sunroom, the Universe Room. God, up there on the Bridge. God, just a kid in wayfarer sandals who likes it dirty. A horny kid in front of a blurry screen, aiming His viewfinder down at us ants.
Gabe, who makes me want to cry out to whoever’s in charge, like Isaiah did or something, with a voice lifted up to every mountain rough place, across every fertile valley and desert highway, every scarred, uneven plain, to the east and to the west, to starboard, port and aft, up and down this barren concourse of strangers.
And consider: every ticketed passenger dragging a secret suitcase, each daughter of Egypt and son of Israel traveling first-class, business, or otherwise. Calling all of them by name: every lifestyle enthusiast and compulsive masturbator.
I am Begging. Please.
Mon dieu. Dios mio.
To the Chief of Operations. The One who has measured the waters and marked off the heavens, supposedly, with the hollow of His fucking hand.
Won’t somebody, somewhere. Someone human, anywhere?
Won’t some person who is not already married or dying ever love this naked Gabe?
We didn’t stay long at the bar. After we got Melanie’s text, I had the feeling that each of us wanted the other to finish their drink so we could take off for one of our houses. I could tell from the way we skipped from one topic of conversation to another, cutting them short and getting them over with in turn, so that having exhausted them all, we could then get up and go.
Less than half an hour later, we were outside in front of the entrance to the bar. Charlotte suggested we avoid going by the bar where she thought Melanie and Reema were. We walked for a while, went into the Métro, and headed for her house. It was as if we had agreed on it ahead of time; neither of us asked where we were going. We both knew we were going to her place. Perhaps that was what subconsciously made me talk about the poster I had seen through her apartment window the first time I took her home – or when I followed her there.
— Is the poster of The Double Life of Veronique still there?
— How do you know about that?… Ahh, from when you followed me.
— But you didn’t say the film’s name. You just said it was a film you liked.
— Could be. I don’t remember.
— You did. I like the film too, even though it may not be one of my top ten or twenty.
— Really? So what’s your favourite?
I didn’t want the conversation to turn from us to films I liked. Now wasn’t the right time for that. I’d started our conversation with a nod to the poster. Perhaps what made me ask about it was the knowledge that I would be in her house in a few minutes’ time. The intent of the question wasn’t to talk about film, but about her apartment, about her, about the place where we were heading to spend the night together alone – or so I hoped and expected.
— My favourite film doesn’t matter now. Let’s talk about you.
— Yes, it does. Who do you like?
— Mmm. Ingmar Bergman comes to mind. I just saw Persona.
— I’m not a big fan of it.
— Why not? Whatever, let’s talk about something else. Something you like.
I wanted us to change the subject, which was more suited to mid-afternoon at a café than shortly before midnight in an almost empty train as we headed to her house for me to fuck her, at last. I couldn’t come up with anything to ask her, so we were silent for a while until she said we were getting out at the next stop and would then walk a little. She said the stop was Père Lachaise, and I replied that I knew it well. We fell silent again. The train stopped and off we got.
I remembered the way perfectly, as if I had followed her two days, not two weeks, earlier. Now I was walking next to her, not tailing her like a detective in some noir film. Walking along, I knew she would offer me another drink as the overture to a long night. I also knew that her friend, who had been in the apartment that evening, was now in a bar with another friend, and that she knew that Charlotte and I would go back to their apartment together. She would arrange to spend the night elsewhere, at Reema’s perhaps.
We went into the building. I followed her up the dark, narrow staircase. Charlotte apologized that the bulb had blown and not been changed. She opened the door to her apartment and turned the living room light on. I followed her inside, and my glance immediately fell on the poster by the window. I remarked that there was something familiar about the house. She giggled – the giggle of a happy woman getting ready for a fuck. She laughed while picking things up off the floor. Skilfully using her ankles, she slipped off her shoes and left them where they fell in the middle of the living room.
By this time, any remark would have made her laugh. She was relaxed and feeling good – m-zah-zah-ah, as we say in Palestine. Charlotte was in high spirits right then for reasons other than the alcohol. I asked her why she picked things up off the floor but left her shoes. She turned back and picked them up as if they had been there when we walked in, laughing as she did so. I sat down on a chair opposite the bookcase and started checking out the contents. Charlotte came back into the living room with two glasses and a corkscrew. She came over, took a bottle of wine off one of the lower shelves, and asked me to open it.
I took the corkscrew and the bottle over to the table. She came over and set down the two glasses, then went back to the bookshelves. I poured us each a glass of wine, moved back to the bookcase, and stood behind the blonde woman. Stretching out my hand to offer her a glass of wine, I took a short sniff of her hair, then inhaled deeply after burying my nose in the golden curls. I asked her to tell me about her library, about the books and films she liked on the shelves before us. I didn’t want to seem like the kind of guy who, as soon as he gets into a woman’s house, grabs hold of his penis and drags her off to the bedroom.
I noticed she had taken off her coat, her heavy sweater, and the thick scarf in which her face had been hidden. She was standing next to me. The top buttons of her thin blouse were undone and the edge of her bra was visible. I could see she had small breasts, wide apart and firm on her chest. With her elbow resting on her hand, she held her glass close to her mouth as if she were sniffing the wine. She took a sip.
— This is a complete set of Tarkovsky’s films. Do you know him?
— Sure. I really like him.
— Those are novels by Kafka, poems by Brecht … and by Darwish. I’m telling you the things I like. Those are on my shelves. Those shelves are Melanie’s. You’ll find books about film, copies of Les Cahiers du Cinéma, and films as well. She’s got more than me naturally.
— But the Kafka novels are yours?
— Yes. One’s missing: The Trial. I’ve forgotten whom I lent it to. I still haven’t read it. I’ll have to buy a copy.
— I saw you once in the café taking your laptop out of a cloth bag with a picture of Kafka on it.
— No. My bag’s the one hanging on the door. Here. It shows the name of the bookshop where I bought it – Le Comptoir de Mao in the neighbouring quarter.
— But I saw Kafka.
— Perhaps you’re confusing me with another woman.
— There isn’t another woman at the café I’d confuse you with. But I’m sure about the picture of Kafka. I saw it on the bag.
— It wasn’t me. Anyway, you didn’t tell me what you were doing in the café, tapping away the whole time at your laptop. We haven’t talked about that. Not yet.
— I write.
— You write? What?
— I don’t know. I started a diary. I started writing it a while ago, after I finished a script that I couldn’t find anyone to produce.
— Mmm, a script? When will you tell me the story?
— Tell you the story! In a while.
— No, not in a while.
— Tell me, Charlotte, you definitely don’t have a bag with Kafka’s picture on it?
— No, definitely. Unless you know a different Charlotte. The diary you’re writing at the café, am I in it? Always on your own, sitting opposite me and writing your diary. You steal glances at me. You ask me my name. That’s all there is to it?
— I don’t know, but… yeah, there you were in front of me. I’m writing and there’s a beautiful woman sitting opposite. What do you expect me to write about, if not her? Abu Ammar?
— Who’s he?
— Yasser Arafat (I said it again the French way), president…
— I know who he is, or his kufiyah anyhow. So that’s why you were sneaking looks at me. What have you written? I want to read it.
— It’s written in Arabic, but I can translate some for you. Later.
— The Charlotte in the text might have a bag with Kafka on it.
— Sorry? Oh yes, maybe. But why him? Actually, I didn’t make much of a distinction between the two of you. I didn’t pay it much attention.
— She’s me then?
— She’s not you. Besides, her name might not even be Charlotte.
— Why don’t you come to the café anymore? You stopped after the first time we talked, when you brought me back here.
— Not at all. I went every day after our chat. It was you who didn’t go. I didn’t know you were in the south with your friend. I thought you didn’t want to see me after I’d followed you and our talk.
— But I was only gone for a few days. Then I was there every day as usual, working on my laptop.
— I didn’t know. Never mind.
— I want you to tell me what you wrote about me.
— Not about you!
— It doesn’t matter.
— Okay. I’ll give you a taste.
— No, don’t do it from memory. Read it as it’s written.
I didn’t really want to read what I’d written about her to her face. It was good that she didn’t insist or drag the subject out. It came to an end with her last sentence. Then she made for the bottle of wine on the low table to pour herself another glass and ask me whether I’d like one too. She brought the bottle over and poured me one. The bottle had to be empty before we climbed into her bed.
We cut short our conversation. It seemed detached in time and space from our situation and from what we’d come to do. It had been a necessary introduction to what was coming so that our intentions wouldn’t be too obvious to each other although, if they had been, that would have simplified matters.
The three of us – she, I, and the half-empty bottle – went back to the table and chairs. We sat opposite each other, looking into each other’s eyes. Her eyes were teary, drowsy, tremulous, affected by more than the wine and sangria. I looked at them, at her nervous lips and her pristine neck, whose pure whiteness extended to the expanse of her chest. We looked, chatted, and drank.
In front of me, Charlotte was ripe and ready for us to fuck, ready for the moment that had been the first thing we’d thought of when we read Melanie’s text together at the bar. We’d smiled at each other then, in the knowledge that in an hour or two we’d be here, like this, our eyes dripping with desire.
I wash my hands, scrubbing them.
They still smell of shit.
Sophie went joyfully down the slide, straight into Danny’s waiting arms. When he
offered to help her climb back up, she said, “By myself.”
He clapped. “That’s my big girl!” and returned to sit beside me on the bench, his hand on my left thigh. To my right, Sophie’s travel potty, still unused in its package.
It had been three days since Sophie announced: no more diapers. Festive and excited, we also bought a pink home potty, a plastic ladder for climbing to the toilet, and twenty pairs of size-3 Frozen underwear.
“Should I check if the sitter’s available tonight?” he asked.
That first day, Danny understood my good intensions, but suggested that if I kept asking her if she needed to poop every two minutes, she’d think it was some big deal. Yesterday he was enraged when he heard me promising her a pizza if she went in the potty. Why offer rewards for a natural process?
Now, on the bench at the playground, I said, “She hasn’t pooped in three days,” not looking at him. Not at preschool, not at home. We shouldn’t go out.”
He took a deep breath, trying to hide his criticism, “You think she’s in pain?”
Sophie was spinning another girl on the merry-go-round.
“Not yet,” I said. “But I’ve been reading about toilet anxiety. It’s a fear kids develop during potty training. They hold it in, then they get constipated, and then when they finally let it out it hurts, and it becomes a traumatic exper-”
“What?” Danny laughed. “Toilet anxiety?”
“It can end with an enema or even surgery, Danny. The experts suggest giving a gentle laxative. Not that we’re there yet.”
Now the other girl was spinning Sophie.
“How about a break from Facebook?” he smiled. “It’s like diagnosing yourself with cancer on Google.”
“I wish we had friends with children.”
“If you’re so worried you should call Dr. Barak.”
“I will, but I want to learn from other mothers’ experiences first.”
“It’s sort of like looking for proble-”
“There is a problem.” I glared at him. “And you’re ignoring it. And me.”
He raised an eyebrow, then dialed on speakerphone.
“No cause for concern,” the doctor assured us.
Danny looked at me victoriously.
“A child can hold it in even for ten days without any health risks, and possibly without constipation-”
“But how can we even tell if she’s ready?” I blurted. “Maybe we should offer her a diaper only for pooping?”
“After your whole ‘big girl’ shtick?” Danny barked. “Are you nuts?”
“I don’t know,” I hissed. “At least I’m trying to figure this out.”
“But Dr. Barak just gave you another week’s worth of peace of mind!”
Dr. Barak coughed.
Danny smiled at the phone. “Turns out my wife can’t control everything.”
Dr. Barak laughed. “Well, that’s a problem for another doctor.”
That night, his hand searched in the dark for my breasts. I whispered that I was tired.
He moved my hair from my face. “She’s going to be fine,” he said, rubbing my stomach. I blocked his hand with mine.
“Okay, good night.” He turned over, disappointed.
When his breathing slowed I burrowed under the blanket, losing myself in my phone. Suddenly, he glanced over my shoulder, then recoiled with insult when he noticed my choice. I tried to appease him with an embrace.
He pulled away. “Go fuck your iPhone.”
Sophie had her second helping of Cornflakes. Six days. Where was all that food going? I pictured a dark, dense lump of food in her small stomach.
“Can I have chocolate milk?”
For a moment, I couldn’t remember if Danny was still home. We spoke so briefly. He was right across the room, stuck at his computer. I turned around and quickly stirred the powder into Sophie’s chocolate milk. I hid the bottle.
“Baby,” Danny kissed her forehead. “Let’s go to school.”
That night, Danny waited for me in the kitchen after Sophie finally fell asleep, his arms crossed.
“Ilana found Sophie crying in the bathroom, covered in poop,” he announced coldly. I gaped. “Diarrhea, to be exact. Surrounded by dirty wipes. A huge mess. She tried to clean it up—”
My heart was racing. I flushed with heat. “Why are you only telling me this now?” I cried. “Why didn’t Ilana call me?”
“Did you give her something?”
He fixed his eyes on me. My pulse pounded in my temples.
“Laxative? Gentle laxative? Like you mentioned the other day?”
“Of course not!”
He kept his eyes on me until I heard my trembling voice confessing.
“It was a natural remedy… just a stool softener..Tears filled my eyes.
“Bravo,” he almost gloated, “Now she’s ripe for toilet anxiety.”
“Thanks a lot, Danny,” I said. “Maybe I should have lied to you.”
My hand shook as I stroked Sophie’s hair. The image of her in the bathroom flushing me, “I’m sorry” I whispered over and over into her sleeping face. I curled up in her little bed, staring up at the stars on the ceiling. My phone vibrated.
A Messenger alert.
It had been two years since we’d last met. Three days since my last visit to his Facebook page. Two days since I wrote him. The anticipation of a response had transformed into insult from his silence, then into the realization that I should never have written him, and a hope that he’d never answer. But now Ron had.
How long have I been on this bathroom floor? I had my regular spot and position.
Sophie towered above me on the toilet seat.
Ron said she wasn’t likely to go at preschool, so she’d better be in a safe space in case the poop came. Racked with guilt, I picked her up from school every day at one instead of four. Long days. Lunch, bathroom, television, bathroom, snack, bathroom, playground, bathroom. She never resisted it, nor did she ever do her business. We’d watched everything on YouTube. Read every book on the shelf. I’d come up with every dumb rhyme about how pooping was fun. “Mom, can I get off now?” “Let’s try a little longer.”
We were reading Olivia for the hundredth time. You’ll grow old on the bathroom floor. You’ll die here. But now, suddenly, Sophie flinched above me. I jumped. Her elbows squeezed against her stomach. “It hurts,” she whined, gasping. “It hurts.”
“Sure it hurts, sweetie,” I said, relieved. “You just need to poop.”
“I don’t.” Tears ran down her cheeks.
“There’s poop in your stomach and it wants to come out. Come on, give a little push,” I said.
She began to get off the toilet.
I sat her back down, firmly. “You’re not getting off until you poop.”
She started to get off again, and I sat her back, again. “Let’s go, right now. Do it already! Now! Push! Come on!”
She squirmed with stubborn refusal in my arms, kicking me, then biting me as hard as she could, crying hysterically.
I sat her down, furious. “You’re doing it, end of discussion! If you don’t poop you’ll get a time-out!”
She screamed, “Daddy!”
But there he was. He picked her up over my head and pulled up her underwear and leggings.
“What are you doing?! Her stomach hurts, she’s got to poop!” I tried to rip her away from him, but he held her tight and fast, evading me.
“Go take a walk,” he said. “Calm down.” Then he turned away from me and asked Sophie, “Want to play with your dolls?”
“No, she wants to poop,” I moaned. But they’d already disappeared into her bedroom before my defeated eyes.
My phone vibrated in my pocket.
That night as I read her a bedtime story, she began to writhe with pain again. I tensed up but continued to read, glossing faster and faster over the sweet, glittering prose. She fell asleep before we reached the happy ending. A cloud of pain rested on her face. Exhausted, I put my head in my hands.
Suddenly, I smelled something foul. When I noticed her expression—finally peaceful—I figured it out. I pulled off her underwear carefully and threw it in the garbage. I wiped her off. She didn’t even wake up.
I walked into the bedroom, wiping the sweat from my brow. “She pooped in her underwear,” I sighed.
Danny looked at me. “Is that good or bad?”
“At least she went.”
“But what does Ron have to say about it?”
I swallowed, recounting our correspondence, my deleted messages. What had he seen?
“Since when are you two back in touch?”
“Since when do you go through my phone?”
“Since I have a reason to.”
“How dare you?”
“You want to talk to me about morals?”
“There’s nothing going on. He’s a child psychologist.”
“For a therapy session, you’ve erased quite a bit of it.”
“Because I knew you’d get pissed off.”
“Sure. It’s my fault.”
“I wanted to get his opinion about Sophie. That’s all.”
“Does he call all his patients ‘babe’?”
“Jesus. It’s just a nickname… Never mind. I’ll tell him it’s over.”
He looked at me. “Hasn’t it been over for two years?”
“I meant the messaging.” I plopped down onto the bed. “I’m so tired.”
“You said you’d leave the studio to think things over, take some time off,” he said. “All you end up dealing with is poop. Or Ron.”
“How long has it been since we last fucked?” He punched the pillow. “A month? Longer?”
“I envy you for being able to think about sex.”
“Don’t give me that shit. Like you don’t think about sex when you talk to Ron.”
“He’s a child psychologist.”
A Google Calendar alert from Danny: “Appointment with Dr. Shafir, early childhood psychologist. Number one in her field. She has a cancellation tomorrow.”
I texted back a thumb’s up emoji and returned to Messenger.
My body hurt from sleeping on the thin mattress in Sophie’s room, staking out her nighttime poop.
Dr. Shafir explained, “Poop is a source of control. It’s natural that she’s only going in her sleep.” Her beautiful face beamed at us. “What area of her life won’t you let go of?”
Danny pounced at the question. A familiar, foul smell attacked my nostrils. Distractedly, I brought my fingers to my nose. I’d washed my hands twice at home, and again when I got here. Still, I smelled like shit.
She said, “Stay out of her underwear. Her poop is none of your business.” Her eyes moved from Danny’s excited face to me.
I got a whiff of her shampoo and inhaled, but my stench wouldn’t let go. My fingertips, my palm, under my nails. They needed to be scrubbed with a toothbrush. “Stop saying poop,” I said. “It isn’t poop, it’s shit.”
They were silent. Then Danny turned to me, “Are you willing to try this or not?”
I stayed out of her underwear. But I recognized the moment. The flinching. The concentration. The effort. The fleeing to a hidden corner like an animal. I kept repeating, It’s okay, you’ll make it to the bathroom next time. I emptied her underwear. Boiling water. Bleach. Or the garbage. The bathroom became superfluous. The potty and the ladder were monuments. It only happened in the daytime now, so Danny was miraculously spared from dealing with it. It’s okay, you’ll make it to the bathroom next time. The smell didn’t leave me, even when I burned my hands in the hot water. It was in my blood.
One night, our eyes met in the bathroom mirror. Me carrying smelly underwear; he a toothbrush. I wanted to kiss and make up, but instead I shoved the underwear in his hands defiantly. “Here. You deal with this.”
He took it, expressionless, wrapped it up in a plastic bag, and threw it in the trash.
I yelled, “Can’t you see this isn’t working?”
“We’ve made a commitment to try it, and it takes time,” he reminded and reprimanded me. “If we change course now we’ll drive Sophie crazy.”
“Same deal.” The lips that used to kiss me were now talking about shit. “You put her to bed when you know she’s tired, feed her when you know she’s hungry. She can’t get off the potty when you know she has to go. Five minutes. Time it. If she goes, great. If not—”
Ron had a beard now. I knew he grew it to hide old acne scars. Four years. What was he thinking now, looking at me but only discussing my daughter, Danny’s daughter?
The voice that used to call me ‘babe’ now emphasized the importance of consistency and patience. I rested my head in my hand. The smell flooded my airways again.
“Can you take some time off to devote to this?”
“I am taking time off,” I said. “I’ve left the studio.”
