The restaurant is crazy busy and my entire head is engulfed in the heat and steam and smell of all the dishes being cooked and readied on the line. I am tired. I am always tired but this is where I like to be. Where I belong. Everything seems to be as it always is but when I look up from the trout I am just about done sautéing and see someone I don’t recognize standing where the servers stand while waiting to pick up their orders, I think I am hallucinating.
He is young, maybe thirty, slight, not smiling. But his lips are parted and his teeth—very white—are clenched down in a hard bite. He is too handsome. There is menace in the way he is looking at me.
“You need some help,” he says.
I am thinking the same thing. I need some help, I should call out for some help, because despite the kitchen heat my skin is cold and I know the hairs standing up on the back of my neck have nothing to do with the kind of fear I normally have when I am feeling threatened. This is something else.
But maybe I am dreaming. God knows I am exhausted and no one notices anything is amiss. Waiters use their hips to back him out of the way as they reach for plates and he disappears but then like a wave, he rolls back up after they’ve gone. I close my eyes, open them fast and there he is. I want to swallow but my breath is in the way.
“You need help,” he repeats, morphing through the steam this time into a lost boy, his forehead the kind you want to brush hair off of.
I hear myself say, “I don’t know, do I need help?” and when it comes out it sounds like flirting. Someone is flirting with this stranger-boy on my line in the middle of my dinner rush. The trout is overcooked, beyond saving.
His face relaxes then. “You look like you do,” he says.
There have been some things I wish I’d had the prescience to understand before acting on and when I remember them, I want to set myself on fire. But right now time is moving too fast for memory to intrude. When I don’t answer, he says, “I put in an application for a cook. Your ad said you needed some help.” That is true. Then he looks around the madhouse that is my kitchen and says, again, “You look like you need help.”
What do I look like? It has been so long since I have thought about it, since I was pretty. I have been sweating behind the line for two hours, for too many years, and sweat makes my small face wet and a bright red. At the end of every dinner shift, when I go into the employee bathroom at midnight to splash cold water on my face, I find my morning mascara, that small homage to vanity, has left my lashes and settled into the deep cups of skin beneath my eyes. I am forty-five years old, always bone-tired yet plagued with nervousness all the time, even when I sleep. I am married to my South Beach restaurant, entering it in the dark mornings and leaving it in the darker nights so I never see what I am supposed to look like, the public I might be compared to were I ever to put myself among them. I hardly see the daylight. I wear chef whites every day, stained with grease and sauce. I know exactly what I look like and feel surprised, and then ashamed, that I am so sorry about it right now.
“Why did you do that?” I ask him. It is the next morning and he is here to fill out the paperwork.
“Do what?” he asks. He is wearing the same jeans and black t-shirt he’d had on last night but now, somehow, they are miraculously clean.
“Just show up,” I say. “Come into the kitchen like that, at the height of the dinner rush.” I sound like a punishing mother, someone trying to teach someone a lesson.
“Because I knew you’d be here then.”
I have to admit that makes some sense. I look at his application. He has left the space for his address blank.
“Where do you live?” I ask.
“And it’s true,” he says. “You need me.”
I am not afraid anymore. Last night, when I finally got a hold of myself and told him “Fine, go back to the prep kitchen and help,” it felt like I was doing something that absolutely needed to be done. It felt like we both needed help. Now he tells me that when the restaurant closed, he had gone to an all-night Laundromat and convinced two drunk girls to let him throw his clothes in with theirs. While his jeans and shirt washed and dried, he sat in his boxers reading the newspaper. They had given him two beers. I can imagine the whole scene, him charming them with his good looks and serious stare, their wanting to help him.
I hire him for a two week probationary period. I don’t know him, don’t know who he is or who he’s been so I try to watch him when I can. I can tell he has worked in a restaurant like mine before, can tell by the way he handles the equipment in the prep kitchen, by his movements and his focus, by the fact that he never asks anyone any questions. But there is so much to do when you own a restaurant and today I am all over the place—in my office planning menus, then working on the books, in the stock room taking inventory, then the walk-in cooler doing the orders and much of the time I don’t know what he’s doing. I don’t forget about him but I’m not always sure where he is.
In the late afternoon, I find him on the line. He has made a shimmering pea mousse to serve under my house salmon. I am surprised but then I am angry. I ask him who he thinks he is. I ask him how he made the mousse and he won’t tell me and that is how I discover he is a trained chef. I am a trained chef and never share the recipes I’ve invented with anyone. I know all about the relationship between privacy, thievery and pride. Still, I find the secrecy insulting until he gives me a bite and I am whisked away on the pleasure of peas.
After the two weeks, I let him keep the job because there were mashed potato cups filled with foie gras, the pineapple-jalapeno salsa and Serrano Ham panini, the roasted marrow toasts, a peach bombe, old customer raves, new customers—younger and so hip—forming a line outside at night, willing to wait however long it took to be seated. In my restaurant.
He is quiet, never late. I don’t know where he lives. Or what he does when he is not at work and sometimes I forget about him but then when I realize that he is at the restaurant during every shift, even the ones I don’t pay him for, I start thinking about him all the time. This is my restaurant, I am the boss, so I ask him questions, try to figure him out.
He answers everything too vaguely. I think he thinks his life is none of my business. Maybe he is right. He is a good worker, that’s all I need to know. Or maybe he is shy. I am shy, I get that. Then one day, out of the blue, he says he thinks we should close between 4 and 6, that that would give the kitchen time to regroup, the staff a chance to have a meal together. He’s already prepared it—lentil soup, spinach salad, grilled ham and manchego cheese with roasted tomatoes and pesto. The food is so good, comfort food but with an indefinable touch. He tells me to sit down, next to him at the table with the staff, and I do. We eat.
I start to like him, and then I discover I like having him there. Everyone else likes him, too. He does his job in the back kitchen but then when I’m not looking, he helps everyone else with their jobs. He shows the waiters a new, more sophisticated way of laying the napkins on the tables. He teaches the bartenders to make a drink with vodka, shaved ice and shards of fresh ginger; they start to offer it as a house specialty and we can’t keep up with the demand. He asks me if we can serve our scallop appetizer on the ceramic spoons I only use for private tastings. He cooks the staff meal, the family meal, every night.
One night he sees me struggling over the books in the office and he tells me he can help. He was right from the start, I need help. I let him install a program in my aging computer that transforms my bookkeeping into some-thing I actually like to do. He smiles. He works the day shift but is still here for the whole night shift and the hostesses tell me the customers love him. At night he greets them, sometimes walks them to their tables. I can’t explain why I didn’t know he was doing this, how he managed to do so many things without my knowing even though I knew he was there. I am not sure why I am letting it happen except that I am so much less tired than I ever was before he came. And business is booming.
Last night I found a stack of our linen napkins layered and folded into the shape of a pillow in the basement storage room. It was on top of an oversized garbage bag he was obviously using for a blanket. When I confronted him, he said I saved his life.
And when I wake up one morning some weeks after to the sound of the water running in my shower, I wonder what has happened to my own life. For the first time in ten years, I am sleeping in my bed. We drink our coffee there. He shampoos my hair, reads comic books out loud, makes love to me as if I am something precious, rare and fragile, something he must take care not to break, as if he knows me. After, he rubs his white teeth barely over my skin and I am afraid that he will bite me but he never does and because he never does, I relax. I know I should be at least a little frightened but I’m not.
When we are not at my apartment, we are both at my restaurant working. All I know for sure about his past is that something he won’t talk about happened and when he came to me, he was jobless. Homeless. But instead of wondering how on earth I’d let a stranger, practically a boy, infiltrate my small life, I fall headfirst into the supreme relief of not having to do everything myself in order to keep everything going. I fall into having someone to sleep with at night. Now I never look for him, wonder where he is. Like magic, he appears without warning beside me wherever I am—the line, the prep kitchen, the salad station—puts his arm around my waist and presses into me. Kisses me on the mouth. I do not know who I am. I think I am falling in love.
I discover he is a wizard with numbers so I let him oversee the purchasing. He is a whirlwind of energy and sometimes everywhere at once—the bar, the walk-in, the prep kitchen, the front of the house. I start to forget that he has not always been here, that we did not build this restaurant together. That I used to be alone.
Before he came, once in a while a guest would request to see the chef, and I’d tuck the wet sweaty hairs back into my headband, wipe my hands on my apron, and go out into the dining room to accept the compliments. But I had forgotten how to be social, comfortable only with people who worked for me and slipping in and out among the strangers in places I needed to go—the pharmacy, the grocery store, the dry cleaners. But he is so different, as easy and happy in his chef whites in the prep kitchen as he is in a suit in the dining room. Every restaurant needs someone like that.
He has even made some friends. A group of guys who eat dinner in the restaurant every Saturday night. He joins them. They are all unemployed chefs. I ask him if he thinks we should hire any of them but he says they are looking to start their own restaurant. At first, I like the stories he tells me about them. They are easy to listen to and I remember what it’s like to have pals and I am happy for him. I never expected to be enough for him. But then one morning, over coffee before work, it hits me.
“Are these people you are going into business with?” I ask.
“Honey,” he says, “I’m with you, aren’t I?” He frowns, as if I am hurting him. “You’re acting crazy.”
Because I am crazy. I am living with someone fifteen years younger than I am, someone who appeared in my restaurant and knew exactly what was going to happen, assumed things I didn’t know myself and was right. I went from working 15 hours a day without a break to spending an hour in the ocean every day at 3:00. I went from sleeping alone on my couch to spending nearly every waking and sleeping minute with a stranger who I thought was an illusion. I feel like he has always been here, that he is solid and I am safe. I didn’t know I needed that kind of safety until it was there everyday.
I have a right to be crazy. I am middle-aged, bony. My face is thin, drawn. There are a lot of wrinkles. But this man touches it. He wipes it when it sweats, he moves the stray hairs from it, he looks right into it. He kisses it all the time.
“Maybe you are crazy,” I say because when I think about this life, I know I don’t understand. And then I don’t want to think anymore so I say, “Maybe they are crazy. You don’t really know these guys. They could be thieves.”
I know an assortment of psychotics and thieves. They go anywhere they want with the extraordinary self confidence of the desperate who have nothing to lose or the stupidity to believe they will lose nothing. If they want money or liquor or sex, if they want to scare someone for real or just for kicks, if they merely want something to eat for free, they walk into places they don’t belong and demand to be seen and to be served. In South Beach, where bums and drunks share the streets and beaches with celebrities and wealthy tourists, it is often hard to distinguish between the real threats and the mere expressions and that’s what makes it so dangerous. Once I barred a mogul from entering my restaurant because he looked like a thug. Once I let a pair of thugs stay late in the bar because they looked like moguls; after we closed, they robbed two of my waitresses on the street. Some killers look only like thieves. Some thieves are a special kind of killer. I know these people, and I watch out for them.
So it makes me nervous to hear about these guys he eats dinner with every Saturday night, makes me wonder who they really are. I become afraid for him, start to think that he is being conned. I know he picks up the tab for their dinners. I don’t care about the money. I tell him to be careful because I want to protect him. He says, “don’t worry. I think people are basically good. You gave me a chance, didn’t you? And I know them better than you knew me.”
This is true. He’d come from a mystery I still know nothing about to the places—my restaurant and my home—that I know best. And he knew I would take him, and then trust him. His instincts are good.
I don’t have any friends. I tell myself it is by choice though, truly, I have morphed into this solitary person without realizing it. After my husband left, I didn’t know how to turn myself back into someone who could trust anyone again. I threw myself into culinary school and then into work. I like the people who work for me and I am glad to have them near me but before he came, I thought I only needed myself. I thought I knew myself, which is why I didn’t sense my own loneliness creeping up on me. I never saw it coming and then, abracadabra, it disappeared.
Just like a thief, while I wasn’t looking, he took away all of the things I had been afraid of. And he replaced them with the things I had forgotten ever wanting, like coming home and having a brandy and listening to music with my aching feet in someone’s lap instead of falling asleep on the couch in my chef clothes, having sworn off my bed years ago. Like having someone to walk home with after work, to scramble late night eggs for, someone to touch, who wanted to touch me. Slowly, subtly, bit by bit, he took me and left me fearless.
I think I am lucky, blessed. That somehow someone or something divine decided that I deserve this life I am living, really living, now. But then the spell is broken because the one morning, I wake up alone. I want it to be a dream. It isn’t the first time I close my eyes to conjure back what I think I can’t live without but before him, I had sworn it would be the last time. Back then, before the restaurant, before the work, when I learned that I was the kind of woman it was easy to leave, I had crumbled. Then I had begged and pleaded and promised to do anything to fix myself, to make myself right. Even though I did not know what was wrong.
This time, I am ready for a fight. By the time I get to the restaurant, my teeth are rattling. It is a steamy summer morning but I am shivering. I go back into the kitchen and he comes out from behind the line; it is clear he has been there for hours. He’s reorganized the walk-in cooler and now everything we need is in clear view. He’s dusted all the bottles in the bar. He’s taken the crate of lemons that had begun to spoil and made forty individually-sized citrus cakes for the dinner service. It is seven in the morning and the rest of the staff won’t be in until ten. In the dining room, he’s set a table for two with a bottle of champagne chilling. He pulls lobster burritos from the oven and feeds me mine while he explains that sometimes when he can’t sleep, he just needs to work. I understand this because it is true for me too but it doesn’t take away the ache and panic. I am so angry. After the first bite, I say, “Feeding me is hokey,” because I am so unsettled by the way I love it. But he is undaunted. He says, “You think this is hokey?” and leads me downstairs to the office where he has blown up an air mattress and lit candles.
The last time I had felt this way was the first time and I knew nothing. I was so young, thought it would last forever, didn’t understand how love can be consumed by fear and instead of stomping it out like a fire, I stoked it, tended it, fed its restlessness bite by bite so that it could never be satisfied and never be finished. I was so frantic trying to keep the fire alive that I didn’t see it growing out of control.
He says, “Look, I know I scared you. I’m sorry. But everyone comes to everyone with a history. We’re learning how we are together, but we’re still who we were before.”
I don’t know who he was before. And I had left who I was before a long time ago. I replaced her with someone who saved her heart for taste and texture and smell. Who used her head for everything else. Who made things make sense. Making sense is what saved me, sustained me. It’s what pulled me out of the ashes and wed me to a career that relies on all the properties of fire. It’s what recreated me into a person surrounded by people, by cooks and waiters and bartenders and dishwashers and vendors and customers, so I didn’t know I was alone. What I learned, in addition to how to cook, was that every time something went wrong, if I could make sense of it I could make it right. I didn’t take chances until I let a stranger into my kitchen, into my bed.
I made sense of him. He was young but already too tired. He wanted stability. He wanted to make a life with someone in an industry he loved and understood. He knew how to operate every piece of equipment, how to increase profits, how to train cooks and servers. He was a fabulous, inspiring, inventive cook. He could butcher meat, he could skin a Dover sole in one move, he could suspend caviar in sabayon as easily as he could make grilled cheese. These things made him happy and they made sense to me. He knew that by just giving me a bite of something I hadn’t had before, I would cave. That my heart would take over. He knew how to get there.
So when I get to the restaurant this morning, after having been with him for over a year and a half, and my key won’t turn in the lock, I know I am dreaming. About banana pancakes. I was not surprised that he left me in the middle of the night because since the first time, it has become a ritual and one I celebrate like a teenager. This morning I showered and shaved, put on lotion, per-fume. I hope he is making banana pancakes because that’s what I have a taste for. Banana pancakes with pecans and caramel syrup. I will let him feed them to me, bite by sweet bite, because I always do. Because I am certifiably hokey in love.
I try the key again and again and then so hard it actually snaps off in the lock. I look like a thief, trying to break into my own restaurant. It is only seven in the morning and no one is out on the street yet. I cup my hands to either side of my face like blinders and peer inside. The lights are all out and so it gives the illusion that nothing is there, that my restaurant is an empty room. Like when I first started, when I had been emptied out and bought a space I could fill. The tables and chairs seem to have vanished. Maybe he moved them. Maybe he is redecorating the dining room or washing the carpet. I knock. And wait. I knock again, and call out his name. No one comes. So I knock again and again and again, each time harder and then harder than that so that he will hear me, emerge from wherever he is and make the fear starting to smoke and smolder inside me curl back into ash.
A police car cruises by and the officer gets out and asks to see some ID but I have nothing that says this space belongs to me. My key is broken in a lock where it didn’t fit. My face is wet so I know I am crying and my teeth are clenched and they hurt—everything hurts—and then without seeing it coming, I start screaming, appear crazy, delusional, all the kinds of crazy I know, like someone to fear. Me. Someone to fear.
The cop pats my shoulder and asks me to calm down. When I do, he looks through the window and then asks me to tell him what is inside my restaurant. My description does not match what he sees. “There’s no stained glass hanging there, maam.”
“What about the coffee station?” I say. “In the back corner? The espresso machine, regular coffee maker, two pots, one for decaf…” I rattle off my inventory like an auctioneer.
“Nothing back there, maam. Nothing at all. Is there someone we can call?” Of course, there is! I think. Call him. We’ve been robbed! He is probably tied up somewhere in the restaurant, waiting to be saved. Why didn’t I think of this before? How much time have I wasted? He trusts everyone. He would have let anyone in. He could be dead in there!
I recite his cell phone number and while the officer dials, I wipe my eyes and gather my strength and stand up straight. I’m coming, don’t worry. I’m here. I’m coming, but a message on his cell phone says it’s been disconnected. I paid the bill last week.
“Is there anyone else?” he asks me.
Anyone else? No, no one. There is no one else.
“Uh, ma’am?” he says, because I have not answered him and am staring into the black window, my place. “An employee maybe? A manager?”
Yes, there are employees. Waiters and dishwashers. There are hostesses, line cooks, two sous chefs, busboys, a sommelier on the weekends. There are day managers and night managers. Sometimes there is a harpist in the dining room, a quartet in the bar lounge. There are lots of people, really nice people, who come here every day and night to eat. An entire world of wonderful people.
I want to tell him this but don’t know how when I look up and see Adele, the night manager, standing there. I hear her identifying herself, asking what’s wrong. I hear her identifying me. I hear her saying she is here early because she left her cell phone in the hostess stand last night and needs it now to call her mother. I wonder why she didn’t just call her mother from her home. I wonder what would have happened if we had been naked on the air mattress in my office, eating banana pancakes with our fingers, hearing someone upstairs rummaging around the hostess stand. We would have thought we were being robbed. We have been robbed.
Another policeman comes and together the two men bust open the door and Adele and I walk in. Adele says “oh my God oh my God” over and over again. I do not speak. Adele starts walking around the dining room, touching the walls, moving one hand over the other as if the missing tables, chairs, linens, vases, flatware will miraculously reappear from behind the dusky pink wallpaper I put up myself. In my lonely days. When I thought I was safe. Poof. Everything has disappeared. There is nothing in the dining room, the bar, the lounge. All the plates and glassware, the water pitchers, the creamers and sugar bowls, the cream and sugar. Gone. The kitchen is an empty stainless steel vault. The huge Hobart to the tiny paring knives, the pots and pans, the tongs and spatulas and slotted spoons, and strainers, everything has vanished. The food is gone, the steaks and chops and fish and ribs, potatoes and onions and garlic, all the oils and vinegars, the spices and herbs, the truffles, pates, flour, butter, yeast, milks, the extracts. The walk-in cooler is cleaned out, except for a crate of rotting lemons.
I pull one out and my fingers fall through the soft blue and white mold to the decomposing flesh with its rancid sorry smell. How did he ever use these to make cakes? He was a magician. I sit down on the cooler floor, the terrible lemon in my palm, and try to turn magic into sense. Sleight of hand.
The police are asking me questions, but their words are jumbled and meaningless so I can’t answer. They turn to Adele, who is crying. I hear her say his name, describe him, but the description doesn’t sound like anyone I know.
The bigger of the two policemen very gently slides his hands under my arms and lifts me up. He walks me into the dining room, forgetting there is nowhere to sit, and just as gently settles me onto the carpet that apparently could not be pried up in time.
“Is there anything I can get you?”
But what can you pull out of thin air?
“Can we call someone else?” the officer asks. I try to conjure up the image of his Saturday night friends, men I never met. He could not have done this alone. I hear Adele rattling off names and numbers.
“Ok. Good,” I hear the officer say. “We’ll call them. In the meantime, do you want to go get your boss something? A cup of coffee? She needs something.”
What do you need when everything is gone?
Something small. Just one small thing, something that I could make disappear, something irreplaceable that would be gone for good. The tip of a finger. The bottom pearl of an ear. A toe, something I could run my teeth across and then bite off, clean and fast. a real thing, a real loss, that by being gone would say over and over again, forever, that I had been there.
*This story is taken from: Party Girls by Diane Goodman, Autumn House Press, 2011.
*Copyright © 2011 by Diane Goodman.
Margaret Mahuntleth, in the corner of the big settle, basked in the hearth-glow like one newly come to heaven. Warm light reddened her knitted shawl, her white apron, and her face, worn and frail. It was as if the mortal part of it had been beaten thin by the rains and snows of long roads, baked, like fine enamel, by many suns, so that it had a concave look – as though hollowed out of mother o’ pearl. Some faces gather wrinkles with the years, like seamed rocks on mountains, others only become, like stones in a brook, smoother, though frailer, in the conflicting currents. Margaret’s was one of these. And though she was a bit of a has-been, yet her face, as it shone from the dark settle-back, seemed young and almost angelic in its irrefragable happiness. For Marg’ret had never dreamed (no, not for an instant!) as she fought her way to Thresholds Farm through weather that made her whole being seem a hollow shell, that she would be invited into the kitchen. Usually she did her work in the barn. For Marg’ret was a chair-mender.
She travelled, on her small birdlike feet, all over the county, carrying her long bundle of rushes. With these she mended chairs at farms and cottages and even in the kitchens of rectories and in parish rooms and at the backs of churches where the people from the almshouses sat. She mended chairs mostly for other people to draw up to glowing fires and well-spread tables. She made them very flawless for weddings. For funerals she made them strong, because the people who attend funerals are generally older than those who attend weddings, and the weight of years is on them, and they have gathered to themselves, like the caddis worm, a mass of extraneous substance.
For dances Marg’ret also made them strong, knowing that in the intervals young women of some twelve stone would subside upon the knees of stalwarts rising fifteen stone.
Marg’ret knew all about it. She had been to some of the dances years ago, but people forgot to ask her to dance. Her faint tints, her soft, sad, downcast eye, her sober dress, all combined with her personality to make her fade into any background. She was always conscious, too, of the disgrace of being only a chair-mender; of not being the gardener’s daughter at the Hall, or Rectory-Lucy. So people forgot she was there, and she even forgot she was there herself.
She worked hard. She could make butter-baskets and poultry-baskets through which not the most centrifugal half-dozen fowls could do more than insinuate anxious heads. She could make children’s ornamental basket-chairs, and she could do the close wicker-work of rocking-chairs for nursing-mothers. Winter and summer she tramped from place to place, over frozen roads and dusty roads and all the other kinds of roads, calling at farms with her timid knock and her faint, cry, plaintive and musical, soon lost on the wind – ‘Chairs to mend!’
Then she would take the chair or basket or mat into the orchard or the barn, and sit at her work through the long green day or the short grey day, plaiting with her pale, hollow hands. Within doors she never thought of going. She would have been the first to deprecate sheeding rushes all o’er. The warm kitchen was a Paradise to which she, a Peri, did not pretend. Its furnishings she knew intimately, but she knew them as a church-cleaner might know the altar and its chalices, being, if such a thing were possible, excommunicated. Under the bowl of the sky, across the valleys she came, did her work featly as an elf, and was gone, as if the swift airs had blown her away with the curled may-petals of spring, the curved leaves of autumn.
If night drew on before she had done her work, she would sleep in the hayloft. Nobody inquired where she usually slept, any more than they concerned themselves about the squirrel that ran along the fence and was away, or the thistledown that floated along the blue sky.
So Marg’ret had never dreamed of being invited to the hearth-place. It was the most wonderful thing. Outside, the wan snowflakes battered themselves upon the panes like birds, dying. The night had come, black, inevitable, long. And to those who have no house the night is a wild beast. In every chimney a hollow wind spoke its uncontent. There were many chimneys at Thresholds Farm. It was a great place, and the master was a man well-thought-of, rich.
Marg’ret trembled to think she was here in the same room with him. He might even speak to her. He sat on the other side of the hearth while the servant-girl laid tea – the knife-and-fork tea of farms, with beef and bacon and potatoes. A tea to remember.
He sat leaning forward, his broad, knotted hands on his knees, staring into the fire. The girl slammed the teapot down on the table and said–
‘Yer tea, master.’
Marg’ret got up. She supposed it was time now for her to creep to bed in the hospitable loft, after a kindly cup of tea in the back kitchen. It had been wonderful, sitting here – just sitting quietly enjoying the rest and the dignity of the solid furniture and the bright fingers of the firelight touching here a willow-pattern plate and there a piece of copper. It was one of those marvellous half-hours of a life-time, which blossom on even to the grave, and maybe afterwards. She had never dreamed–
She softly crept toward the door, but as she went the master lifted his gloomy, chestnut-coloured eyes under their thatch of grizzled hair, and so transfixed her. She could not move with that brown fire upon her, engulfing her. So he always looked when he was deeply stirred. So he had looked down at his father’s coffin long ago, at his mother’s last year. So he had looked into the eyes of his favourite dog, dying in his arms. The look was the realization of the infinite within the finite, altering all values. Never once in all fifteen years during which she had been calling here had he seemed to look at Marg’ret at all.
In the almost ferocious intensity of the look she felt faint. Her face seemed like a fragile cup made to hold an unexpressed passion which was within his soul, which must find room for itself somewhere, as the great bore of water that rushes up a river must find room, some valley, some dimple where it may rest, where it may spread its strangled magnificence. She stood. Firelight filled her hollow palms; her apron, gathered in nervous fingers, so that it looked like a gleaner’s ready to carry grain; the pale shell of her face.
The servant-girl, perturbed by some gathering emotion that had come upon the kitchen, remained with a hand on the teapot-handle, transfixed. Marg’ret trembled, saying no word. How shall a conch-shell make music unless one lends it a voice? She was of the many human beings that wait on the shores of life for the voice which so often never comes.
Suddenly the master of the house said loudly, with his eyes still hard upon her–
It was as if the word burst a dam within him.
Her being received it.
‘Bide the night over,’ he added, in the same strange thunderous voice.
She took that also into her soul.
‘And all the nights,’ he finished, and a great calm fell upon him. It had taken all the years of his life till now for the flood to find its valley.
Then seeing that she stood as mute and still as ever, he said–
‘Coom then, take bite and sup.’
And when she was seated, like a half-thawed winter dormouse at its first feast, he said to the servant-girl, who still remained holding the Britannia-metal teapot (which seemed to mock Marg’ret with its inordinate convexity)–
‘Make a bed for the Missus!’
He was determined that no misunderstanding should vex his new-found peace, and when the girl had gone, breathing hard like an exhausted swimmer, he remained staring at Marg’ret in a kind of hunger for giving. And she, perfectly receptive, empty-handed as a Peri, let his flaming eyes dwell on her face, let his fire and his food hearten her, and so gave him her charity. And this was how Marg’ret Mahuntleth, the poor chair-mender, without will of her own or desert of her own, as far as she could see, came to be the mistress of the house and lawful wife of the master of Thresholds.
Lately, on the night before Whit Sunday, I dreamed that I was standing before a mirror, occupying myself with my new summer suit, which my parents had had made against the approaching festival. The dress consisted, as you well know, of shoes of nice leather, with great silver buckles, fine cotton stockings, breeches of black serge, and a coat of green barracan, with gold buttons. The waistcoat, of gold-stuff, had been cut out of the one worn by my father on his wedding-day. My hair was dressed and powdered, my curls stood upon my head like little wings,—but I could not finish dressing myself; for I continually changed the articles of wearing apparel, and the first always dropped off when I was about to put on the second. While I was thus embarrassed, a handsome young man came up to me, and greeted me in the kindest manner. “Welcome,” said I, “it gives me great pleasure to see you here.”—”Do you know me then?” asked he, smiling. “Why not?” I replied, smiling in my turn. “You are Mercury, and I have often enough seen pictures of you.”—”I am, indeed,” said he, “and I have been sent to you by the gods on an important mission. Do you see these three apples?” stretching out his hand, he showed me three apples, which from their size he could scarcely hold, and which were as wonderfully beautiful as they were large. One was green, another yellow, and the third red, and they looked like precious stones, to which the shape of fruit had been given. I wished to take them, but he drew me back, saying, “You must first know, that they are not for you. You are to give them to the three handsomest young persons in the town, who will, every one according to his lot, find wives to their heart’s content. There, take them and manage the matter well,” he added, as he quitted me, and placed the apples in my open hand. They seemed to me to have become even larger than they were before. I held them against the light, and found they were quite transparent, but soon they grew taller, and at last became three pretty—very pretty little ladies, of the height of a moderate-sized doll, with dresses of the colours of the apples. In this form they glided softly up my fingers, and when I was about to make a catch at them, that I might secure one at least, they soared up far away, so that I could do nothing but look after them. There I stood quite astounded and petrified, with my hands high in the air, and still staring at my fingers, as if their was something to be seen upon them. All of a sudden I perceived upon the very tips a charming little girl, very pretty and lively, though smaller than the others. As she did not fly away, like them, but remained with me, and danced about, now on this finger, now on that, I looked at her for some time, in a state of astonishment. She pleased me so much, that I fancied I might catch her, and was just on the point of making a grasp—as I thought very cleverly—when I felt a blow on the head, that caused me to fall completely stunned, and did not awaken from the stupor it occasioned till it was time to dress and go to church.
I often recalled the images to my mind during divine service, and at my grandfather’s table where I dined. In the afternoon I went to visit some friends, both because such visits were due, and because I wished to show myself in my new clothes, with my hat under my arm and my sword by my side. Finding no one at home, and hearing that they were all gone to the gardens, I resolved to follow them, intending to pass a pleasant evening. My way led me along the town wall, and I soon came to the spot which is called the “evil wall,” and rightly enough, for there is reason to believe it is always haunted. Walking slowly along, I thought of my three goddesses, and still more of the little nymph, and often held my fingers up in the air in the hope that she would be kind enough to balance herself upon them once more. As I proceeded, occupied with these thoughts, I discerned in the wall, on my left hand, a little wicket which I did not remember to have perceived before. It appeared low, but the pointed arch was such as to afford room for the tallest man to enter. The arch and the wall on either side had been most richly carved by the mason and the sculptor, but my attention was most attracted by the door itself. The old brown wood of which it was made had been but little ornamented, but broad bands of brass were attached to it, worked both in relief and in intaglio. The foliage which was represented on this brass, and on which the most natural birds were sitting, I could not sufficiently admire. I was, however, most surprised at seeing no keyhole, no latch, no knocker, and from the absence of these I surmised that the door only opened from within. I was not mistaken, for when I went close to it, to feel the carved work, it opened inwards, and a man, whose dress was somewhat long, wide, and altogether singular, appeared before me. A venerable beard flowed about his chin, and I was, therefore, inclined to take him for a Jew. As if he had divined my thoughts he made the sign of the holy cross, thereby giving me to understand that he was a good Catholic Christian. “Young gentleman, how did you come here, and what are you doing?” said he, with friendly voice and gesture. “I am admiring the work of this door,” I replied, “for I have never seen any thing like it, except, perhaps, in small pieces, in the collection of amateurs.” “I am delighted,” said he, “that you take pleasure in such work. The door is still more beautiful on the inner side, pray walk in if you choose.” This affair made me feel somewhat uncomfortable. I felt embarrassed by the strange dress of the porter, by the retired situation of the place, and a certain indescribable something in the air. I paused, therefore, under the pretext of looking longer at the outside, and at the same time cast furtive glances at the garden—for a garden it was which had just been opened to me. Immediately behind the gate I saw a space completely shaded by the closely entwined branches of some old linden trees, which had been planted at regular intervals, so that the most numerous assembly might have rested there during the most intense heat of the day. I had already set my foot on the threshold, and the old man was well able to lure me on a step further. Indeed I made no resistance, for I had always heard that a prince or sultan, in such cases, must never ask whether there is any danger. Had I not my sword by my side, and could I not soon get the better of the old man if he took a hostile position? I therefore walked in with confidence, and the porter shut the gate so softly that I could hardly hear the sound. He then showed the work on the inside, which was certainly much superior to that without, and explained it, giving indications of the greatest kindness towards me. My mind being completely set at rest I allowed myself to be led further along the shady space by the wall which circled the garden, and found much to admire. Niches, artificially adorned with shells, coral, and pieces of ore, poured from Tritons’ mouths copious streams of water into marble basins. Between them were aviaries and other pieces of lattice-work, in which there were squirrels hopping about, guinea-pigs running backwards and forwards, and, in short, all the pretty little creatures that one could desire. The birds cried and sung to us as we went along; the starlings, in particular, prated after us the most absurd stuff, one always calling out “Paris, Paris,” and the other “Narcissus, Narcissus,” as plain as any schoolboy. The old man seemed to look at me more seriously whenever the birds uttered this, but I pretended not to mind it, and indeed had no time to attend to him, for I could clearly perceive that we were walking round and that this shady place was in fact a large circle, which inclosed another of far more importance. We had again come to the little door, and it seemed to me as if the old man wished to dismiss me; but my eyes remained fixed on a golden railing which seemed to inclose the middle of this wonderful garden, and which in my walk I had found an opportunity of observing sufficiently, although the old man always contrived to keep me close to the wall, and, therefore, pretty far from the centre. As he was going up to the gate I said to him, with a bow: “You have been so exceedingly civil to me that I can venture to make another request before I leave you. May I not look closer at that golden railing, which seems to encircle the inner part of the garden?” “Certainly,” said he, “but then you must submit to certain conditions.” “In what do they consist?” I asked, quickly. “You must leave your hat and sword here, and must not quit my hand as I accompany you.” “To that I consent readily enough,” said I, and I laid my hat and sword on the first stone bench that came in my way. Upon this he at once seized my left hand in his right, held it fast, and, with some degree of force, led me straight on. When we came to the railing, my surprise was increased to overwhelming astonishment; any thing like it I had never seen. On a high socle of marble countless spears and partisans stood in a row, and were joined together by their upper ends, which were singularly ornamented. Peeping through the interstices I saw behind this railing a piece of water which flowed gently along, with marble on each side of it, and in the clear depths of which a great number of gold and silver fish might be discovered, which now slowly, now swiftly, now singly, now in shoals, were swimming to and fro. I wished much to see the other side of the canal that I might learn how the interior part of the garden was fashioned; but, to my great annoyance, on the other side of the water stood a similar railing, which was so skilfully arranged that, opposite to every space on the side where I stood was placed a spear or a partisan on the other, and thus, with the additional impediment of the other ornaments, it was impossible for one to look through, whatever position one took. Besides, the old man, who kept a fast hold of me, hindered me from moving freely. My curiosity—after all that I had seen—increased more and more, and I plucked up courage to ask the old man whether it was not possible to cross over. “Why not?” said he, “only you must conform to new conditions.” When I asked him what these were, he told me that I must change my dress. I readily consented; he led me back towards the outer wall and into a neat little room, against the walls of which hung dresses of several kinds which seemed to approach the oriental style of costume. I changed my dress quickly, and he put my powdered locks into a many-coloured net, after finally dusting out the powder, to my great horror. Standing before a large mirror I thought I looked prettily enough in my disguise, and liked myself better than in my stiff Sunday clothes. I made gestures and leaps, in imitation of the dancers I had seen on the stage erected at the fair, and while I was doing this I perceived, by chance, the reflection in the glass of a niche that stood behind me. Against its white ground hung three green cords, each twined in a manner which was not very clear to me in the distance. I therefore turned round somewhat hastily and asked the old man about the niche and these cords also. Civilly enough he took one down and showed it to me. It was a cord of green silk of moderate thickness, the ends of which, fastened together by a piece of green leather, cut through in two places, gave it the appearance of being an instrument for no very agreeable purpose. The affair seemed to me somewhat equivocal, and I asked the old man for an explanation. He answered, very quietly and mildly, that the cord was intended for those who abused the confidence which was here readily placed in them. He hung the cord in its place again, and asked me to follow him at once. This time he did not take hold of me, but I walked freely by his side.
My greatest curiosity now was to know where the door could be to pass through the railing, and where the bridge could be to cross the canal, for I had been able to discern nothing of the sort hitherto. I therefore looked at the golden rails very closely, as we hastened close up to them,—when all of a sudden my sight failed me; for the spears, pikes, halberds, and partisans, began quite unexpectedly to rattle and to shake, and this curious movement ended with the points of all being inclined towards each other, just as if two ancient armies, armed with pikes, were preparing for the attack. The confusion before my eyes, the clatter in my ears, was almost insupportable; but the sight became infinitely astonishing, when the spears, laying themselves quite down, covered the whole circle of the canal, and formed the noblest bridge that one can imagine, while the most variegated garden was revealed to my view. It was divided into beds, which wound about one another, and, seen at once, formed a labyrinth of an ornament. All of these were encompassed by a green border, formed of a short woolly-looking plant, which I had never seen; all were adorned with flowers, every division being of a different colour, and as these likewise grew short, the ground plan was easily traced. This beautiful sight, which I enjoyed in the full sunshine, completely riveted my eyes; but I scarcely knew where I could set my foot, for the winding paths were neatly covered with a blue sand, which seemed to form upon earth a darker sky, or a sky in the water. Therefore, with my eyes fixed upon the ground, I went on for some time by the side of my conductor, until I at length perceived, that in the midst of the circle of beds and flowers, stood another large circle of cypresses, or trees of the poplar kind, through which it was impossible to see, as the lowest boughs seemed to be shooting up from the earth. My conductor, without forcing me straight into the nearest way, nevertheless led me immediately towards that centre; and how was I surprised, when entering the circle of the tall trees, I saw before me the portico of a magnificent summer-house, which seemed to have similar openings and entrances on every side! A heavenly music, which issued from the building, charmed me even more than this perfect specimen of architecture. Now I thought I heard a lute, now a harp, now a guitar, and now a tinkling sound, which was not like that of any of the three instruments. The door which we approached opened at a light touch from the old man, and my amazement was great, when the female porter, who came out, appeared exactly like the little maiden who had danced upon my fingers in my dream. She greeted me as if we were old acquaintances, and asked me to walk in. The old man remained behind, and I went with her along a short passage, which was arched over and beautifully ornamented, till I came to the central hall; the majestic and cathedral-seeming height of which arrested my sight and surprised me, immediately on my entrance. However, my eye could not long remain fixed upwards, as it was soon lured down by a most charming spectacle. On the carpet, immediately beneath the centre of the cupola, sat three ladies, each one forming the corner of a triangle, and each dressed in a different colour. One was in red, another in yellow, the third in green. Their seats were gilded, and the carpet was a perfect bed of flowers. In their arms lay the three instruments, the sounds of which I had distinguished from without, for they had left off playing, being disturbed by my entrance. “Welcome!” said the middle one, who sat with her face towards the door, was dressed in red, and had the harp. “Sit down by Alerte, and listen, if you are fond of music.” I now saw, for the first time, that a tolerably long bench, placed across, with a mandoline upon it, lay before me. The pretty little girl took up the mandoline, seated herself, and drew me to her side. Now I looked at the second lady, who was on my right. She wore the yellow dress, and had a guitar in her hand; and if the harp-player was imposing in her form, grand in her features, and majestic in her deportment, the guitar-player was distinguished by every grace and cheerfulness. She was a slender blonde, while the other was adorned with hair of a dark brown. The variety and accordance of their music did not prevent me from observing the third beauty in the green dress, the tones of whose lute were to me somewhat touching, and at the same time remarkably striking. She it was who seemed to take the greatest notice of me, and to direct her playing towards me. At the same time, I could not tell what to make of her, for she was now tender, now odd, now frank, now capricious, as she altered her gestures and the style of her playing. Sometimes she seemed anxious to move me, and sometimes anxious to tease me. No matter, however, what she did, she gained no advantage over me, for I was quite taken up by my little neighbour, to whom I sat close; and when I perceived plainly enough that the three ladies were the sylphides of my dream, and recognised the colours of the apples, I well understood that I had no reason to secure them. The pretty little creature I would much sooner have seized, had not the box on the ear which she gave me in my dream remained still fresh in my memory. Hitherto she had kept quiet with her mandoline; but when her mistresses had ceased, they ordered her to treat us with a few lively airs. Scarcely had she struck off some dancing melodies in a very exciting style, than she jumped up, and I did the same. She played and danced; I was forced to follow her steps, and we went through a kind of little ballet, at which the ladies seemed to be well pleased, for no sooner had we finished it, than they ordered the little girl to refresh me with something nice before supper. In truth, I had forgotten that there was any thing else in the world beyond this Paradise. Alerte led me back into the passage by which I had entered. On one side, she had two well-furnished apartments, in one of which—the one in which she lived—she served before me oranges, figs, peaches, and grapes, and I tasted the fruits both of foreign lands and of early months, with great appetite. Confectionary was in abundance, and she filled a goblet of polished crystal with sparkling wine; but I had no need of drinking, as I sufficiently refreshed myself with the fruits. “Now we will play,” said she, and took me into the other room. This had the appearance of a Christmas fair, except that such fine, precious things are never to be seen in a booth. There were all sorts of dolls, and dolls’ clothes, and utensils; little kitchens, parlours, and shops; besides single toys in abundance. She led me all round to the glass cases, in which these precious articles were preserved. The first case she soon closed again, saying: “There is nothing for you, I am sure, there,” added she, “we can find building materials, walls, and towers, houses, palaces, and churches to put together a large town. That, however, would be no amusement for me, so we will take something else, that may be equally amusing for both of us.” She then brought out some boxes, in which I saw some little soldiers placed in layers one over the other, and with respect to which I was forced to confess that I had never seen any thing so pretty in my life. She did not leave me time to look closer into particulars, but took one of the boxes under her arm, while I caught up the other. “We will go to the golden bridge,” said she, “for that’s the best place to play at soldiers. The spears point out the direction in which the armies should be placed.” We had now reached the shaking, golden bridge, and I could hear the water ripple, and the fish splash beneath me, as I knelt down to set up my rows of soldiers, which, as I now saw, were all on horseback. She gloried in being the queen of the Amazons, as the leader of her host; while I, on the other hand, found Achilles, and a very fine set of Greek cavalry. The armies stood face to face, and nothing prettier can be conceived. They were not flat leaden horsemen like ours, but man and horse were round and full-bodied, and very finely worked. It was difficult to see how they were able to balance themselves, for they kept up without having a stand.
We had both surveyed our armies with great complacency, when she announced the attack. Besides the soldiers, we had found artillery in our chests—namely, boxes filled with little balls of polished agate. With these we were to shoot at each other’s forces from a certain distance, on the express condition, however, that we were not to throw with greater force than was required to upset the figures, as they were on no account to be injured. The cannonading began from each side, and, at first, to the great delight of both of us. But when my adversary remarked that I took a better aim than she, and that I might end by winning the game, which depended on having the greatest number of men upright, she stepped closer, and her girlish manner of throwing proved successful. A number of my best troops were laid low, and the more I protested, with the greater zeal did she go on throwing. At last I became vexed, and told her that I would do the same. Accordingly, I not only came closer, but in my passion, I threw much harder, so that, in a short time, a couple of her little female centaurs were broken to pieces. Her zeal prevented her from noticing this at once, but I stood petrified with astonishment when the broken figures joined themselves together again, and the Amazon and her horse again became entire; nay, became perfectly alive at the same time, for they galloped from the bridge up to the linden-trees, and after running backwards and forwards, were lost—how I cannot tell—in the direction of the wall. My fair adversary had scarcely perceived this, than she sobbed aloud, and exclaimed that I had caused her an irreparable loss, which was far greater than words could express. I, who had grown enraged, was pleased at doing her an injury, and with blind fury, threw the few agate-balls I still had, among her forces. Unfortunately, I struck the queen, who had been excepted, as long as our game had proceeded in the regular way. She flew to pieces, and her nearest adjutants were shattered at the same time. Soon, however, they joined themselves together again, took their flight like the first, galloped merrily under the lindens, and were lost near the wall.
My adversary reproached and scolded me, but I, having once begun the work of destruction, stooped down to pick up some of the agate balls, which were rolling about the golden spears. My savage wish was to destroy her whole army; while she did not remain inactive, but darting at me gave me a box on the ear, that set my very head ringing. I, who had always heard that a hearty kiss is the proper return for a blow given by a girl, caught her by her ears and kissed her several times. At this she uttered such a piercing cry that I was absolutely terrified. I let her go, and it was fortunate that I did so, for at that moment I did not know what befel me. The ground beneath me began to shake and rattle, the rails, as I now observed, put themselves in motion, but I had no time for consideration, nor was I sufficient master of my feet to fly. Every moment I was afraid of being impaled, for the lances and partisans which began to stand upright, tore my clothes. Suffice it to say,—I do not know how it was,—that my sight and hearing failed me, and that I recovered from my terror and the stupor into which I had been thrown, at the foot of a linden tree, against which the railing, while raising itself, had thrown me. My malice returned with my senses, and increased still more, when from the other side I heard the jeers and laughter of my adversary, who had probably come to the ground somewhat more softly than myself. I therefore got up, and as saw scattered around me, my own little army with its leaden Achilles, which the rising rails had thrown off together with myself, I began by catching hold of the hero, and dashing him against a tree. His resuscitation and flight gave me double pleasure, for the prettiest sight in the world was associated with all the delight of gratified malice, and I was on the point of sending the rest of the Greeks after him, when all of a sudden water came hissing from every side, from the stones and walls, from the ground and branches; and wherever I turned it pelted me furiously. My light dress was soon completely wet through, and as it had been already torn, I lost no time in flinging it off altogether. My slippers I threw aside, and then one covering after the other, finding it very pleasant in the sultry day to take such a shower-bath. Stark naked, I walked gravely along between the welcome waters, and I thought I might thus go on pleasantly for some time. My rage had cooled, and I now desired nothing more than a reconciliation with my little adversary. All of a sudden the water stopped, and I now stood completely wet on ground that was soaked through. The presence of the old man, who unexpectedly came before me, was any thing but welcome. I should have wished, if not to hide myself, at any rate to put on some covering. Shame, cold, and an endeavour to cover myself in some measure, made me cut a very miserable figure, and the old man lost no time in loading me with the bitterest reproaches. “What hinders me,” he cried, “from taking one of the green cords, and fitting it to your back at any rate, if not to your neck!” This threat I took very ill. “Hark ye,” said I, “you had better take care of such words, or even such thoughts, or you and your mistresses will be lost!” “Who are you?” said he, in a tone of defiance, “that dare to talk in this way?” “A favourite of the gods,” I replied, “on whom it depends whether those ladies will find good husbands and live happily, or pine and grow old in their magic cloister.” The old man retreated some steps. “Who revealed that to you?” he asked with doubt and astonishment. “Three apples,” said I, “three jewels.” “And what reward do you desire?” he exclaimed. “Above all things,” I replied, “the little creature who brought me into this cursed condition.” The old man threw himself at my feet, without heeding the dampness and muddiness of the ground. He then arose, not in the least wetted, took me kindly by the hand, led me into the room, where I had been before, dressed me again quickly, and I soon found myself with my hair curled and my Sunday clothes on, as at first. The porter did not utter another word, but before he allowed me to cross the threshold, he detained me, and showed to me certain objects that were near the wall, and on the other side of the way, while at the same time he pointed to the door backwards. I understood him well. He wished me to impress the objects on my mind, that I might more readily find the door again, which unexpectedly closed behind me. I observed already what was opposite to me. The boughs of seven old nut-trees projected over a high wall, and partly covered the moulding with which it terminated. The branches reached to a stone tablet, the decorated border of which I could easily recognise, but the inscription on which I could not read. It rested on the jutting stone of a niche, in which a fountain artificially constructed, was throwing water from cup to cup into a large basin, which formed a kind of little pond, and was lost in the ground. Fountain, inscription, nut-trees, all stood, one directly over the other, and I could have painted it as I saw it.