“Really? Where did you move to?” I recognized his instant regret at asking a personal question.
“Nowhere. I just wasn’t happy there.”
“Anyway,” he got back on track, “those five minutes are not about fun and games. No books, no phone. She’s supposed to get bored, so she’s motivated to—” “Ron.”
He looked at me tentatively.
“Do my hands smell like shit?”
I reached out my hands. He stared at me for a moment, hesitant, but finally took them in his, bringing them to his nose, sniffing from a safe distance. “They smell like patchouli. It’s from the hand soap in the bathroom. It’s nice.”
I grabbed his hands as they pulled away. Don’t go.
They covered my face.
I wept into them.
We couldn’t sleep, tossing and turning in harmony, so that we never came face to face. Back to face. Face to back.
“I met with Ron,” I finally said.
The rustle of the sheets paused. The reading light went on. “Why?” In his voice I heard the anticipation of an excuse.
“Because I wanted to see him.”
His face paled. His eyes fell away from mine.
“I wrote to him because of Sophie, but I knew we’d end up meeting.”
He said nothing, but his eyes bounced around. Lots of questions.
“I don’t know if it’s about him, or just about feeling like a normal woman. Or tenderness. Something we don’t have.”
A paralyzing silence fell over us.
Suddenly, we heard footsteps. We watched the door vigilantly, expecting Sophie’s sleepy face and small body to climb into bed with us. Instead, we saw the bathroom light go on.
We heard the squeak of plastic against tile. Danny put his hand on my arm to keep me still. I looked at his skin touching mine. Silence. Then another plastic squeak, followed by her footsteps. Silence again.
We walked together to the bathroom and stared at the full potty.
Waythorn, on the drawing-room hearth, waited for his wife to come down to dinner.
It was their first night under his own roof, and he was surprised at his thrill of boyish agitation. He was not so old, to be sure—his glass gave him little more than the five-and-thirty years to which his wife confessed—but he had fancied himself already in the temperate zone; yet here he was listening for her step with a tender sense of all it symbolized, with some old trail of verse about the garlanded nuptial door-posts floating through his enjoyment of the pleasant room and the good dinner just beyond it.
They had been hastily recalled from their honeymoon by the illness of Lily Haskett, the child of Mrs. Waythorn’s first marriage. The little girl, at Waythorn’s desire, had been transferred to his house on the day of her mother’s wedding, and the doctor, on their arrival, broke the news that she was ill with typhoid, but declared that all the symptoms were favorable. Lily could show twelve years of unblemished health, and the case promised to be a light one. The nurse spoke as reassuringly, and after a moment of alarm Mrs. Waythorn had adjusted herself to the situation. She was very fond of Lily—her affection for the child had perhaps been her decisive charm in Waythorn’s eyes—but she had the perfectly balanced nerves which her little girl had inherited, and no woman ever wasted less tissue in unproductive worry. Waythorn was therefore quite prepared to see her come in presently, a little late because of a last look at Lily, but as serene and well-appointed as if her good-night kiss had been laid on the brow of health. Her composure was restful to him; it acted as ballast to his somewhat unstable sensibilities. As he pictured her bending over the child’s bed he thought how soothing her presence must be in illness: her very step would prognosticate recovery.
His own life had been a gray one, from temperament rather than circumstance, and he had been drawn to her by the unperturbed gayety which kept her fresh and elastic at an age when most women’s activities are growing either slack or febrile. He knew what was said about her; for, popular as she was, there had always been a faint undercurrent of detraction. When she had appeared in New York, nine or ten years earlier, as the pretty Mrs. Haskett whom Gus Varick had unearthed somewhere—was it in Pittsburgh or Utica?—society, while promptly accepting her, had reserved the right to cast a doubt on its own discrimination. Inquiry, however, established her undoubted connection with a socially reigning family, and explained her recent divorce as the natural result of a runaway match at seventeen; and as nothing was known of Mr. Haskett it was easy to believe the worst of him.
Alice Haskett’s remarriage with Gus Varick was a passport to the set whose recognition she coveted, and for a few years the Varicks were the most popular couple in town. Unfortunately the alliance was brief and stormy, and this time the husband had his champions. Still, even Varick’s stanchest supporters admitted that he was not meant for matrimony, and Mrs. Varick’s grievances were of a nature to bear the inspection of the New York courts. A New York divorce is in itself a diploma of virtue, and in the semi-widowhood of this second separation Mrs. Varick took on an air of sanctity, and was allowed to confide her wrongs to some of the most scrupulous ears in town. But when it was known that she was to marry Waythorn there was a momentary reaction. Her best friends would have preferred to see her remain in the role of the injured wife, which was as becoming to her as crape to a rosy complexion. True, a decent time had elapsed, and it was not even suggested that Waythorn had supplanted his predecessor. Still, people shook their heads over him, and one grudging friend, to whom he affirmed that he took the step with his eyes open, replied oracularly: “Yes—and with your ears shut.”
Waythorn could afford to smile at these innuendoes. In the Wall Street phrase, he had “discounted” them. He knew that society has not yet adapted itself to the consequences of divorce, and that till the adaptation takes place every woman who uses the freedom the law accords her must be her own social justification. Waythorn had an amused confidence in his wife’s ability to justify herself. His expectations were fulfilled, and before the wedding took place Alice Varick’s group had rallied openly to her support. She took it all imperturbably: she had a way of surmounting obstacles without seeming to be aware of them, and Waythorn looked back with wonder at the trivialities over which he had worn his nerves thin. He had the sense of having found refuge in a richer, warmer nature than his own, and his satisfaction, at the moment, was humorously summed up in the thought that his wife, when she had done all she could for Lily, would not be ashamed to come down and enjoy a good dinner.
The anticipation of such enjoyment was not, however, the sentiment expressed by Mrs. Waythorn’s charming face when she presently joined him. Though she had put on her most engaging teagown she had neglected to assume the smile that went with it, and Waythorn thought he had never seen her look so nearly worried.
“What is it?” he asked. “Is anything wrong with Lily?”
“No; I’ve just been in and she’s still sleeping.” Mrs. Waythorn hesitated. “But something tiresome has happened.”
He had taken her two hands, and now perceived that he was crushing a paper between them.
“Yes—Mr. Haskett has written—I mean his lawyer has written.”
Waythorn felt himself flush uncomfortably. He dropped his wife’s hands.
“About seeing Lily. You know the courts—”
“Yes, yes,” he interrupted nervously.
Nothing was known about Haskett in New York. He was vaguely supposed to have remained in the outer darkness from which his wife had been rescued, and Waythorn was one of the few who were aware that he had given up his business in Utica and followed her to New York in order to be near his little girl. In the days of his wooing, Waythorn had often met Lily on the doorstep, rosy and smiling, on her way “to see papa.”
“I am so sorry,” Mrs. Waythorn murmured.
He roused himself. “What does he want?”
“He wants to see her. You know she goes to him once a week.”
“Well—he doesn’t expect her to go to him now, does he?”
“No—he has heard of her illness; but he expects to come here.”
Mrs. Waythorn reddened under his gaze. They looked away from each other.
“I’m afraid he has the right….You’ll see….” She made a proffer of the letter.
Waythorn moved away with a gesture of refusal. He stood staring about the softly lighted room, which a moment before had seemed so full of bridal intimacy.
“I’m so sorry,” she repeated. “If Lily could have been moved—”
“That’s out of the question,” he returned impatiently.
“I suppose so.”
Her lip was beginning to tremble, and he felt himself a brute.
“He must come, of course,” he said. “When is—his day?”
“Very well. Send a note in the morning.”
The butler entered to announce dinner.
Waythorn turned to his wife. “Come—you must be tired. It’s beastly, but try to forget about it,” he said, drawing her hand through his arm.
“You’re so good, dear. I’ll try,” she whispered back.
Her face cleared at once, and as she looked at him across the flowers, between the rosy candle-shades, he saw her lips waver back into a smile.
“How pretty everything is!” she sighed luxuriously.
He turned to the butler. “The champagne at once, please. Mrs. Waythorn is tired.”
In a moment or two their eyes met above the sparkling glasses. Her own were quite clear and untroubled: he saw that she had obeyed his injunction and forgotten.
Waythorn moved away with a gesture of refusal
Waythorn, the next morning, went down town earlier than usual. Haskett was not likely to come till the afternoon, but the instinct of flight drove him forth. He meant to stay away all day—he had thoughts of dining at his club. As his door closed behind him he reflected that before he opened it again it would have admitted another man who had as much right to enter it as himself, and the thought filled him with a physical repugnance.
He caught the “elevated” at the employees’ hour, and found himself crushed between two layers of pendulous humanity. At Eighth Street the man facing him wriggled out and another took his place. Waythorn glanced up and saw that it was Gus Varick. The men were so close together that it was impossible to ignore the smile of recognition on Varick’s handsome overblown face. And after all—why not? They had always been on good terms, and Varick had been divorced before Waythorn’s attentions to his wife began. The two exchanged a word on the perennial grievance of the congested trains, and when a seat at their side was miraculously left empty the instinct of self-preservation made Waythorn slip into it after Varick.
The latter drew the stout man’s breath of relief.
“Lord—I was beginning to feel like a pressed flower.” He leaned back, looking unconcernedly at Waythorn. “Sorry to hear that Sellers is knocked out again.”
“Sellers?” echoed Waythorn, starting at his partner’s name.
Varick looked surprised. “You didn’t know he was laid up with the gout?”
“No. I’ve been away—I only got back last night.” Waythorn felt himself reddening in anticipation of the other’s smile.
“Ah—yes; to be sure. And Sellers’s attack came on two days ago. I’m afraid he’s pretty bad. Very awkward for me, as it happens, because he was just putting through a rather important thing for me.”
“Ah?” Waythorn wondered vaguely since when Varick had been dealing in “important things.” Hitherto he had dabbled only in the shallow pools of speculation, with which Waythorn’s office did not usually concern itself.
It occurred to him that Varick might be talking at random, to relieve the strain of their propinquity. That strain was becoming momentarily more apparent to Waythorn, and when, at Cortlandt Street, he caught sight of an acquaintance, and had a sudden vision of the picture he and Varick must present to an initiated eye, he jumped up with a muttered excuse.
“I hope you’ll find Sellers better,” said Varick civilly, and he stammered back: “If I can be of any use to you—” and let the departing crowd sweep him to the platform.
At his office he heard that Sellers was in fact ill with the gout, and would probably not be able to leave the house for some weeks.
“I’m sorry it should have happened so, Mr. Waythorn,” the senior clerk said with affable significance. “Mr. Sellers was very much upset at the idea of giving you such a lot of extra work just now.”
“Oh, that’s no matter,” said Waythorn hastily. He secretly welcomed the pressure of additional business, and was glad to think that, when the day’s work was over, he would have to call at his partner’s on the way home.
He was late for luncheon, and turned in at the nearest restaurant instead of going to his club. The place was full, and the waiter hurried him to the back of the room to capture the only vacant table. In the cloud of cigar-smoke Waythorn did not at once distinguish his neighbors; but presently, looking about him, he saw Varick seated a few feet off. This time, luckily, they were too far apart for conversation, and Varick, who faced another way, had probably not even seen him; but there was an irony in their renewed nearness.
Varick was said to be fond of good living, and as Waythorn sat despatching his hurried luncheon he looked across half enviously at the other’s leisurely degustation of his meal. When Waythorn first saw him he had been helping himself with critical deliberation to a bit of Camembert at the ideal point of liquefaction, and now, the cheese removed, he was just pouring his cafe double from its little two-storied earthen pot. He poured slowly, his ruddy profile bent above the task, and one beringed white hand steadying the lid of the coffee-pot; then he stretched his other hand to the decanter of cognac at his elbow, filled a liqueur-glass, took a tentative sip, and poured the brandy into his coffee-cup.
Waythorn watched him in a kind of fascination. What was he thinking of—only of the flavor of the coffee and the liqueur? Had the morning’s meeting left no more trace in his thoughts than on his face? Had his wife so completely passed out of his life that even this odd encounter with her present husband, within a week after her remarriage, was no more than an incident in his day? And as Waythorn mused, another idea struck him: had Haskett ever met Varick as Varick and he had just met? The recollection of Haskett perturbed him, and he rose and left the restaurant, taking a circuitous way out to escape the placid irony of Varick’s nod.
It was after seven when Waythorn reached home. He thought the footman who opened the door looked at him oddly.
“How is Miss Lily?” he asked in haste.
“Doing very well, sir. A gentleman—”
“Tell Barlow to put off dinner for half an hour,” Waythorn cut him off, hurrying upstairs.
He went straight to his room and dressed without seeing his wife. When he reached the drawing-room she was there, fresh and radiant. Lily’s day had been good; the doctor was not coming back that evening.
At dinner Waythorn told her of Sellers’s illness and of the resulting complications. She listened sympathetically, adjuring him not to let himself be overworked, and asking vague feminine questions about the routine of the office. Then she gave him the chronicle of Lily’s day; quoted the nurse and doctor, and told him who had called to inquire. He had never seen her more serene and unruffled. It struck him, with a curious pang, that she was very happy in being with him, so happy that she found a childish pleasure in rehearsing the trivial incidents of her day.
After dinner they went to the library, and the servant put the coffee and liqueurs on a low table before her and left the room. She looked singularly soft and girlish in her rosy pale dress, against the dark leather of one of his bachelor armchairs. A day earlier the contrast would have charmed him.
He turned away now, choosing a cigar with affected deliberation.
“Did Haskett come?” he asked, with his back to her.
“Oh, yes—he came.”
“You didn’t see him, of course?”
She hesitated a moment. “I let the nurse see him.”
That was all. There was nothing more to ask. He swung round toward her, applying a match to his cigar. Well, the thing was over for a week, at any rate. He would try not to think of it. She looked up at him, a trifle rosier than usual, with a smile in her eyes.
“Ready for your coffee, dear?”
He leaned against the mantelpiece, watching her as she lifted the coffee-pot. The lamplight struck a gleam from her bracelets and tipped her soft hair with brightness. How light and slender she was, and how each gesture flowed into the next! She seemed a creature all compact of harmonies. As the thought of Haskett receded, Waythorn felt himself yielding again to the joy of possessorship. They were his, those white hands with their flitting motions, his the light haze of hair, the lips and eyes….
She set down the coffee-pot, and reaching for the decanter of cognac, measured off a liqueur-glass and poured it into his cup.
Waythorn uttered a sudden exclamation.
“What is the matter?” she said, startled.
“Nothing; only—I don’t take cognac in my coffee.”
“Oh, how stupid of me,” she cried.
Their eyes met, and she blushed a sudden agonized red.
Ten days later, Mr. Sellers, still house-bound, asked Waythorn to call on his way down town.
The senior partner, with his swaddled foot propped up by the fire, greeted his associate with an air of embarrassment.
“I’m sorry, my dear fellow; I’ve got to ask you to do an awkward thing for me.”
Waythorn waited, and the other went on, after a pause apparently given to the arrangement of his phrases: “The fact is, when I was knocked out I had just gone into a rather complicated piece of business for—Gus Varick.”
“Well?” said Waythorn, with an attempt to put him at his ease.
“Well—it’s this way: Varick came to me the day before my attack. He had evidently had an inside tip from somebody, and had made about a hundred thousand. He came to me for advice, and I suggested his going in with Vanderlyn.”
“Oh, the deuce!” Waythorn exclaimed. He saw in a flash what had happened. The investment was an alluring one, but required negotiation. He listened intently while Sellers put the case before him, and, the statement ended, he said: “You think I ought to see Varick?”
“I’m afraid I can’t as yet. The doctor is obdurate. And this thing can’t wait. I hate to ask you, but no one else in the office knows the ins and outs of it.”
Waythorn stood silent. He did not care a farthing for the success of Varick’s venture, but the honor of the office was to be considered, and he could hardly refuse to oblige his partner.
“Very well,” he said, “I’ll do it.”
That afternoon, apprised by telephone, Varick called at the office. Waythorn, waiting in his private room, wondered what the others thought of it. The newspapers, at the time of Mrs. Waythorn’s marriage, had acquainted their readers with every detail of her previous matrimonial ventures, and Waythorn could fancy the clerks smiling behind Varick’s back as he was ushered in.
Varick bore himself admirably. He was easy without being undignified, and Waythorn was conscious of cutting a much less impressive figure. Varick had no head for business, and the talk prolonged itself for nearly an hour while Waythorn set forth with scrupulous precision the details of the proposed transaction.
“I’m awfully obliged to you,” Varick said as he rose. “The fact is I’m not used to having much money to look after, and I don’t want to make an ass of myself—” He smiled, and Waythorn could not help noticing that there was something pleasant about his smile. “It feels uncommonly queer to have enough cash to pay one’s bills. I’d have sold my soul for it a few years ago!”
Waythorn winced at the allusion. He had heard it rumored that a lack of funds had been one of the determining causes of the Varick separation, but it did not occur to him that Varick’s words were intentional. It seemed more likely that the desire to keep clear of embarrassing topics had fatally drawn him into one. Waythorn did not wish to be outdone in civility.
“We’ll do the best we can for you,” he said. “I think this is a good thing you’re in.”
“Oh, I’m sure it’s immense. It’s awfully good of you—” Varick broke off, embarrassed. “I suppose the thing’s settled now—but if—”
“If anything happens before Sellers is about, I’ll see you again,” said Waythorn quietly. He was glad, in the end, to appear the more self-possessed of the two.
The course of Lily’s illness ran smooth, and as the days passed Waythorn grew used to the idea of Haskett’s weekly visit. The first time the day came round, he stayed out late, and questioned his wife as to the visit on his return. She replied at once that Haskett had merely seen the nurse downstairs, as the doctor did not wish any one in the child’s sick-room till after the crisis.
The following week Waythorn was again conscious of the recurrence of the day, but had forgotten it by the time he came home to dinner. The crisis of the disease came a few days later, with a rapid decline of fever, and the little girl was pronounced out of danger. In the rejoicing which ensued the thought of Haskett passed out of Waythorn’s mind and one afternoon, letting himself into the house with a latchkey, he went straight to his library without noticing a shabby hat and umbrella in the hall.
In the library he found a small effaced-looking man with a thinnish gray beard sitting on the edge of a chair. The stranger might have been a piano-tuner, or one of those mysteriously efficient persons who are summoned in emergencies to adjust some detail of the domestic machinery. He blinked at Waythorn through a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles and said mildly: “Mr. Waythorn, I presume? I am Lily’s father.”
Waythorn flushed. “Oh—” he stammered uncomfortably. He broke off, disliking to appear rude. Inwardly he was trying to adjust the actual Haskett to the image of him projected by his wife’s reminiscences. Waythorn had been allowed to infer that Alice’s first husband was a brute.
“I am sorry to intrude,” said Haskett, with his over-the-counter politeness.
“Don’t mention it,” returned Waythorn, collecting himself. “I suppose the nurse has been told?”
“I presume so. I can wait,” said Haskett. He had a resigned way of speaking, as though life had worn down his natural powers of resistance.
Waythorn stood on the threshold, nervously pulling off his gloves.
“I’m sorry you’ve been detained. I will send for the nurse,” he said; and as he opened the door he added with an effort: “I’m glad we can give you a good report of Lily.” He winced as the we slipped out, but Haskett seemed not to notice it.
“Thank you, Mr. Waythorn. It’s been an anxious time for me.”
“Ah, well, that’s past. Soon she’ll be able to go to you.” Waythorn nodded and passed out.
In his own room, he flung himself down with a groan. He hated the womanish sensibility which made him suffer so acutely from the grotesque chances of life. He had known when he married that his wife’s former husbands were both living, and that amid the multiplied contacts of modern existence there were a thousand chances to one that he would run against one or the other, yet he found himself as much disturbed by his brief encounter with Haskett as though the law had not obligingly removed all difficulties in the way of their meeting.
Waythorn sprang up and began to pace the room nervously. He had not suffered half so much from his two meetings with Varick. It was Haskett’s presence in his own house that made the situation so intolerable. He stood still, hearing steps in the passage.