It may be easily conceived how I passed the evening, and many a day afterwards, and how often I repeated these adventures, which I could hardly believe myself. As soon as I could, I went again to the “evil wall,” that I might at least refresh my memory by the sight of the objects, and look at the beautiful door. To my great astonishment all was changed. Nut-trees were, indeed, hanging over the wall, but they were not close together. A tablet was inserted, but it stood at some distance to the right of the trees, was without carving, and had a legible inscription. A niche with a fountain stood far to the left, and was not to be compared to the one I had before seen. Of the door not a trace was to be found, and I was, therefore, almost compelled to believe that my second adventure was a dream, as well as my first. My only consolation is, that the three objects always seem to change their situation, for, after repeated visits to the spot, I think I have observed, that the nut-trees are running towards each other, and that the tablet and fountain are approaching. Probably, when all has come together again, the door will once more be visible, and I will do all I can to fit on a sequel to the adventure. Whether I shall be able to tell what befalls me in future, or whether it will be expressly forbidden me, I cannot say.
For hours she had lain in a kind of gentle torpor, not unlike that sweet lassitude which masters one in the hush of a midsummer noon, when the heat seems to have silenced the very birds and insects, and, lying sunk in the tasselled meadow-grasses, one looks up through a level roofing of maple-leaves at the vast shadowless, and unsuggestive blue. Now and then, at ever-lengthening intervals, a flash of pain darted through her, like the ripple of sheet-lightning across such a midsummer sky; but it was too transitory to shake her stupor, that calm, delicious, bottomless stupor into which she felt herself sinking more and more deeply, without a disturbing impulse of resistance, an effort of reattachment to the vanishing edges of consciousness.
The resistance, the effort, had known their hour of violence; but now they were at an end. Through her mind, long harried by grotesque visions, fragmentary images of the life that she was leaving, tormenting lines of verse, obstinate presentments of pictures once beheld, indistinct impressions of rivers, towers, and cupolas, gathered in the length of journeys half forgotten-through her mind there now only moved a few primal sensations of colorless well-being; a vague satisfaction in the thought that she had swallowed her noxious last draught of medicine… and that she should never again hear the creaking of her husband’s boots – those horrible boots – and that no one would come to bother her about the next day’s dinner… or the butcher’s book…
At last even these dim sensations spent themselves in the thickening obscurity which enveloped her; a dusk now filled with pale geometric roses, circling softly, interminably before her, now darkened to a uniform blue-blackness, the hue of a summer night without stars. And into this darkness she felt herself sinking, sinking, with the gentle sense of security of one upheld from beneath. Like a tepid tide it rose around her, gliding ever higher and higher, folding in its velvety embrace her relaxed and tired body, now submerging her breast and shoulders, now creeping gradually, with soft inexorableness, over her throat to her chin, to her ears, to her mouth… Ah, now it was rising too high; the impulse to struggle was renewed;… her mouth was full;… she was choking… Help!
“It is all over,” said the nurse, drawing down the eyelids with official composure.
The clock struck three. They remembered it afterward. Someone opened the window and let in a blast of that strange, neutral air which walks the earth between darkness and dawn; someone else led the husband into another room. He walked vaguely, like a blind man, on his creaking boots.
She stood, as it seemed, on a threshold, yet no tangible gateway was in front of her. Only a wide vista of light, mild yet penetrating as the gathered glimmer of innumerable stars, expanded gradually before her eyes, in blissful contrast to the cavernous darkness from which she had of late emerged.
She stepped forward, not frightened, but hesitating, and as her eyes began to grow more familiar with the melting depths of light about her, she distinguished the outlines of a landscape, at first swimming in the opaline uncertainty of Shelley’s vaporous creations, then gradually resolved into distincter shape – the vast unrolling of a sunlit plain, aerial forms of mountains, and presently the silver crescent of a river in the valley, and a blue stencilling of trees along its curve – something suggestive in its ineffable hue of an azure background of Leonardo’s, strange, enchanting, mysterious, leading on the eye and the imagination into regions of fabulous delight. As she gazed, her heart beat with a soft and rapturous surprise; so exquisite a promise she read in the summons of that hyaline distance.
“And so death is not the end after all,” in sheer gladness she heard herself exclaiming aloud. “I always knew that it couldn’t be. I believed in Darwin, of course. I do still; but then Darwin himself said that he wasn’t sure about the soul – at least, I think he did – and Wallace was a spiritualist; and then there was St. George Mivart –”
Her gaze lost itself in the ethereal remoteness of the mountains.
“How beautiful! How satisfying!” she murmured. “Perhaps now I shall really know what it is to live.”
As she spoke she felt a sudden thickening of her heart-beats, and looking up she was aware that before her stood the Spirit of Life.
“Have you never really known what it is to live?” the Spirit of Life asked her.
“I have never known,” she replied, “that fulness of life which we all feel ourselves capable of knowing; though my life has not been without scattered hints of it, like the scent of earth which comes to one sometimes far out at sea.”
“And what do you call the fulness of life?” the Spirit asked again.
“Oh, I can’t tell you, if you don’t know,” she said, almost reproachfully. “Many words are supposed to define it – love and sympathy are those in commonest use, but I am not even sure that they are the right ones, and so few people really know what they mean.”
“You were married,” said the Spirit, “yet you did not find the fulness of life in your marriage?”
“Oh, dear, no,” she replied, with an indulgent scorn, “my marriage was a very incomplete affair.”
“And yet you were fond of your husband?”
“You have hit upon the exact word; I was fond of him, yes, just as I was fond of my grandmother, and the house that I was born in, and my old nurse. Oh, I was fond of him, and we were counted a very happy couple. But I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms: there is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawingroom, where one receives formal visits; the sitting-room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.”
“And your husband,” asked the Spirit, after a pause, “never got beyond the family sitting-room?”
“Never,” she returned, impatiently; “and the worst of it was that he was quite content to remain there. He thought it perfectly beautiful, and sometimes, when he was admiring its commonplace furniture, insignificant as the chairs and tables of a hotel parlor, I felt like crying out to him: ‘Fool, will you never guess that close at hand are rooms full of treasures and wonders, such as the eye of man hath not seen, rooms that no step has crossed, but that might be yours to live in, could you but find the handle of the door?'”
“Then,” the Spirit continued, “those moments of which you lately spoke, which seemed to come to you like scattered hints of the fulness of life, were not shared with your husband?”
“Oh, no – never. He was different. His boots creaked, and he always slammed the door when he went out, and he never read anything but railway novels and the sporting advertisements in the papers — and — and, in short, we never understood each other in the least.”
“To what influence, then, did you owe those exquisite sensations?”
“I can hardly tell. Sometimes to the perfume of a flower; sometimes to a verse of Dante or of Shakespeare; sometimes to a picture or a sunset, or to one of those calm days at sea, when one seems to be lying in the hollow of a blue pearl; sometimes, but rarely, to a word spoken by someone who chanced to give utterance, at the right moment, to what I felt but could not express.”
“Someone whom you loved?” asked the Spirit.
“I never loved anyone, in that way,” she said, rather sadly, “nor was I thinking of any one person when I spoke, but of two or three who, by touching for an instant upon a certain chord of my being, had called forth a single note of that strange melody which seemed sleeping in my soul. It has seldom happened, however, that I have owed such feelings to people; and no one ever gave me a moment of such happiness as it was my lot to feel one evening in the Church of Or San Michele, in Florence.”
“Tell me about it,” said the Spirit.
“It was near sunset on a rainy spring afternoon in Easter week. The clouds had vanished, dispersed by a sudden wind, and as we entered the church the fiery panes of the high windows shone out like lamps through the dusk. A priest was at the high altar, his white cope a livid spot in the incense-laden obscurity, the light of the candles flickering up and down like fireflies about his head; a few people knelt near by. We stole behind them and sat down on a bench close to the tabernacle of Orcagna.
“Strange to say, though Florence was not new to me, I had never been in the church before; and in that magical light I saw for the first time the inlaid steps, the fluted columns, the sculptured bas-reliefs and canopy of the marvellous shrine. The marble, worn and mellowed by the subtle hand of time, took on an unspeakable rosy hue, suggestive in some remote way of the honeycolored columns of the Parthenon, but more mystic, more complex, a color not born of the sun’s inveterate kiss, but made up of cryptal twilight, and the flame of candles upon martyrs’ tombs, and gleams of sunset through symbolic panes of chrysoprase and ruby; such a light as illumines the missals in the library of Siena, or burns like a hidden fire through the Madonna of Gian Bellini in the Church of the Redeemer, at Venice; the light of the Middle Ages, richer, more solemn, more significant than the limpid sunshine of Greece.
“The church was silent, but for the wail of the priest and the occasional scraping of a chair against the floor, and as I sat there, bathed in that light, absorbed in rapt contemplation of the marble miracle which rose before me, cunningly wrought as a casket of ivory and enriched with jewel-like incrustations and tarnished gleams of gold, I felt myself borne onward along a mighty current, whose source seemed to be in the very beginning of things, and whose tremendous waters gathered as they went all the mingled streams of human passion and endeavor. Life in all its varied manifestations of beauty and strangeness seemed weaving a rhythmical dance around me as I moved, and wherever the spirit of man had passed I knew that my foot had once been familiar.
“As I gazed the mediaeval bosses of the tabernacle of Orcagna seemed to melt and flow into their primal forms so that the folded lotus of the Nile and the Greek acanthus were braided with the runic knots and fish-tailed monsters of the North, and all the plastic terror and beauty born of man’s hand from the Ganges to the Baltic quivered and mingled in Orcagna’s apotheosis of Mary. And so the river bore me on, past the alien face of antique civilizations and the familiar wonders of Greece, till I swam upon the fiercely rushing tide of the Middle Ages, with its swirling eddies of passion, its heaven-reflecting pools of poetry and art; I heard the rhythmic blow of the craftsmen’s hammers in the goldsmiths’ workshops and on the walls of churches, the party-cries of armed factions in the narrow streets, the organroll of Dante’s verse, the crackle of the fagots around Arnold of Brescia, the twitter of the swallows to which St. Francis preached, the laughter of the ladies listening on the hillside to the quips of the Decameron, while plague-struck Florence howled beneath them — all this and much more I heard, joined in strange unison with voices earlier and more remote, fierce, passionate, or tender, yet subdued to such awful harmony that I thought of the song that the morning stars sang together and felt as though it were sounding in my ears. My heart beat to suffocation, the tears burned my lids, the joy, the mystery of it seemed too intolerable to be borne. I could not understand even then the words of the song; but I knew that if there had been someone at my side who could have heard it with me, we might have found the key to it together.
“I turned to my husband, who was sitting beside me in an attitude of patient dejection, gazing into the bottom of his hat; but at that moment he rose, and stretching his stiffened legs, said, mildly: ‘Hadn’t we better be going? There doesn’t seem to be much to see here, and you know the table d’hote dinner is at half-past six o’clock.”
Her recital ended, there was an interval of silence; then the Spirit of Life said: “There is a compensation in store for such needs as you have expressed.”
“Oh, then you do understand?” she exclaimed. “Tell me what compensation, I entreat you!”
“It is ordained,” the Spirit answered, “that every soul which seeks in vain on earth for a kindred soul to whom it can lay bare its inmost being shall find that soul here and be united to it for eternity.”
A glad cry broke from her lips. “Ah, shall I find him at last?” she cried, exultant.
“He is here,” said the Spirit of Life.
She looked up and saw that a man stood near whose soul (for in that unwonted light she seemed to see his soul more clearly than his face) drew her toward him with an invincible force.
“Are you really he?” she murmured.
“I am he,” he answered.
She laid her hand in his and drew him toward the parapet which overhung the valley.
“Shall we go down together,” she asked him, “into that marvellous country; shall we see it together, as if with the self-same eyes, and tell each other in the same words all that we think and feel?”
“So,” he replied, “have I hoped and dreamed.”
“What?” she asked, with rising joy. “Then you, too, have looked for me?”
“All my life.”
“How wonderful! And did you never, never find anyone in the other world who understood you?”
“Not wholly – not as you and I understand each other.”
“Then you feel it, too? Oh, I am happy,” she sighed.
They stood, hand in hand, looking down over the parapet upon the shimmering landscape which stretched forth beneath them into sapphirine space, and the Spirit of Life, who kept watch near the threshold, heard now and then a floating fragment of their talk blown backward like the stray swallows which the wind sometimes separates from their migratory tribe.
“Did you never feel at sunset –”
“Ah, yes; but I never heard anyone else say so. Did you?”
“Do you remember that line in the third canto of the ‘Inferno?'”
“Ah, that line – my favorite always. Is it possible –”
“You know the stooping Victory in the frieze of the Nike Apteros?”
“You mean the one who is tying her sandal? Then you have noticed, too, that all Botticelli and Mantegna are dormant in those flying folds of her drapery?”
“After a storm in autumn have you never seen –”
“Yes, it is curious how certain flowers suggest certain painters-the perfume of the incarnation, Leonardo; that of the rose, Titian; the tuberose, Crivelli –”
“I never supposed that anyone else had noticed it.”
“Have you never thought –”
“Oh, yes, often and often; but I never dreamed that anyone else had.”
“But surely you must have felt –”
“Oh, yes, yes; and you, too –”
“How beautiful! How strange –”
Their voices rose and fell, like the murmur of two fountains answering each other across a garden full of flowers. At length, with a certain tender impatience, he turned to her and said: “Love, why should we linger here? All eternity lies before us. Let us go down into that beautiful country together and make a home for ourselves on some blue hill above the shining river.”
As he spoke, the hand she had forgotten in his was suddenly withdrawn, and he felt that a cloud was passing over the radiance of her soul.
“A home,” she repeated, slowly, “a home for you and me to live in for all eternity?”
“Why not, love? Am I not the soul that yours has sought?”
“Y-yes – yes, I know – but, don’t you see, home would not be like home to me, unless –”
“Unless?” he wonderingly repeated.
She did not answer, but she thought to herself, with an impulse of whimsical inconsistency, “Unless you slammed the door and wore creaking boots.”
But he had recovered his hold upon her hand, and by imperceptible degrees was leading her toward the shining steps which descended to the valley.
“Come, O my soul’s soul,” he passionately implored; “why delay a moment? Surely you feel, as I do, that eternity itself is too short to hold such bliss as ours. It seems to me that I can see our home already. Have I not always seem it in my dreams? It is white, love, is it not, with polished columns, and a sculptured cornice against the blue? Groves of laurel and oleander and thickets of roses surround it; but from the terrace where we walk at sunset, the eye looks out over woodlands and cool meadows where, deep-bowered under ancient boughs, a stream goes delicately toward the river. Indoors our favorite pictures hang upon the walls and the rooms are lined with books. Think, dear, at last we shall have time to read them all. With which shall we begin? Come, help me to choose. Shall it be ‘Faust’ or the ‘Vita Nuova,’ the ‘Tempest’ or ‘Les Caprices de Marianne,’ or the thirty-first canto of the ‘Paradise,’ or ‘Epipsychidion’ or “Lycidas’? Tell me, dear, which one?”
As he spoke he saw the answer trembling joyously upon her lips; but it died in the ensuing silence, and she stood motionless, resisting the persuasion of his hand.
“What is it?” he entreated.
“Wait a moment,” she said, with a strange hesitation in her voice. “Tell me first, are you quite sure of yourself? Is there no one on earth whom you sometimes remember?”
“Not since I have seen you,” he replied; for, being a man, he had indeed forgotten.
Still she stood motionless, and he saw that the shadow deepened on her soul.
“Surely, love,” he rebuked her, “it was not that which troubled you? For my part I have walked through Lethe. The past has melted like a cloud before the moon. I never lived until I saw you.”
She made no answer to his pleadings, but at length, rousing herself with a visible effort, she turned away from him and moved toward the Spirit of Life, who still stood near the threshold.
“I want to ask you a question,” she said, in a troubled voice.
“Ask,” said the Spirit.
“A little while ago,” she began, slowly, “you told me that every soul which has not found a kindred soul on earth is destined to find one here.”
“And have you not found one?” asked the Spirit.
“Yes; but will it be so with my husband’s soul also?”
“No,” answered the Spirit of Life, “for your husband imagined that he had found his soul’s mate on earth in you; and for such delusions eternity itself contains no cure.”
She gave a little cry. Was it of disappointment or triumph?
“Then – then what will happen to him when he comes here?”
“That I cannot tell you. Some field of activity and happiness he will doubtless find, in due measure to his capacity for being active and happy.”
She interrupted, almost angrily: “He will never be happy without me.”
“Do not be too sure of that,” said the Spirit.
She took no notice of this, and the Spirit continued: “He will not understand you here any better than he did on earth.”
“No matter,” she said; “I shall be the only sufferer, for he always thought that he understood me.”
“His boots will creak just as much as ever –”
“And he will slam the door –”
“And continue to read railway novels –”
She interposed, impatiently: “Many men do worse than that.”
“But you said just now,” said the Spirit, “that you did not love him.”
“True,” she answered, simply; “but don’t you understand that I shouldn’t feel at home without him? It is all very well for a week or two – but for eternity! After all, I never minded the creaking of his boots, except when my head ached, and I don’t suppose it will ache here; and he was always so sorry when he had slammed the door, only he never could remember not to. Besides, no one else would know how to look after him, he is so helpless. His inkstand would never be filled, and he would always be out of stamps and visiting-cards. He would never remember to have his umbrella re-covered, or to ask the price of anything before he bought it. Why, he wouldn’t even know what novels to read. I always had to choose the kind he liked, with a murder or a forgery and a successful detective.”
She turned abruptly to her kindred soul, who stood listening with a mien of wonder and dismay.
“Don’t you see,” she said, “that I can’t possibly go with you?”
“But what do you intend to do?” asked the Spirit of Life.
“What do I intend to do?” she returned, indignantly. “Why, I mean to wait for my husband, of course. If he had come here first he would have waited for me for years and years; and it would break his heart not to find me here when he comes.” She pointed with a contemptuous gesture to the magic vision of hill and vale sloping away to the translucent mountains. “He wouldn’t give a fig for all that,” she said, “if he didn’t find me here.”
“But consider,” warned the Spirit, “that you are now choosing for eternity. It is a solemn moment.”
“Choosing!” she said, with a half-sad smile. “Do you still keep up here that old fiction about choosing? I should have thought that you knew better than that. How can I help myself? He will expect to find me here when he comes, and he would never believe you if you told him that I had gone away with someone else-never, never.”
“So be it,” said the Spirit. “Here, as on earth, each one must decide for himself.”
She turned to her kindred soul and looked at him gently, almost wistfully. “I am sorry,” she said. “I should have liked to talk with you again; but you will understand, I know, and I dare say you will find someone else a great deal cleverer –”
And without pausing to hear his answer she waved him a swift farewell and turned back toward the threshold.
“Will my husband come soon?” she asked the Spirit of Life.
“That you are not destined to know,” the Spirit replied.
“No matter,” she said, cheerfully; “I have all eternity to wait in.”
And still seated alone on the threshold, she listens for the creaking of his boots.
They’re married, but not to each other.
Nat unlocks the door and then steps back, to let Ella go in first. The hotel room is high-ceilinged and square, and a double bed takes up most of it. On the bed is a cream-colored quilted spread. Pale heavy curtains frame the window; thinner, translucent ones obscure the view. The carpet is thick and cocoa-colored. There is an ornate bureau, imitation French, and a gilt-framed mirror. The room is close and airless. They have no luggage.
Ella moves ahead of him, stopping near the bed. She’s in her late twenties, and thin, with long chestnut-colored hair. She turns, so that she won’t see herself in the mirror. She stands facing away from him, looking down. She has never done this before. She hardly knows this man, and this is a terrible mistake. She has made a terrible mistake, coming to this airless room with someone who, it turns out, is a stranger. She stands motionless, awaiting perdition.
Nat follows her into the room.
He has never done exactly this before, either, never done anything quite so bold and crude as to rent a hotel room at lunchtime. What he did was always out of town, with women he never intended to see again. It was mostly in Los Angeles, a place full of beautiful, complaisant girls, happy to be taken out for dinner and then back to his hotel. Those encounters had been brief and distant. But this, now, is in his own city, only blocks from his own apartment, with a woman he does want to see again, and he’s afraid he’s starting something large and irreversible. What he’s afraid it means is the end of his marriage. He had known, somewhere in his mind, that his marriage had become tenuous, (his feelings for his wife have become ritualised and impersonal, mostly obligation, an absence of emotion) but he had not realised until now that it would end. He won’t be able to go on like this; he’s going too far. This is reckless, indefensible, and he’s doing it in the name of lust, which is, right now, notably absent. He understands that coming here was a mistake; he believes he loves this woman.
He wonders if today can be salvaged. Perhaps it’s the room – should he have gotten a bigger one? But no: it’s the silence, the immobility of the room that’s the problem, the implacably fixed furniture, the hushing carpet, the heavy curtains, the whole place awaiting human animation.
He likes looking at her. He can’t take his eyes from her. She’s small and slight, with a polished curtain of hair spilling down her back. Her head is bent.
Ella is looking down at the bedspread, waiting for the worst. It is shameful, it is excruciating, that she’s become part of this. What if she’s seen by someone she knows, in this corridor of bedrooms, with this man who is not her husband? What is she doing here at lunchtime, with a man she hardly knows? She can’t look at him. She can feel his presence – large, solid, he’s much taller and stronger than she is – standing behind her. She’s now obligated to go through with this, since she agreed to come. It feels like an execution. She dreads his touch.
She thinks of her husband. He’s downtown right now, in his office, in his shirtsleeves and suspenders. He’s on the phone, or making a point to someone – he loves making points, stabbing his finger in the air – or having another cup of coffee. He’s doing something completely ordinary. He’s not betraying her utterly, betraying her to the bone, though he has. But he’s not doing it right now, and she is. She could call him, there’s an ivory phone on the table by the bed. He’d answer at his desk, his voice familiar. “Hello?”
It was a mistake, but she has to go through with it. She is obligated: of course she knew what it meant, meeting at The Plaza for lunch. Now she will have to have sex with him in this strange airless room. She will have to offer him her naked body. She would rather die.
Nat steps closer to her.
It was a mistake, that’s all.