“This way, please,” he heard the nurse say. Haskett was being taken upstairs, then: not a corner of the house but was open to him. Waythorn dropped into another chair, staring vaguely ahead of him. On his dressing-table stood a photograph of Alice, taken when he had first known her. She was Alice Varick then—how fine and exquisite he had thought her! Those were Varick’s pearls about her neck. At Waythorn’s instance they had been returned before her marriage. Had Haskett ever given her any trinkets—and what had become of them, Waythorn wondered? He realized suddenly that he knew very little of Haskett’s past or present situation; but from the man’s appearance and manner of speech he could reconstruct with curious precision the surroundings of Alice’s first marriage. And it startled him to think that she had, in the background of her life, a phase of existence so different from anything with which he had connected her. Varick, whatever his faults, was a gentleman, in the conventional, traditional sense of the term: the sense which at that moment seemed, oddly enough, to have most meaning to Waythorn. He and Varick had the same social habits, spoke the same language, understood the same allusions. But this other man…it was grotesquely uppermost in Waythorn’s mind that Haskett had worn a made-up tie attached with an elastic. Why should that ridiculous detail symbolize the whole man? Waythorn was exasperated by his own paltriness, but the fact of the tie expanded, forced itself on him, became as it were the key to Alice’s past. He could see her, as Mrs. Haskett, sitting in a “front parlor” furnished in plush, with a pianola, and a copy of “Ben Hur” on the centre-table. He could see her going to the theatre with Haskett—or perhaps even to a “Church Sociable”—she in a “picture hat” and Haskett in a black frock-coat, a little creased, with the made-up tie on an elastic. On the way home they would stop and look at the illuminated shop-windows, lingering over the photographs of New York actresses. On Sunday afternoons Haskett would take her for a walk, pushing Lily ahead of them in a white enameled perambulator, and Waythorn had a vision of the people they would stop and talk to. He could fancy how pretty Alice must have looked, in a dress adroitly constructed from the hints of a New York fashion-paper; how she must have looked down on the other women, chafing at her life, and secretly feeling that she belonged in a bigger place.
For the moment his foremost thought was one of wonder at the way in which she had shed the phase of existence which her marriage with Haskett implied. It was as if her whole aspect, every gesture, every inflection, every allusion, were a studied negation of that period of her life. If she had denied being married to Haskett she could hardly have stood more convicted of duplicity than in this obliteration of the self which had been his wife.
Waythorn started up, checking himself in the analysis of her motives. What right had he to create a fantastic effigy of her and then pass judgment on it? She had spoken vaguely of her first marriage as unhappy, had hinted, with becoming reticence, that Haskett had wrought havoc among her young illusions….It was a pity for Waythorn’s peace of mind that Haskett’s very inoffensiveness shed a new light on the nature of those illusions. A man would rather think that his wife has been brutalized by her first husband than that the process has been reversed.
“Why, how do you do?” she said with a distinct note of pleasure
“Mr. Waythorn, I don’t like that French governess of Lily’s.”
Haskett, subdued and apologetic, stood before Waythorn in the library, revolving his shabby hat in his hand.
Waythorn, surprised in his armchair over the evening paper, stared back perplexedly at his visitor.
“You’ll excuse my asking to see you,” Haskett continued. “But this is my last visit, and I thought if I could have a word with you it would be a better way than writing to Mrs. Waythorn’s lawyer.”
Waythorn rose uneasily. He did not like the French governess either; but that was irrelevant.
“I am not so sure of that,” he returned stiffly; “but since you wish it I will give your message to—my wife.” He always hesitated over the possessive pronoun in addressing Haskett.
The latter sighed. “I don’t know as that will help much. She didn’t like it when I spoke to her.”
Waythorn turned red. “When did you see her?” he asked.
“Not since the first day I came to see Lily—right after she was taken sick. I remarked to her then that I didn’t like the governess.”
Waythorn made no answer. He remembered distinctly that, after that first visit, he had asked his wife if she had seen Haskett. She had lied to him then, but she had respected his wishes since; and the incident cast a curious light on her character. He was sure she would not have seen Haskett that first day if she had divined that Waythorn would object, and the fact that she did not divine it was almost as disagreeable to the latter as the discovery that she had lied to him.
“I don’t like the woman,” Haskett was repeating with mild persistency. “She ain’t straight, Mr. Waythorn—she’ll teach the child to be underhand. I’ve noticed a change in Lily—she’s too anxious to please—and she don’t always tell the truth. She used to be the straightest child, Mr. Waythorn—” He broke off, his voice a little thick. “Not but what I want her to have a stylish education,” he ended.
Waythorn was touched. “I’m sorry, Mr. Haskett; but frankly, I don’t quite see what I can do.”
Haskett hesitated. Then he laid his hat on the table, and advanced to the hearth-rug, on which Waythorn was standing. There was nothing aggressive in his manner; but he had the solemnity of a timid man resolved on a decisive measure.
“There’s just one thing you can do, Mr. Waythorn,” he said. “You can remind Mrs. Waythorn that, by the decree of the courts, I am entitled to have a voice in Lily’s bringing up.” He paused, and went on more deprecatingly: “I’m not the kind to talk about enforcing my rights, Mr. Waythorn. I don’t know as I think a man is entitled to rights he hasn’t known how to hold on to; but this business of the child is different. I’ve never let go there—and I never mean to.”
The scene left Waythorn deeply shaken. Shamefacedly, in indirect ways, he had been finding out about Haskett; and all that he had learned was favorable. The little man, in order to be near his daughter, had sold out his share in a profitable business in Utica, and accepted a modest clerkship in a New York manufacturing house. He boarded in a shabby street and had few acquaintances. His passion for Lily filled his life. Waythorn felt that this exploration of Haskett was like groping about with a dark-lantern in his wife’s past; but he saw now that there were recesses his lantern had not explored. He had never inquired into the exact circumstances of his wife’s first matrimonial rupture. On the surface all had been fair. It was she who had obtained the divorce, and the court had given her the child. But Waythorn knew how many ambiguities such a verdict might cover. The mere fact that Haskett retained a right over his daughter implied an unsuspected compromise. Waythorn was an idealist. He always refused to recognize unpleasant contingencies till he found himself confronted with them, and then he saw them followed by a special train of consequences. His next days were thus haunted, and he determined to try to lay the ghosts by conjuring them up in his wife’s presence.
When he repeated Haskett’s request a flame of anger passed over her face; but she subdued it instantly and spoke with a slight quiver of outraged motherhood.
“It is very ungentlemanly of him,” she said.
The word grated on Waythorn. “That is neither here nor there. It’s a bare question of rights.”
She murmured: “It’s not as if he could ever be a help to Lily—”
Waythorn flushed. This was even less to his taste. “The question is,” he repeated, “what authority has he over her?”
She looked downward, twisting herself a little in her seat. “I am willing to see him—I thought you objected,” she faltered.
In a flash he understood that she knew the extent of Haskett’s claims. Perhaps it was not the first time she had resisted them.
“My objecting has nothing to do with it,” he said coldly; “if Haskett has a right to be consulted you must consult him.”
She burst into tears, and he saw that she expected him to regard her as a victim.
Haskett did not abuse his rights. Waythorn had felt miserably sure that he would not. But the governess was dismissed, and from time to time the little man demanded an interview with Alice. After the first outburst she accepted the situation with her usual adaptability. Haskett had once reminded Waythorn of the piano-tuner, and Mrs. Waythorn, after a month or two, appeared to class him with that domestic familiar. Waythorn could not but respect the father’s tenacity. At first he had tried to cultivate the suspicion that Haskett might be “up to” something, that he had an object in securing a foothold in the house. But in his heart Waythorn was sure of Haskett’s single-mindedness; he even guessed in the latter a mild contempt for such advantages as his relation with the Waythorns might offer. Haskett’s sincerity of purpose made him invulnerable, and his successor had to accept him as a lien on the property.
Mr. Sellers was sent to Europe to recover from his gout, and Varick’s affairs hung on Waythorn’s hands. The negotiations were prolonged and complicated; they necessitated frequent conferences between the two men, and the interests of the firm forbade Waythorn’s suggesting that his client should transfer his business to another office.
Varick appeared well in the transaction. In moments of relaxation his coarse streak appeared, and Waythorn dreaded his geniality; but in the office he was concise and clear-headed, with a flattering deference to Waythorn’s judgment. Their business relations being so affably established, it would have been absurd for the two men to ignore each other in society. The first time they met in a drawing-room, Varick took up their intercourse in the same easy key, and his hostess’s grateful glance obliged Waythorn to respond to it. After that they ran across each other frequently, and one evening at a ball Waythorn, wandering through the remoter rooms, came upon Varick seated beside his wife. She colored a little, and faltered in what she was saying; but Varick nodded to Waythorn without rising, and the latter strolled on.
In the carriage, on the way home, he broke out nervously: “I didn’t know you spoke to Varick.”
Her voice trembled a little. “It’s the first time—he happened to be standing near me; I didn’t know what to do. It’s so awkward, meeting everywhere—and he said you had been very kind about some business.”
“That’s different,” said Waythorn.
She paused a moment. “I’ll do just as you wish,” she returned pliantly. “I thought it would be less awkward to speak to him when we meet.”
Her pliancy was beginning to sicken him. Had she really no will of her own—no theory about her relation to these men? She had accepted Haskett—did she mean to accept Varick? It was “less awkward,” as she had said, and her instinct was to evade difficulties or to circumvent them. With sudden vividness Waythorn saw how the instinct had developed. She was “as easy as an old shoe”—a shoe that too many feet had worn. Her elasticity was the result of tension in too many different directions. Alice Haskett—Alice Varick—Alice Waythorn—she had been each in turn, and had left hanging to each name a little of her privacy, a little of her personality, a little of the inmost self where the unknown god abides.
“Yes—it’s better to speak to Varick,” said Waythorn wearily.
“Earth’s Martyrs.” By Stephen Phillips.
The winter wore on, and society took advantage of the Waythorns’ acceptance of Varick. Harassed hostesses were grateful to them for bridging over a social difficulty, and Mrs. Waythorn was held up as a miracle of good taste. Some experimental spirits could not resist the diversion of throwing Varick and his former wife together, and there were those who thought he found a zest in the propinquity. But Mrs. Waythorn’s conduct remained irreproachable. She neither avoided Varick nor sought him out. Even Waythorn could not but admit that she had discovered the solution of the newest social problem.
He had married her without giving much thought to that problem. He had fancied that a woman can shed her past like a man. But now he saw that Alice was bound to hers both by the circumstances which forced her into continued relation with it, and by the traces it had left on her nature. With grim irony Waythorn compared himself to a member of a syndicate. He held so many shares in his wife’s personality and his predecessors were his partners in the business. If there had been any element of passion in the transaction he would have felt less deteriorated by it. The fact that Alice took her change of husbands like a change of weather reduced the situation to mediocrity. He could have forgiven her for blunders, for excesses; for resisting Hackett, for yielding to Varick; for anything but her acquiescence and her tact. She reminded him of a juggler tossing knives; but the knives were blunt and she knew they would never cut her.
And then, gradually, habit formed a protecting surface for his sensibilities. If he paid for each day’s comfort with the small change of his illusions, he grew daily to value the comfort more and set less store upon the coin. He had drifted into a dulling propinquity with Haskett and Varick and he took refuge in the cheap revenge of satirizing the situation. He even began to reckon up the advantages which accrued from it, to ask himself if it were not better to own a third of a wife who knew how to make a man happy than a whole one who had lacked opportunity to acquire the art. For it was an art, and made up, like all others, of concessions, eliminations and embellishments; of lights judiciously thrown and shadows skillfully softened. His wife knew exactly how to manage the lights, and he knew exactly to what training she owed her skill. He even tried to trace the source of his obligations, to discriminate between the influences which had combined to produce his domestic happiness: he perceived that Haskett’s commonness had made Alice worship good breeding, while Varick’s liberal construction of the marriage bond had taught her to value the conjugal virtues; so that he was directly indebted to his predecessors for the devotion which made his life easy if not inspiring.
From this phase he passed into that of complete acceptance. He ceased to satirize himself because time dulled the irony of the situation and the joke lost its humor with its sting. Even the sight of Haskett’s hat on the hall table had ceased to touch the springs of epigram. The hat was often seen there now, for it had been decided that it was better for Lily’s father to visit her than for the little girl to go to his boarding-house. Waythorn, having acquiesced in this arrangement, had been surprised to find how little difference it made. Haskett was never obtrusive, and the few visitors who met him on the stairs were unaware of his identity. Waythorn did not know how often he saw Alice, but with himself Haskett was seldom in contact.
One afternoon, however, he learned on entering that Lily’s father was waiting to see him. In the library he found Haskett occupying a chair in his usual provisional way. Waythorn always felt grateful to him for not leaning back.
“I hope you’ll excuse me, Mr. Waythorn,” he said rising. “I wanted to see Mrs. Waythorn about Lily, and your man asked me to wait here till she came in.”
“Of course,” said Waythorn, remembering that a sudden leak had that morning given over the drawing-room to the plumbers.
He opened his cigar-case and held it out to his visitor, and Haskett’s acceptance seemed to mark a fresh stage in their intercourse. The spring evening was chilly, and Waythorn invited his guest to draw up his chair to the fire. He meant to find an excuse to leave Haskett in a moment; but he was tired and cold, and after all the little man no longer jarred on him.
The two were inclosed in the intimacy of their blended cigar-smoke when the door opened and Varick walked into the room. Waythorn rose abruptly. It was the first time that Varick had come to the house, and the surprise of seeing him, combined with the singular inopportuneness of his arrival, gave a new edge to Waythorn’s blunted sensibilities. He stared at his visitor without speaking.
Varick seemed too preoccupied to notice his host’s embarrassment.
“My dear fellow,” he exclaimed in his most expansive tone, “I must apologize for tumbling in on you in this way, but I was too late to catch you down town, and so I thought—” He stopped short, catching sight of Haskett, and his sanguine color deepened to a flush which spread vividly under his scant blond hair. But in a moment he recovered himself and nodded slightly. Haskett returned the bow in silence, and Waythorn was still groping for speech when the footman came in carrying a tea-table.
The intrusion offered a welcome vent to Waythorn’s nerves. “What the deuce are you bringing this here for?” he said sharply.
“I beg your pardon, sir, but the plumbers are still in the drawing-room, and Mrs. Waythorn said she would have tea in the library.” The footman’s perfectly respectful tone implied a reflection on Waythorn’s reasonableness.
“Oh, very well,” said the latter resignedly, and the footman proceeded to open the folding tea-table and set out its complicated appointments. While this interminable process continued the three men stood motionless, watching it with a fascinated stare, till Waythorn, to break the silence, said to Varick: “Won’t you have a cigar?”
He held out the case he had just tendered to Haskett, and Varick helped himself with a smile. Waythorn looked about for a match, and finding none, proffered a light from his own cigar. Haskett, in the background, held his ground mildly, examining his cigar-tip now and then, and stepping forward at the right moment to knock its ashes into the fire.
The footman at last withdrew, and Varick immediately began: “If I could just say half a word to you about this business—”
“Certainly,” stammered Waythorn; “in the dining-room—”
But as he placed his hand on the door it opened from without, and his wife appeared on the threshold.
She came in fresh and smiling, in her street dress and hat, shedding a fragrance from the boa which she loosened in advancing.
“Shall we have tea in here, dear?” she began; and then she caught sight of Varick. Her smile deepened, veiling a slight tremor of surprise. “Why, how do you do?” she said with a distinct note of pleasure.
As she shook hands with Varick she saw Haskett standing behind him. Her smile faded for a moment, but she recalled it quickly, with a scarcely perceptible side-glance at Waythorn.
“How do you do, Mr. Haskett?” she said, and shook hands with him a shade less cordially.
The three men stood awkwardly before her, till Varick, always the most self-possessed, dashed into an explanatory phrase.
“We—I had to see Waythorn a moment on business,” he stammered, brick-red from chin to nape.
Haskett stepped forward with his air of mild obstinacy. “I am sorry to intrude; but you appointed five o’clock—” he directed his resigned glance to the time-piece on the mantel.
She swept aside their embarrassment with a charming gesture of hospitality.
“I’m so sorry—I’m always late; but the afternoon was so lovely.” She stood drawing her gloves off, propitiatory and graceful, diffusing about her a sense of ease and familiarity in which the situation lost its grotesqueness. “But before talking business,” she added brightly, “I’m sure every one wants a cup of tea.”
She dropped into her low chair by the tea-table, and the two visitors, as if drawn by her smile, advanced to receive the cups she held out.
She glanced about for Waythorn, and he took the third cup with a laugh.
Why couldn’t it be Sunday or Monday?
It’s not worth thinking about or even looking at the calendar. I can’t even remember which year the calendar’s for or why I bought it.
His voice was the only tender thing that aroused my interest amid the dryness and monotony of things. His call this morning crushed everything else in my mind.
“Is there still room for me in our little hiding place, or are you tired of waiting?” he said.
“You’ve been away a long time, a very long time.”
“But I came back as I promised,” he said, and then his voice disappeared, leaving behind it a sense of sweet expectation that overwhelmed me with the warmth of childhood days when we would spend the night before Eid with our new clothes laid out on our beds, impatiently awaiting the dawn, and then the Eid kisses, the swings, the candy and the promise of freedom.
All my attempts to cling to time collapsed at the sound of his voice. All he left me with was silence and the sound of the ropes creaking on the holiday swings.
There at the window, dawn was gathering together its drowsiness. It smelled of a tiring winter that I could feel seeping inside me until I sank into a deep sleep.
I felt reassured, since sleep was what I had wanted for ages. I dreamed of beautiful things. It doesn’t matter what they were, but they were definitely beautiful.
I don’t think anything could have spoiled those dreams had it not been for the loud knocks on the door. I ignored them several times, but finally gave in to them after failing to catch the last dream.
I tried to get up to find out who was knocking, but my legs failed me.
I ran my hands over my body. I couldn’t tell where it was because it would rise at one moment and sink at another moment, with the bed as the line between up and down.
I felt an icy emptiness sink into me, as if the details of time, which had once grabbed the darkness by the throat and provided me with markers, had been packed in a tin can that had opened and all the contents had spilled out inadvertently.
The door opened and two people came toward me, but all I could make out was their bodies. I was happy, in a pleasant state of drowsiness to which I readily succumbed, so I had no desire to recognize the faces.
I was startled to find one of them staring into my face with an obstinacy that was brazen. When I looked at him, I saw that his face was faceless! He was just a skeleton that hesitantly reached out its bony hand and shut my eyes.
In spite of the questions that teemed in my head, I opened my eyes again. As I looked at what was left of his face I forgot to be frightened, or to speak or even scream. Ideas, forebodings and indistinct things had taken shape in the form of a skeleton draped in black.
He looked at my face again with a fear that penetrated the veins of his throat, so his voice came out tremulous as he repeated his words through bare and clattering jaws.
Ignoring all those words, I clung to the thread of happiness that they offered me as they looked back with strange disdain. The disk of the sun had also appeared. It was beautiful and as tempting as a hot bun, and I imagined I could bite into it as if I were in a cartoon. I laughed at myself when I saw the sun tickling my face. At a certain moment that was hard to define, the skeletons carried me out of the room. I turned and found the sun leaving its place and slipping into the calendar to stay there. I was pleased, because everything had happened just as I had suspected: that we would be something undesirable and there would be nothing to regret.
The streets were shambolic as if some event was distorting things, or, let’s say, making them more superficial. I looked for the myrtle tree we had planted when we were children around the place where we used to play in secret, but I couldn’t find it. I remembered him saying, “When I come back, the myrtle will be a companion we can play with as we walk along.”
At the time I swore to him that the myrtle and I wouldn’t grow up without him.
“And what about time?” he asked with the puzzlement of a clever child.
“We’ll hide from time and wait for you.”
It struck me that we had been born long, long ago and that the myrtle and the waiting were a past that played on the heartstrings and the memory. We were neither young nor old, or we may have forgotten the times we spent behind our secret playgrounds.
From the first moment, an awesome barrier began to grow between me and this desolate city. Everything about it was irritating.
I saw a line standing outside a butcher’s shop that I thought I knew well.
I called out to him, “Mister butcher, mister butcher.”
But he pretended he hadn’t heard and when he turned all he did was bow.
He was a skeleton, too!
I appealed to both memory and forgetfulness as I saw night had descended there – mercilessly, where life was stripped bare and seemed empty of everything but the dead.
The skeletal horde, clad in black, began to surround me like a dark cloud.
None of them seemed to know any of the others, or even to care that they were there. Somehow each of them was alone. I was able to speak in a confident voice and create new words.
I said everything I knew but my attempts to wake them up were in vain. They made me feel sad. Something inside them had grown old and turned to stone. I said to myself that something big must be missing.
They couldn’t hear me. My voice felt so broken that I wept. But then I stopped crying. I remembered that big people don’t cry. I wonder why big people mustn’t cry.
My mother used to say, “Shame on you. Big people don’t cry.”
My mother’s voice has haunted me ever since, saying: “Big people don’t cry.”
Maybe I’m still a child!
The procession carried me past deserted lanes and gardens, as if they were telling me, “There’s nothing for us to be sad about.”
“First there are flashes of lightning and then it pours with rain.” I heard this once but the lightning was dazzling and there was no rain. I was desperate and about to close my eyes when I saw his face lit up in one of the last flashes of lightning.
I was embarrassed about staring into his eyes all the time. His presence was as intense as the rain that had started to fall. At that point two skeletons took me off in the procession to somewhere outside the town, where the branches of a myrtle tree loomed on the horizon. I shouted for joy: “At last the myrtle!”
* * *
“I brushed your face with myrtle to wake you up. You were dreaming, weren’t you?”
I opened my eyes. I found him sitting on the edge of the bed holding a myrtle branch.
“I was dreaming of you. We were young, no, grown up. I don’t know exactly.”
I continued, “There was a city of skeletons, and I was sad and lonely, and …”
I stopped speaking when I saw his smile, which silenced me.
“I know you’re making fun of me,” I said in embarrassment.
He looked at me tenderly and whispered in my ear, “Not at all. I saw that too.”
CHAPTER I–THE PROMISE
“An old-fashioned Christmas.–A lively family will accept a gentleman as paying guest to join them in spending an old-fashioned Christmas in the heart of the country.”
That was the advertisement. It had its points. I was not sure what, in this case, an old-fashioned Christmas might happen to mean. I imagine there were several kinds of “old-fashioned” Christmases; but it could hardly be worse than a chop in my chambers, or–horror of horrors!–at the club; or my cousin Lucy’s notion of what she calls the “festive season.” Festive? Yes! She and her husband, who suffers from melancholia, and all the other complaints which flesh is heir to, and I, dragging through what I call a patent-medicine dinner, and talking of everybody who is dead and gone, or else going, and of nothing else.
So I wrote to the advertiser. The reply was written in a sprawling feminine hand. It was a little vague. It appeared that the terms would be five guineas; but there was no mention of the length of time which that fee would cover. I might arrive, it seemed, on Christmas Eve, but there was no hint as to when I was to go, if ever. The whole thing was a trifle odd. There was nothing said about the sort of accommodation which would be provided, nothing about the kind of establishment which was maintained, or the table which was kept. No references were offered or asked for. It was merely stated that “we’re a very lively family, and that if you’re lively yourself you’ll get on uncommonly well.” The letter was signed “Madge Wilson.”
Now it is a remarkable thing that I have always had an extraordinary predilection for the name Madge. I do not know why. I have never known a Madge. And yet, from my boyhood upward, I have desired to meet one. Here was an opportunity offered. She was apparently the careworn mother of a “lively family.” Under such circumstances she was hardly likely to be “lively” herself, but her name was Madge, and it was the accident of her Christian name which decided me to go.
I had no illusions. No doubt the five guineas were badly wanted; even a “lively family” would be hardly likely to advertise for a perfect stranger to spend Christmas with them if they were not. I did not expect a princely entertainment. Still I felt that it could hardly be worse than a chop or cousin Lucy; the subjects of her conversation I never cared about when they were alive, and I certainly do not want to talk about them now they are dead. As for the “pills” and “drops” with which her husband doses himself between the courses, it makes me ill even to think of them.
On Christmas Eve the weather was abominable. All night it had been blowing and raining. In the morning it began to freeze. By the time the streets were like so many skating rinks it commenced to snow. And it kept on snowing; that turned out to be quite a record in the way of snow-storms. Hardly the sort of weather to start for an unknown destination “in the heart of the country.” But, at the last moment, I did not like to back out. I said I would go, and I meant to go.
I had been idiot enough to load myself with a lot of Christmas presents, without the faintest notion why. I had not given a Christmas present for years–there had been no one to give them to. Lucy cannot bear such trifling, and her husband’s only notion of a present at any time was a gallon jar of somebody’s Stomach Stirrer. I am no dealer in poisons.
I knew nothing of the people I was going to. The youngest member of the family might be twenty, or the oldest ten. No doubt the things I had bought would be laughed at, probably I should never venture to offer them. Still, if you have not tried your hand at that kind of thing for ever so long, the mere act of purchasing is a pleasure. That is a fact.
I had never enjoyed “shopping” so much since I was a boy. I felt quite lively myself as I mingled with the Christmas crowd, looking for things which might not turn out to be absolutely preposterous. I even bought something for Madge–I mean Mrs. Wilson. Of course, I knew that I had no right to do anything of the kind, and was aware that the chances were a hundred to one against my ever presuming to hint at its existence. I was actually ass enough to buy something for her husband–two things, indeed; alternatives, as it were–a box of cigars, if he turned out to be a smoker, and a case of whiskey if he didn’t. I hoped to goodness that he would not prove to be a hypochondriac, like Lucy’s husband. I would not give him pills. What the “lively family” would think of a perfect stranger arriving burdened with rubbish, as if he had known them all their lives, I did not dare to think. No doubt they would set him down as a lunatic right away.
It was a horrible journey. The trains were late, and, of course, overcrowded; there was enough luggage in our compartment to have filled it, and still there was one more passenger than there ought to have been; an ill-conditioned old fellow who wanted my hat-box put into the van because it happened to tumble off the rack on to his head. I pointed out to him that the rack was specially constructed for light luggage, that a hat-box was light luggage, and that if the train jolted, he ought to blame the company, not me. He was impervious to reason. His wrangling and jangling so upset me, that I went past the station at which I ought to have changed. Then I had to wait three-quarters of an hour for a train to take me back again, only to find that I had missed the one I intended to catch. So I had to cool my heels for two hours and a half in a wretched cowshed amidst a bitter, whirling snowstorm. It is some satisfaction for me to be able to reflect that I made it warm for the officials, however cold I might have been myself.
When the train did start, some forty minutes after scheduled time, it jolted along in a laborious fashion at the rate of about six miles an hour, stopping at every roadside hovel. I counted seven in a distance, I am convinced, of less than twenty miles. When at last I reached Crofton, my journey’s end, it turned out that the station staff consisted of a half-witted individual, who was stationmaster, porter, and clerk combined, and a hulking lad who did whatever else there was to do. No one had come to meet me, the village was “about half a mile,” and Hangar Dene, the house for which my steps were bent, “about four miles by the road”–how far it was across ploughed fields my informant did not mention.
There was a trap at the “Boy and Blunderbuss,” but that required fetching. Finally the hulking lad was dispatched. It took him some time, considering the distance was only “about half a mile.” When the trap did appear it looked to me uncommonly like an open spring cart. In it I was deposited, with my luggage. The snow was still descending in whirling clouds. Never shall I forget the drive, in that miserable cart, through the storm and those pitch black country lanes. We had been jogging along some time before the driver opened his mouth.
“Be you going to stop with they Wilsons?”
There was something in the tone of his “Ah!” which whetted my curiosity, near the end of my tether though I was.
“Why do you ask?”
“It be about time as someone were to stay with them as were a bit capable like.”
I did not know what he meant. I did not ask. I was beyond it. I was chilled to the bone, wet, tired, hungry. I had long been wishing that an old-fashioned Christmas had been completely extinct before I had thought of adventuring in quest of one. Better cousin Lucy’s notion of the “festive season.”
We passed through a gate, which I had to get down to open, along some sort of avenue. Suddenly the cart pulled up.
“Here we be.”
That might be so. It was a pity he did not add where “here” was. There was a great shadow, which possibly did duty for a house, but, if so, there was not a light in any of the windows, and there was nothing visible in the shape of a door. The whereabouts of this, however, the driver presently made clear.
“There be the door in front of you; you go up three steps, if you can find ’em. There’s a knocker, if none of ’em haven’t twisted it off. If they have, there’s a bell on your right, if it isn’t broken.”
There appeared to be no knocker, though whether it had been “twisted” off was more than I could say. But there was a bell, which creaked with rust, though it was not broken. I heard it tinkle in the distance. No answer; though I allowed a more than decent interval.
“Better ring again,” suggested the driver. “Hard. Maybe they’re up to some of their games, and wants rousing.”
Was there a chuckle in the fellow’s voice? I rang again, and again with all the force I could. The bell reverberated through what seemed like an empty house.
“Is there no one in the place?”
“They’re there right enough. Where’s another thing. Maybe on the roof; or in the cellar. If they know you’re coming perhaps they hear and don’t choose to answer. Better ring again.”
I sounded another peal. Presently feet were heard advancing along the passage–several pairs it seemed–and a light gleamed through the window over the door. A voice inquired: “Who’s there?”
“Mr. Christopher, from London.”
The information was greeted with what sounded uncommonly like a chorus of laughter. There was a rush of retreating feet, an expostulating voice, then darkness again, and silence.
“Who lives here? Are the people mad?”
Once more I suspected the driver of a chuckle. My temper was rising. I had not come all that way, and subjected myself to so much discomfort, to be played tricks with. I tolled the bell again. After a few seconds’ interval the pit-pat of what was obviously one pair of feet came towards the door. Again a light gleamed through the pane. A key was turned, a chain unfastened, bolts withdrawn; it seemed as if some one had to drag a chair forward before one of these latter could be reached. After a vast amount of unfastening, the door was opened, and on the threshold there stood a girl, with a lighted candle in her hand. The storm rushed in; she put up her hand to shield the light from danger.
“Can I see Mrs. Wilson? I’m expected. I’m Mr. Christopher, from London.”
That was all she said. I looked at her; she at me. The driver’s voice came from the background.
“I drove him over from the station, Miss. There be a lot of luggage. He do say he’s come to stay with you.”
“Is that you, Tidy? I’m afraid I can offer you nothing to drink. We’ve lost the key of the cellar, and there’s nothing out, except water, and I don’t think you’d care for that.”
“I can’t say rightly as how I should, Miss. Next time will do. Be it all right?”
The girl continued to regard me.
“Perhaps you had better come inside.”
“I think I had.”
I went inside; it was time.
“Have you any luggage?” I admitted that I had. “Perhaps it had better be brought in.”
“Perhaps it had.”
“Do you think that you could manage, Tidy?”
“The mare, she’ll stand still enough. I should think I could, miss.”
CHAPTER II–AND THE PERFORMANCE
By degrees my belongings were borne into the hall, hidden under an envelope of snow. The girl seemed surprised at their number. The driver was paid, the cart disappeared, the door was shut; the girl and I were alone together.
“We didn’t expect that you would come.”
“Not expect me? But it was all arranged; I wrote to say that I would come. Did you not receive my letter?”
“We thought that you were joking.”
“Joking! Why should you imagine that?”
“We were joking.”
“You were? Then I am to gather that I have been made the subject of a practical joke, and that I am an intruder here?”
“Well, it’s quite true that we did not think you were in earnest. You see, it’s this way, we’re alone.”
“Alone? Who are ‘we’?”
“Well, it will take a good while to explain, and you look tired and cold.”
“I am both.”
“Perhaps you’re hungry?”
“I don’t know what you can have to eat, unless it’s to-morrow’s dinner.”
“To-morrow’s dinner!” I stared. “Can I see Mrs. Wilson?”
“Mrs. Wilson? That’s mamma. She’s dead.”
“I beg your pardon. Can I see your father?”
“Oh, father’s been dead for years.”
“Then to whom have I the pleasure of speaking?”
“I’m Madge. I’m mother now.”
“You are–mother now?”
“The trouble will be about where you are to sleep–unless it’s with the boys. The rooms are all anyhow, and I’m sure I don’t know where the beds are.”
“I suppose there are servants in the house?”
She shook her head.
“No. The boys thought that they were nuisances so we got rid of them. The last went yesterday. She wouldn’t do any work, so we thought she’d better go.”
“Under those circumstances I think it probable that you were right. Then am I to understand that there are children?”
As she spoke there came a burst of laughter from the other end of the passage. I spun round. No one was in sight. She explained.
“They’re waiting round the corner. Perhaps we’d better have them here. You people, you’d better come and let me introduce you to Mr. Christopher.”
A procession began to appear from round the corner of boys and girls. In front was a girl of about sixteen. She advanced with outstretched hand and an air of self-possession which took me at a disadvantage.
“I’m Bessie. I’m sorry we kept you waiting at the door, but the fact is that we thought it was Eliza’s brother who had come to insult us again.”
“Pray, don’t mention it. I am glad that it was not Eliza’s brother.”
“So am I. He is a dreadful man.”
I shook hands with the rest of them. There were six more, four boys and two girls. They formed a considerable congregation as they stood eyeing me with inquiring glances. Madge was the first to speak.
“I wondered all along if he would take it as a joke or not, and you see he hasn’t. I thought all the time that it was a risky thing to do.”
“I like that! You keep your thoughts to yourself then. It was you proposed it. You said you’d been reading about something of the kind in a story, and you voted for our advertising ourselves for a lark.”
The speaker was the biggest boy, a good-looking youngster, with sallow cheeks and shrewd black eyes.
“But, Rupert, I never meant it to go so far as this.”
“How far did you mean it to go then? It was your idea all through. You sent in the advertisement, you wrote the letters, and now he’s here. If you didn’t mean it, why didn’t you stop his coming?”
The girls cheeks were crimson. Bessie interposed.
“The thing is that as he is here it’s no good worrying about whose fault it is. We shall simply have to make the best of it.” Then, to me, “I suppose you really have come to stay?”
“I confess that I had some notion of the kind–to spend an old-fashioned Christmas.”
At this there was laughter, chiefly from the boys. Rupert exclaimed:
“A nice sort of old-fashioned Christmas you’ll find it will be. You’ll be sorry you came before it’s through.”
“I am not so sure of that.”
There appeared to be something in my tone which caused a touch of silence to descend upon the group. They regarded each other doubtfully, as if in my words a reproof was implied. Bessie was again the spokeswoman.
“Of course, now that you have come, we mean to be nice to you, that is as nice as we can. Because the thing is that we are not in a condition to receive visitors. Do we look as if we were?”
To be frank, they did not. Even Madge was a little unkempt, while the boys were in what I believe is the average state of the average boy.
“And,” murmured Madge, “where is Mr. Christopher to sleep?”
“What is he to eat?” inquired Bessie. She glanced at my packages. “I suppose you have brought nothing with you?”
“I’m afraid I haven’t. I had hoped to have found something ready for me on my arrival.”
Again they peeped at each other, as if ashamed. Madge repeated her former suggestion.
“There’s to-morrow’s dinner.”
“Oh, hang it!” exclaimed Rupert. “It’s not so bad as that. There’s a ham.”
“You can cut a steak off, or whatever you call it, and have it broiled.”
A meal was got ready, in the preparation of which every member of the family took a hand. And a room was found for me, in which was a blazing fire and traces of recent feminine occupation. I suspected that Madge had yielded her own apartment as a shelter for the stranger. By the time I had washed and changed my clothes, the impromptu dinner, or supper, or whatever it was, was ready.
A curious repast it proved to be; composed of oddly contrasted dishes, cooked–and sometimes uncooked–in original fashion. But hunger, that piquant sauce, gave it a relish of its own. At first no one seemed disposed to join me. By degrees, however, one after another found a knife and fork, until all the eight were seated with me round the board, eating, some of them, as if for dear life.
“The fact is,” explained Rupert, “we’re a rum lot. We hardly ever sit down together. We don’t have regular meals, but whenever anyone feels peckish, he goes and gets what there is, and cooks it and eats it on his own.”
“It’s not quite so bad as that,” protested Madge, “though it’s pretty bad.”
It did seem pretty bad, from the conventional point of view. From their conversation, which was candour itself, I gleaned details which threw light upon the peculiar position of affairs. It seemed that their father had been dead some seven years. Their mother, who had been always delicate, had allowed them to run nearly wild. Since she died, some ten months back, they appeared to have run quite wild. The house, with some six hundred acres of land, was theirs, and an income, as to whose exact amount no one seemed quite clear.
“It’s about eight hundred a year,” said Rupert.
“I don’t think it’s quite so much,” doubted Madge.
“I’m sure it’s more,” declared Bessie. “I believe we’re being robbed.”
I thought it extremely probable. They must have had peculiar parents. Their father had left everything absolutely to their mother, and the mother, in her turn, everything in trust to Madge, to be shared equally among them all. Madge was an odd trustee. In her hands the household had become a republic, in which every one did exactly as he or she pleased. The result was chaos. No one wanted to go to school, so no one went. The servants, finding themselves provided with eight masters and mistresses, followed their example, and did as they liked. Consequently, after sundry battles royal–lively episodes some of them had evidently been–one after the other had been got rid of, until, now, not one remained. Plainly the house must be going to rack and ruin.
“But have you no relations?” I inquired.
“We’ve got some cousins, or uncles, or something of the kind in Australia, where, so far as I’m concerned, I hope they’ll stop.”
When I was in my room, which I feared was Madge’s, I told myself that it was a queer establishment on which I had lighted. Yet I could not honestly affirm that I was sorry I had come. I had lived such an uneventful and such a solitary life, and had so often longed for someone in whom to take an interest–who would not talk medicine chest!–that to be plunged, all at once, into the centre of this troop of boys and girls was an accident which, if only because of its novelty, I found amusing. And then it was so odd that I should have come across a Madge at last!
In the morning I was roused by noises, the cause of which, at first, I could not understand. By degrees the explanation dawned on me; the family was putting the house to rights. A somewhat noisy process it seemed. Someone was singing, someone else was shouting, and two or three others were engaged in a heated argument. In such loud tones was it conducted that the gist of the matter travelled up to me.
“How do you think I’m going to get this fire to burn if you beastly kids keep messing it about? It’s no good banging at it with the poker till it’s alight.”
The voice was unmistakably Rupert’s. There was the sound of a scuffle, cries of indignation, then a girlish voice pouring oil upon the troubled waters. Presently there was a rattle and clatter, as if someone had fallen from the top of the house to the bottom. I rushed to my bedroom door.
“What on earth has happened?”
A small boy was outside–Peter. He explained,
“Oh, it’s only the broom and dustpan gone tobogganing down the stairs. It’s Bessie’s fault; she shouldn’t leave them on the landing.”
Bessie, appearing from a room opposite, disclaimed responsibility.
“I told you to look out where you were going, but you never do. I’d only put them down for a second, while I went in to empty a jug of water on to Jack, who won’t get out of bed, and there are all the boots for him to clean.”
Injured tones came through the open portal.
“You wait, that’s all! I’ll soak your bed tonight–I’ll drown it. I don’t want to clean your dirty boots, I’m not a shoe-black.”
The breakfast was a failure. To begin with, it was inordinately late. It seemed that a bath was not obtainable. I had been promised some hot water, but as I waited and waited and none arrived, I proceeded to break the ice in my jug–it was a bitterly cold morning, nice “old-fashioned” weather–and to wash in the half-frozen contents. As I am not accustomed to perform my ablutions in partially dissolved ice, I fear that the process did not improve my temper.