He turns her body to him and glimpses her grieving face. He puts his arms around her and stands still, holding her close without moving. He can feel her, rigid and fearful. He says nothing, embracing her quietly. It’s a mistake, that’s all. What he wants is for her not to be miserable. What he wants is to expand around her, to become the ocean in which she is suspended. He holds her until he feels her quiet, until she understands that she is safe, and that all he wants from her is this close holding, this understanding.
* * *
They’re married, and now to each other.
The divorces were tumultuous and unhappy, but Nat and Ella persevered. They weathered the storms, they made their way determinedly through the torment towards each other.
Now they have been married for nine years, and they love each other. They’re knitted deeply into one another and they warm themselves at each others’ hearts. They long for each other, and their bodies teach each other pleasure, but they fight terribly. They say unforgiveable things to each other. Once, Nat took Ella violently by the Ella’s shoulders. “You make me so angry,” he said. “Some day I’m going to kill you.”
Ella, beside herself with rage, was pleased. “Fine,” she told him, satisfaction in her voice. It seemed a vindication, proof of something.
When they are not fighting they are happy, they are drunk on each other. But when they fight Ella fears they will split apart, and if they split apart, she fears it will be the end of her. She can’t imagine herself, if this marriage fails. She can’t imagine her life if Nat were to leave her. She can’t imagine her existence without him; it would be black and meaningless, the void. It is terrifying to her, this prospect, like falling into deep space.
She knows, in one part of her mind, when she is calm, that this is absurd. She has her own life, with friends, and a career – she is a literary publicist, and she has founded her own small agency. Her life won’t really be over if she and Nate split up. Still, there are times, when they are fighting, when rationality is not available. She has trouble breathing, and she thinks of the blackness of deep space, which seems to be waiting for her.
Right now they are driving from Florence to Siena, along a narrow, crowded motorway. The cars around them are lunatic: on the left, Maseratis and Mercedes pass at a hundred miles an hour, on the right, huge trucks sway dangerously, taking up more than one lane. Behind them headlights flare constantly, signalling them to move over. For half an hour they have been driving in hostile silence.
Nat breaks it. “I just don’t know why you couldn’t have gone on to the market yourself.”
“I just don’t know why you couldn’t have waited for me, with the car. Or given me the car,” Ella says. “I don’t know why you have to decide what we do and when we do it.”
Nat makes an exasperated sound. “I see,” he says, “ I decide everything. Is that what you think?”
“Do you think I decide anything?”
“Do you think you don’t decide anything?”
They get into these maddening, circular series of questions, each challenging the other, losing the point, going off on tangents, becoming increasingly angry, furiously incredulous at the other’s point of view.
Nat is exasperated by Ella’s lack of awareness: how can she not know that everything he does is with her in mind? What he wants is for her to be happy. This entire trip – Florence and Siena, the churches, the old hotels, the views – was for her. The impassive faces of the holy martyrs, the mysterious half-smiles of madonnas. It’s early spring, and wildflowers star the long pale grasses in the fields; they are in Italy. All this was meant to make her happy, and why does it not?
“I decide nothing!” Ella says, furious. “Nothing at all! You decide where we go, where we’ll have dinner, what time we’ll leave in the morning, what we’re going to see, everything. You even keep my passport! I don’t even carry my own passport!”
“I keep your passport with mine, and with our tickets,” says Nate, reprovingly. His face has darkened, and his mouth tightened. She has broadened her attack, flailing about, as always. “It’s just so I’ll know where everythng is. If you want your passport, Ella, of course I’ll give it to you.”
“I don’t care if I have my passport or not,” Ella says wildly. She feels trapped by him, helpless: he seems both reasonable and unjust. She knows it’s practical for him to keep the passports. Yet why should he have hers?
“What is it that you want to decide? Did you not want to come to Italy?” Nate turns his head and looks at her, dangerously, in the midst of the manic speed of the motorway. The car swerves slightly, then swerves back, in and out of the terrifying stream of cars.
Ella hopes they will crash.
“Of course I wanted to come to Italy!” She is distraught. “But you don’t ask me what I want! You decide everything yourself, and then you tell me what we’re going to do, and then you’re furious if I have a tiny, remote, minutely differing suggestion! I have to do everything you say, always! It’s as though I don’t exist!”
What she’d wanted, that morning, was for him to come with her to the flea-market in Florence, she wanted to wander through the stalls with him. It was a junky market, only odds and ends, but it was Florence. The people offering the broken clocks and plastic dolls were Florentine. Their faces – surprisingly fair, ruddy, blue-eyed, with red-brown hair – echoed the faces in the frescoes, in the churches, the monasteries. Ella loved all of it. She thought the living scene was, always, as interesting as those in the museum.
Nat thought it was all dreary and trashy: broken clocks and plastic dolls. “Why should I want to look at a flea-market full of junk?” he had asked. “I have to move the car. I’ll take it back to the hotel, and you come back whenever you want.” It was all entirely rational, there was no situation. He had no interest in seeing this stuff, and they should each do what they wanted. What was so upsetting about that?
But Ella sees his frown of distaste and feels crushed by the weight of his disapproval, by his thought that she was someone who wanted to look at junk, someone he disdained. All of it makes her feel panicky and abandoned: she speaks no Italian, and has no sense of direction. She knows she’d get lost, trying to find her way back up to the hotel. She is afraid of being lost, and afraid of asking questions of strangers. She loves him. She hates being at odds with him. The flea market was a bad idea, she should never have suggested it. He disapproved of it, and of her. And now she has made him angry again; he may leave her. At any time he may leave her. He is easily angered at her. She starts to weep from despair. She is always doing things wrong. They have been married nine years; she has not managed to give him a child; he may leave her. They are always fighting. She will die if he leaves her. She knows this is irrational; knowing it does not help.
Nat keeps on driving, the corners of his mouth turned down in disapproval. She is so extreme, Ella, so wildly intemperate, so utterly unfair. Her complaints are wounding and unfounded: he feels that his entire life is given over to making her happy, that all their decisions are made on her behalf. He’d thought she’d like the trip to Italy, and she had seemed to. This is the way she acts: at first she says nothing, then later she explodes, complaining bitterly, about something entirely unexpected. It’s completely unfair. He loves her. He is easily wounded by her, he is outraged by her when they fight. She erupts, unpredictably, she will say anything. Besides, she is irrational, messy, late. She maddens him. He is completely absorbed by her. He loves the look of her, taut and spare, with the spill of silky hair. He looks forward each night to seeing her, seeing her turn her head, to listen. He waits to hear what she will say, he is endlessly interested by what she will say. The way she looks at the world complements his own, she sees things in ways that never occur to him. She makes him laugh, and also his body needs hers. They are joined, somehow, which makes all this so excruciating: she levels these wild charges at him, as though she were dismissing their connection, denying it utterly. How can she? How can she take such a drastic and extreme position over something as trivial as the flea market? These trips seem to be more pain than pleasure. How can she act so brutal and reckless? He never thinks of leaving her; she’s at the center of his life.
At the end of their fights everything is somehow righted. A great calm happiness floods through them both, like a neap tide rising and moving through the fields, smoothing out the rutted landscape like liquid silk. This is hard for them to remember, when they’re fighting; it’s hard to believe it’s a possibility.
Nat swerves further now, across the traffic, into the slower lane, then he swerves again, cutting out of that lane too. He pulls off the highway altogether, onto a tiny semi-circular pull-out, edged haphazardly by faintly whitewashed stones. A rocky hillside rises steeply above it; just ahead, on the road, is one of the low stone tunnels that perforate Italian mountains. The tunnels are pitch-black inside, narrow and claustrophobic, and the cars race through them at supersonic speeds. Their car was just about to enter this one, and the traffic beside them continues to slide smoothly and hypnotically into the small black mouth, which is like that of a monster. But just before they are sucked into the dark maw Nat pulls completely off the road and jerks the car to a stop in the turn-out, the corners of his own mouth turned down.
Ella sees his disapproving mouth, his lowered brows, his fierce eyes, and she turns fearfully away from him, toward the window. A sob swells her chest: whatever he is about to do will be terrible. She is afraid he will hit her, though he has never done this, or even threatened to. She is afraid he will reach across her and open the door, and tell her to get out, to clamber onto the steep rocky hillside rising above them. Then he will pull the door shut and drive on, vanishing into the black tunnel and leaving her there forever.
Nat puts the car into neutral, yanks on the hand brake and turns off the engine. He turns to Ella, his brows still dark with concentration. He leans toward her, across the tiny car, across the gear shift, and puts his arms around her. He pulls her as close as he can, the upright gear shift between them. He holds her against him and strokes her head, her soft hair.
They’ve gotten themselves into this terrible trough of unhappiness, and this is all he can think of to get them back to the other place, where they remember each other. He holds her tightly inside the circle of himself, pressing his cheek against her head. He feels her collarbones against his chest, her shoulder blades beneath his hands. Her hair is shorter now, but still silky.
Ella feels his arms close around her, she breathes in the familiar smell of his skin and she closes her eyes in relief. She feels her whole body yield, give way. This is more than she had hoped for. It is everything.
* * *
They have been married for nearly a quarter of a century, and they have stopped fighting. Something between them has steadied, and they are no longer threatened by each other. Instead, they trust each other. She is less intemperate, and when he becomes annoyed she finds his exasperation amusing. She waits it out, smiling, and smooths his hair. He finds her exaggerations funny; she no longer infuriates him. They each understand now that they are allies.
They look different now, of course. She is still small, nearly childlike, but her waist has thickened, and her face bears a mask of fine lines. She is no longer beautiful, but pleasant-looking. Her hair is now short and iron-grey, thin and straight, with bangs, like a felt helmet. One knee gives her trouble, and sometimes she limps slightly. This morning, standing in line at the airport, waiting at the ticket counter, Nat saw her lean over to rub her knee. The sight made him feel tender, and he thought of her moving, with him, toward age, and toward the dark curtain beyond. He takes comfort in knowing that they will approach this, whatever it is, together.
His own body has thickened as well, and his hair has receded. His forehead is rising slowly, like a cliff from the sea. This disappoints him: his father had all his hair until he died, at eighty-one. Nat’s hair had once been thick and springy, it was his secret vanity.
Ella doesn’t mind his baldness, and no longer notices it. She is so used to his face – the deep lines from nose to mouth, the dense eyebrows, the neat pouches beneath his thoughtful eyes – that it might as well be her own. She barely sees herself in the mirror now, her eyes fading, her lips blurring. They have been living together for decades now, and they belong to each other. They have forgiven each other the dreadful acts, and they appreciate the generous ones. They admire and enjoy each other. They have grown together into this marriage, adding year after year to the trunk of it, each line encompassing the one before. The years in which they fought are now enclosed, entirely and forever by these later ones, in which they do not. These are years in which they simply love each other, years in which trust is dominant.
Today they’re on a flight from Newark to San Francisco, where Nat has a business meeting. After that they’ll go on to Los Angeles, to see his daughter Beth, who is a screenwriter. As far as they can tell, she is not a really successful one, but who can read the cryptic signs of Hollywood? Beth is funny and bright, and always full of optimistic talk about meetings and development. She had been angry about the divorce, years ago, when she was younger, but seems now to be over it. All three of them have lived it down, settling into enjoyment of each others’ company. Her boyfriend – though is boyfriend the right word? It’s hard to keep track of the correct word now – anyway, the person who is around more than anyone else, is a poet/studio musician named Ralph. He, too, is bright and funny. Nat and Ella like him, but wish both of them lived in the East, where they would have regular salaries and health benefits, instead of this hand-to-mouth existence. Or maybe they wouldn’t. Maybe they are both simply outside the world of regular salaries and health benefits, and so it’s a good thing they’ve found each other in West Hollywood.
Ralph and Beth have promised to take them to their favorite sushi restaurant. Ella doesn’t like sushi – why are people still eating raw flesh, five hundred thousand years after the discovery of fire? – but she eats it with Beth. She loves Beth, and in some ways she gets along better with her than Nat does. Nat becomes frustrated by Beth at times; he wants her and Ralph to leave the bohemian life and find some security. Ella finds this endearing. She thinks of it now and reaches out and smoothes his shoulder. He is the beloved. She feels grateful for his solicitude, the way he wants to take care of them all, herding them all toward shelter like an anxious sheepdog. At her touch, Nat looks up from his book and smiles at her.
They’re in Business Class. Nat works for a large management consulting firm, and he’s flown hundreds of thousands of miles. They both benefit from all the times he’s been weathered in at O’Hare, fogged out of Portland, delayed at Dallas/Fort Worth. Now, when they fly together, they enjoy these wide comfortable seats, the kindly attentions of the stewardess, the little compote of warm nuts after takeoff.
They haven’t taken off yet, though, they’ve just taxied out onto the runway, and are waiting in line. It shouldn’t be for long: the skies are clear, and it’s after Labor Day, the summer traveling peak is over. Their stewardess has taken away their jackets. She’s in her fifties, stocky, with a wide, pleasant, animated face, slightly pockmarked. Her short hair is dense black, maybe dyed.
During the safety video she put on a life jacket and stood in front of the cabin. She made smooth ritualised gestures, setting the oxygen mask neatly over her nose, pointing out the emergency exits. No-one watched her, and Ella wondered if this was because everyone had already heard these instructions, or if it were a subliminal superstition: the fear of naming dangers, the idea that it’s bad luck to allow the idea of peril into your mind. By doing so you call danger into being; the less you think about safety measures, the less likely you are to need them.
Maybe deliberately to counteract that superstition, Ella pulls out the plastic safety instruction card from the pocket in front of her. She studies the picture of people, tidily life-jacketed, who are sliding down the chute in an orderly line. Their faces seem lively and intent, not frightened or unhappy. It’s broad daylight, and the chute rests safely on flat ground. If this really happened, Ella thinks, there would be clouds of black smoke and bursts of orange flame. Or maybe they would be sliding into the ocean, at night, in blinding rain and huge swells. Disasters take place in perilous conditions, in storms and darkness, not on clear days under blue skies. In any case, it wouldn’t be like this – orderly and pleasant. Ella, feeling that she has somehow triumphed over the card, slides it back into the pocket.
All the stewardess have disappeared now. They’re up front somewhere, perched on their tiny provisional fold-out seats. The sky is blindingly bright and cloudless. They are in a line of planes, all huge and motionless. Heat waves shimmer up from the tarmac, and the planes seem to tremble slightly. The pilot’s voice comes over the intercom.
They’re number four, he tells them, and it won’t be long now. He speaks with a slight southern accent, and his voice is reassuring. The reason that so many pilots are southern is that so many southerners go into the military, and many pilots are ex-Vietnam war veterans. This comforts Ella – these men are seasoned by dangerous exploits, which they have come through unscathed. Their experience is held like a bright shield over their passengers. They have always made the right decisions.
The plane taxis slowly to the end of the runway, turns ponderously, revs its engines, and then begins slowly to rumble down the long concrete strip. As they gain speed, the engine noise mounts and mounts, and when the cabin falls silent with the universal respect given to takeoff, Ella is gripped briefly by nerves. She reaches for Nat’s hand, and he clasps hers firmly and reassuringly, without looking at her. He is not a nervous flier, he flies too often for nerves.
The rumbling, hurtling plane nears the end of the runway, racing toward the moment of breathless suspension, the moment in which the arcs of speed and lift and burden all intersect, precisely and miraculously, and the wheels leave the ground, and they suddenly rise up, without pause, smoothly and astonishingly into the clear blue air. The landing gear folds up noisily into the belly and the plane banks hard, tipping over the rows of dark buildings of Newark, now so tidy and precise. They have done it, they have made the transition from earthbound to airborne, and there is something great and self-congratulatory about this moment. They have – all of them, the pilot, the crew and all the trusting passengers – succeeeded in this death-defying venture.
When the stewardess reappears with the lunch menu, Ella is no longer holding Nat’s hand. She had once been a very anxious flier, but that has changed, too. She feels now remoter from the danger of flying. Once, without Nat, she flew through a thunderstorm like the end of the world, lightning bolts sizzling off the wings, the fuselage jolting horridly with each shock. Her heart had thudded in her throat, but she had suddenly thought, though she is not religious, “You are in the hand of God.” At that her panic ceased.
Since then she no longer becomes so frightened during flight. Fatalism, or some sort of calm, has entered her. She is in her fifties, and she has certainly lived over half her life. She feels less responsible now for the care of the world. If she vanishes from it, the world will rumble along without her.
Right now she is absorbed in her book, and they are climbing smoothly toward thirty thousand feet, heading slightly northwest, toward San Francisco. The stewardess smiles professionally and offers her a menu. Ella takes it, smiling back. She wonders how long the stewardess will go on working. It’s a brutal life, they say, especially if you have a family. You’re away so much, and you get bloat, and your cycle is disturbed. Plus you’re on your feet all the time: Ella thinks of her knee, which will at some point, her doctor says, need replacement, though she’s putting it off. She wouldn’t be able do this job, stewardessing, but these women must like it well enough.
Ella’s reading Anthony Trollope, and Nat a book about Thomas Jefferson. She lies the symmetry they create, likes feeling that, together, they are responsibly covering the field of letters. She is addressing Fiction, nineteenth-century, English; he, Politics, eighteenth-century, American. What more can you expect of a marriage?
At first she hardly notices the disturbance, since the noise level on airplanes is already so high – the loud drone of the engines, the staccato voices of video ear-phones, the conversations around them. But finally it becomes intrusive, and she looks up to see a dark-skinned young man in a white t-shirt, with a red bandanna tied around his head, coming down the aisle from first class. He has something in his raised hand, and he is shouting at them angrily. It’s the anger that is most apparent, and confusing. It’s directed at them, the passengers, for some reason. What is he shouting? Behind him there seems to be a cloud of black smoke: is something on fire? Is the plane on fire? He is shouting at all of them, though the words are too big, right now, to understand, it’s hard to sort through the information – the smoke, the rage, the t-shirt and bandanna, who is he? – but his anger is very clear, and his insistence. He is motioning at them urgently, gesturing at the back of the plane. He’s angry at them all, he’s beside himself with rage. His rage, the chaotic energy of it, is confusing and frightening. The front of the plane is where the pilots are, and where the stewardesses busy themselves. The front of the plane is the seat of authority, but no-one in uniform appears from there – where is the captain, with his reassuring southern voice, his heroic war record? Can it be that this dark-skinned man now represents authority? That’s where he’s coming from, the cockpit, and the black smoke is billowing behind him. He’s shouting.
“Get in the back!”
Some people stand up, bewildered, some still sit in their seats, confused. “What’s going on?” People are asking him questions, but the man is not answering; instead, the questions turn his face darker, thunderous. He has large liquid black eyes, brilliant.
“Get in the back,” he says ferociously. He has some kind of accent. “There’s been an accident.”
“What kind of accident?” Some people stand, alarmed, wanting to know, wanting to help.
Behind the man their stewardess suddenly appears, the stocky black-haired one. Her pockmarked face is contorted with purpose. “Help!” she shouts. Her voice is high-pitched, frantic. “Hijackers!”
The man swivels instantly, and his arm shoots out and he seizes her by the throat, his arm snaking around her neck. They are directly in front of Ella, and Ella can see the woman’s hand shaking, held up helplessly, fanned across her chest. The hijacker’s elbow is raised high in the air, and he holds her chin up. “Don’t move,” he hisses. The stewardess wears a navy cardigan over a white long-sleeved shirt. There is a gold bangle on her wrist, and her hand is shaking. Ella can hear her breathing: slow and strained.
The hijacker looks around. He is in his thirties, with high cheek bones and a broad, slightly crooked nose. His teeth are very white, and his shiny black hair falls over his forehead. No-one moves. Behind him, the doorway to First Class is full of smoke. The stewardess swallows convulsively. Her chin is pulled up high by the hijacker’s arm, and Ella can see the shifting of her throat muscles beneath the skin. The hijacker tightens his grip, and her eyes roll upward, then they close. She swallows again, with difficuty, and her hand goes up, reflexively, to his arm. Ella remembers the smooth ritual gestures she made during the safety video. The highjacker hisses at her again, and then pulls her chin up higher, exposing her throat.
What he has in his other hand is a small straight blade, Ella sees its brightness, and he sweeps the blade across her throat. The pale skin parts horribly easily. The smell of blood is very strong, and the rush of it overwhelming, disorienting. It floods out, dark, and in pulses, down her white blouse, which is now crimson, each wave of fresh blood darkening the blouse, the sweater. The stewardess is trying to scream, though her voice no longer works; she makes shuddering noises, the sounds of breath and moist tissue. Her arms are all right, and her legs. She grabs at him, and kicks, but her movements are perfunctory, jerky and spasmodic, and she is not really, now, kicking at the highjacker. She is kicking the way the body prepares itself for death, the way it jerks itself loose of its earthly connections. She kicks and struggles fitfully, and the hijacker, with each jerk, holds her more closely, clasping her to himself like a demon lover, the blood pumping out of the terrible dark place on her neck. He holds her closer and closer to his own breast, which is now covered with streams of her dark blood. The blood is on their arms, it is on the carpet, it is everywhere, and the air reeks. The hijacker’s eyes are black and brilliant, and he stares at the passengers without blinking. The stewardess is still plucking with her hands and struggling, and her throat makes terrible attempts at speech. Shudders of air move through places where air was not meant to go. There are moist sounds of tissue smacking and flapping, heaves and gasps, a kind of sob.
“Get in the back,” the hijacker says. His eyes are hypnotic with intensity.
It seems that they have no will, now. It seems there is nothing for their weakened bodies to do, now, but stand and move heavily, without a will, down the aisle and back into the tourist section. There they can see rows of faces looking up at them, confused, alarmed. Alarm is spreading, deepening, across the faces. There are cries and questions, some screams. The hijacker is behind them, he is still holding his dreadful burden, the heavy body of the stewardess. The smell of the blood – thick and ferrous – makes Ella feel faint. It’s a smell she did not know she knew, but she does. She knows it. The body knows it.
Nat is ahead of her, and she reaches down low, for his hand. There is nothing now but fear. Just behind them, in first class, there is smoke and chaos. Beyond that, up in the cockpit, is beyond contemplation. The mind dare not go there. It is too dangerous to call it into being.
“Nobody move,” the hijacker shouts at them. He is beside himself. “Nobody to move.”
The rows of faces stare up at them, stunned.
The plane is doing something, moving less smoothly. Its flight path seems disturbed. They are turning, now, the rows of tidy Newark houses are reappearing, approaching. They seem to be descending. The engines seem louder now – are they going faster?
Ella and Nat are standing helplessly in the aisle, there is nowhere for them to go. Behind them is the hijacker, with his mad eyes. Ella is right ahead of him, facing the rear of the plane, and she presses forward, against Nat. She doesn’t want to touch the hijacker, or the body of the stewardess, whom he holds in front of himself like a shield. The stewardess seems to have stopped moving. The smell of the blood is rich and sickening. Ella moves her feet to one side, she doesn’t want the blood on her shoes.
They can all feel the plane shifting now. The smoke in first class is drifting into this cabin: acrid, dense, alarming. Ella’s eyes sting, and she closes them. She leans against Nat’s back, pressing herself against his spine. She knows his back intimately, and she pictures its beautiful slope as she leans against it. She knows where the scar is, on the left side, where he fell in a baseball game as a teenager, long before she knew him. The blueish mark, where a beebee went in, when he was a child. She knows exactly the texture of the skin, beneath his grey suit, his blue shirt. She puts her nose against his suit and breathes in: she knows exactly the smell of his skin, rich and comforting. She leans her cheek against his shoulder blade, leaning on her good knee.