It was past eleven when I got down, feeling not exactly in a “Christmassy” frame of mind. Everything, and everyone, seemed at sixes and sevens. It was after noon when breakfast appeared. The principal dish consisted of eggs and bacon; but as the bacon was fried to cinders, and the eggs all broken, it was not so popular as it might have been, Madge was moved to melancholy.
“Something will have to be done! We can’t go on like this! We must have someone in to help us!”
Bessie was sarcastic.
“You might give Eliza another trial. She told you, if you didn’t like the way she burned the bacon, to burn it yourself, and as you’ve followed her advice, she might be able to give you other useful hints on similar lines.”
Rupert indulged himself in the same vein.
“Then there’s Eliza’s brother. He threatened to knock your blooming head off for saying Eliza was dishonest, just because she collared everything she laid her hands on; he might turn out a useful sort of creature to have about the place.”
“It’s all very well for you to laugh, but it’s beyond a jest. I don’t know how we’re going to cook the dinner.”
“Can I be of any assistance?” I inquired. “First of all, what is there to cook?”
It seemed that there were a good many things to cook. A turkey, a goose, beef, plum pudding, mince pies, custard, sardines–it seemed that Molly, the third girl, as she phrased it, could “live on sardines,” and esteemed no dinner a decent dinner at which they did not appear–together with a list of etceteras half as long as my arm.
“One thing is clear; you can’t cook all those things to-day.”
“We can’t cook anything.”
This was Rupert. He was tilting his chair back, and had his face turned towards the ceiling.
“Because there’s no coal.”
“There’s about half a scuttle full of dust. If you can make it burn you’ll be clever.”
What Rupert said was correct. Madge confessed, with crimson cheeks, that she had meant, over and over again, to order some coal, but had continually forgotten it, until finally Christmas Day had found them with an empty cellar. There was plenty of wood, but it was not so dry as it might have been, and anyhow, the grate was not constructed to burn wood.
“You might try smoked beef,” suggested Rupert. “When that wood goes at all it smokes like one o’clock. If you hung the beef up over it, it would be smoked enough for anyone by the time that it was done.”
I began to rub my chin. Considering the breakfast we had had, from my point of view the situation commenced, for the first time, to look really grave, I wondered if it would not be possible to take the whole eight somewhere where something really eatable could be got. But, when I broached the subject, I learned that the thing could not be done. The nearest hostelry was the “Boy and Blunderbuss,” and it was certain that nothing eatable could be had there, even if accommodation could be found for us at all. Nothing in the shape of a possible house of public entertainment was to be found closer than the market town, eight miles off; it was unlikely that even there a Christmas dinner for nine could be provided at a moment’s notice. Evidently the only thing to do was to make the best of things.
When the meeting broke up Madge came and said a few words to me alone.
“I really think you had better not stay.”
“Does that mean that you had rather I went?”
“No; not exactly that.”
“Then nearly that?”
“No; not a bit that. Only you must see for yourself how awfully uncomfortable you’ll be here, and what a horrid house this is.”
“My dear Madge”–everybody called her Madge, so I did–“even if I wanted to go, which I don’t–and I would remind you that you contracted to give me an old-fashioned Christmas–I don’t see where there is that I could go.”
“Of course, there’s that. I don’t see, either. So I suppose you’ll have to stay. But I hope you won’t think that I meant you to come to a place like this–really, you know.”
“I’m sorry; I had hoped you had.”
“That’s not what I mean. I mean that if I had thought that you were coming, I would have seen that things were different.”
“How different? I assure you that things as they are have a charm of their own.”
“That’s what you say. You don’t suppose that I’m so silly as not to know you’re laughing at me? But as I was the whole cause of your coming, I hope you won’t hate the others because of me.”
She marched off, brushing back, with an impatient gesture, some rebellious locks which had strayed upon her forehead.
That Christmas dinner was a success–positively. Of a kind–let that be clearly understood. I am not inferring that it was a success from the point of view of a “chef de cuisine.” Not at all; how could it be? Quite the other way. By dint of ransacking all the rooms, and emptying all the scuttles, we collected a certain amount of coal, with which, after adding a fair proportion of wood, we managed. Not brilliantly, but after a fashion. I can only say, personally, I had not enjoyed myself so much for years. I really felt as if I were young again; I am not sure that I am not younger than I thought I was. I must look the matter up. And, after all, even if one be, say forty, one need not be absolutely an ancient. Madge herself said that I had been like a right hand to her; she did not know what she would have done without me.
Looking back, I cannot but think that if we had attempted to prepare fewer dishes, something might have been properly cooked. It was a mistake to stuff the turkey with sage and onions; but as Bessie did not discover that she had been manipulating the wrong bird until the process of stuffing had been completed, it was felt that it might be just as well to let it rest. Unfortunately, it turned out that some thyme, parsley, mint, and other things had got mixed with the sage, which gave the creature quite a peculiar flavour; but as it came to table nearly raw, and as tough as hickory, it really did not matter.
My experience of that day teaches me that it is not easy to roast a large goose on a small oil stove. The dropping fat caused the flame to give out a strong smelling and most unpleasant smoke. Rupert, who had charge of the operation, affirmed that it would be all right in the end. But, by the time the thing was served, it was as black as my hat. Rupert said that it was merely brown; but the brown was of a sooty hue, and it reeked of paraffin. We had to have it deposited in the ashbin. I daresay that the beef would not have been bad if someone had occasionally turned it, and if the fire would have burned clear. As it was, it was charred on one side and raw on the other, and smoked all over. The way in which the odour and taste of smoke permeated everything was amazing. The plum-pudding, came to the table in the form of soup, and the mince pies were nauseous. Something had got into the crust, or mincemeat, or something, which there, at any rate, was out of place.
Luckily we came upon a tin of corned beef in a cupboard, and with the aid of some bread and cheese, and other odds and ends, we made a sort of picnic. Incredible though it may seem, I enjoyed it. If there was anywhere a merrier party than we were, I should like to know where it was to be found. It must have been a merry one. When I produced the presents, in which a happy inspiration had urged me to invest, “the enthusiasm reached a climax”–I believe that is the proper form of words which I ought to use. As I watched the pleasure of those youngsters, I felt as if I were myself a boy again.
* * * * *
That was my first introduction to “a lively family.” They came up to the description they had given of themselves. I speak from knowledge, for they have been my acquaintances now some time. More than acquaintances, friends; the dearest friends I have. At their request, I took their affairs in hand, Madge informally passing her trusteeship on to me. Things are very different with them now. The house is spick and span. There is an excellent staff of servants. Hangar Dene is as comfortable a home as there is in England. I have spent many a happy Christmas under its hospitable roof since then.
The boys are out in the world, after passing with honour through school and college. The girls are going out into the world also. Bessie is actually married. Madge is married too. She is Mrs. Christopher. That is the part of it all which I find is hardest to understand–to have told myself my whole life long that the name of my ideal woman would be Madge, and to have won that woman for my own at last! That is greater fortune than falls to the lot of most men. I thought that I was beyond that kind of thing; that I was too old. But Madge seemed to think that I was young enough. And she thinks so still.
And now there is a little Madge, who is big enough to play havoc with the sheets of paper on which I have been scribbling, to whom, one day, this tale will have to be told.
Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet. Hardly had she brought one gentleman into the little pantry behind the office on the ground floor and helped him off with his overcoat than the wheezy hall-door bell clanged again and she had to scamper along the bare hallway to let in another guest. It was well for her she had not to attend to the ladies also. But Miss Kate and Miss Julia had thought of that and had converted the bathroom upstairs into a ladies’ dressing-room. Miss Kate and Miss Julia were there, gossiping and laughing and fussing, walking after each other to the head of the stairs, peering down over the banisters and calling down to Lily to ask her who had come. It was always a great affair, the Misses Morkan’s annual dance. Everybody who knew them came to it, members of the family, old friends of the family, the members of Julia’s choir, any of Kate’s pupils that were grown up enough, and even some of Mary Jane’s pupils too. Never once had it fallen flat. For years and years it had gone off in splendid style, as long as anyone could remember; ever since Kate and Julia, after the death of their brother Pat, had left the house in Stoney Batter and taken Mary Jane, their only niece, to live with them in the dark, gaunt house on Usher’s Island, the upper part of which they had rented from Mr. Fulham, the corn-factor on the ground floor. That was a good thirty years ago if it was a day. Mary Jane, who was then a little girl in short clothes, was now the main prop of the household, for she had the organ in Haddington Road. She had been through the Academy and gave a pupils’ concert every year in the upper room of the Antient Concert Rooms. Many of her pupils belonged to the better-class families on the Kingstown and Dalkey line. Old as they were, her aunts also did their share. Julia, though she was quite grey, was still the leading soprano in Adam and Eve’s, and Kate, being too feeble to go about much, gave music lessons to beginners on the old square piano in the back room. Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, did housemaid’s work for them. Though their life was modest, they believed in eating well; the best of everything: diamond-bone sirloins, threeshilling tea and the best bottled stout. But Lily seldom made a mistake in the orders, so that she got on well with her three mistresses. They were fussy, that was all. But the only thing they would not stand was back answers. Of course, they had good reason to be fussy on such a night. And then it was long after ten o’clock and yet there was no sign of Gabriel and his wife. Besides they were dreadfully afraid that Freddy Malins might turn up screwed. They would not wish for worlds that any of Mary Jane’s pupils should see him under the influence; and when he was like that it was sometimes very hard to manage him. Freddy Malins always came late, but they wondered what could be keeping Gabriel: and that was what brought them every two minutes to the banisters to ask Lily had Gabriel or Freddy come. “O, Mr. Conroy,” said Lily to Gabriel when she opened the door for him, “Miss Kate and Miss Julia thought you were never coming. Good-night, Mrs. Conroy.” “I’ll engage they did,” said Gabriel, “but they forget that my wife here takes three mortal hours to dress herself.” He stood on the mat, scraping the snow from his goloshes, while Lily led his wife to the foot of the stairs and called out: “Miss Kate, here’s Mrs. Conroy.” Kate and Julia came toddling down the dark stairs at once. Both of them kissed Gabriel’s wife, said she must be perished alive, and asked was Gabriel with her. “Here I am as right as the mail, Aunt Kate! Go on up. I’ll follow,” called out Gabriel from the dark. He continued scraping his feet vigorously while the three women went upstairs, laughing, to the ladies’ dressing-room. A light fringe of snow lay like a cape on the shoulders of his overcoat and like toecaps on the toes of his goloshes; and, as the buttons of his overcoat slipped with a squeaking noise through the snow-stiffened frieze, a cold, fragrant air from out-of-doors escaped from crevices and folds. “Is it snowing again, Mr. Conroy?” asked Lily. She had preceded him into the pantry to help him off with his overcoat. Gabriel smiled at the three syllables she had given his surname and glanced at her. She was a slim; growing girl, pale in complexion and with hay-coloured hair. The gas in the pantry made her look still paler. Gabriel had known her when she was a child and used to sit on the lowest step nursing a rag doll. “Yes, Lily,” he answered, “and I think we’re in for a night of it.” He looked up at the pantry ceiling, which was shaking with the stamping and shuffling of feet on the floor above, listened for a moment to the piano and then glanced at the girl, who was folding his overcoat carefully at the end of a shelf. “Tell me. Lily,” he said in a friendly tone, “do you still go to school?” “O no, sir,” she answered. “I’m done schooling this year and more.” “O, then,” said Gabriel gaily, “I suppose we’ll be going to your wedding one of these fine days with your young man, eh? “ The girl glanced back at him over her shoulder and said with great bitterness: “The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you.” Gabriel coloured, as if he felt he had made a mistake and, without looking at her, kicked off his goloshes and flicked actively with his muffler at his patent-leather shoes. He was a stout, tallish young man. The high colour of his cheeks pushed upwards even to his forehead, where it scattered itself in a few formless patches of pale red; and on his hairless face there scintillated restlessly the polished lenses and the bright gilt rims of the glasses which screened his delicate and restless eyes. His glossy black hair was parted in the middle and brushed in a long curve behind his ears where it curled slightly beneath the groove left by his hat. When he had flicked lustre into his shoes he stood up and pulled his waistcoat down more tightly on his plump body. Then he took a coin rapidly from his pocket. “O Lily,” he said, thrusting it into her hands, “it’s Christmastime, isn’t it? Just . . . here’s a little. . . .” He walked rapidly towards the door. “O no, sir!” cried the girl, following him. “Really, sir, I wouldn’t take it.” “Christmas-time! Christmas-time!” said Gabriel, almost trotting to the stairs and waving his hand to her in deprecation. The girl, seeing that he had gained the stairs, called out after him: “Well, thank you, sir.” He waited outside the drawing-room door until the waltz should finish, listening to the skirts that swept against it and to the shuffling of feet. He was still discomposed by the girl’s bitter and sudden retort. It had cast a gloom over him which he tried to dispel by arranging his cuffs and the bows of his tie. He then took from his waistcoat pocket a little paper and glanced at the headings he had made for his speech. He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning, for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. Some quotation that they would recognise from Shakespeare or from the Melodies would be better. The indelicate clacking of the men’s heels and the shuffling of their soles reminded him that their grade of culture differed from his. He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand. They would think that he was airing his superior education. He would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry. He had taken up a wrong tone. His whole speech was a mistake from first to last, an utter failure. Just then his aunts and his wife came out of the ladies’ dressing-room. His aunts were two small, plainly dressed old women. Aunt Julia was an inch or so the taller. Her hair, drawn low over the tops of her ears, was grey; and grey also, with darker shadows, was her large flaccid face. Though she was stout in build and stood erect, her slow eyes and parted lips gave her the appearance of a woman who did not know where she was or where she was going. Aunt Kate was more vivacious. Her face, healthier than her sister’s, was all puckers and creases, like a shrivelled red apple, and her hair, braided in the same old-fashioned way, had not lost its ripe nut colour. They both kissed Gabriel frankly. He was their favourite nephew the son of their dead elder sister, Ellen, who had married T. J. Conroy of the Port and Docks. “Gretta tells me you’re not going to take a cab back to Monkstown tonight, Gabriel,” said Aunt Kate. “No,” said Gabriel, turning to his wife, “we had quite enough of that last year, hadn’t we? Don’t you remember, Aunt Kate, what a cold Gretta got out of it? Cab windows rattling all the way, and the east wind blowing in after we passed Merrion. Very jolly it was. Gretta caught a dreadful cold.” Aunt Kate frowned severely and nodded her head at every word. “Quite right, Gabriel, quite right,” she said. “You can’t be too careful.” “But as for Gretta there,” said Gabriel, “she’d walk home in the snow if she were let.” Mrs. Conroy laughed. “Don’t mind him, Aunt Kate,” she said. “He’s really an awful bother, what with green shades for Tom’s eyes at night and making him do the dumb-bells, and forcing Eva to eat the stirabout. The poor child! And she simply hates the sight of it! . . . O, but you’ll never guess what he makes me wear now!” She broke out into a peal of laughter and glanced at her husband, whose admiring and happy eyes had been wandering from her dress to her face and hair. The two aunts laughed heartily, too, for Gabriel’s solicitude was a standing joke with them. “Goloshes!” said Mrs. Conroy. “That’s the latest. Whenever it’s wet underfoot I must put on my galoshes. Tonight even, he wanted me to put them on, but I wouldn’t. The next thing he’ll buy me will be a diving suit.” Gabriel laughed nervously and patted his tie reassuringly, while Aunt Kate nearly doubled herself, so heartily did she enjoy the joke. The smile soon faded from Aunt Julia’s face and her mirthless eyes were directed towards her nephew’s face. After a pause she asked: “And what are goloshes, Gabriel?” “Goloshes, Julia!” exclaimed her sister. “Goodness me, don’t you know what goloshes are? You wear them over your… over your boots, Gretta, isn’t it?” “Yes,” said Mrs. Conroy. “Guttapercha things. We both have a pair now. Gabriel says everyone wears them on the Continent.” “O, on the Continent,” murmured Aunt Julia, nodding her head slowly. Gabriel knitted his brows and said, as if he were slightly angered: “It’s nothing very wonderful, but Gretta thinks it very funny because she says the word reminds her of Christy Minstrels.” “But tell me, Gabriel,” said Aunt Kate, with brisk tact. “Of course, you’ve seen about the room. Gretta was saying. . . .” “0, the room is all right,” replied Gabriel. “I’ve taken one in the Gresham.” “To be sure,” said Aunt Kate, “by far the best thing to do. And the children, Gretta, you’re not anxious about them?” “0, for one night,” said Mrs. Conroy. “Besides, Bessie will look after them.” “To be sure,” said Aunt Kate again. “What a comfort it is to have a girl like that, one you can depend on! There’s that Lily, I’m sure I don’t know what has come over her lately. She’s not the girl she was at all.” Gabriel was about to ask his aunt some questions on this point, but she broke off suddenly to gaze after her sister, who had wandered down the stairs and was craning her neck over the banisters. “Now, I ask you,” she said almost testily, “where is Julia going? Julia! Julia! Where are you going?” Julia, who had gone half way down one flight, came back and announced blandly: “Here’s Freddy.” At the same moment a clapping of hands and a final flourish of the pianist told that the waltz had ended. The drawing-room door was opened from within and some couples came out. Aunt Kate drew Gabriel aside hurriedly and whispered into his ear: “Slip down, Gabriel, like a good fellow and see if he’s all right, and don’t let him up if he’s screwed. I’m sure he’s screwed. I’m sure he is.” Gabriel went to the stairs and listened over the banisters. He could hear two persons talking in the pantry. Then he recognised Freddy Malins’ laugh. He went down the stairs noisily. “It’s such a relief,” said Aunt Kate to Mrs. Conroy, “that Gabriel is here. I always feel easier in my mind when he’s here. . . . Julia, there’s Miss Daly and Miss Power will take some refreshment. Thanks for your beautiful waltz, Miss Daly. It made lovely time.” A tall wizen-faced man, with a stiff grizzled moustache and swarthy skin, who was passing out with his partner, said: “And may we have some refreshment, too, Miss Morkan?” “Julia,” said Aunt Kate summarily, “and here’s Mr. Browne and Miss Furlong. Take them in, Julia, with Miss Daly and Miss Power.” “I’m the man for the ladies,” said Mr. Browne, pursing his lips until his moustache bristled and smiling in all his wrinkles. “You know, Miss Morkan, the reason they are so fond of me is—” He did not finish his sentence, but, seeing that Aunt Kate was out of earshot, at once led the three young ladies into the back room. The middle of the room was occupied by two square tables placed end to end, and on these Aunt Julia and the caretaker were straightening and smoothing a large cloth. On the sideboard were arrayed dishes and plates, and glasses and bundles of knives and forks and spoons. The top of the closed square piano served also as a sideboard for viands and sweets. At a smaller sideboard in one corner two young men were standing, drinking hop-bitters. Mr. Browne led his charges thither and invited them all, in jest, to some ladies’ punch, hot, strong and sweet. As they said they never took anything strong, he opened three bottles of lemonade for them. Then he asked one of the young men to move aside, and, taking hold of the decanter, filled out for himself a goodly measure of whisky. The young men eyed him respectfully while he took a trial sip. “God help me,” he said, smiling, “it’s the doctor’s orders.” His wizened face broke into a broader smile, and the three young ladies laughed in musical echo to his pleasantry, swaying their bodies to and fro, with nervous jerks of their shoulders. The boldest said: “O, now, Mr. Browne, I’m sure the doctor never ordered anything of the kind.” Mr. Browne took another sip of his whisky and said, with sidling mimicry: “Well, you see, I’m like the famous Mrs. Cassidy, who is reported to have said: ‘Now, Mary Grimes, if I don’t take it, make me take it, for I feel I want it.’