The plane is definitely descending, now, they’re still over the dense urban landscape, streets and buildings in a bewildering pattern. Don’t hijackers want to go somewhere else? Don’t they want to be taken to Cuba? Palestine? Why are they headed back toward Newark? Ella feels her body tighten, she is panting, and her stomach is clenched. The roar of the engines seems deafening – is it really louder, or is it fear that makes it seem so? She thinks of the plastic card, the orderly evacuation down the spotless chute. Behind her, the hijacker is still holding the slack body of the stewardess, and when he moves Ella can feel something – his elbow, or her lifeless wrist – against her back, and she cringes, trying to move away from the contact.
Now the hijacker is shouting again, but not in English. It’s in another language, guttural, unknown, and there’s another hijacker, she now sees, across the aisle, with a red bandanna around his head, shouting too. What they say is incomprehensible, but it’s the force of it, the loudness and intensity of what they say, that cows the passengers, defeats them. They are wild-eyed, they are in some kind of insane, triumphal trance, the hijackers, and one of them holds the dead bleeding body of the stewardess, the woman who was supposed to care for them, to minister to their needs. She has been murdered, and the hijackers are screaming at all of them, and the tourist cabin, too, is now filling up with smoke.
The plane is going insanely fast, they can feel it, dizzying, hurtling low, just above the city buildings. Ella cannot see where they are but it is still somewhere in New York, no longer a tidy cityscape seen dreamily from above but a nightmare landscape seen too close and too fast, and her whole body is going too fast, her heart, her lungs, her pulse are going as fast as the plane. Nat, in front of her, begins to turn.
It’s over, Nat can see that. Everything is over. It’s strange how, as the plane speeds up, his mind slows down. It’s oddly calming. Everything is over, everything falls away, now, all the intentions and crises of life, the small things, his report for the meeting, the complications of dealing with the new CEO, the conversation with Beth about health insurance, all of these things no longer matter, and the large things – what were the large things?
He had just been with Thomas Jefferson, who moved through the eighteenth century with such brio and intelligence, declaring his theories of government. “If the happiness of the mass of the people can be secured at the expense of a little tempest now and then,” he had written, “or even of a little blood, it will be a precious purchase.”
A little blood, of course: it was always the way. These dark men in their red bandannas are making some kind of political demand, at the expense of a little blood. Their cause is a mystery to Nat, and he will not learn the answer. He knows this from the rising whine of the engines, the lethal speed at which they are traveling. There was Jefferson, guiding the emergence of the young country with such confidence, as though he knew beforehand how things would go, and that he would succeed, though Nat now realises that he did not, that nothing is known beforehand.
He thinks of that life spinning out to its completion two hundred years earlier, set beside his own, spinning here, about to end. He can’t usefully relate the two, but none of those things matter, now. There are no useful comparisons, right now. It’s all moving faster and faster, and here they are, all of them, trapped together, the doomed faces staring ahead, stunned and weeping, caught in this thundering, rumbling, accelerating plane, and he thinks, his mind slow and calm, that this is, really, what they all faced every day, hurtling through space together on the spinning planet, rushing, unaware, toward their final moments. And the planet has been spinning like this for all time, sweeping through the endless black of space on its long elegant loop. It will go on spinning beautifully through space, though for him, for them, for everyone on the plane, it’s all over, whatever happens. There is time now to do only one thing, the last thing; he’s grateful that there’s time and he’s conscious. Gratitude floods through him for this.
Nat shifts position carefully, keeping his head low, avoiding the wrathful gaze of the hijacker, who is shouting something over and over at the top of his lungs, some fanatical and impenetrable chant, the other hijacker is shouting it too. They seem, mystifyingly, to be flying through the buildings of Manhattan, and the engines are whining unbearably, their pitch is rising higher and higher toward some unthinkable climax, but before they reach it, just before the plane opens the black maw of its own tunnel, Nat is able to turn himself all the way around, and he takes Ella in his arms.
What, is she actually going to buy the tickets herself? This puts me to shame. Isn’t this guy looking at me, this bald-headed Russian, I mean? And this woman has her eyes fixed squarely on my face, too! Yes, and this guy puffing on a cigar, he’s looking at me now as well. They’re all looking at me. Well, all right, I know what they’re thinking. They’re a little bit contemptuous of me. No, more than that, I think they are actually sneering at me.
I don’t know why on earth she had to insist on buying the tickets… surely she must know what an awkward spot this puts me in? I am a man, a gentleman — and whoever saw a man escort a lady (a “lady” of whatever degree) to a cinema, and the lady going up to buy the tickets? Never; at any rate I’ve never seen such a thing.
My face feels hot. I’ve probably gone as red as a beetroot. Isn’t there a mirror around here? If there is one, I’ll look at myself in it. Oh! This guy is actually laughing openly at me! How dare you mock me, sir? Surely you must have seen her suddenly lunge toward the ticket window. I couldn’t stop her, how could I? Who would have expected a thing like this to happen ? Oh! I don’t think I can stand this any longer. I have an urge to turn and run out of the door. Oh, let me just stand outside on the steps for a while…
What, she still hasn’t managed to buy the tickets? It’s so crowded in here! And that’s another thing; why in Heaven’s name would she want to fight her way through such a crush to buy the tickets, when that should have been my job? Perhaps she didn’t want me to be the one who was doing the inviting?… But, in that case why did she in fact agree yesterday evening to come to the cinema with me? Yes, why did she, yesterday evening when I escorted her to her door, consent to my taking her out tonight? Surely she didn’t think that today would be her turn to take me out, did she? Humph, well, if that’s what she was thinking, the best thing for us to do is break it off completely, and have none of this “you invite me, and then I invite you” nonsense, in my opinion. Did she think I had invited her to come and see a film so that I could get a return invitation from her? Well, maybe she thought that it would be awkward for me if she let me do all the treating? So she decided that, she should buy the tickets today? To save face, perhaps? Yes, that was probably it! Women are always getting such ideas into their heads. They also get rather haughty ideas from time to time…
Now what’s going on? She still hasn’t bought the tickets. Why don’t I fight my way through this crush and buy them for her? How can I be expected to just stand here and put up with the mocking stares of all these people? I’d better go up there. She probably hasn’t managed to buy the tickets yet. What do they cost here, anyway?… Down- stairs, 6 jiao, and upstairs? I wish this idiot would get his head out of the way. I can’t see the price. It looks like 8 jiao. Oh, here she comes! She’s got the tickets at last. Strange! How come I didn’t see her buy them? Where did she buy these tickets?
Well, never mind. Let’s go in. But why is she giving me both tickets? Oh, these are circle tickets! Why did she splash out on such expensive tickets ?… I think I understand; she is showing her displeasure at my buying seats in the stalls the last time. This is even more of a slap in the face! Oh, no! I’m not standing for that. I’d rather break off our friendship. I certainly can’t accept these tickets. No, I never want to take her to the cinema again. Not only that, no more strolls, no more ice cream. Never again!… Ah, now what’s she saying?
“All the upstairs and downstairs tickets were sold out, so I had to buy fancy seats.’’
Oh, pardon me. I almost made a blunder there. Why was it that I couldn’t see that the window where they sell the ordinary seats has a sign saying “Sold out”? The crowd is dispersing, isn’t it? They must be disappointed, though I can’t imagine why this film has so much appeal. Oh, that’s right, today’s Sunday… Well, we have to go upstairs. But… she gave me both tickets. What was the meaning of that? What a narrow staircase! Not like that big wide one at the Grand Theatre. Hardly wide enough for two people to walk up side by side. Has the film started already? I can hear music. Here is the usherette. Oh, now I understand. She wanted me to be the one to hand over the tickets, to make it look as though I had bought them. That’s right! She didn’t want me to lose face in front of the usherette. Let me have a look behind, to see if any of those people who saw her buy the tickets are following us…. No, it looks like we’re the last in. What about that bald-headed Russian who was mocking me downstairs? And the woman in the skimpy qipaol? And that cocky fellow smoking the cigar? They must have failed to get hold of tickets and gone home, I suppose. Serves them right for sneering at me, doesn’t it? Now, what are our seat numbers? Seventy-four and seventy- five. I can’t tell what kind of seats those are.
Good, now we’re in, and the show hasn’t started yet. In fact, the lights are still on. Just a minute, where’s this flunky taking us? We bought circle tickets. Good Heavens! We’re in the third row. The back row of the circle! Why do we keep going round the side? Are these two seats ours? This is no good; we’re right at the very end. We’ll be squinting sideways at the screen all the time. Well, I suppose I’ll have to let her sit on the inside.
God, it’s stuffy in here! Packed out with people, too. Where did that German guy get that foul-smelling cigar? I’ve never smelled a worse cigar in my life… Now what’s she giving me?… Oh, it’s a programme. Of course. Why do I have to be so muddle-headed all the time? Why didn’t I pick one up in the foyer? But that’s funny! I don’t remember seeing her pick up a programme. Oh, it was probably when I was looking at the seat numbers…. UFA (Universum-Film AG). Of course. I knew that this film was made by UFA. The Paris Cinema often shows their films. They’re not bad, either. I wonder if she noticed? I should tell her.
“ This is another UFA films. ”
What’s the matter now? She’s just staring at me. Perhaps she doesn’t know UFA. I should explain, but I ’ d better keep my voice down.
“UFA is a leading German film maker. They turn out some excellent films. They’re my favourites. I think they’re better than anything that comes out of Hollywood.”
No reply. Just nods her head. I wonder if she thought my explanation was a bit impertinent? She probably thinks I’m implying that she’s ignorant of the cinema world and she’s nettled at that. Now she’s bent her head and is engrossed in reading the programme. What should I say to her now?…
Let me see if there’s anybody I know here. If anyone saw the two of us come in and spread the story around it would be embarrassing to say the least. But, on the other hand… embarrassing? Did I use to think like that? There’s nothing secret about what we are doing, surely? Can’t I take a girlfriend to the cinema? Am I still afraid to do that, even now? The lights have all gone out, and the film is about to start. Good, nobody will be able to see us now! Did she finish reading the programme? She was not that last; she probably read only half of it. We were a bit late getting here. Well, that was her fault. She refused to take a bus and would insist on walking along that tree-shaded path — God knows why.
These seats are too small. They ’re really uncomfortable. Has she put her arm on the armrest, on this side? Yes, she has. So I’ve only got this side to lean on. Oh, well, I’ll just have to sit sideways and relax a little. Good Lord, that’s a nice perfumy smell! It must be coming from her. I detected it on her the other day when we were sitting in the park, only not so strong. Now I remember… just after dinner she spent an awful long time upstairs, and I almost fumed with impatience, didn’t I? She must have been dressing up, and making up, or whatever. I guess she must have changed her outfit completely. Right down to her underwear. That’s enough of that… don’t be cheeky. What’s she laughing at? Oh, everybody’s laughing! Surely they didn’t all realize what I was just thinking about in my wild imagination!.. No, of course not. They were laughing at that elephant getting his trunk stuck in a crack. Not a bad cartoon!
Why did she nudge my arm with her elbow? It did feel like some kind of a nudge. Was it deliberate or accidental? If I could only see the expression on her face I’d know. Unfortunately the screen’s too dark right now and I can’t see clearly…. She doesn’t look as though anything had happened. Her eyes are fixed on the screen and she has a perfectly solemn expression on her lace. In fact she looks completely oblivious of the fact that she is sitting next to me in a cinema. Well if she had not forgotten all about me what would she have been doing? Flashing glances at me all the time. Ha! Don’t be ridiculous! What was I thinking? Oh, I found out this time! She’s really smart; without moving her head at all she swivelled her eyes and gave me a glance.
What does this mean? Clearly she was secretly thinking about me and felt that I was looking at her. She is lightly pressing her lips together, obviously trying to suppress a smile. How is she really feeling, deep down? I just can’t guess. What really is our relationship now? Have I fallen in love with her? I can’t fathom myself why I should be so happy going out with her. These past three days my mind’s been in a whirl, as we’ve been gallivanting all over Shanghai, just about. I certainly never felt so warm even towards my wife. I really feel sorry for her, but it can’t be helped; I can’t control myself. She lives in the country-side. She’s a gentle and rather pitiable creature. Right now, she’ll probably be already asleep. I wonder if she’s dreaming about me and a woman watching a film together!…
Phew, it’s hot in here! I can feel beads of sweat on my forehead. Where’s my handkerchief?… That’s strange! It’s not in my back pocket. Oh, now I remember; I spread it on a bench for her to sit on in Hongkou Park, and when we left I forgot all about it. Well. That, I’m afraid, is destined to become just a secret, faint memory. What was it she had said, sitting there on that bench and holding a willow leaf that had dropped onto her shoulder? “If only I could have known you earlier!” Didn’t she say that?… That’s right. I had said that to her once; “If only I could have known you earlier!” I don’t know why I said that then. What did it mean? Surely it wasn’t some kind of hint, was it? Ah, it’s lovely in Hongkou Park on a summer’s evening! I can almost see it now — the golden moon reflected in the pond. It really was attractive. But anyway, perhaps her meaning was that if she had known me earlier, then … earlier, meaning when? Obviously meaning before I was married…. Is that what I was hinting? How strange! The truth is probably that I was just mumbling some vague thought. I shouldn’t say such ambiguous things to an emotional young woman. Now, I’m sure she’s got the wrong impression. She must think I’m in love with her. And she’s not entirely wrong, either. I really am a little bit in love with her as a matter of fact. I really don’t understand how all this came about, and I don’t know whether I ought to come right out with it and tell her or not. For example, when we were sitting in Hongkou Park a little while ago if I had told her I loved her how would she have reacted? Burst into tears, perhaps?
…Yes, I know that when women find themselves in such situations their only response is either to sob or hang their heads in mute tragedy, as if there is nothing else they can do. Then, what ought I to have done? Comfort her? Would she have let me kiss her then, like those passionate heroines on the cinema screen? I’m afraid not… no, definitely not! The circumstances are different; for, of course, she knows that I’m married…. What’s she doing now? Seems she’s not very settled in her seat. She’s pushing her arm further along the armrest. I can even feel the warmth of her skin…. Now, she’s turning her head. Is she going to speak to me?
“What’s his name?”
Who ? Who ’ s she talking about? Someone on the screen? She probably means the fellow playing the adjutant? Who is he? I just can’t think of his name. It’s on everybody’s lips; how is it that I can’t recall it all of a sudden?… He’s a leading Russian film star, I know that much. Well.
“Do you mean the chap playing the adjutant? That’s Ivan Morodin. He’s a famous Russian film star.”
“Oh, that’s right! Ivan Morodin. I remember now. I’ve seen lots of his films. I really like him.”
What? She really likes him?… How can a Chinese woman like someone as stem and cold as Morodin? No, I don’t believe it. If it were someone like Vrontino, then perhaps! Women go for anyone who plays the part of a handsome young hero. That’s true enough? But there’s no danger from a celluloid rival. And anyway, if it’s a foreign film you can forget such a thing completely. So, you like him, do you? But how would he ever know that you like him? Look, he’s kissing another woman. Aren’t you jealous? Ha, ha…. Quelle folle!
I can feel her looking at me, but not in that sideways manner she was using just now. She has turned her head round towards me. Now what does this mean? Shall I swivel my eyes to meet her gaze?… Perhaps not. That might embarrass her. But she’s obviously smiling. Oh, yes! I can definitely feel her smiling at me. What is there about me to smile at? I wonder if she can read the funny thoughts running through my mind…. That would be quite a joke. Why don’t I just turn my head quickly and look her full in the lace? I could catch her looking at me before she has time to avert her gaze, then I could ask her what she finds so funny about me….
“What are you smiling at?”
Aha! I’ve caught her! She looks embarrassed, doesn’t she? Let’s see what she says.
“I’m smiling at you.”
What? Is that all? She’s smiling at me. I know that already — you don’t have to tell me that. What I want to know is why you are smiling at me. What is it about me that you find so funny? So I’m going to ask her another question.
“Why are you smiling at me?”
“I’m smiling at the way you’re watching the film — staring blankly at the screen with your mouth open.’’
What a strange thing to say! Staring blankly with my mouth open, indeed! I never do that, and I certainly was not doing that just now! Definitely not. Not a bit of it. Lies, all lies! Women are accomplished liars, of course. It was a clever retort, but that was definitely not the reason she was smiling at me. No, I think the real reason was that she thought it was a bit pointless just sitting there gazing at the film. For people in our situation it would be unutterably dull just to sit glued to the screen all the way through. Anyway, the reason for coming here in the first place was to take advantage of the dark, that’s all. There are lots of actions and words that require darkness. Look, she’s leaning nearer me. Now she’s let the cat out of the bag! If the seat is too far to one side to see the screen properly she should be leaning the other way, to her right. She is definitely snuggling up against my shoulder. I’ 11 lean my body up against her a little bit and see if she pulls away…. Heavens, she hasn’t budged! Did she feel me move up against her? Is she in love with me too? I suppose so; these past couple of days she hasn’t resisted any of my advances. Why don’t I dare go any further? I’m too timid now. I love her! I’ve fallen in love with her! But, how can I tell her? Can she love a man who’s already married? I’m afraid that if I told her, even hinted at it, she would run away from me. She would never see me again, not even a flicker of ordinary friendship would remain.
“Intermission”. The intermission already? That means the film’s half over. Well, that was quick! I haven’t seen any of it yet. What about some ice-cream? Yes, that would be nice; I’m really hot. But I wonder what she would like? Ice-cream? A soft drink? I’d better ask her.
“Would you like some ice-cream or a soft drink, or something?”
“No, nothing, thanks.”
Why does she have to be so polite today? The last couple of days she hasn’t been like this. Why doesn’t she want anything? Doesn’t she feel hot? Yesterday evening at the Carlton she ate two cartons of ice-cream, didn’t she? Why is she so adamant about refusing today? I find that a bit annoying.
“Two chocolate ice-creams, please.”
Surely she’s not going to refuse, now that I’ve bought them.
“No, honestly. I really don’t feel like eating ice-cream today.”
…Oh, I see. Well, if that’s the case…. She’s blushing slightly, isn’t she? I suppose I shouldn’t insist; it will only make her feel more embarrassed. Normally, she wouldn’t have refused me like this. Never. Didn’t she say that she didn’t feel like eating ice-cream today? All right, I’ll eat them. Ooh, that’s cold! I don’t think I can eat two cartons all by myself. I hope I wouldn’t upset my stomach. She’s turning round to look at something; what is it? Is she looking for someone? Or is she afraid that someone has seen us? As a matter of fact, now I hope that someone actually has seen us. It might be a good thing if they spread the story around. I’ve got chocolate all over my fingers and they’re all sticky. It’s such a nuisance not having my handkerchief. How about wiping them on my programme? Yes, and where is my programme? It was on my knee just now. It must have fallen on the floor. It’s probably got a lot of muck on it. Damn! What am I supposed to clean my hands on?
She’s passed me a handkerchief. She must have been watching me the whole time. It’s a little handkerchief, warm and moist. She must have mopped her brow with it. Well, there! I’ve wiped my fingers clean.
Hold on! I want to know what it smells like. I can pretend to be wiping my mouth; that way no one will see that I’m taking a sniff. Mmm? Very nice. This is her fragrance right enough. Perfume mixed with her perspiration. I feel an urge to lick it, to find out what it tastes like. It must be a very interesting taste, I think. I can wipe the handkerchief across my mouth from the left to the right, and as I do so I can stick my tongue out and lick it. I could even suck at it and no one would know. Wouldn’t that be nice? Ah, good! The lights have all been dimmed, and the film’s continuing. This is just the right time for me to give it a really good suck. It’s really salty here. Must be sweat, I suppose. What’s this here, the part with the pungent smell? That must be mucus and saliva. No wonder it’s so sticky. This really is a new delight. I can feel a delicious tingling sensation on the tip of my tongue. Strange, it feels as though I’m holding her naked body! I couldn’t keep this handkerchief, could I? What would she say if I suddenly put it in my pocket? Even if she didn’t say anything she would still think it was a bit improper. I couldn’t do such a base thing. I must hand it back to her. And I’d better hand it back right now.
She didn’t hold it in her hand, but stuffed it straight in her pocket. She probably sensed what I had done, because the handkerchief was wet through from my sucking it — as if I’d mopped my clothes after a summer shower. Ah, what a beautiful fragrance! A beautiful fragrance for sure! If only I could suck on her tender lips and behind her ears my whole body would start trembling. Oh, Heaven! I want to know right now how she would react if I were to reveal my secret love for her…. It would be enough if she would let me know that she would not spurn me. I don’t understand why I am so helpless in this situation. Shaoyan has had lots of love affairs, but I bet he has a different technique from mine. I wonder how he handles it when he tells a woman about his love for her and she turns him down…. If I only knew that, I would be all right. But, there again, would any woman turn him down? He is so handsome, so socially poised. In fact, he’s a real Flash Harry.
Perhaps women are unwilling to hurt people’s feelings… but however she handles the situation, even the slightest hint of a refusal will devastate me, I’m sure.
Anyway, let me think this over in more detail. What reason could she possibly have for turning me down? Isn’t she happy every time she goes out with me? Doesn’t she always strenuously oppose it every time some third person wants to go with us? Doesn’t she always disappear whenever she hears that my wife is coming to Shanghai? And when we go out to dinner, doesn’t she always insist on sitting in a private booth? Whenever I’m careless, doesn’t she just hang her head patiently? Oh, and there’s something else, too that enigmatic gaze she fixes me with from time to time. Sometimes it can last as long as one or two minutes. What does all this add up to?… So, it seems that, apart from the feet that I’m already married, she can have no reason at all to refuse me.
But, there again, it is not absolutely out of the question for a woman to fall in love with a married man. On the contrary, it happens often enough. And to look at it from another angle, if she wanted to turn me down she would have drifted away from me a long time ago. Surely she can’t be serenely unaware of the inevitability of my bothering her with such a matter! No, it’s impossible. She’s the sort of person who’s looking for a love affair, and if she were prepared to turn me down she would have been wasting her time seeking me out as a companion, now wouldn’t she? Ah, it’s a puzzle, after all. At least it’s a puzzle I can’t solve.
Now what’s happening on the screen? He’s taken his former wife’s ring off and thrown it away in front of that woman, hasn’t he? Morodin’s got a fine expression on his face. Look how anguished he looks! It must be very difficult to manage an expression like that. But, what was the story before now? I can’t really make it out. I’ve never watched a film so absent-mindedly before… Isn’t this my wedding ring? If I should throw away the ring my wife gave me right now, what would be her reaction? Would she, in fact, see me do it? And if she did, would she say anything? Right, I’ll give it a try. It’s coming off now. And now I’m holding it between my finger and thumb…. She must have seen me by now, I’m sure. What was that, a sigh? Who breathed a sigh? Is the whole of the audience sighing? Ah, they’re embracing. The heroine has finally thrown herself into the adjutant’s arms. Why isn’t she watching the screen? She’s still paying attention to me. Let me just turn and have a look at her. She’s looking at the ring I’m holding in my hand, isn’t she? What did she say?
“What are you doing?”
What am I doing? Did she really ask me that? What a barefaced question! How does she expect me to answer? Ha, ha, what does she mean? Did she mean my taking the ring off or did she mean my turning round and looking at her? Well, I’ll just give her an equivocal reply, like this:
“I’m not doing anything.”
Now she’s embarrassed, clearly uneasy. Why has she turned her lace away and hung her head? Now what are her feelings? Bight, I really have to find that out. But, if she does not tell me I will have no way of finding out. Women can keep their own secrets for ever, right until they die. But, sometimes they feel remorse.
Everybody is standing up. Oh, the film’s over. The lights have been turned on and they’re dazzling my eyes. What a crush of people! We have to go down by that staircase over there. What did she say? I didn’t catch it.
“I said, how do you feel?”
How do I feel? What does that mean? Oh, she must mean, what did I think of the film.
“Oh, very good. Yes, not bad.”
That’s a joke. I hardly even glanced at it! Oops, be careful!… Mind how you walk. How could she miss her footing on a perfectly ordinary set of stairs. She must have done it on purpose… deliberately… so she could lean on my arm, I bet. My arm is completely round her now. Should I withdraw it? No need, we haven’t got to the bottom of the stairs yet, and she might miss her footing again.
Oh, it’s chilly outside! It’s only when you come out of the Nanjing Theatre that you feel a warm breeze. That’s an air-conditioned theatre. Now I should remove my arm from her. What time is it? Eleven-forty. But my watch is ten minutes fast, so it’s only about 11:30. Still early! I should ask her to go for a snack.
Why is she standing so much on ceremony today? Why did she so steadfastly refuse to go for a snack? She wouldn’t even let me see her home, but instead flagged down a taxi and went off by herself. I was ready to take her all the way home. Did she suddenly go off me? Probably so. Today she must have finally grown tired of me. But… but then why did she get me to promise to fetch her tomorrow afternoon at two o’clock to go to Fanwangdu Park? I don’t understand.
This slender narrative has no pretensions to the regularity of a story, or the development of situations and feelings; it is but a slight sketch, delivered nearly as it was narrated to me by one of the humblest of the actors concerned: nor will I spin out a circumstance interesting principally from its singularity and truth, but narrate, as concisely as I can, how I was surprised on visiting what seemed a ruined tower, crowning a bleak promontory overhanging the sea, that flows between Wales and Ireland, to find that though the exterior preserved all the savage rudeness that betokened many a war with the elements, the interior was fitted up somewhat in the guise of a summer-house, for it was too small to deserve any other name. It consisted but of the ground-floor, which served as an entrance, and one room above, which was reached by a staircase made out of the thickness of the wall. This chamber was floored and carpeted, decorated with elegant furniture; and, above all, to attract the attention and excite curiosity, there hung over the chimney-piece – for to preserve the apartment from damp a fire-place had been built evidently since it had assumed a guise so dissimilar to the object of its construction – a picture simply painted in water-colours, which seemed more than any part of the adornments of the room to be at war with the rudeness of the building, the solitude in which it was placed, and the desolation of the surrounding scenery. This drawing represented a lovely girl in the very pride and bloom of youth; her dress was simple, in the fashion of the day – (remember, reader, I write at the beginning of the eighteenth century), her countenance was embellished by a look of mingled innocence and intelligence, to which was added the imprint of serenity of soul and natural cheerfulness. She was reading one of those folio romances which have so long been the delight of the enthusiastic and young; her mandoline was at her feet – her parroquet perched on a huge mirror near her; the arrangement of furniture and hangings gave token of a luxurious dwelling, and her attire also evidently that of home and privacy, yet bore with it an appearance of ease and girlish ornament, as if she wished to please. Beneath this picture was inscribed in golden letters, “The Invisible Girl.”
Rambling about a country nearly uninhabited, having lost my way, and being overtaken by a shower, I had lighted on this dreary looking tenement, which seemed to rock in the blast, and to be hung up there as the very symbol of desolation. I was gazing wistfully and cursing inwardly my stars which led me to a ruin that could afford no shelter, though the storm began to pelt more seriously than before, when I saw an old woman’s head popped out from a kind of loophole, and as suddenly withdrawn:–a minute after a feminine voice called to me from within, and penetrating a little brambly maze that skreened a door, which I had not before observed, so skilfully had the planter succeeded in concealing art with nature I found the good dame standing on the threshold and inviting me to take refuge within. “I had just come up from our cot hard by,” she said, “to look after the things, as I do every day, when the rain came on–will ye walk up till it is over?” I was about to observe that the cot hard by, at the venture of a few rain drops, was better than a ruined tower, and to ask my kind hostess whether “the things” were pigeons or crows that she was come to look after, when the matting of the floor and the carpeting of the staircase struck my eye. I was still more surprised when I saw the room above; and beyond all, the picture and its singular inscription, naming her invisible, whom the painter had coloured forth into very agreeable visibility, awakened my most lively curiosity: the result of this, of my exceeding politeness towards the old woman, and her own natural garrulity, was a kind of garbled narrative which my imagination eked out, and future inquiries rectified, till it assumed the following form.
Some years before in the afternoon of a September day, which, though tolerably fair, gave many tokens of a tempestuous evening, a gentleman arrived at a little coast town about ten miles from this place; he expressed his desire to hire a boat to carry him to the town of about fifteen miles further on the coast. The menaces which the sky held forth made the fishermen loathe to venture, till at length two, one the father of a numerous family, bribed by the bountiful reward the stranger promised–the other, the son of my hostess, induced by youthful daring, agreed to undertake the voyage. The wind was fair, and they hoped to make good way before nightfall, and to get into port ere the rising of the storm. They pushed off with good cheer, at least the fishermen did; as for the stranger, the deep mourning which he wore was not half so black as the melancholy that wrapt his mind. He looked as if he had never smiled–as if some unutterable thought, dark as night and bitter as death, had built its nest within his bosom, and brooded therein eternally; he did not mention his name; but one of the villagers recognised him as Henry Vernon, the son of a baronet who possessed a mansion about three miles distant from the town for which he was bound. This mansion was almost abandoned by the family; but Henry had, in a romantic fit, visited it about three years before, and Sir Peter had been down there during the previous spring for about a couple of months.
The boat did not make so much way as was expected; the breeze failed them as they got out to sea, and they were fain with oar as well as sail, to try to weather the promontory that jutted out between them and the spot they desired to reach. They were yet far distant when the shifting wind began to exert its strength, and to blow with violent though unequal puffs. Night came on pitchy dark, and the howling waves rose and broke with frightful violence, menacing to overwhelm the tiny bark that dared resist their fury. They were forced to lower every sail, and take to their oars; one man was obliged to bale out the water, and Vernon himself took an oar, and rowing with desperate energy, equalled the force of the more practised boatmen. There had been much talk between the sailors before the tempest came on; now, except a brief command, all were silent. One thought of his wife and children, and silently cursed the caprice of the stranger that endangered in its effects, not only his life, but their welfare; the other feared less, for he was a daring lad, but he worked hard, and had no time for speech; while Vernon bitterly regretting the thoughtlessness which had made him cause others to share a peril, unimportant as far as he himself was concerned, now tried to cheer them with a voice full of animation and courage, and now pulled yet more strongly at the oar he held. The only person who did not seem wholly intent on the work he was about, was the man who baled; every now and then he gazed intently round, as if the sea held afar off, on its tumultuous waste, some object that he strained his eyes to discern. But all was blank, except as the crests of the high waves showed themselves, or far out on the verge of the horizon, a kind of lifting of the clouds betokened greater violence for the blast. At length he exclaimed–”Yes, I see it!–the larboard oar!–now! if we can make yonder light, we are saved!” Both the rowers instinctively turned their heads,–but cheerless darkness answered their gaze.
“You cannot see it,” cried their companion, “but we are nearing it; and, please God, we shall outlive this night.” Soon he took the oar from Vernon’s hand, who, quite exhausted, was failing in his strokes. He rose and looked for the beacon which promised them safety;–it glimmered with so faint a ray, that now he said, “I see it;” and again, “it is nothing:” still, as they made way, it dawned upon his sight, growing more steady and distinct as it beamed across the lurid waters, which themselves be came smoother, so that safety seemed to arise from the bosom of the ocean under the influence of that flickering gleam.
“What beacon is it that helps us at our need?” asked Vernon, as the men, now able to manage their oars with greater ease, found breath to answer his question.
“A fairy one, I believe,” replied the elder sailor, “yet no less a true: it burns in an old tumble-down tower, built on the top of a rock which looks over the sea. We never saw it before this summer; and now each night it is to be seen, at least when it is looked for, for we cannot see it from our village; and it is such an out of the way place that no one has need to go near it, except through a chance like this. Some say it is burnt by witches, some say by smugglers; but this I know, two parties have been to search, and found nothing but the bare walls of the tower.
All is deserted by day, and dark by night; for no light was to be seen while we were there, though it burned sprightly enough when we were out at sea.
“I have heard say,” observed the younger sailor, “it is burnt by the ghost of a maiden who lost her sweetheart in these parts; he being wrecked, and his body found at the foot of the tower: she goes by the name among us of the ‘Invisible Girl.'”
The voyagers had now reached the landing-place at the foot of the tower. Vernon cast a glance upward, the light was still burning. With some difficulty, struggling with the breakers, and blinded by night, they contrived to get their little bark to shore, and to draw her up on the beach: they then scrambled up the precipitous pathway, overgrown by weeds and underwood, and, guided by the more experienced fishermen, they found the entrance to the tower, door or gate there was none, and all was dark as the tomb, and silent and almost as cold as death.
“This will never do,” said Vernon; “surely our hostess will show her light, if not herself, and guide our darkling steps by some sign of life and comfort.”
“We will get to the upper chamber,” said the sailor, “if I can but hit upon the broken down steps: but you will find no trace of the Invisible Girl nor her light either, I warrant.”
“Truly a romantic adventure of the most disagreeable kind,” muttered Vernon, as he stumbled over the unequal ground: “she of the beacon-light must be both ugly and old, or she would not be so peevish and inhospitable.”
With considerable difficulty, and, after divers knocks and bruises, the adventurers at length succeeded in reaching the upper story; but all was blank and bare, and they were fain to stretch themselves on the hard floor, when weariness, both of mind and body, conduced to steep their senses in sleep.
Long and sound were the slumbers of the mariners. Vernon but forgot himself for an hour; then, throwing off drowsiness, and finding his roughcouch uncongenial to repose, he got up and placed himself at the hole that served for a window, for glass there was none, and there being not even a rough bench, he leant his back against the embrasure, as the only rest he could find. He had forgotten his danger, the mysterious beacon, and its invisible guardian: his thoughts were occupied on the horrors of his own fate, and the unspeakable wretchedness that sat like a night-mare on his heart.
It would require a good-sized volume to relate the causes which had changed the once happy Vernon into the most woeful mourner that ever clung to the outer trappings of grief, as slight though cherished symbols of the wretchedness within. Henry was the only child of Sir Peter Vernon, and as much spoiled by his father’s idolatry as the old baronet’s violent and tyrannical temper would permit. A young orphan was educated in his father’s house, who in the same way was treated with generosity and kindness, and yet who lived in deep awe of Sir Peter’s authority, who was a widower; and these two children were all he had to exert his power over, or to whom to extend his affection. Rosina was a cheerful-tempered girl, a little timid, and careful to avoid displeasing her protector; but so docile, so kind-hearted, and so affectionate, that she felt even less than Henry the discordant spirit of his parent. It is a tale often told; they were playmates and companions in childhood, and lovers in after days. Rosina was frightened to imagine that this secret affection, and the vows they pledged, might be disapproved of by Sir Peter. But sometimes she consoled herself by thinking that perhaps she was in reality her Henry’s destined bride, brought up with him under the design of their future union; and Henry, while he felt that this was not the case, resolved to wait only until he was of age to declare and accomplish his wishes in making the sweet Rosina his wife. Meanwhile he was careful to avoid premature discovery of his intentions, so to secure his beloved girl from persecution and insult. The old gentleman was very conveniently blind; he lived always in the country, and the lovers spent their lives together, unrebuked and uncontrolled. It was enough that Rosina played on her mandoline, and sang Sir Peter to sleep every day after dinner; she was the sole female in the house above the rank of a servant, and had her own way in the disposal of her time. Even when Sir Peter frowned, her innocent caresses and sweet voice were powerful to smooth the rough current of his temper. If ever human spirit lived in an earthly paradise, Rosina did at this time: her pure love was made happy by Henry’s constant presence; and the confidence they felt in each other, and the security with which they looked forward to the future, rendered their path one of roses under a cloudless sky. Sir Peter was the slight drawback that only rendered their tete-a-tete more delightful, and gave value to the sympathy they each bestowed on the other. All at once an ominous personage made its appearance in Vernon-Place, in the shape of a widow sister of Sir Peter, who, having succeeded in killing her husband and children with the effects of her vile temper, came, like a harpy, greedy for new prey, under her brother’s roof. She too soon detected the attachment of the unsuspicious pair. She made all speed to impart her discovery to her brother, and at once to restrain and inflame his rage. Through her contrivance Henry was suddenly despatched on his travels abroad, that the coast might be clear for the persecution of Rosina; and then the richest of the lovely girl’s many admirers, whom, under Sir Peter’s single reign, she was allowed, nay, almost commanded, to dismiss, so desirous was he of keeping her for his own comfort, was selected, and she was ordered to marry him. The scenes of violence to which she was now exposed, the bitter taunts of the odious Mrs. Bainbridge, and the reckless fury of Sir Peter, were the more frightful and overwhelming from their novelty. To all she could only oppose a silent, tearful, but immutable steadiness of purpose: no threats, no rage could extort from her more than a touching prayer that they would not hate her, because she could not obey.
“There must he something we don’t see under all this,” said Mrs. Bainbridge, “take my word for it, brother,” she corresponds secretly with Henry. “Let us take her down to your seat in Wales, where she will have no pensioned beggars to assist her; and we shall see if her spirit be not bent to our purpose.”
Sir Peter consented, and they all three posted down, to shire, and took up their abode in the solitary and dreary looking house before alluded to as belonging to the family. Here poor Rosina’s sufferings grew intolerable: before, surrounded by well-known scenes, and in perpetual intercourse with kind and familiar faces, she had not despaired in the end of conquering by her patience the cruelty of her persecutors; nor had she written to Henry, for his name had not been mentioned by his relatives, nor their attachment alluded to, and she felt an instinctive wish to escape the dangers about her without his being annoyed, or the sacred secret of her love being laid bare, and wronged by the vulgar abuse of his aunt or the bitter curses of his father. But when she was taken to Wales, and made a prisoner in her apartment, when the flinty mountains about her seemed feebly to imitate the stony hearts she had to deal with, her courage began to fail. The only attendant permitted to approach her was Mrs. Bainbridge’s maid; and under the tutelage of her fiend-like mistress, this woman was used as a decoy to entice the poor prisoner into confidence, and then to be betrayed. The simple, kind-hearted Rosina was a facile dupe, and at last, in the excess of her despair, wrote to Henry, and gave the letter to this woman to be forwarded. The letter in itself would have softened marble; it did not speak of their mutual vows, it but asked him to intercede with his father, that he would restore her to the kind place she had formerly held in his affections, and cease from a cruelty that would destroy her. “For I may die,” wrote the hapless girl, “but marry another – never!” That single word, indeed, had sufficed to betray her secret, had it not been already discovered; as it was, it gave increased fury to Sir Peter, as his sister triumphantly pointed it out to him, for it need hardly be said that while the ink of the address was yet wet, and the seal still warm, Rosina’s letter was carried to this lady. The culprit was summoned before them; what ensued none could tell; for their own sakes the cruel pair tried to palliate their part. Voices were high, and the soft murmur of Rosina’s tone was lost in the howling of Sir Peter and the snarling of his sister. “Out of doors you shall go,” roared the old man; “under my roof you shall not spend another night.” And the words “infamous seductress,” and worse, such as had never met the poor girl’s ear before, were caught by listening servants; and to each angry speech of the baronet, Mrs. Bainbridge added an envenomed point worse than all.
More dead than alive, Rosina was at last dismissed. Whether guided by despair, whether she took Sir Peter’s threats literally, or whether his sister’s orders were more decisive, none knew, but Rosina left the house; a servant saw her cross the park, weeping, and wringing her hands as she went. What became of her none could tell; her disappearance was not disclosed to Sir Peter till the following day, and then he showed by his anxiety to trace her steps and to find her, that his words had been but idle threats. The truth was, that though Sir Peter went to frightful lengths to prevent the marriage of the heir of his house with the portionless orphan, the object of his charity, yet in his heart he loved Rosina, and half his violence to her rose from anger at himself for treating her so ill. Now remorse began to sting him, as messenger after messenger came back without tidings of his victim; he dared not confess his worst fears to himself; and when his inhuman sister, trying to harden her conscience by angry words, cried, “The vile hussy has too surely made away with herself out of revenge to us;” an oath, the most tremendous, and a look sufficient to make even her tremble, commanded her silence. Her conjecture, however, appeared too true: a dark and rushing stream that flowed at the extremity of the park had doubtless received the lovely form, and quenched the life of this unfortunate girl. Sir Peter, when his endeavours to find her proved fruitless, returned to town, haunted by the image of his victim, and forced to acknowledge in his own heart that he would willingly lay down his life, could he see her again, even though it were as the bride of his son – his son, before whose questioning he quailed like the veriest coward; for when Henry was told of the death of Rosina, he suddenly returned from abroad to ask the cause – to visit her grave, and mourn her loss in the groves and valleys which had been the scenes of their mutual happiness. He made a thousand inquiries, and an ominous silence alone replied. Growing more earnest and more anxious, at length he drew from servants and dependants, and his odious aunt herself, the whole dreadful truth. From that moment despair struck his heart, and misery named him her own. He fled from his father’s presence; and the recollection that one whom he ought to revere was guilty of so dark a crime, haunted him, as of old the Eumenides tormented the souls of men given up to their torturings.
His first, his only wish, was to visit Wales, and to learn if any new discovery had been made, and whether it were possible to recover the mortal remains of the lost Rosina, so to satisfy the unquiet longings of his miserable heart. On this expedition was he bound, when he made his appearance at the village before named; and now in the deserted tower, his thoughts were busy with images of despair and death, and what his beloved one had suffered before her gentle nature had been goaded to such a deed of woe.
While immersed in gloomy reverie, to which the monotonous roaring of the sea made fit accompaniment, hours flew on, and Vernon was at last aware that the light of morning was creeping from out its eastern retreat, and dawning over the wild ocean, which still broke in furious tumult on the rocky beach. His companions now roused themselves, and prepared to depart. The food they had brought with them was damaged by sea water, and their hunger, after hard labour and many hours fasting, had become ravenous. It was impossible to put to sea in their shattered boat; but there stood a fisher’s cot about two miles off, in a recess in the bay, of which the promontory on which the tower stood formed one side, and to this they hastened to repair; they did not spend a second thought on the light which had saved them, nor its cause, but left the ruin in search of a more hospitable asylum. Vernon cast his eves round as he quitted it, but no vestige of an inhabitant met his eye, and he began to persuade himself that the beacon had been a creation of fancy merely. Arriving at the cottage in question, which was inhabited by a fisherman and his family, they made a homely breakfast, and then prepared to return to the tower, to refit their boat, and if possible bring her round. Vernon accompanied them, together with their host and his son. Several questions were asked concerning the Invisible Girl and her light, each agreeing that the apparition was novel, and not one being able to give even an explanation of how the name had become affixed to the unknown cause of this singular appearance; though both of the men of the cottage affirmed that once or twice they had seen a female figure in the adjacent wood, and that now and then a stranger girl made her appearance at another cot a mile off, on the other side of the promontory, and bought bread; they suspected both these to be the same, but could not tell. The inhabitants of the cot, indeed, appeared too stupid even to feel curiosity, and had never made any attempt at discovery. The whole day was spent by the sailors in repairing the boat; and the sound of hammers, and the voices of the men at work, resounded along the coast, mingled with the dashing of the waves. This was no time to explore the ruin for one who whether human or supernatural so evidently withdrew herself from intercourse with every living being. Vernon, however, went over the tower, and searched every nook in vain; the dingy bare walls bore no token of serving as a shelter; and even a little recess in the wall of the staircase, which he had not before observed, was equally empty and desolate.
Quitting the tower, he wandered in the pine wood that surrounded it, and giving up all thought of solving the mystery, was soon engrossed by thoughts that touched his heart more nearly, when suddenly there appeared on the ground at his feet the vision of a slipper. Since Cinderella so tiny a slipper had never been seen; as plain as shoe could speak, it told a tale of elegance, loveliness, and youth. Vernon picked it up; he had often admired Rosina’s singularly small foot, and his first thought was a question whether this little slipper would have fitted it. It was very strange! – it must belong to the Invisible Girl. Then there was a fairy form that kindled that light, a form of such material substance, that its foot needed to be shod; and yet how shod? – with kid so fine, and of shape so exquisite, that it exactly resembled such as Rosina wore! Again the recurrence of the image of the beloved dead came forcibly across him; and a thousand home-felt associations, childish yet sweet, and lover-like though trifling, so filled Vernon’s heart, that he threw himself his length on the ground, and wept more bitterly than ever the miserable fate of the sweet orphan.
In the evening the men quitted their work, and Vernon returned with them to the cot where they were to sleep, intending to pursue their voyage, weather permitting, the following morning.
Vernon said nothing of his slipper, but returned with his rough associates. Often he looked back; but the tower rose darkly over the dim waves, and no light appeared. Preparations had been made in the cot for their accommodation, and the only bed in it was offered Vernon; but he refused to deprive his hostess, and spreading his cloak on a heap of dry leaves, endeavoured to give himself up to repose. He slept for some hours; and when he awoke, all was still, save that the hard breathing of the sleepers in the same room with him interrupted the silence. He rose, and going to the window, looked out over the now placid sea towards the mystic tower; the light burning there, sending its slender rays across the waves. Congratulating himself on a circumstance he had not anticipated, Vernon softly left the cottage, and, wrapping his cloak round him, walked with a swift pace round the bay towards the tower. He reached it; still the light was burning. To enter and restore the maiden her shoe, would be but an act of courtesy; and Vernon intended to do this with such caution, as to come unaware, before its wearer could, with her accustomed arts, withdraw herself from his eyes; but, unluckily, while yet making his way up the narrow pathway, his foot dislodged a loose fragment, that fell with crash and sound down the precipice. He sprung forward, on this, to retrieve by speed the advantage he had lost by this unlucky accident. He reached the door; he entered: all was silent, but also all was dark. He paused in the room below; he felt sure that a slight sound met his ear. He ascended the steps, and entered the upper chamber; but blank obscurity met his penetrating gaze, the starless night admitted not even a twilight glimmer through the only aperture. He closed his eyes, to try, on opening them again, to be able to catch some faint, wandering ray on the visual nerve; but it was in vain. He groped round the room: he stood still, and held his breath; and then, listening intently, he felt sure that another occupied the chamber with him, and that its atmosphere was slightly agitated by an-other’s respiration. He remembered the recess in the staircase; but, before he approached it, he spoke: he hesitated a moment what to say. “I must believe,” he said, “that misfortune alone can cause your seclusion; and if the assistance of a man – of a gentleman…”
An exclamation interrupted him; a voice from the grave spoke his name – the accents of Rosina syllabled, “Henry! – is it indeed Henry whom I hear?”
He rushed forward, directed by the sound, and clasped in his arms the living form of his own lamented girl – his own Invisible Girl he called her; for even yet, as he felt her heart beat near his, and as he entwined her waist with his arm, supporting her as she almost sank to the ground with agitation, he could not see her; and, as her sobs prevented her speech, no sense, but the instinctive one that filled his heart with tumultuous gladness, told him that the slender, wasted form he pressed so fondly was the living shadow of the Hebe beauty he had adored.