“ His hot face had leaned forward a little too confidentially and he had assumed a very low Dublin accent so that the young ladies, with one instinct, received his speech in silence. Miss Furlong, who was one of Mary Jane’s pupils, asked Miss Daly what was the name of the pretty waltz she had played; and Mr. Browne, seeing that he was ignored, turned promptly to the two young men who were more appreciative. A red-faced young woman, dressed in pansy, came into the room, excitedly clapping her hands and crying: “Quadrilles! Quadrilles!” Close on her heels came Aunt Kate, crying: “Two gentlemen and three ladies, Mary Jane!” “O, here’s Mr. Bergin and Mr. Kerrigan,” said Mary Jane. “Mr. Kerrigan, will you take Miss Power? Miss Furlong, may I get you a partner, Mr. Bergin. O, that’ll just do now.” “Three ladies, Mary Jane,” said Aunt Kate. The two young gentlemen asked the ladies if they might have the pleasure, and Mary Jane turned to Miss Daly. “O, Miss Daly, you’re really awfully good, after playing for the last two dances, but really we’re so short of ladies tonight.” “I don’t mind in the least, Miss Morkan.” “But I’ve a nice partner for you, Mr. Bartell D’Arcy, the tenor. I’ll get him to sing later on. All Dublin is raving about him.” “Lovely voice, lovely voice!” said Aunt Kate. As the piano had twice begun the prelude to the first figure Mary Jane led her recruits quickly from the room. They had hardly gone when Aunt Julia wandered slowly into the room, looking behind her at something. “What is the matter, Julia?” asked Aunt Kate anxiously. “Who is it?” Julia, who was carrying in a column of table-napkins, turned to her sister and said, simply, as if the question had surprised her: “It’s only Freddy, Kate, and Gabriel with him.” In fact right behind her Gabriel could be seen piloting Freddy Malins across the landing. The latter, a young man of about forty, was of Gabriel’s size and build, with very round shoulders. His face was fleshy and pallid, touched with colour only at the thick hanging lobes of his ears and at the wide wings of his nose. He had coarse features, a blunt nose, a convex and receding brow, tumid and protruded lips. His heavy-lidded eyes and the disorder of his scanty hair made him look sleepy. He was laughing heartily in a high key at a story which he had been telling Gabriel on the stairs and at the same time rubbing the knuckles of his left fist backwards and forwards into his left eye. “Good-evening, Freddy,” said Aunt Julia. Freddy Malins bade the Misses Morkan good-evening in what seemed an offhand fashion by reason of the habitual catch in his voice and then, seeing that Mr. Browne was grinning at him from the sideboard, crossed the room on rather shaky legs and began to repeat in an undertone the story he had just told to Gabriel. “He’s not so bad, is he?” said Aunt Kate to Gabriel. Gabriel’s brows were dark but he raised them quickly and answered: “O, no, hardly noticeable.” “Now, isn’t he a terrible fellow!” she said. “And his poor mother made him take the pledge on New Year’s Eve. But come on, Gabriel, into the drawing-room.” Before leaving the room with Gabriel she signalled to Mr. Browne by frowning and shaking her forefinger in warning to and fro. Mr. Browne nodded in answer and, when she had gone, said to Freddy Malins: “Now, then, Teddy, I’m going to fill you out a good glass of lemonade just to buck you up.” Freddy Malins, who was nearing the climax of his story, waved the offer aside impatiently but Mr. Browne, having first called Freddy Malins’ attention to a disarray in his dress, filled out and handed him a full glass of lemonade. Freddy Malins’ left hand accepted the glass mechanically, his right hand being engaged in the mechanical readjustment of his dress. Mr. Browne, whose face was once more wrinkling with mirth, poured out for himself a glass of whisky while Freddy Malins exploded, before he had well reached the climax of his story, in a kink of high-pitched bronchitic laughter and, setting down his untasted and overflowing glass, began to rub the knuckles of his left fist backwards and forwards into his left eye, repeating words of his last phrase as well as his fit of laughter would allow him. Gabriel could not listen while Mary Jane was playing her Academy piece, full of runs and difficult passages, to the hushed drawing-room. He liked music but the piece she was playing had no melody for him and he doubted whether it had any melody for the other listeners, though they had begged Mary Jane to play something. Four young men, who had come from the refreshment-room to stand in the doorway at the sound of the piano, had gone away quietly in couples after a few minutes. The only persons who seemed to follow the music were Mary Jane herself, her hands racing along the key-board or lifted from it at the pauses like those of a priestess in momentary imprecation, and Aunt Kate standing at her elbow to turn the page. Gabriel’s eyes, irritated by the floor, which glittered with beeswax under the heavy chandelier, wandered to the wall above the piano. A picture of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet hung there and beside it was a picture of the two murdered princes in the Tower which Aunt Julia had worked in red, blue and brown wools when she was a girl. Probably in the school they had gone to as girls that kind of work had been taught for one year. His mother had worked for him as a birthday present a waistcoat of purple tabinet, with little foxes’ heads upon it, lined with brown satin and having round mulberry buttons. It was strange that his mother had had no musical talent though Aunt Kate used to call her the brains carrier of the Morkan family. Both she and Julia had always seemed a little proud of their serious and matronly sister. Her photograph stood before the pierglass. She held an open book on her knees and was pointing out something in it to Constantine who, dressed in a man-o-war suit, lay at her feet. It was she who had chosen the name of her sons for she was very sensible of the dignity of family life. Thanks to her, Constantine was now senior curate in Balbrigan and, thanks to her, Gabriel himself had taken his degree in the Royal University. A shadow passed over his face as he remembered her sullen opposition to his marriage. Some slighting phrases she had used still rankled in his memory; she had once spoken of Gretta as being country cute and that was not true of Gretta at all. It was Gretta who had nursed her during all her last long illness in their house at Monkstown. He knew that Mary Jane must be near the end of her piece for she was playing again the opening melody with runs of scales after every bar and while he waited for the end the resentment died down in his heart. The piece ended with a trill of octaves in the treble and a final deep octave in the bass. Great applause greeted Mary Jane as, blushing and rolling up her music nervously, she escaped from the room. The most vigorous clapping came from the four young men in the doorway who had gone away to the refreshment-room at the beginning of the piece but had come back when the piano had stopped. Lancers were arranged. Gabriel found himself partnered with Miss Ivors. She was a frank-mannered talkative young lady, with a freckled face and prominent brown eyes. She did not wear a low-cut bodice and the large brooch which was fixed in the front of her collar bore on it an Irish device and motto. When they had taken their places she said abruptly: “I have a crow to pluck with you.” “With me?” said Gabriel. She nodded her head gravely. “What is it?” asked Gabriel, smiling at her solemn manner. “Who is G. C.?” answered Miss Ivors, turning her eyes upon him. Gabriel coloured and was about to knit his brows, as if he did not understand, when she said bluntly: “O, innocent Amy! I have found out that you write for The Daily Express. Now, aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” “Why should I be ashamed of myself?” asked Gabriel, blinking his eyes and trying to smile. “Well, I’m ashamed of you,” said Miss Ivors frankly. “To say you’d write for a paper like that. I didn’t think you were a West Briton.” A look of perplexity appeared on Gabriel’s face. It was true that he wrote a literary column every Wednesday in The Daily Express, for which he was paid fifteen shillings. But that did not make him a West Briton surely. The books he received for review were almost more welcome than the paltry cheque. He loved to feel the covers and turn over the pages of newly printed books. Nearly every day when his teaching in the college was ended he used to wander down the quays to the second-hand booksellers, to Hickey’s on Bachelor’s Walk, to Web’s or Massey’s on Aston’s Quay, or to O’Clohissey’s in the bystreet. He did not know how to meet her charge. He wanted to say that literature was above politics. But they were friends of many years’ standing and their careers had been parallel, first at the University and then as teachers: he could not risk a grandiose phrase with her. He continued blinking his eyes and trying to smile and murmured lamely that he saw nothing political in writing reviews of books. When their turn to cross had come he was still perplexed and inattentive. Miss Ivors promptly took his hand in a warm grasp and said in a soft friendly tone: “Of course, I was only joking. Come, we cross now.” When they were together again she spoke of the University question and Gabriel felt more at ease. A friend of hers had shown her his review of Browning’s poems. That was how she had found out the secret: but she liked the review immensely. Then she said suddenly: “O, Mr. Conroy, will you come for an excursion to the Aran Isles this summer? We’re going to stay there a whole month. It will be splendid out in the Atlantic. You ought to come. Mr. Clancy is coming, and Mr. Kilkelly and Kathleen Kearney. It would be splendid for Gretta too if she’d come. She’s from Connacht, isn’t she?” “Her people are,” said Gabriel shortly. “But you will come, won’t you?” said Miss Ivors, laying her warm hand eagerly on his arm. “The fact is,” said Gabriel, “I have just arranged to go—” “Go where?” asked Miss Ivors. “Well, you know, every year I go for a cycling tour with some fellows and so—” “But where?” asked Miss Ivors. “Well, we usually go to France or Belgium or perhaps Germany,” said Gabriel awkwardly. “And why do you go to France and Belgium,” said Miss Ivors, “instead of visiting your own land?” “Well,” said Gabriel, “it’s partly to keep in touch with the languages and partly for a change.” “And haven’t you your own language to keep in touch with—Irish?” asked Miss Ivors. “Well,” said Gabriel, “if it comes to that, you know, Irish is not my language.” Their neighbours had turned to listen to the cross-examination. Gabriel glanced right and left nervously and tried to keep his good humour under the ordeal which was making a blush invade his forehead. “And haven’t you your own land to visit,” continued Miss Ivors, “that you know nothing of, your own people, and your own country?” “0, to tell you the truth,” retorted Gabriel suddenly, “I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!” “Why?” asked Miss Ivors. Gabriel did not answer for his retort had heated him. “Why?” repeated Miss Ivors. They had to go visiting together and, as he had not answered her, Miss Ivors said warmly: “Of course, you’ve no answer.” Gabriel tried to cover his agitation by taking part in the dance with great energy. He avoided her eyes for he had seen a sour expression on her face. But when they met in the long chain he was surprised to feel his hand firmly pressed. She looked at him from under her brows for a moment quizzically until he smiled. Then, just as the chain was about to start again, she stood on tiptoe and whispered into his ear: “West Briton!” When the lancers were over Gabriel went away to a remote corner of the room where Freddy Malins’ mother was sitting. She was a stout feeble old woman with white hair. Her voice had a catch in it like her son’s and she stuttered slightly. She had been told that Freddy had come and that he was nearly all right. Gabriel asked her whether she had had a good crossing. She lived with her married daughter in Glasgow and came to Dublin on a visit once a year. She answered placidly that she had had a beautiful crossing and that the captain had been most attentive to her. She spoke also of the beautiful house her daughter kept in Glasgow, and of all the friends they had there. While her tongue rambled on Gabriel tried to banish from his mind all memory of the unpleasant incident with Miss Ivors. Of course the girl or woman, or whatever she was, was an enthusiast but there was a time for all things. Perhaps he ought not to have answered her like that. But she had no right to call him a West Briton before people, even in joke. She had tried to make him ridiculous before people, heckling him and staring at him with her rabbit’s eyes. He saw his wife making her way towards him through the waltzing couples. When she reached him she said into his ear: “Gabriel. Aunt Kate wants to know won’t you carve the goose as usual. Miss Daly will carve the ham and I’ll do the pudding.” “All right,” said Gabriel. “She’s sending in the younger ones first as soon as this waltz is over so that we’ll have the table to ourselves.” “Were you dancing?” asked Gabriel. “Of course I was. Didn’t you see me? What row had you with Molly Ivors?” “No row. Why? Did she say so?” “Something like that. I’m trying to get that Mr. D’Arcy to sing. He’s full of conceit, I think.” “There was no row,” said Gabriel moodily, “only she wanted me to go for a trip to the west of Ireland and I said I wouldn’t.” His wife clasped her hands excitedly and gave a little jump. “O, do go, Gabriel,” she cried. “I’d love to see Galway again.” “You can go if you like,” said Gabriel coldly. She looked at him for a moment, then turned to Mrs. Malins and said: “There’s a nice husband for you, Mrs. Malins.” While she was threading her way back across the room Mrs. Malins, without adverting to the interruption, went on to tell Gabriel what beautiful places there were in Scotland and beautiful scenery. Her son-in-law brought them every year to the lakes and they used to go fishing. Her son-in-law was a splendid fisher. One day he caught a beautiful big fish and the man in the hotel cooked it for their dinner. Gabriel hardly heard what she said. Now that supper was coming near he began to think again about his speech and about the quotation. When he saw Freddy Malins coming across the room to visit his mother Gabriel left the chair free for him and retired into the embrasure of the window. The room had already cleared and from the back room came the clatter of plates and knives. Those who still remained in the drawing room seemed tired of dancing and were conversing quietly in little groups. Gabriel’s warm trembling fingers tapped the cold pane of the window. How cool it must be outside! How pleasant it would be to walk out alone, first along by the river and then through the park! The snow would be lying on the branches of the trees and forming a bright cap on the top of the Wellington Monument. How much more pleasant it would be there than at the supper-table! He ran over the headings of his speech: Irish hospitality, sad memories, the Three Graces, Paris, the quotation from Browning. He repeated to himself a phrase he had written in his review: “One feels that one is listening to a thought-tormented music.” Miss Ivors had praised the review. Was she sincere? Had she really any life of her own behind all her propagandism? There had never been any ill-feeling between them until that night. It unnerved him to think that she would be at the supper-table, looking up at him while he spoke with her critical quizzing eyes. Perhaps she would not be sorry to see him fail in his speech. An idea came into his mind and gave him courage. He would say, alluding to Aunt Kate and Aunt Julia: “Ladies and Gentlemen, the generation which is now on the wane among us may have had its faults but for my part I think it had certain qualities of hospitality, of humour, of humanity, which the new and very serious and hypereducated generation that is growing up around us seems to me to lack.” Very good: that was one for Miss Ivors. What did he care that his aunts were only two ignorant old women? A murmur in the room attracted his attention. Mr. Browne was advancing from the door, gallantly escorting Aunt Julia, who leaned upon his arm, smiling and hanging her head. An irregular musketry of applause escorted her also as far as the piano and then, as Mary Jane seated herself on the stool, and Aunt Julia, no longer smiling, half turned so as to pitch her voice fairly into the room, gradually ceased. Gabriel recognised the prelude. It was that of an old song of Aunt Julia’s—Arrayed for the Bridal. Her voice, strong and clear in tone, attacked with great spirit the runs which embellish the air and though she sang very rapidly she did not miss even the smallest of the grace notes. To follow the voice, without looking at the singer’s face, was to feel and share the excitement of swift and secure flight. Gabriel applauded loudly with all the others at the close of the song and loud applause was borne in from the invisible supper-table. It sounded so genuine that a little colour struggled into Aunt Julia’s face as she bent to replace in the music-stand the old leather-bound songbook that had her initials on the cover. Freddy Malins, who had listened with his head perched sideways to hear her better, was still applauding when everyone else had ceased and talking animatedly to his mother who nodded her head gravely and slowly in acquiescence. At last, when he could clap no more, he stood up suddenly and hurried across the room to Aunt Julia whose hand he seized and held in both his hands, shaking it when words failed him or the catch in his voice proved too much for him. “I was just telling my mother,” he said, “I never heard you sing so well, never. No, I never heard your voice so good as it is tonight. Now! Would you believe that now? That’s the truth. Upon my word and honour that’s the truth. I never heard your voice sound so fresh and so . . . so clear and fresh, never.” Aunt Julia smiled broadly and murmured something about compliments as she released her hand from his grasp. Mr. Browne extended his open hand towards her and said to those who were near him in the manner of a showman introducing a prodigy to an audience: “Miss Julia Morkan, my latest discovery!” He was laughing very heartily at this himself when Freddy Malins turned to him and said: “Well, Browne, if you’re serious you might make a worse discovery. All I can say is I never heard her sing half so well as long as I am coming here. And that’s the honest truth.” “Neither did I,” said Mr. Browne. “I think her voice has greatly improved.” Aunt Julia shrugged her shoulders and said with meek pride: “Thirty years ago I hadn’t a bad voice as voices go.” “I often told Julia,” said Aunt Kate emphatically, “that she was simply thrown away in that choir. But she never would be said by me.” She turned as if to appeal to the good sense of the others against a refractory child while Aunt Julia gazed in front of her, a vague smile of reminiscence playing on her face. “No,” continued Aunt Kate, “she wouldn’t be said or led by anyone, slaving there in that choir night and day, night and day. Six o’clock on Christmas morning! And all for what?” “Well, isn’t it for the honour of God, Aunt Kate?” asked Mary Jane, twisting round on the piano-stool and smiling. Aunt Kate turned fiercely on her niece and said: “I know all about the honour of God, Mary Jane, but I think it’s not at all honourable for the pope to turn the women out of the choirs that have slaved there all their lives and put little whipper-snappers of boys over their heads. I suppose it is for the good of the Church if the pope does it. But it’s not just, Mary Jane, and it’s not right.” She had worked herself into a passion and would have continued in defence of her sister for it was a sore subject with her but Mary Jane, seeing that all the dancers had come back, intervened pacifically: “Now, Aunt Kate, you’re giving scandal to Mr. Browne who is of the other persuasion.” Aunt Kate turned to Mr. Browne, who was grinning at this allusion to his religion, and said hastily: “O, I don’t question the pope’s being right. I’m only a stupid old woman and I wouldn’t presume to do such a thing. But there’s such a thing as common everyday politeness and gratitude. And if I were in Julia’s place I’d tell that Father Healey straight up to his face. . . .” “And besides, Aunt Kate,” said Mary Jane, “we really are all hungry and when we are hungry we are all very quarrelsome.” “And when we are thirsty we are also quarrelsome,” added Mr. Browne. “So that we had better go to supper,” said Mary Jane, “and finish the discussion afterwards.” On the landing outside the drawing-room Gabriel found his wife and Mary Jane trying to persuade Miss Ivors to stay for supper. But Miss Ivors, who had put on her hat and was buttoning her cloak, would not stay. She did not feel in the least hungry and she had already overstayed her time. “But only for ten minutes, Molly,” said Mrs. Conroy. “That won’t delay you.” “To take a pick itself,” said Mary Jane, “after all your dancing.” “I really couldn’t,” said Miss Ivors. “I am afraid you didn’t enjoy yourself at all,” said Mary Jane hopelessly. “Ever so much, I assure you,” said Miss Ivors, “but you really must let me run off now.” “But how can you get home?” asked Mrs. Conroy. “O, it’s only two steps up the quay.” Gabriel hesitated a moment and said: “If you will allow me, Miss Ivors, I’ll see you home if you are really obliged to go.” But Miss Ivors broke away from them. “I won’t hear of it,” she cried. “For goodness’ sake go in to your suppers and don’t mind me. I’m quite well able to take care of myself.” “Well, you’re the comical girl, Molly,” said Mrs. Conroy frankly. “Beannacht libh,” cried Miss Ivors, with a laugh, as she ran down the staircase. Mary Jane gazed after her, a moody puzzled expression on her face, while Mrs. Conroy leaned over the banisters to listen for the hall-door. Gabriel asked himself was he the cause of her abrupt departure. But she did not seem to be in ill humour: she had gone away laughing. He stared blankly down the staircase. At the moment Aunt Kate came toddling out of the supper-room, almost wringing her hands in despair. “Where is Gabriel?” she cried. “Where on earth is Gabriel? There’s everyone waiting in there, stage to let, and nobody to carve the goose!” “Here I am, Aunt Kate!” cried Gabriel, with sudden animation, “ready to carve a flock of geese, if necessary.” A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some tall celery stalks. In the centre of the table there stood, as sentries to a fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American apples, two squat oldfashioned decanters of cut glass, one containing port and the other dark sherry. On the closed square piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish lay in waiting and behind it were three squads of bottles of stout and ale and minerals, drawn up according to the colours of their uniforms, the first two black, with brown and red labels, the third and smallest squad white, with transverse green sashes. Gabriel took his seat boldly at the head of the table and, having looked to the edge of the carver, plunged his fork firmly into the goose. He felt quite at ease now for he was an expert carver and liked nothing better than to find himself at the head of a well-laden table. “Miss Furlong, what shall I send you?” he asked. “A wing or a slice of the breast?” “Just a small slice of the breast.” “Miss Higgins, what for you?” “O, anything at all, Mr. Conroy.” While Gabriel and Miss Daly exchanged plates of goose and plates of ham and spiced beef Lily went from guest to guest with a dish of hot floury potatoes wrapped in a white napkin. This was Mary Jane’s idea and she had also suggested apple sauce for the goose but Aunt Kate had said that plain roast goose without any apple sauce had always been good enough for her and she hoped she might never eat worse. Mary Jane waited on her pupils and saw