The morning saw this pair thus strangely restored to each other on the tranquil sea, sailing with a fair wind for L–, whence they were to proceed to Sir Peter’s seat, which, three months before, Rosina had quitted in such agony and terror. The morning light dispelled the shadows that had veiled her, and disclosed the fair person of the Invisible Girl. Altered indeed she was by suffering and woe, but still the same sweet smile played on her lips, and the tender light of her soft blue eyes were all her own. Vernon drew out the slipper, and shoved the cause that had occasioned him to resolve to discover the guardian of the mystic beacon; even now he dared not inquire how she had existed in that desolate spot, or wherefore she had so sedulously avoided observation, when the right thing to have been done was, to have sought him immediately, under whose care, protected by whose love, no danger need be feared. But Rosina shrunk from him as he spoke, and a death-like pallor came over her cheek, as she faintly whispered, “Your father’s curse – your father’s dreadful threats!” It appeared, indeed, that Sir Peter’s violence, and the cruelty of Mrs. Bainbridge, had succeeded in impressing Rosina with wild and unvanquishable terror. She had fled from their house without plan or forethought, driven by frantic horror and overwhelming fear, she had left it with scarcely any money, and there seemed to her no possibility of either returning or proceeding onward. She had no friend except Henry in the wide world; whither could she go? – to have sought Henry would have sealed their fates to misery; for, with an oath, Sir Peter had declared he would rather see them both in their coffins than married. After wandering about, hiding by day, and only venturing forth at night, she had come to this deserted tower, which seemed a place of refuge. I low she had lived since then she could hardly tell; she had lingered in the woods by day, or slept in the vault of the tower, an asylum none were acquainted with or had discovered: by night she burned the pine-cones of the wood, and night was her dearest time; for it seemed to her as if security came with darkness. She was unaware that Sir Peter had left that part of the country, and was terrified lest her hiding-place should be revealed to him. Her only hope was that Henry would return – that Henry would never rest till he had found her. She confessed that the long interval and the approach of winter had visited her with dismay; she feared that, as her strength was failing, and her form wasting to a skeleton, that she might die, and never see her own Henry more.
An illness, indeed, in spite of all his care, followed her restoration to security and the comforts of civilized life; many months went by before the bloom revisiting her cheeks, and her limbs regaining their roundness, she resembled once more the picture drawn of her in her days of bliss, before any visitation of sorrow. It was a copy of this portrait that decorated the tower, the scene of her suffering, in which I had found shelter. Sir Peter, overjoyed to be relieved from the pangs of remorse, and delighted again to see his orphan-ward, whom he really loved, was now as eager as before he had been averse to bless her union with his son: Mrs. Bainbridge they never saw again. But each year they spent a few months in their Welch mansion, the scene of their early wedded happiness, and the spot where again poor Rosina had awoke to life and joy after her cruel persecutions. Henry’s fond care had fitted up the tower, and decorated it as I saw; and often did he come over, with his “Invisible Girl,” to renew, in the very scene of its occurrence, the remembrance of all the incidents which had led to their meeting again, during the shades of night, in that sequestered ruin.
I met Adam at the bookstore. He was in the section marked Biography/History and he was looking, extensively, at a book about some historical event no one’s ever heard of. The only way I knew it was an historical event was because the cover was in black and white and had a photo on it of a tank. But it wasn’t a World War II book; WWII has its own section, way over on the other side of the store.
I myself was aiming for the art books, because my friend Terrie had just had a life-changing experience from looking at a photograph of a clown. She’d spent her childhood terrified of clowns but when she saw this photo, on a friend’s coffee table, she experienced a 180 degree shift – one of those rare moments when the other side becomes clear as anything, and we can no longer understand why it was so hard to get before.
“Clowns are desperate,” she’d told me, with wonder in her voice. “That’s why they’re so scary.”
It hadn’t occurred to me either, and I wanted to see if she was right. I too had had the experience of a childhood clown doll that one day had transformed from delightful toy-friend into the diabolical engineer of my nightmares. It had to be sold at the neighbor’s garage sale, because I refused to sell it at my own. Someone bought it for seventy-five cents – some kid too young to feel the fear yet – and I threw the cursed coins into the outdoor trash, observing as the other neighborhood kids spotted and retrieved them. Let them spend it, I thought, from the safety of my bedroom. It will only bring them grief.
They used the quarters to buy ice cream.
Story of my life.
I found the art book Terrie had been talking about, and flipped towards the photo of the clown, which, according to the table of contents, was on page 32. As I skipped through those shiny pages, pages that smelled like a hair salon, Adam turned and held up the war book. “Do you know this photo?” he asked me, tapping the cover.
“Oh,” I said. “Is that World War I?”
He shook his head, and his hair was very light brown, almost colorless, and as it shifted, it caught no light.
“Korean war,” he said. “A photo from then.”
He shelved the book. “They told me it was a good read but I just read a page and it was so dull,” and then he stepped closer. Aside from that colorless hair, he had a wide open face, sort of big-featured, with a big nose and big eyes and teeth. Likeable. The kind of face you could immediately trust, even against better judgment.
I held my finger before page 32. I didn’t want to look at the clown first off. It seemed too intimate, even if I was just looking with myself. So I was looking, then, instead, at a washed-up movie star wearing sequins in some kind of aquarium tank emptied of water. I guess they were trying to work with the phrase ‘washed up’, but the star didn’t seem aware of that because she was grinning in the tank like it was all funny and fun. Maybe the whole book should’ve been titled desperation.
“What are you looking at?” he asked, peering over my shoulder.
“Art photos,” I said.
“Wait, wasn’t she in that cop movie?”
We stared at her together, in that tank. “Was she?” I asked. She had giant breasts, ornamented by magenta sequins. I found her painful, so I turned the page to have something to do, and there was the clown, with its big nose and scary mouth makeup and scary eyes and red costume. And I could see what she meant, Terrie. Right off, I got what she was saying. It was trying so hard. That was part of what was so menacing – its enormous effort to amuse. You kind of wanted to hurt the clown, before it smothered you into total suffocation.
“Do you think it looks desperate?” I asked him.
He squinted his eyes, and stared at the photo for at least a minute. “Why do they do the eyes like that?” he said, at last. “I mean, the star-shaped thing? Is that clown protocol?”
We ended up at the Greek coffee place next door, and he bought no biography and before we left the store, I flipped through the rest of the photo book to see if the others were desperate too but they weren’t, not in the same way. They were just pictures of other shiny figures that looked good in bright colors, like Vegas acrobatic performers at Rite-Aid, or a tomato farmer in his garden reading Newsweek. Only pages 30-32 were terrifying.
Adam got up to get the coffees while I looked out at the cars driving by on Sunset. It was raining a little, and watching the windshield wipers made me feel more settled. The air smelled like city, like damp city.
“They told me that was the definitive book on Korea,” he said, returning with the coffees. “I’m disappointed.”
I felt attractive, talking to him. Next to those big features of his, I could feel myself as delicate. When the conversation waned, I sipped from my bitter little Greek coffee, and told him that my friend Terrie was having surgery the following day. That she was young, still, but they’d found problematic shapes in her bronchitis x-ray. “Lumpy shapes,” I said, “inside her lungs.”
He stirred his coffee, and nodded with appropriate solemnity. He seemed more measured, now that he was caffeinated.
The cars whisked by.
“You know,” I said. “I just lied. That’s not true.”
I reached out, and touched his arm. “I didn’t know what to say,” I said, and his arm was warm, “so I made up Terrie’s lumps. That’s awful of me.”
He leaned in, then, and he didn’t kiss me but it was too close for regular. We spent a few minutes there, blinking together, breathing the coffee-scented air. Who knew what would happen? He had that trustworthy face, a face I didn’t trust, simply because I’d trusted it so swiftly.
We agreed to meet the following afternoon at the beach in Santa Monica, and the directions we gave each other were complicated enough, were distinct enough, so neither could possibly get lost. Of course I was early because I’m always early, and I didn’t head over to the water just yet, instead wandering past the snack bar, reading the names of foods listed in black plastic stick-on letters: chili dog. Onion rings. Popsicle. Words I love to see in black plastic stick-on, words that conveyed summer to me, on this cloudy November afternoon. I hadn’t called Terrie the night before, because I’d sold her out for flirting; it seemed I’d cursed her, and although I was fairly certain I had no cursing abilities, it was not in the spirit of good friendship and this I knew. But I had not been flirted with in many months, and this man had not rejected the reeking desperation of either the clown or the old star, and asking for sympathy about a dying friend was the first tool that appeared from my own personal flirting toolbox. Sometimes my own capacity for smallness is surprising, even to myself.
Adam was already at the beach when I walked over, and he had a picnic basket in his hands. He’d set up a blowzy checkered blanket, whose corners picked up with the wind, and when I walked across the sand, bumpy and difficult to traverse, he smiled at me with those wide open eyes. For a few minutes we chit-chatted, and at one point, he threw his hands into the air and said some exclamations, about nothing, really, but just showing a sense of spirit. I felt the love, spreading roots in my chest, making it so easy to smile, the way the promise of love loosens and eases the muscles of the face, and how the onset of pain had tightened them before, into tense lines and grit. How good it felt, to let go of grit for a second! We settled onto the blanket and he opened a small size bottle of champagne and we toasted and the water waves crashed, and other than a homeless man way to the left and two teenagers trying to get tan on the right, we were alone. I reached out a hand, and touched his colorless hair, and he turned his face to my palm. Then he reached into the picnic basket, and pulled out two plates, two checkered napkins, and two forks.
“Wow,” I said. “You go all out.”
As he removed the plastic food containers, he told me he used to be a chef, that he used to own his own restaurant. He told me the name of it, and how he’d gotten a great review last year in the L.A. Weekly, saying he had a knack for unusual flavor combinations. “Really?” I said, impressed, and then, after a pause, he said no. “I mean, I’ve always liked to cook. Never got paid for it. Sorry.” We looked out at the water. It was the second lie, and it was clear, from the tone of his takeback, that he had surprised himself with it. For whatever reason, it seemed we couldn’t help but lie to each other. It didn’t even feel like a big deal to me at first, but like an unexpected shift in weather, as the food came out of the basket, his mood collapsed. When he removed pieces of a roasted chicken from the container, and handfuls of green grapes, they were almost like apologies, for something he had committed long ago and I would never understand. Certainly he had no reason to apologize to me, me who was so ready to love him. He handed me a charred chicken leg, and a bunch of grapes, and refilled my champagne. “It’s lovely,” I said, about five times, but he wriggled under the compliment, and wouldn’t look over, and the way he sealed the remaining food back into its containers, with careful palm and thumb, made me feel badly, as if I’d done something wrong, or as if we both knew, in the future, that we would wrong each other irreparably. The seagulls approached. I ate the chicken and grapes, peeling stripes of chicken off the leg, but everything tasted a little off. Not like poison, but just not fulfilling, and Adam was striking me now as very difficult to know. “Why’d you want that book?” I asked, as I peeled the skin off a grape in slippery little triangles, and I understood then that I would be undressing every item of food I could because my clothes would be staying on.
“I like war books,” he said, out to the ocean. “Of wars people don’t read. I like to remember the forgotten wars.”
For dessert, he brought out oatmeal macadamia cookies that he had baked himself, but I could hardly eat them, my mouth felt so dry, and without thinking, I threw a few sprinkles to the seagulls who stepped closer on their webbed feet. I slipped my whole cookie into the sand when he wasn’t looking. Adam and I walked to the water and held hands and touched our bare cold toes to the foam. I felt like crying, then, with those seagulls invading our perfect picnic behind us, eating the cookies and the chicken, stepping all over the napkins, cackling, shoving each other out of the way.
I touched his arm again, and my eyes filled with tears.
“I know,” he said. “It isn’t right.”
When we finally kissed, it was clear that it was our last. His lips pressed gently against mine. I felt that kind of wrenching in my heart, and as I turned and walked the other way, I could hear him packing the picnic back into his basket. It took some effort to shoo away the seagulls, but finally they squawked and flew over us. A flock of seagulls. As a child, I’d found them so wonderful, seabirds, with their curving yellow-orange beaks and funny strut. They lived at the ocean, and anything that lived at the ocean I felt I could love forever. But they turned, in my mind. Sometime around adolescence, after hitting the critical mass of beach picnics, after seeing them come over again and again, pushing each other out of the way, squawking so loud, eating chicken and turkey sandwiches without pause, I found them repulsive.
At the snack bar, I ordered a basket of onion rings and sat on the green-painted ocean bench, watching the water. The clouds were thick, and the water took on a metallic gray sheen that eased my mind. When Adam passed by, with his picnic basket all packed up, I nodded, and he nodded. The look he gave my onion rings was that of a betrayed lover. But I have always liked onion rings. They were the thickly-cut kind, each ring the width of a plastic bracelet, dipped in golden-brown crumbs. I ate almost the whole basket, licking the bits off my fingers, and when I was done, I threw the remaining few to the trio of waiting seagulls, who, after all, were only hungry. Opinions change.
This version of the story is in English. In Milan. Standing tiptoe on the edge of a king-sized bed. She is shutting a window cut into the slant of the ceiling. She is naked. It is the largest bed she has ever seen. Since she arrived, the nights have been good. Good summer nights, dark and bold as a shape. This night, a friendly night she can shut a window on. Later, open the window to the same good night. For seven weeks, she has been teaching the verb to be, the verb to lie, the verb to want, the verb to go. Some verbs more active than others. All verbs conjugate. All verbs useful. Some more useful than others. Not the confusion she studied in college, people asking, “But what does the verb to be really mean? What is Being?” Maybe there was “Having” too. She dropped the course and took Italian, where she asked the professor, “You mean to say that the past participle of a verb conjugated with the verb to be has a masculine end even if the subject of the sentence is hundreds of women and only one man?”
“Ending,” the professor corrected. “Yes. That is true of any Romance language. As long as a man is part of the group, the past participle of a verb conjugated with the verb to be will have a masculine ending.”
“An old-fashioned idea of romance,” she joked. No one laughed.
Someone else said, “The notion of romance is more old-fashioned in English. In English there is never any discussion of sex between verb and subject.”
This story includes him. He is here, too. His English is basic, so words should be chosen with care. He is lying on the king-sized bed. To create the Italian version of this story, possibly all the words of the English version must be tossed into the air, allowed to fragment and fall back down onto new pages. Or perhaps the English version is created from Italian words thrown this way. But why talk about possibilities? There is little enough room for fact. In the Italian, all the verbs of this story are in the present perfect and therefore require past participles. This is not true in the English version. For him, the English version tries very hard to stay in the present and the present progressive. There are a few past tenses, one or two conditionals.
He is lying in bed. He is thinking about the sleek front of the new refrigerator door his company is marketing. His girlfriend is in Rome. She is marketing the new refrigerator door in Rome. She would call him a cheater. A liar. An ass. Obvious, stupid names. Names for millions of men, not meant only for him. He has been taking English classes for seven weeks. He never imagined lying naked in bed waiting for his teacher to shut the window in the slant of his ceiling. She is naked. On tiptoe. That is it. Enough. Sleek is a hard word. Slant is a hard word. The story slows down. Explains more. Now. He lies in bed. The window. A large rectangle. She, naked. Summer. Milan. Night. Words American and other English-speaking people use. Useful words. Useful is use in its adjectival form.
She is standing tiptoe on the edge of the board at the end of the bed. Edge is a hard word. Here. This. Edge. The edge of the footboard or baseboard? She is not sure. Not important, really. The word. Not all beds have them. Naked. She. Footboard/baseboard. Window. Night. Milan. Oh – Summer. Bed. King-sized bed. The footboard/baseboard runs from the edge of the bed under the window to the edge of the bed near the closet. Complicated use of run. The footboard/baseboard goes from the right edge to the left edge of the bed. It lies flat. Complicated again for both goes and lies. (Runs. Goes. Lies.) Boards have an active life we know nothing about. He does not laugh. No. Sorry. Sorry. No. nothing. A joke. Complicated. Nonsense. She stands on the footboard/baseboard. No longer tiptoe. The flat board. The moon is round. Flat is the opposite of round.
Remember shapes? The window is a rectangle. The moon is a circle in the center of the rectangle. The circle is at the center of the window. The moon is central to the rectangle. The light lies in a square on her naked back. Prepositions are not easy. Lies has different meanings depending on context. He can lie. He is lying. He is lying. He waits for her to lie. She steps on the footboard/baseboard. Foot over foot, like a tightrope walker. As in the circus. The circus with clowns and horses.
Naked in the circle moon and square light. She understands now. Now she sees. A complicated see. Not with the eyes. A seeing of the flat in the round of the moon. She does not want to lie on the king-sized bed. Not now. Not naked. Not with him. Her walk has to end at the closet edge. A complicated form of have. Different from the ownership have. Must has the same meaning as has to, in this case. The first has in this last sentence showing ownership. The meaning belongs to the must. Now. Like a tightrope walker. Must owning meaning and has to meaning must. Ownership central to the rectangular window. She sees. Her back flat in the round moon. Naked. Walking. Milan. Night. Summer. Teacher. Footboard/baseboard. Tightrope. Flat. Foot over foot. Lie. Her walk must end at the edge near the closet.
Maybe there is a better way to explain the verbs? Let us see. The same complicated see as before. Not with the eyes. (Flat. Naked. Round.) Does see make sense now? (Summer. Milan. Night.) Does slant make sense now? (Light. Naked. Moon.) Does lie make sense now? (Round. Naked. Eyes.) Does run make sense now? Adjectives are harder to explain.
The story ends with her at the edge of the footboard/baseboard. The story’s end in English is different from the story’s end in Italian. In English, this story ends with her running. Remember, run? (Round. Naked. Eyes.) In Italian, the story ends in the king-sized bed with a verb in the past participle conjugated with the verb to be. It is that gender agreement between verb and subject that makes the ending of this story in Italian different from the prudish English ending. Let us point out that he sees and she sees (Flat. Naked. Round.) that the meaning of the different ends is the same.
She does not love him, and he does not love her.
THIS story happened a long time ago in the country where anything may happen. The people who belong to that country stay there, and nothing can induce them to journey beyond its borders.
Also, very few travelers find their way in, because the road that runs that way is hidden in a rosy mist.
This mist-road winds around and around a ring of mountains that are dreadfully hard to find on the map–and sometimes are not on the map at all.
You need not read this first part unless you like. It is only a preface, and usually people skip them. The story begins here.
The King’s Highway that ran east and west through the City of Midas was a wonderful highway. The buildings fronting upon it, the houses, shops, palaces and churches, had all been colored a brilliant golden hue, and the cupolas, spires, turrets and domes topping the buildings were tipped and touched with gold-leaf.
The road was flagged with stones of deepest yellow, and the whole street was so radiant and resplendent that the citizens often wore smoked glasses when they walked abroad at noon-day.
Upon a great topaz fastened against the door of the City Hall and Court House, was engraved the legend of King Midas of the golden touch, he who had founded the city and made it his home. To the legend was added a brief note telling that the city fathers had thought it wise to color the buildings yellow, in memory of the bewitchment that had years ago come upon the avaricious King, and the miracle of his deliverance from it.
This was a warning to all and sundry to beware of covetousness and greed and the evils in their wake.
Small heed did the good people pay to the words graven on the topaz, and long and loudly they grumbled at the taxes put upon them, for it cost much money to paint and polish and gold-leaf the buildings on the wonderful road.
In their heart of hearts, probably, they took pride in the highway, for no matter how much they grumbled they paid the taxes promptly.
Now the most beautiful thing on all the beautiful highway and the most marvelous, was an apple tree.
It stood in the middle of a little square before the City Hall, and it was by far the most prized possession of the dwellers in the City of Midas–from the oldest inhabitant, tottering on his shrunken legs to rest in its shadow, to the youngest child, tottering also, but on dimpled feet to where he could stand and wonder at its shining burden of apples.
For this apple tree was of gold, root and branch and leaf and fruit. It was the one golden fact in a place of golden frauds.
As long as anyone could remember, the tree had been there, and as long as anyone they had ever seen could remember. Musty documents filed away in musty drawers, and old, old letters and deeds-of-law with crumbling edges, referred to it casually.
Ancient wills and testaments bore ancient seals stamped with a picture of this very tree.
Generations came and went, fashions came in and went out, but the old, yet ever-young apple tree lifted its golden branches to the sky, serene and unchanged.
It was taken for granted that on that far-off day when King Midas was bewitched of the golden touch, and laid hands so energetically on every object around him, including the very trees and flowers of his garden, he had touched this apple tree also, and by strange alchemy turned it to the precious metal.
Further, it was supposed that in the King’s hour of repentance, when he sprinkled the magic water on all the golden garden to transform it again into a place of green growing things, this tree had been forgotten or overlooked, until the water was all gone.
An occasional stranger gazed with awe at the tree of mystery and asked questions about it, but the citizens, who, for the most part were simple and unlettered, and given to seeing the pixies and warlocks and fairies that came and went in their own mountains, regarded the tree with pride but little curiosity, and as people do regard things they have always known.
A sentinel marched in front of it night and day, while to the very left of it was the Town Pillory, and to the right the Town Gallows. There was no chance visitor who had found his way along the rose-misty road and followed it into the golden city, who did not quickly learn just why the pillory and the gallows were on the right and left of the wonderful tree. He was straightway informed that any person who as much as touched a leaf with even the tip of a finger, was, without ceremony, made fast in the pillory to languish there, whatever the weather, for one full day; while that delinquent who, for wanton mischief, folly, or thievishness, broke a golden apple from its branch, was without much ado quickly hung upon the gallows.
Whether by reason of this law or because of sentiment, the tree was seldom molested, and the sentinel had but a dull existence. Apart from these simple restrictions the town-folk were free to come and go beneath the golden thing, and there was no more favored meeting-place than the grassy circle shadowed by the out-flung glittering branches. It may be temptation was lessened, as the apples and leaves hung high above the reach of any but the very longest arm.
Now, it was upon a certain July afternoon that various things happened in the City of Midas that afterwards were written down in the town chronicles, and so seem worth telling about.
The afternoon was so hot that the dazzling street was deserted. A white-haired priest crossing in front of the City Hall suddenly stopped, and then as though exhausted, sat down on a bench beneath the tree.
The sentinel on duty before it tramped slowly up and down and found time heavy on his hands. His uniform was tight and hot and of a flaming scarlet. His boots shone as though made of polished metal, while his helmet and musket felt heavy as lead.
Little waves of heat quivered up from the ground, and at intervals a locust sang its sudden song of the sun. The light glanced down through the golden tree until each individual leaf and apple seemed to shoot hot rays at him.
It was the sort of day when dogs go mad, and people are apt to do things unaccountable and foreign to their natures; when strong men in the fields dread a stroke from heaven, and little babies wilt like flowers left without rain.
The old priest nodded in the hot shade, and the sentinel went back and forth monotonously, all misery within, all grandeur without. He was sick of his task, sick of the heat and silence, and aimlessly wished for something to happen–for anything, indeed, to happen that might serve to distract his mind until the hour of release.
And something did happen.
Far down the golden highroad he saw a man coming towards him, swinging along at a swift dog-trot.
The sentinel stood stock-still, because there was so much that was unusual about the running figure. Also, it was strange that anyone should travel so fast in the great heat. The sentinel gazed, and wondered what method there was–if any–in this seeming midsummer madness.
On came the swinging figure down the deserted, dazzling street, and now the sentinel suddenly recognized him.
“The King’s lion-tamer!” he exclaimed to the air. “Well! By my musket, he has less sense than I thought or else is mightily pressed for time, Whatever can he want in such a hurry on such a day? In truth these strong fellows, all brawn and muscle, have small brains; but I will find out his business when he comes nearer.”