that they got the best slices and Aunt Kate and Aunt Julia opened and carried across from the piano bottles of stout and ale for the gentlemen and bottles of minerals for the ladies. There was a great deal of confusion and laughter and noise, the noise of orders and counter-orders, of knives and forks, of corks and glass-stoppers. Gabriel began to carve second helpings as soon as he had finished the first round without serving himself. Everyone protested loudly so that he compromised by taking a long draught of stout for he had found the carving hot work. Mary Jane settled down quietly to her supper but Aunt Kate and Aunt Julia were still toddling round the table, walking on each other’s heels, getting in each other’s way and giving each other unheeded orders. Mr. Browne begged of them to sit down and eat their suppers and so did Gabriel but they said there was time enough, so that, at last, Freddy Malins stood up and, capturing Aunt Kate, plumped her down on her chair amid general laughter. When everyone had been well served Gabriel said, smiling: “Now, if anyone wants a little more of what vulgar people call stuffing let him or her speak.” A chorus of voices invited him to begin his own supper and Lily came forward with three potatoes which she had reserved for him. “Very well,” said Gabriel amiably, as he took another preparatory draught, “kindly forget my existence, ladies and gentlemen, for a few minutes.” He set to his supper and took no part in the conversation with which the table covered Lily’s removal of the plates. The subject of talk was the opera company which was then at the Theatre Royal. Mr. Bartell D’Arcy, the tenor, a dark-complexioned young man with a smart moustache, praised very highly the leading contralto of the company but Miss Furlong thought she had a rather vulgar style of production. Freddy Malins said there was a Negro chieftain singing in the second part of the Gaiety pantomime who had one of the finest tenor voices he had ever heard. “Have you heard him?” he asked Mr. Bartell D’Arcy across the table. “No,” answered Mr. Bartell D’Arcy carelessly. “Because,” Freddy Malins explained, “now I’d be curious to hear your opinion of him. I think he has a grand voice.” “It takes Teddy to find out the really good things,” said Mr. Browne familiarly to the table. “And why couldn’t he have a voice too?” asked Freddy Malins sharply. “Is it because he’s only a black?” Nobody answered this question and Mary Jane led the table back to the legitimate opera. One of her pupils had given her a pass for Mignon. Of course it was very fine, she said, but it made her think of poor Georgina Burns. Mr. Browne could go back farther still, to the old Italian companies that used to come to Dublin—Tietjens, Ilma de Murzka, Campanini, the great Trebelli, Giuglini, Ravelli, Aramburo. Those were the days, he said, when there was something like singing to be heard in Dublin. He told too of how the top gallery of the old Royal used to be packed night after night, of how one night an Italian tenor had sung five encores to Let me like a Soldier fall, introducing a high C every time, and of how the gallery boys would sometimes in their enthusiasm unyoke the horses from the carriage of some great prima donna and pull her themselves through the streets to her hotel. Why did they never play the grand old operas now, he asked, Dinorah, Lucrezia Borgia? Because they could not get the voices to sing them: that was why. “Oh, well,” said Mr. Bartell D’Arcy, “I presume there are as good singers today as there were then.” “Where are they?” asked Mr. Browne defiantly. “In London, Paris, Milan,” said Mr. Bartell D’Arcy warmly. “I suppose Caruso, for example, is quite as good, if not better than any of the men you have mentioned.” “Maybe so,” said Mr. Browne. “But I may tell you I doubt it strongly.” “O, I’d give anything to hear Caruso sing,” said Mary Jane. “For me,” said Aunt Kate, who had been picking a bone, “there was only one tenor. To please me, I mean. But I suppose none of you ever heard of him.” “Who was he, Miss Morkan?” asked Mr. Bartell D’Arcy politely. “His name,” said Aunt Kate, “was Parkinson. I heard him when he was in his prime and I think he had then the purest tenor voice that was ever put into a man’s throat.” “Strange,” said Mr. Bartell D’Arcy. “I never even heard of him.” “Yes, yes, Miss Morkan is right,” said Mr. Browne. “I remember hearing of old Parkinson but he’s too far back for me.” “A beautiful, pure, sweet, mellow English tenor,” said Aunt Kate with enthusiasm. Gabriel having finished, the huge pudding was transferred to the table. The clatter of forks and spoons began again. Gabriel’s wife served out spoonfuls of the pudding and passed the plates down the table. Midway down they were held up by Mary Jane, who replenished them with raspberry or orange jelly or with blancmange and jam. The pudding was of Aunt Julia’s making and she received praises for it from all quarters She herself said that it was not quite brown enough. “Well, I hope, Miss Morkan,” said Mr. Browne, “that I’m brown enough for you because, you know, I’m all brown.” All the gentlemen, except Gabriel, ate some of the pudding out of compliment to Aunt Julia. As Gabriel never ate sweets the celery had been left for him. Freddy Malins also took a stalk of celery and ate it with his pudding. He had been told that celery was a capital thing for the blood and he was just then under doctor’s care. Mrs. Malins, who had been silent all through the supper, said that her son was going down to Mount Melleray in a week or so. The table then spoke of Mount Melleray, how bracing the air was down there, how hospitable the monks were and how they never asked for a penny-piece from their guests. “And do you mean to say,” asked Mr. Browne incredulously, “that a chap can go down there and put up there as if it were a hotel and live on the fat of the land and then come away without paying anything?” “O, most people give some donation to the monastery when they leave.” said Mary Jane. “I wish we had an institution like that in our Church,” said Mr. Browne candidly. He was astonished to hear that the monks never spoke, got up at two in the morning and slept in their coffins. He asked what they did it for. “That’s the rule of the order,” said Aunt Kate firmly. “Yes, but why?” asked Mr. Browne. Aunt Kate repeated that it was the rule, that was all. Mr. Browne still seemed not to understand. Freddy Malins explained to him, as best he could, that the monks were trying to make up for the sins committed by all the sinners in the outside world. The explanation was not very clear for Mr. Browne grinned and said: “I like that idea very much but wouldn’t a comfortable spring bed do them as well as a coffin?” “The coffin,” said Mary Jane, “is to remind them of their last end.” As the subject had grown lugubrious it was buried in a silence of the table during which Mrs. Malins could be heard saying to her neighbour in an indistinct undertone: “They are very good men, the monks, very pious men.” The raisins and almonds and figs and apples and oranges and chocolates and sweets were now passed about the table and Aunt Julia invited all the guests to have either port or sherry. At first Mr. Bartell D’Arcy refused to take either but one of his neighbours nudged him and whispered something to him upon which he allowed his glass to be filled. Gradually as the last glasses were being filled the conversation ceased. A pause followed, broken only by the noise of the wine and by unsettlings of chairs. The Misses Morkan, all three, looked down at the tablecloth. Someone coughed once or twice and then a few gentlemen patted the table gently as a signal for silence. The silence came and Gabriel pushed back his chair. The patting at once grew louder in encouragement and then ceased altogether. Gabriel leaned his ten trembling fingers on the tablecloth and smiled nervously at the company. Meeting a row of upturned faces he raised his eyes to the chandelier. The piano was playing a waltz tune and he could hear the skirts sweeping against the drawing-room door. People, perhaps, were standing in the snow on the quay outside, gazing up at the lighted windows and listening to the waltz music. The air was pure there. In the distance lay the park where the trees were weighted with snow. The Wellington Monument wore a gleaming cap of snow that flashed westward over the white field of Fifteen Acres. He began: “Ladies and Gentlemen, “It has fallen to my lot this evening, as in years past, to perform a very pleasing task but a task for which I am afraid my poor powers as a speaker are all too inadequate.” “No, no!” said Mr. Browne. “But, however that may be, I can only ask you tonight to take the will for the deed and to lend me your attention for a few moments while I endeavour to express to you in words what my feelings are on this occasion. “Ladies and Gentlemen, it is not the first time that we have gathered together under this hospitable roof, around this hospitable board. It is not the first time that we have been the recipients—or perhaps, I had better say, the victims—of the hospitality of certain good ladies.” He made a circle in the air with his arm and paused. Everyone laughed or smiled at Aunt Kate and Aunt Julia and Mary Jane who all turned crimson with pleasure. Gabriel went on more boldly: “I feel more strongly with every recurring year that our country has no tradition which does it so much honour and which it should guard so jealously as that of its hospitality. It is a tradition that is unique as far as my experience goes (and I have visited not a few places abroad) among the modern nations. Some would say, perhaps, that with us it is rather a failing than anything to be boasted of. But granted even that, it is, to my mind, a princely failing, and one that I trust will long be cultivated among us. Of one thing, at least, I am sure. As long as this one roof shelters the good ladies aforesaid—and I wish from my heart it may do so for many and many a long year to come—the tradition of genuine warm-hearted courteous Irish hospitality, which our forefathers have handed down to us and which we in turn must hand down to our descendants, is still alive among us.” A hearty murmur of assent ran round the table. It shot through Gabriel’s mind that Miss Ivors was not there and that she had gone away discourteously: and he said with confidence in himself: “Ladies and Gentlemen, “A new generation is growing up in our midst, a generation actuated by new ideas and new principles. It is serious and enthusiastic for these new ideas and its enthusiasm, even when it is misdirected, is, I believe, in the main sincere. But we are living in a sceptical and, if I may use the phrase, a thought-tormented age: and sometimes I fear that this new generation, educated or hypereducated as it is, will lack those qualities of humanity, of hospitality, of kindly humour which belonged to an older day. Listening tonight to the names of all those great singers of the past it seemed to me, I must confess, that we were living in a less spacious age. Those days might, without exaggeration, be called spacious days: and if they are gone beyond recall let us hope, at least, that in gatherings such as this we shall still speak of them with pride and affection, still cherish in our hearts the memory of those dead and gone great ones whose fame the world will not willingly let die.” “Hear, hear!” said Mr. Browne loudly. “But yet,” continued Gabriel, his voice falling into a softer inflection, “there are always in gatherings such as this sadder thoughts that will recur to our minds: thoughts of the past, of youth, of changes, of absent faces that we miss here tonight. Our path through life is strewn with many such sad memories: and were we to brood upon them always we could not find the heart to go on bravely with our work among the living. We have all of us living duties and living affections which claim, and rightly claim, our strenuous endeavours. “Therefore, I will not linger on the past. I will not let any gloomy moralising intrude upon us here tonight. Here we are gathered together for a brief moment from the bustle and rush of our everyday routine. We are met here as friends, in the spirit of good-fellowship, as colleagues, also to a certain extent, in the true spirit of camaraderie, and as the guests of—what shall I call them?—the Three Graces of the Dublin musical world.” The table burst into applause and laughter at this allusion. Aunt Julia vainly asked each of her neighbours in turn to tell her what Gabriel had said. “He says we are the Three Graces, Aunt Julia,” said Mary Jane. Aunt Julia did not understand but she looked up, smiling, at Gabriel, who continued in the same vein: “Ladies and Gentlemen, “I will not attempt to play tonight the part that Paris played on another occasion. I will not attempt to choose between them. The task would be an invidious one and one beyond my poor powers. For when I view them in turn, whether it be our chief hostess herself, whose good heart, whose too good heart, has become a byword with all who know her, or her sister, who seems to be gifted with perennial youth and whose singing must have been a surprise and a revelation to us all tonight, or, last but not least, when I consider our youngest hostess, talented, cheerful, hard-working and the best of nieces, I confess, Ladies and Gentlemen, that I do not know to which of them I should award the prize.” Gabriel glanced down at his aunts and, seeing the large smile on Aunt Julia’s face and the tears which had risen to Aunt Kate’s eyes, hastened to his close. He raised his glass of port gallantly, while every member of the company fingered a glass expectantly, and said loudly: “Let us toast them all three together. Let us drink to their health, wealth, long life, happiness and prosperity and may they long continue to hold the proud and self-won position which they hold in their profession and the position of honour and affection which they hold in our hearts.” All the guests stood up, glass in hand, and turning towards the three seated ladies, sang in unison, with Mr. Browne as leader: For they are jolly gay fellows, For they are jolly gay fellows, For they are jolly gay fellows, Which nobody can deny. Aunt Kate was making frank use of her handkerchief and even Aunt Julia seemed moved. Freddy Malins beat time with his pudding-fork and the singers turned towards one another, as if in melodious conference, while they sang with emphasis: Unless he tells a lie, Unless he tells a lie, Then, turning once more towards their hostesses, they sang: For they are jolly gay fellows, For they are jolly gay fellows, For they are jolly gay fellows, Which nobody can deny. The acclamation which followed was taken up beyond the door of the supper-room by many of the other guests and renewed time after time, Freddy Malins acting as officer with his fork on high. The piercing morning air came into the hall where they were standing so that Aunt Kate said: “Close the door, somebody. Mrs. Malins will get her death of cold.” “Browne is out there, Aunt Kate,” said Mary Jane. “Browne is everywhere,” said Aunt Kate, lowering her voice. Mary Jane laughed at her tone. “Really,” she said archly, “he is very attentive.” “He has been laid on here like the gas,” said Aunt Kate in the same tone, “all during the Christmas.” She laughed herself this time good-humouredly and then added quickly: “But tell him to come in, Mary Jane, and close the door. I hope to goodness he didn’t hear me.” At that moment the hall-door was opened and Mr. Browne came in from the doorstep, laughing as if his heart would break. He was dressed in a long green overcoat with mock astrakhan cuffs and collar and wore on his head an oval fur cap. He pointed down the snowcovered quay from where the sound of shrill prolonged whistling was borne in. “Teddy will have all the cabs in Dublin out,” he said. Gabriel advanced from the little pantry behind the office, struggling into his overcoat and, looking round the hall, said: “Gretta not down yet?” “She’s getting on her things, Gabriel,” said Aunt Kate. “Who’s playing up there?” asked Gabriel. “Nobody. They’re all gone.” “O no, Aunt Kate,” said Mary Jane. “Bartell D’Arcy and Miss O’Callaghan aren’t gone yet.” “Someone is fooling at the piano anyhow,” said Gabriel. Mary Jane glanced at Gabriel and Mr. Browne and said with a shiver: “It makes me feel cold to look at you two gentlemen muffled up like that. I wouldn’t like to face your journey home at this hour.” “I’d like nothing better this minute,” said Mr. Browne stoutly, “than a rattling fine walk in the country or a fast drive with a good spanking goer between the shafts.” “We used to have a very good horse and trap at home,” said Aunt Julia sadly. “The never-to-be-forgotten Johnny,” said Mary Jane, laughing. Aunt Kate and Gabriel laughed too. “Why, what was wonderful about Johnny?” asked Mr. Browne. “The late lamented Patrick Morkan, our grandfather, that is,” explained Gabriel, “commonly known in his later years as the old gentleman, was a glue-boiler.” “O, now, Gabriel,” said Aunt Kate, laughing, “he had a starch mill.” “Well, glue or starch,” said Gabriel, “the old gentleman had a horse by the name of Johnny. And Johnny used to work in the old gentleman’s mill, walking round and round in order to drive the mill. That was all very well; but now comes the tragic part about Johnny. One fine day the old gentleman thought he’d like to drive out with the quality to a military review in the park.” “The Lord have mercy on his soul,” said Aunt Kate compassionately. “Amen,” said Gabriel. “So the old gentleman, as I said, harnessed Johnny and put on his very best tall hat and his very best stock collar and drove out in grand style from his ancestral mansion somewhere near Back Lane, I think.” Everyone laughed, even Mrs. Malins, at Gabriel’s manner and Aunt Kate said: “O, now, Gabriel, he didn’t live in Back Lane, really. Only the mill was there.” “Out from the mansion of his forefathers,” continued Gabriel, “he drove with Johnny. And everything went on beautifully until Johnny came in sight of King Billy’s statue: and whether he fell in love with the horse King Billy sits on or whether he thought he was back again in the mill, anyhow he began to walk round the statue.” Gabriel paced in a circle round the hall in his goloshes amid the laughter of the others. “Round and round he went,” said Gabriel, “and the old gentleman, who was a very pompous old gentleman, was highly indignant. ‘Go on, sir! What do you mean, sir? Johnny! Johnny! Most extraordinary conduct! Can’t understand the horse!” The peal of laughter which followed Gabriel’s imitation of the incident was interrupted by a resounding knock at the hall door. Mary Jane ran to open it and let in Freddy Malins. Freddy Malins, with his hat well back on his head and his shoulders humped with cold, was puffing and steaming after his exertions. “I could only get one cab,” he said. “O, we’ll find another along the quay,” said Gabriel. “Yes,” said Aunt Kate. “Better not keep Mrs. Malins standing in the draught.” Mrs. Malins was helped down the front steps by her son and Mr. Browne and, after many manoeuvres, hoisted into the cab. Freddy Malins clambered in after her and spent a long time settling her on the seat, Mr. Browne helping him with advice. At last she was settled comfortably and Freddy Malins invited Mr. Browne into the cab. There was a good deal of confused talk, and then Mr. Browne got into the cab. The cabman settled his rug over his knees, and bent down for the address. The confusion grew greater and the cabman was directed differently by Freddy Malins and Mr. Browne, each of whom had his head out through a window of the cab. The difficulty was to know where to drop Mr. Browne along the route, and Aunt Kate, Aunt Julia and Mary Jane helped the discussion from the doorstep with cross-directions and contradictions and abundance of laughter. As for Freddy Malins he was speechless with laughter. He popped his head in and out of the window every moment to the great danger of his hat, and told his mother how the discussion was progressing, till at last Mr. Browne shouted to the bewildered cabman above the din of everybody’s laughter: “Do you know Trinity College?” “Yes, sir,” said the cabman. “Well, drive bang up against Trinity College gates,” said Mr. Browne, “and then we’ll tell you where to go. You understand now?” “Yes, sir,” said the cabman. “Make like a bird for Trinity College.” “Right, sir,” said the cabman. The horse was whipped up and the cab rattled off along the quay amid a chorus of laughter and adieus. Gabriel had not gone to the door with the others. He was in a dark part of the hall gazing up the staircase. A woman was standing near the top of the first flight, in the shadow also. He could not see her face but he could see the terra-cotta and salmon-pink panels of her skirt which the shadow made appear black and white. It was his wife. She was leaning on the banisters, listening to something. Gabriel was surprised at her stillness and strained his ear to listen also. But he could hear little save the noise of laughter and dispute on the front steps, a few chords struck on the piano and a few notes of a man’s voice singing. He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife. There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones. Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter. The hall-door was closed; and Aunt Kate, Aunt Julia and Mary Jane came down the hall, still laughing. “Well, isn’t Freddy terrible?” said Mary Jane. “He’s really terrible.” Gabriel said nothing but pointed up the stairs towards where his wife was standing. Now that the hall-door was closed the voice and the piano could be heard more clearly. Gabriel held up his hand for them to be silent. The song seemed to be in the old Irish tonality and the singer seemed uncertain both of his words and of his voice. The voice, made plaintive by distance and by the singer’s hoarseness, faintly illuminated the cadence of the air with words expressing grief: O, the rain falls on my heavy locks And the dew wets my skin, My babe lies cold . . . “O,” exclaimed Mary Jane. “It’s Bartell D’Arcy singing and he wouldn’t sing all the night. O, I’ll get him to sing a song before he goes.” “O, do, Mary Jane,” said Aunt Kate. Mary Jane brushed past the others and ran to the staircase, but before she reached it the singing stopped and the piano was closed abruptly. “O, what a pity!” she cried. “Is he coming down, Gretta?” Gabriel heard his wife answer yes and saw her come down towards them. A few steps behind her were Mr. Bartell D’Arcy and Miss O’Callaghan. “O, Mr. D’Arcy,” cried Mary Jane, “it’s downright mean of you to break off like that when we were all in raptures listening to you.” “I have been at him all the evening,” said Miss O’Callaghan, “and Mrs. Conroy, too, and he told us he had a dreadful cold and couldn’t sing.” “O, Mr. D’Arcy,” said Aunt Kate, “now that was a great fib to tell.” “Can’t you see that I’m as hoarse as a crow?” said Mr. D’Arcy roughly. He went into the pantry hastily and put on his overcoat. The others, taken aback by his rude speech, could find nothing to say. Aunt Kate wrinkled her brows and made signs to the others to drop the subject. Mr. D’Arcy stood swathing his neck carefully and frowning. “It’s the weather,” said Aunt Julia, after a pause. “Yes, everybody has colds,” said Aunt Kate readily, “everybody.” “They say,” said Mary Jane, “we haven’t had snow like it for thirty years; and I read this morning in the newspapers that the snow is general all over Ireland.” “I love the look of snow,” said Aunt Julia sadly. “So do I,” said Miss O’Callaghan. “I think Christmas is never really Christmas unless we have the snow on the ground.” “But poor Mr. D’Arcy doesn’t like the snow,” said Aunt Kate, smiling. Mr. D’Arcy came from the pantry, fully swathed and buttoned, and in a repentant tone told them the history of his cold. Everyone gave him advice and said it was a great pity and urged him to be very careful of his throat in the night air. Gabriel watched his wife, who did not join in the conversation. She was standing right under the dusty fanlight and the flame of the gas lit up the rich bronze of her hair, which he had seen her drying at the fire a few days before. She was in the same attitude and seemed unaware of the talk about her. At last she turned towards them and Gabriel saw that there was colour on her cheeks and that her eyes were shining. A sudden tide of joy went leaping out of his heart. “Mr. D’Arcy,” she said, “what is the name of that song you were singing?” “It’s called The Lass of Aughrim,” said Mr. D’Arcy, “but I couldn’t remember it properly. Why? Do you know it?” “The Lass of Aughrim,” she repeated. “I couldn’t think of the name.” “It’s a very nice air,” said Mary Jane. “I’m sorry you were not in voice tonight.” “Now, Mary Jane,” said Aunt Kate, “don’t annoy Mr. D’Arcy. I won’t have him annoyed.” Seeing that all were ready to start she shepherded them to the door, where good-night was said: “Well, good-night, Aunt Kate, and thanks for the pleasant evening.” “Good-night, Gabriel. Good-night, Gretta!” “Good-night, Aunt Kate, and thanks ever so much. Goodnight, Aunt Julia.” “O, good-night, Gretta, I didn’t see you.” “Good-night, Mr. D’Arcy. Good-night, Miss O’Callaghan.” “Good-night, Miss Morkan.” “Good-night, again.” “Good-night, all. Safe home.” “Good-night. Good night.” The morning was still dark. A dull, yellow light brooded over the houses and the river; and the sky seemed to be descending. It was slushy underfoot; and only streaks and patches of snow lay on the roofs, on the parapets of the quay and on the area railings. The lamps were still burning redly in the murky air and, across the river, the palace of the Four Courts stood out menacingly against the heavy sky. She was walking on before him with Mr. Bartell D’Arcy, her shoes in a brown parcel tucked under one arm and her hands holding her skirt up from the slush. She had no longer any grace of attitude, but Gabriel’s eyes were still bright with happiness. The blood went bounding along his veins; and the thoughts went rioting through his brain, proud, joyful, tender, valorous. She was walking on before him so lightly and so erect that he longed to run after her noiselessly, catch her by the shoulders and say something foolish and affectionate into her ear. She seemed to him so frail that he longed to defend her against something and then to be alone with her. Moments of their secret life together burst like stars upon his memory. A heliotrope envelope was lying beside his breakfast-cup and he was caressing it with his hand. Birds were twittering in the ivy and the sunny web of the curtain was shimmering along the floor: he could not eat for happiness. They were standing on the crowded platform and he was placing a ticket inside the warm palm of her glove. He was standing with her in the cold, looking in through a grated window at a man making bottles in a roaring furnace. It was very cold. Her face, fragrant in the cold air, was quite close to his; and suddenly he called out to the man at the furnace: “Is the fire hot, sir?” But the man could not hear with the noise of the furnace. It was just as well. He might have answered rudely. A wave of yet more tender joy escaped from his heart and went coursing in warm flood along his arteries. Like the tender fire of stars moments of their life together, that no one knew of or would ever know of, broke upon and illumined his memory. He longed to recall to her those moments, to make her forget the years of their dull existence together and remember only their moments of ecstasy. For the years, he felt, had not quenched his soul or hers. Their children, his writing, her household cares had not quenched all their souls’ tender fire. In one letter that he had written to her then he had said: “Why is it that words like these seem to me so dull and cold? Is it because there is no word tender enough to be your name?” Like distant music these words that he had written years before were borne towards him from the past. He longed to be alone with her. When the others had gone away, when he and she were in the room in the hotel, then they would be alone together. He would call her softly: “Gretta!” Perhaps she would not hear at once: she would be undressing. Then something in his voice would strike her. She would turn and look at him. . . . At the corner of Winetavern Street they met a cab. He was glad of its rattling noise as it saved him from conversation. She was looking out of the window and seemed tired. The others spoke only a few words, pointing out some building or street. The horse galloped along wearily under the murky morning sky, dragging his old rattling box after his heels, and Gabriel was again in a cab with her, galloping to catch the boat, galloping to their honeymoon. As the cab drove across O’Connell Bridge Miss O’Callaghan said: “They say you never cross O’Connell Bridge without seeing a white horse.” “I see a white man this time,” said Gabriel. “Where?” asked Mr. Bartell D’Arcy. Gabriel pointed to the statue, on which lay patches of snow. Then he nodded familiarly to it and waved his hand. “Good-night, Dan,” he said gaily. When the cab drew up before the hotel, Gabriel jumped out and, in spite of Mr. Bartell D’Arcy’s protest, paid the driver. He gave the man a shilling over his fare. The man saluted and said: “A prosperous New Year to you, sir.” “The same to you,” said Gabriel cordially. She leaned for a moment on his arm in getting out of the cab and while standing at the curbstone, bidding the others good-night. She leaned lightly on his arm, as lightly as when she had danced with him a few hours before. He had felt proud and happy then, happy that she was his, proud of her grace and wifely carriage. But now, after the kindling again of so many memories, the first touch of her body, musical and strange and perfumed, sent through him a keen pang of lust. Under cover of her silence he pressed her arm closely to his side; and, as they stood at the hotel door, he felt that they had escaped from their lives and duties, escaped from home and friends and run away together with wild and radiant hearts to a new adventure. An old man was dozing in a great hooded chair in the hall. He lit a candle in the office and went before them to the stairs. They followed him in silence, their feet falling in soft thuds on the thickly carpeted stairs. She mounted the stairs behind the porter, her head bowed in the ascent, her frail shoulders curved as with a burden, her skirt girt tightly about her. He could have flung his arms about her hips and held her still, for his arms were trembling with desire to seize her and only the stress of his nails against the palms of his hands held the wild impulse of his body in check. The porter halted on the stairs to settle his guttering candle. They halted, too, on the steps below him. In the silence Gabriel could hear the falling of the molten wax into the tray and the thumping of his own heart against his ribs. The porter led them along a corridor and opened a door. Then he set his unstable candle down on a toilet-table and asked at what hour they were to be called in the morning. “Eight,” said Gabriel. The porter pointed to the tap of the electric-light and began a muttered apology, but Gabriel cut him short. “We don’t want any light. We have light enough from the street. And I say,” he added, pointing to the candle, “you might remove that handsome article, like a good man.” The porter took up his candle again, but slowly, for he was surprised by such a novel idea. Then he mumbled good-night and went out. Gabriel shot the lock to. A ghastly light from the street lamp lay in a long shaft from one window to the door. Gabriel threw his overcoat and hat on a couch and crossed the room towards the window. He looked down into the street in order that his emotion might calm a little. Then he turned and leaned against a chest of drawers with his back to the light. She had taken off her hat and cloak and was standing before a large swinging mirror, unhooking her waist. Gabriel paused for a few moments, watching her, and then said: “Gretta!” She turned away from the mirror slowly and walked along the shaft of light towards him. Her face looked so serious and weary that the words would not pass Gabriel’s lips. No, it was not the moment yet. “You looked tired,” he said. “I am a little,” she answered. “You don’t feel ill or weak?” “No, tired: that’s all.” She went on to the window and stood there, looking out. Gabriel waited again and then, fearing that diffidence was about to conquer him, he said abruptly: “By the way, Gretta!” “What is it?” “You know that poor fellow Malins?” he said quickly. “Yes. What about him?” “Well, poor fellow, he’s a decent sort of chap, after all,” continued Gabriel in a false voice. “He gave me back that sovereign I lent him, and I didn’t expect it, really. It’s a pity he wouldn’t keep away from that Browne, because he’s not a bad fellow, really.” He was trembling now with annoyance. Why did she seem so abstracted? He did not know how he could begin. Was she annoyed, too, about something? If she would only turn to him or come to him of her own accord! To take her as she was would be brutal. No, he must see some ardour in her eyes first. He longed to be master of her strange mood. “When did you lend him the pound?” she asked, after a pause. Gabriel strove to restrain himself from breaking out into brutal language about the sottish Malins and his pound. He longed to cry to her from his soul, to crush her body against his, to overmaster her. But he said: “O, at Christmas, when he opened that little Christmas-card shop in Henry Street.” He was in such a fever of rage and desire that he did not hear her come from the window. She stood before him for an instant, looking at him strangely. Then, suddenly raising herself on tiptoe and resting her hands lightly on his shoulders, she kissed him. “You are a very generous person, Gabriel,” she said. Gabriel, trembling with delight at her sudden kiss and at the quaintness of her phrase, put his hands on her hair and began smoothing it back, scarcely touching it with his fingers. The washing had made it fine and brilliant. His heart was brimming over with happiness. Just when he was wishing for it she had come to him of her own accord. Perhaps her thoughts had been running with his. Perhaps she had felt the impetuous desire that was in him, and then the yielding mood had come upon her. Now that she had fallen to him so easily, he wondered why he had been so diffident. He stood, holding her head between his hands. Then, slipping one arm swiftly about her body and drawing her towards him, he said softly: “Gretta, dear, what are you thinking about?” She did not answer nor yield wholly to his arm. He said again, softly: “Tell me what it is, Gretta. I think I know what is the matter. Do I know?” She did not answer at once. Then she said in an outburst of tears: “O, I am thinking about that song, The Lass of Aughrim.” She broke loose from him and ran to the bed and, throwing her arms across the bed-rail, hid her face. Gabriel stood stockstill for a moment in astonishment and then followed her. As he passed in the way of the cheval-glass he caught sight of himself in full length, his broad, wellfilled shirt-front, the face whose expression always puzzled him when he saw it in a mirror, and his glimmering gilt-rimmed eyeglasses. He halted a few paces from her and said: “What about the song? Why does that make you cry?” She raised her head from her arms and dried her eyes with the back of her hand like a child. A kinder note than he had intended went into his voice. “Why, Gretta?” he asked. “I am thinking about a person long ago who used to sing that song.” “And who was the person long ago?” asked Gabriel, smiling. “It was a person I used to know in Galway when I was living with my grandmother,” she said. The smile passed away from Gabriel’s face. A dull anger began to gather again at the back of his mind and the dull fires of his lust began to glow angrily in his veins. “Someone you were in love with?” he asked ironically. “It was a young boy I used to know,” she answered, “named Michael Furey. He used to sing that song, The Lass of Aughrim. He was very delicate.” Gabriel was silent. He did not wish her to think that he was interested in this delicate boy. “I can see him so plainly,” she said, after a moment. “Such eyes as he had: big, dark eyes! And such an expression in them—an expression!” “O, then, you are in love with him?” said Gabriel. “I used to go out walking with him,” she said, “when I was in Galway.” A thought flew across Gabriel’s mind. “Perhaps that was why you wanted to go to Galway with that Ivors girl?” he said coldly. She looked at him and asked in surprise: “What for?” Her eyes made Gabriel feel awkward. He shrugged his shoulders and said: “How do I know? To see him, perhaps.” She looked away from him along the shaft of light towards the window in silence. “He is dead,” she said at length. “He died when he was only seventeen. Isn’t it a terrible thing to die so young as that?” “What was he?” asked Gabriel, still ironically. “He was in the gasworks,” she said. Gabriel felt humiliated by the failure of his irony and by the evocation of this figure from the dead, a boy in the gasworks. While he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another. A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him. He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror. Instinctively he turned his back more to the light lest she might see the shame that burned upon his forehead. He tried to keep up his tone of cold interrogation, but his voice when he spoke was humble and indifferent. “I suppose you were in love with this Michael Furey, Gretta,” he said. “I was great with him at that time,” she said. Her voice was veiled and sad. Gabriel, feeling now how vain it would be to try to lead her whither he had purposed, caressed one of her hands and said, also sadly: “And what did he die of so young, Gretta? Consumption, was it?” “I think he died for me,” she answered. A vague terror seized Gabriel at this answer, as if, at that hour when he had hoped to triumph, some impalpable and vindictive being was coming against him, gathering forces against him in its vague world. But he shook himself free of it with an effort of reason and continued to caress her hand. He did not question her again, for he felt that she would tell him of herself. Her hand was warm and moist: it did not respond to his touch, but he continued to caress it just as he had caressed her first letter to him that spring morning. “It was in the winter,” she said, “about the beginning of the winter when I was going to leave my grandmother’s and come up here to the convent. And he was ill at the time in his lodgings in Galway and wouldn’t be let out, and his people in Oughterard were written to. He was in decline, they said, or something like that. I never knew rightly.” She paused for a moment and sighed. “Poor fellow,” she said. “He was very fond of me and he was such a gentle boy. We used to go out together, walking, you know, Gabriel, like the way they do in the country. He was going to study singing only for his health. He had a very good voice, poor Michael Furey.” “Well; and then?” asked Gabriel. “And then when it came to the time for me to leave Galway and come up to the convent he was much worse and I wouldn’t be let see him so I wrote him a letter saying I was going up to Dublin and would be back in the summer, and hoping he would be better then.” She paused for a moment to get her voice under control, and then went on: “Then the night before I left, I was in my grandmother’s house in Nuns’ Island, packing up, and I heard gravel thrown up against the window. The window was so wet I couldn’t see, so I ran downstairs as I was and slipped out the back into the garden and there was the poor fellow at the end of the garden, shivering.” “And did you not tell him to go back?” asked Gabriel. “I implored of him to go home at once and told him he would get his death in the rain. But he said he did not want to live. I can see his eyes as well as well! He was standing at the end of the wall where there was a tree.” “And did he go home?” asked Gabriel. “Yes, he went home. And when I was only a week in the convent he died and he was buried in Oughterard, where his people came from. O, the day I heard that, that he was dead!” She stopped, choking with sobs, and, overcome by emotion, flung herself face downward on the bed, sobbing in the quilt. Gabriel held her hand for a moment longer, irresolutely, and then, shy of intruding on her grief, let it fall gently and walked quietly to the window. She was fast asleep. Gabriel, leaning on his elbow, looked for a few moments unresentfully on her tangled hair and half-open mouth, listening to her deep-drawn breath. So she had had that romance in her life: a man had died for her sake. It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life. He watched her while she slept, as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife. His curious eyes rested long upon her face and on her hair: and, as he thought of what she must have been then, in that time of her first girlish beauty, a strange, friendly pity for her entered his soul. He did not like to say even to himself that her face was no longer beautiful, but he knew that it was no longer the face for which Michael Furey had braved death. Perhaps she had not told him all the story. His eyes moved to the chair over which she had thrown some of her clothes. A petticoat string dangled to the floor. One boot stood upright, its limp upper fallen down: the fellow of it lay upon its side. He wondered at his riot of emotions of an hour before. From what had it proceeded? From his aunt’s supper, from his own foolish speech, from the wine and dancing, the merry-making when saying good-night in the hall, the pleasure of the walk along the river in the snow. Poor Aunt Julia! She, too, would soon be a shade with the shade of Patrick Morkan and his horse. He had caught that haggard look upon her face for a moment when she was singing Arrayed for the Bridal. Soon, perhaps, he would be sitting in that same drawing-room, dressed in black, his silk hat on his knees. The blinds would be drawn down and Aunt Kate would be sitting beside him, crying and blowing her nose and telling him how Julia had died. He would cast about in his mind for some words that might console her, and would find only lame and useless ones. Yes, yes: that would happen very soon. The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live. Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling. A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
On dark, stormy nights they would run through the sleeping streets, burning torches in their hands, and no one saw their faces and no one knew their names. And the echoes of the steps of fourteen feet and the flicker of the torches unnerved the slumbering town. And the mighty wind that was blowing, and the streams of rain pouring down could not blow out the torches’ yellow flames. They would swiftly pass through all the narrow, crooked alleys and run across the long bridge, whose iron would bend under the weight of their bodies, and they would stand in front of a small old wooden house and wait. And the low door would slowly open, and a small and hunched little woman would appear in its frame. With a deep bow and without a word, she would let one of the seven come into her quarters. And each day, a different one was called upon. And she would shut the door behind her and the remaining six would blow out their torches, and bow their heads, and wait.
The woman would bring the chosen one into her room, caress him with her burning little body and kiss him, and she would not utter a word and no smile ever passed her lips…
And the rain would trickle into the house through the decrepit roof, washing the two of them, and the wind would burst in and howl through the empty room and make the shutters shudder from outside. And they did not notice a thing…
And when the darkness would disperse and the grey and rainy morning twilight gazed through the windows with surveying eyes, the woman would wake up and take the head of the one who was beside her in both hands… And she would bring her face close to his and look into his eyes, and her mouth would twist with torment and her lips would whisper: “But no, it is not you!” And she would push him away from her, and go to the corner of the room and peer out from there with empty cold eyes, and he would get up and leave the house.
And again all seven would cross the bridge, and crawl like shadows through narrow and crooked alleys, secretly crying and sighing.
And on gloomy days, when the skies were one big block of lead, heavy and dark dreary days, the little woman would wander through the streets of the town. Her back was hunched and her dress was grey and soiled, and the rims of her grey sweater would flutter in the air. Her face was pale and there was no sparkle in her black eyes. She was like a wounded bat that could not find a place for itself. And everyone saw her face and no one knew her name. She would always hurry through the crowds of people and look at the face of every man who crossed her path. And no one graced her with a smile.
And then once the skies were a little higher and the air a little purer and colder. And she ran in the evening across the long bridge leading to her house, and the painted iron mocked and laughed under the steps of her little feet. And the woman suddenly raised her head and saw someone before her, who stood opposite and looked at the waters. He was tall and spruce. A white ferret fur shawl descended from his back, fold after fold. Light blue eyes brightened his young face and silver hairs adorned his cheeks, and a wreath of bluish luminance shimmered on his head. She went to him and looked at his face and he smiled. She took him by the hand and led him to her derelict house. And he, handsome and wonderful, followed her…
And the night was cold, and the first butterflies of snow came down from the skies, quivered in the air and then nestled on the ground. And seven men holding burning torches stood in front of the door of the old house on the other side of the river and waited. But the door did not open and no one came to greet them. And they started banging and banging on the doors and windows and there was no reply. And the wind blew out the flames of their torches, and the cold became greater and greater from hour to hour, and they began to freeze…
And when the darkness dispersed and the fresh morning brightness laughed gaily in the windows, the woman awoke from her sleep. She took the head of the one who was by her side in both hands and put her face close to his and looked into his eyes and her lips whispered: “Why, it is you!” and her cheeks turned rosy and her eyes and hair gleamed all at once and she raised her head and saw that the ceiling above her grew high and her room was glorious and all aglow and her heart was light and she laughed.
And when the townsfolk awoke and left their houses, they all saw with surprise and amazement a wonder on the other side of the river. Seven statues with torches in their hands were guarding its gates. And the ice torches laughed and glistened in the sunlight in thousands of colours.