On came the King’s lion-tamer along the highway, as though he were the winged Mercury.
His wavy hair, thick and sun bleached until it was tawny as a lion’s mane, flew out around his head. He wore a leopard skin about his body, and his great shoulders and limbs gleamed like bronze against the yellow fur. Only did it show white on his forehead where the hair blew back.
There were sandals of tanned leather on his bare feet, and above one knee was a golden garter set with topaz.
On and on he came, and his pace quickened as he reached the little grassy square before the City Hall, where stood the golden apple tree.
“Halt!” cried the sentinel as he came up, more to indicate that he was in command, than for any particular reason. But the lion-tamer gave not the slightest heed. He stopped only when he was fairly underneath the tree. Then he threw back his head, and looked up into the glittering branches, and his breath came in heavy gasps.
The sentinel watched him curiously, mouth ajar. The old white-haired priest woke up and leaned forward on his cane, watching also.
The lion-tamer glanced from one to the other and a little smile flashed across his face. Then he stretched an arm towards the branch above his head.
“Watch hard, my friends!” he said. “As there are no others about, I depend on you for witnesses. Behold me pluck the forbidden fruit.”
The old priest rose with a sharp cry; the sentinel sprang forward with musket leveled.
“Take down your arm!” he commanded. “What would you do? He who even touches the tree is punished grievously, but he who plucks the fruit is a dead man! Take down your arm! Take it down!”
His words trailed off into a cry of horror, for the lion-tamer had sprung upon his strong young feet, caught an apple and twisted and broken it from the bough!
Then he stepped out into the sunlight and tossed the golden thing high into the air, catching it as it fell.
The sentinel’s knees shook beneath him and he turned cold in his hot uniform. His whole body wilted limply for a moment, then stiffened.
“The penalty! The penalty!” he exclaimed. “Do you not know it, O rash fellow? I take you prisoner in the King’s name! By my faith, it is a thing I hate to do, for ’twill be hard to see so fine a man food for carrion crows.”
The old priest had risen tremblingly to his feet, and now stood as one stricken with horror. “Why have you done this thing?” he asked, his face white and stern. “Have you any reason for this unpardonable act?”
“In sooth, good father, I have a reason,” the lion-tamer answered, with still the same smile. “I desire death. This is a straight road to it, so they tell me. I have not lived long in your country, but this much the veriest stranger soon learns.”
“But why would you die?” he asked. “Have you committed some sin, a sin too great to live and atone for? Nay, I cannot think that possible when I look at thy face.”
The man shrugged his shoulders. “It is not for my sins I wish to die, good father,” he said–”though I have sins in plenty–but by reason of a heart-ache that is too great to be borne.”
“A heart-ache!” exclaimed the old priest. “Thou wouldst throw away life with all it means–thy beautiful life, now at high-tide–because of a heart-ache! Thou must be mad or very, very young. I would know what has caused thee so hard an ache as that. Come–sit down by me on the bench. The sentinel will give us grace of a scant half-hour ere he takes thee in charge.
“Make me thy confessor. Thy time may be short when the people hear of this deed.”
They took their places on the little bench and the sentinel, somewhat addle-pated from the sun and the sudden responsibility and horror of the moment, made no protest, but stood dumbly on guard.
The priest turned his face, still white and stern, to the man beside him. “If you have aught to tell me, my son,” he began, “I am over-ready to listen, and to give help and consolation. Nay, more. I find it in my soul to make excuse for thy rash deed, if you give me reason. Still remember in this I speak for myself alone, not for the people.”
The lion-tamer turned the golden apple around in his hand, looking at it absently.
“Wouldst really know why I desire to die? Art that much concerned regarding me, good father?”
“Of a truth–yes, my son!” answered the old man quickly.
The lion-tamer glanced up through the golden branches to the blue beyond, and then down at the priest with a sudden boyish smile, half-diffident, but wholly confiding.
“Well, then,” he said slowly, “well, then, it was just by reason of bitter loneliness–and of love.”
“Of love?” exclaimed the old priest. “Of love, dost thou say? Of loneliness it may be a man would die, but not of love, methinks.”
The man nodded his tawny head in contradiction.
“Listen, good father,” he said. “I come from a country far from here–a very far country. In that country my father was a noble and I his eldest son. We had much land of forest and stream and lake and meadow.” His eyes grew absent and misty again, and he paused.
“Yes?” questioned the priest.
“War came into my country,” he went on. “My father fought and was killed. I fought also and was taken captive. They bore me, bound, many leagues on into an unknown land, and left me in a prison whose whereabouts I do not know. I only know that as I counted time, five years went by in unspeakable solitude and silence.” He paused again, and the guard stepped a little nearer to listen.
“And then?” said the old priest.
“And then I escaped. I escaped by night; and when the morning broke found myself on a road that wound around a mountain; a lovely road overhung with a rosy mist.
“This I followed, good father, and it brought me to the City of Midas.”
“Oh!” nodded the holy father. “To our good city, my son?”
“Yes,” he answered. “I was so glad at being free that weariness and sorrow slipped from me. I felt the joy of youth and strength again, after a few weeks’ rest at an inn on the edge of the city, just within the great walls. I paid the inn-keeper and his wife for their kindness by pruning their orchard. While there I chanced to hear that the King’s lion-tamer was dead and he looked for another. Now, good father, I possess a strange gift. At home they said one of the fairies had given it to me in my cradle. However that may be, I have the gift to this day. It is no less than an influence potent and strong over beasts and birds, both wild and tame. By my eyes I can hold them, by my voice I can charm them, by my touch I can lure them, and my beckoning they will follow unless they be sick or under some spell of madness. This gift I discovered when I was a little child. The animals of the forest and field were my comrades; I knew no fear of them and they no fear of me. We understood each other.
“So now I said to myself: I will go to the king and offer to take the place of the dead lion-tamer! This I did, and was accepted and made keeper and trainer of the royal beasts.”
“I heard,” said the priest, “there was another younger keeper. Reports said the king’s former lion-tamer had been killed by a lioness.”
The guard nodded in affirmation and stepped nearer, listening.
The lion-tamer turned the golden apple in his hand. “By Jessica,” he said casually. “She is still half-wild and uncertain in her moods. But to my story, good father. I have been keeper of the beasts since the winter months and have been content after a fashion until lately. Early in spring the little Princess and her ladies came to watch me train the young lions, and–and I saw the Lady Belledowin.”
The priest gave a start. “The Lady Belledowin!” he exclaimed. “The court beauty! Is she again at the castle? Her mourning for the old duke, her father, has been short.”
“She is at court,” the man answered. “She is the first lady-in-waiting to the Princess. I saw her–and loved her, good father,” he ended.
“But there is more to be told, my son?” urged the priest.
“A little more, truly,” he returned. “Often after that first visit to the lions’ quarters the Princess and her ladies came again to look on while I put the beasts through their play. It was for those short moments I lived. To-day in the great heat, they came again, the little Princess and the others; the Lady Belledowin also. I saw them coming through the trees and flowers of the garden, like a flock of bright butterflies.
“You know, perhaps, the lions’ quarters? It is on the far side of the great Imperial gardens, and though artificial is like a bit of the desert. Quite wonderfully like it. There are silver-gray rocks rising out of the pink and yellow sand. The cages are almost invisible by reason of being painted like to the desert colors.
“The wall is stone, topped with open iron work, and there is a mighty gate barred on the outside, so when the beasts are safely caged the courtiers may enter the quarters. The timid are often content to look through the iron fence.
“The Lady Belledowin reached the great gate first, and I went to meet her from within the enclosure–for to-day it was not safe to enter. She already had drawn the bronze bolts when I came up, and we met in the open gateway. I trembled at sight of her beauty. In the afternoon light it was like a radiance that blinded one.
“‘It is not safe to enter the lions’ quarters to-day, Lady Belledowin,’ I said. ‘Even my small gate at the far side is double locked and forbidden to all but the water and food-carriers. Jessica has almost wrecked her cage. The door fastenings are loose, and I have not yet decided where to move her.’
“She laughed and threw a backward glance at the Princess and the court ladies who were coming near.
“‘Pasanello’–that is the name I bear here, good father–’Pasanello says it is dangerous to go into the enclosure,’ she said. ‘The locks are sprung on one of the cages, so he tells me; but I choose to think he wishes to frighten us, and belittle our courage. I am certainly going in. I desire to select, to-day, the lion-cub the king promised should be mine.’
“The little Princess ran to Lady Belledowin and caught her hand. You, perhaps, know the little Princess and her ways, good father?”
“I have seen and heard of her,” answered the old man.
“She possesses the sweetest heart and kindest in all the court, ’tis said,” went on the lion-tamer. “Now in most earnest fashion she coaxed Lady Belledowin to give up the thought of going near the cages. But it was useless. Had the Princess commanded she needs must have obeyed, but she would not respond to a request. With a little light and daring laugh she entered and swung the gate behind her.
“Then she ran down the stone steps into the enclosure. It is a hundred yards to the cages, but Jessica had seen the new figure and was pacing her cage furiously.
“Lady Belledowin took no heed of the warnings. She went on toward the cage where the lion cubs were sleeping, her rose-colored gown of some light silk, fluttering about her. The cubs, good father, belong to Jessica, and were removed from her because she injured one.
“Now as the lioness saw Lady Belledowin approach them, she quivered with fresh rage; then gave a terrific roar, burst the door of her cage, and with one bound came halfway to my lady across the sand. There the great beast crouched flat, gathering force for the fatal spring. Lady Belledowin stood as though turned to snow. She neither spoke nor cried out. While one’s heart has time to beat once I stood also. Then I leaped to her side.
“The lioness crouched still, and I faced her, fixing my eyes on her two blazing eyes. I could see her begin to tremble through her tense muscles. I gazed steadfastly at her, holding my Lady Belledowin back with one arm. To move would have been fatal.
“There we stood. I turned cold and my face grew wet as with rain.
“Still we stood and I suddenly felt my force over the lioness weakening. At that instant she sprang–but dropped a scant yard short of my lady.
“‘Run! Run!’ I cried to her. ‘This is the one chance. Before she springs again! Run–and make fast the gate!’
“I heard the silken flutter of her gown as she ran, but I did not withdraw my eyes from the eyes of the lioness. She crouched again where she had alighted, baffled and maddened.
“An inch nearer I moved to her, the sweat still cold on my face.
“Backward she crept an inch. So we went, she and I gazing steadfastly. Back and back she crept, and I forward. Ever she lashed her tail softly and in her throat was a sound not good to hear,–yet she crept back.
“When her cage was reached I stood quite still and straight and spoke.
“‘Enter!’ I called in the voice she knew and was used to obey.
“With drooping head she swung as on a pivot, and shrank into the cage. The muttering in her throat ended in a sort of sob, and I had conquered.
“I closed the broken door, and called to one of the cage men who now came running; with soldering iron, he made the door fast, and to-morrow the lioness will be transferred to a newer cage.”
There was a pause–then “To-morrow!” he said again and gave a short laugh.
“But that is not all, my son?” questioned the priest again.
“No,” Pasanello returned, “though I would it were. This follows, good father. When the lioness was made safe I went up into the garden where the little Princess and her ladies still stood in frightened silence, the Lady Belledowin in their midst. She was yet white as driven snow, and her eyes were dark and wide as with lingering horror. There seemed to me also to be anger in them–anger of a kind at herself, and at the whole incident. But she stood straight and beautiful as one whose pride still dominated. Never had she looked so beautiful.
“‘Ah, Pasanello,’ she said, with cool sweetness. ‘After all, you were right, and I wrong. It seems I owe you my life. What can I give you in token of eternal gratitude?’
“Good father, I looked at her and was dazzled as by the sun. For the moment I forgot I was not in my own country, forgot I was the King’s lion-tamer, and but a mountebank of the court. Forgot the little group of court ladies. I lifted her hand to my lips. ‘I love you!’ I said. ‘I love you! I ask no gift of life but your love.’
“My words stopped and there was a strange silence, as though the Lady Belledowin and the little Princess and the others stood quite breathless for that half moment.
“Then Lady Belledowin drew her hand from mine and struck me lightly on the cheek. Catching a bracelet from her arm, she threw it down at my feet.
“‘You are insolent!’ she said in a voice low but sharp as steel.
“‘Insolent past belief. Such as you are paid in gold. They render no service that cannot be so paid. Pick up the bracelet that pays thee!’
“I stood stock still and saw it glittering on the grass. The court ladies turned and drifted away through the trees like shadows, Lady Belledowin with them.
“Still I stood, my heart pounding against my side with rage and with agony. I was as one consumed with rage and agony; one deaf and blind to everything else. There came a soft touch on my arm. I looked down and saw the Princess.
“‘Pasanello,’ she said, ‘you are very brave; very wonderful. The Lady Belledowin was cruel–more cruel than the lioness would have been. We will not forgive the Lady Belledowin for her manner of speaking to you. But you, Pasanello, you need not greatly care. It is only ourselves can hurt ourselves.‘
“‘Good-by, Pasanello,’ she said, leaving me. ‘Be brave still, Pasanello.’
“The words came to me only as in a dream. Suddenly I bethought me of the golden apple tree. A weariness of life shook me. I would be done with loneliness and humiliation–yes–and love.
“I left the King’s garden and took the highway. Perhaps I ran; I do not remember. But, good father, that is all. The rest you know.”
The sentinel laid his hand on the lion-tamer’s shoulder. He stiffened to his task. “By my musket, you have been long winded!” he said. “If yon holy father had not detained you, you would have, this last half-hour, been safe in the Court House.” His eyes belied the gruff words, but leveling his rifle he signaled Pasanello to walk before him.
The old priest paced with them until they reached the cell and the sentinel gave his prisoner to the officers.
“The mayor will be informed of your deed and will act quickly,” he assured him in parting. “To your prayers, Signor Pasanello!”
The lion-tamer reached his hand through the cell bars, and touched the priest who still waited with bowed head.
“You have been very kind, good father,” he said. “Before you go, tell me you believe my story, and give me your blessing.”
The priest lifted his head. “I believe thy words,” he returned. “Yet the plucking of the apple means death. But one thing can prevent it and that thou canst not count on.
“I would ask thee–dost thou repent?”
“Of my sins–yes, father. Of plucking the apple–no. I have had enough of life as I have found it. Yet, of thy kindness, tell me what is that one thing that might overthrow my fate?”
Holding the priest’s hand, he flashed a quick smile at him. “From what I have heard of these people and their golden tree it must be an extraordinary happening that would appease their wrath at one who robbed its branches.”
The old man shook his head. “You will learn of it on the morrow, when the multitude are assembled; my son–on that hour–that hour–” His voice trembled and broke.
“Think not of it, good father–but give me thy blessing.”
The priest raised his hand and murmured the benediction, then with uncertain steps took his way out into the sunshine.
The morrow came, and from far and wide the people assembled to see the law of their country carried out. A vast indignation swayed them, and small pity was expressed for the prisoner, a comparative stranger who had returned their hospitality by crime against their beloved tree.
The King’s heralds, in their red and blue and gold tunics, had cried the news of the lion-tamer’s deed from the city walls on the North, the South, the East and the West. The papers had flamed it out in the reddest of type. The children called it to each other excitedly, and the old stood and gossiped over it. The mothers with babies in their arms held them close, thinking of the dread things that can overtake men who were once as dear and little as those they held.
The King himself was far away on a hunting trip, or something might have been heard from him, as his moods were many, and the new lion-tamer in favor with him. But in the matter of the tree of gold the people of Midas took no advice of Kings.
The mayor, aldermen, lawyers and judges had spent the night discussing the theft. They had interviewed the lion-tamer, taken the evidence of the priest and sentinel, gazed solemnly upon the golden apple with its short, twisted stem, and looked upon the branch from which it had been broken.
The crime was fixed upon the lion-tamer, to everybody’s satisfaction, and there was no appeal. Therefore the hour for his execution had been set. His death was to take place at the ringing of the next noontide bells.
The hour came on apace. Now throngs pressed and swayed around the grassy square of the golden apple tree. All knew the King’s lion-tamer, as the royal lions were often shown in public, and a sensation of awe and horror swept over the multitude, for they were a happy people with a dread of tragedy. Yet the law was the law, the golden tree a thing mystical and almost sacred. The deed against it must, they agreed, be avenged.
The bells rang out a quarter to twelve, and the mayor and aldermen, lawyers and judges, all in their robes of office, came out on a platform before the City Hall.
The crowd made way for a group of people from the court. They were all mounted and later would go hunting, but they delayed their sport a little to see this greater thing.
Among them were old and young; friends of the King, and ladies and gentlemen in waiting to the Princess. They wore hunter’s green, braided with gold that flashed as they rode. The little Princess was not among them, but the Lady Belledowin was of those who led the way.
When the bells had done striking the quarter to twelve, two soldiers came out from the City Hall, and the lion-tamer walked between them. He wore, as he had the day before, only the leopard skin about his body, the leather sandals on his feet, and above his knee the golden garter set with topaz, whereon was cut the King’s seal.
He took his stand, towering among that richly clad company as a figure strangely out of place, and his spirit seemed quiet and unruffled. A herald blew a loud bugle-blast, and the people swayed nearer. The group of courtiers drew rein tighter on their restless horses.
When the herald’s notes died away, the mayor spoke. His crimson robes marked him from the others, and his voice carried far.
“Citizens of the City of Midas!” he said. “We have come to see the law of our city maintained. The King’s lion-tamer, who comes from a far and unknown country, has violated our most sacred code. He has plucked the imperishable fruit of our golden tree, the tree of Midas. There is the apple!” He held the golden globe up high for all to see. “The witnesses to the deed,” he continued, “are the sentinel and the good priest who stands below our platform here!”
A low, angry murmuring ran through the crowd and grew in volume and force.
The mayor lifted his hand for silence, and spoke again.
“This crime was wanton and without excuse, and witnessed. Therefore the highest judge of our land has pronounced sentence of death upon Pasanello, the King’s lion-tamer!”
The people broke into a hoarse clamoring, but the mayor again commanded silence.
“Wait, good citizens!” he said. “For we have ever been of a fair and open mind. Old as is this law of ours, that the one who plucks the golden fruit shall die, you surely remember–though it is two score years since the tree was last robbed–that there is another law just as old.” He paused and a deep silence followed his words. Then–”Tell us the other law!” they cried impatiently, “and be quick in telling.” And many called: “We know of no other law! We know of none!”
The mayor looked over the upturned faces surging toward him.
“Ay!” he returned. “You have all heard of this other law but have chosen to forget. I will remind you.”
He unrolled an old parchment. “Hereon is written,” he continued, “the only laws regarding the golden tree.
“In this place,” pointing to it with his finger, “I read: ‘The penalty of death is to be inflicted on any mortal who has come of age and thereafter breaks even one golden apple from the golden tree–unless’ (Now mark you all!) ‘unless when the criminal is brought out for execution, and haply he or she be unwedded, there should arise one among you who will willingly offer to marry that one who is under death sentence, and lead him or her away down the rose-mist path that runs around our mountains–and so out of our land forever!”
The lion-tamer stood as one little concerned with what was going on. As much as one so strong could, he looked tired, and his face was not anxious, but sad.
The court people petted their nervous horses, and beside the gallows a black-robed man looked about in sullen restlessness.
Again the mayor raised his hand.
“If there be any woman among you, whether old or young, who will wed this man, Pasanello, and go with him into the unknown lands–let her come forward!”
His clear voice rang out to the uttermost edge of the people.
A stillness answered. All eyes were lifted to the lion-tamer. His face was raised now a little disdainfully, and he seemed to smile.
Then through the crowd there ran a sudden stirring, and a word was called out here and there that soon melted into a muffled roar like the sea.
The crowd parted, and up through the midst of it came a strange little half-wild figure; a girl, young,–oh, very young–with bare brown feet, and tattered blue gown and tanned gypsy face and hands. A cloud of long, tangled, yellow hair blew about her head, and her eyes were sea-blue, with the blackest lashes that were ever seen.
In one hand she carried a rough crook, and behind her trailed a flock of gray geese, kept together by the unceasing attention of a small, shaggy dog, who saw to it that they followed the little goose-girl, and not their own will.
On she came, lightly as a brown leaf blows over the ground, until she reached the platform where stood the mayor and the city fathers and the soldiers with their prisoner.
At the foot of the platform she stopped, looked up, and then around. Then she dipped a courtesy and smiled at them all.
“An it pleases everybody,” she said sweetly, “I will wed the King’s lion-tamer and lead him away down the rose-mist road–for I know it well. So, he be willing, we will go away, and never come again, forever! an’ ever! an’ ever!”
The lion-tamer had leaned forward as she began to speak, and now looked down into her blue eyes that were raised to his. Down and down he looked into the very depths of their sea blue, and they answered his gaze steadily.
“You have heard!” the mayor said to the people with a wide gesture of his arms. “This little maid from the hills is willing to wed the prisoner.” He turned to the lion-tamer, smiling. “Prisoner,” he commanded, “what say you?”
As one in a dream he leaned toward her. “Ay!” he said softly. “By my faith, I will gladly wed thee, sweetheart! I will take thee at thy word and follow any rose-mist path where thou dost lead the way. There is that in thine eyes that calls me to thee across the very path of Death.”
Then the mayor stepped down and led the little goose-girl up to the platform.
“Come you also, good father,” he said to the old priest.
With light step the little goose-girl crossed the platform to Pasanello. He took her hand, and so they stood while the priest spoke the words that wedded them.
Then the lion-tamer, caring nothing for the presence of the staring people or the mayor and judges, took the tattered maid in his arms and bent his lips to hers.
A sudden cheering broke from the throats of all the crowd below, for all the world loves a lover.
Then in gossipy groups all scattered and went their way. The ladies and gentlemen of the court last, for it had proved so rare an entertainment.
When the green square was almost clear, the little goose-girl took the lion-tamer’s hand. “Come!” she said softly. “Come, Pasanello; we must go as we promised.”
“Truly–yes, sweetheart, as we promised. We will not linger.” He turned to the old priest.
“Good father, we give you thanks, and farewell, and eternal remembrance.”
After that they went, while the priest watched them, across the square of the golden tree and down the golden highway. There his old eyes lost them, but on they went out of the city gates and on to the road of the rose-mist, the geese following behind them, and the small shaggy dog.
Hand in hand they went, and joyously and lightly as the leaves blow over the ground, and they laughed and talked and looked into each other’s eyes.
When the city was almost lost behind them, the little goose-girl caught her two hands around the lion-tamer’s arm and turned her face up to him.
“Look at me, Pasanello!” she cried softly.
“Have I done aught but gaze at thee since the moment you came?” he questioned, smiling.
“Oh, I know!” she admitted. “But look again. Tell me what–whom thou dost see!”
Pasanello looked, and suddenly caught her to him.
“Who art thou?” he questioned. “Oh, who art thou–thou most strange little maid? Methinks I know thy face–yet doubt. Who art thou?”
“The Princess,” she nodded against his shoulder. “Only the little Princess, Pasanello, stained brown with the juice of berries. You see I loved you–even–even yesterday.“
“Oh, little Princess!” he cried, touching her yellow hair. “Forget yesterday. To-day and forever it is only you I love!”
I do not know where they went to live. I have heard that the King of the City of Midas and the country thereabout rode after them, and found them, and gave them castles and gold and lands and all the lovely things that people really do not need. But I am not sure about this. Pasanello may be only a shepherd somewhere in their hills, and the Princess may yet tend a flock of gray geese. No, I do not know for certain where they went or how they lived. The only thing I am really sure of is that they were happy wherever it was, and if we ever run across them, we will find they are happy still.