I met Olegario and his son William in the town cantina. I’d been on the run for weeks, travelling drunkenly from one place to another. I slept in the car and ate when I was hungry. I didn’t care which town I’d arrive in. Eventually they all came to look the same: a plaza with a newspaper kiosk, a church, a cantina and cobbled streets.
Olegario spoke to me in English. I’m not a gringo, I said. He was about fifty and wore a hat, a Zapata moustache and cowboy boots but also an Oakland Raiders sleeveless vest. Can I buy you a drink? he asked. I told him he could, and he called Labios, a boy of about fifteen with a pink scar that split his mouth and palate in two. Another glass for my friend, he ordered. What are you drinking? he asked. Whatever.
Labios looked over to his boss, a thin old man called Cristino who was playing dominoes in the corner. The old man nodded and noted down my drink on a piece of cardboard he was also using to keep score.
I wasn’t in the mood to talk, but that didn’t discourage Olegario. He told me that he had been born in this town but had gone to California when he was very young. He’d returned to present his first grandson to the Virgin of Talpa. He said that she’d performed a miracle for him. Two miracles, in fact: she’d given him a grandchild and brought his son home safe from Iraq.
Miracles, I thought. Diego, I thought. Then I finished the Cuba Libre and started to chew on the ice.
His son came in a little later. He had a bottle of beer in his hand and was already swaying. I recognized him: he was the kid who’d been chasing girls around the plaza on a motorbike. He drove up onto the benches, charged at them and laughed when they ran away. As though it were funny. This is my Willy, the father said, wrapping his arm around the boy’s head and neck. His son wriggled out of the hug, said, Pleased to meet you, and laughed when he clinked his bottle against my glass and the foam flowed over my hand.
Labios came over immediately to clean up.
Willy had all the tics of a cocaine addict: he wrinkled his nose when he drank, blinked a lot and spoke over other people. When he’d finished his beer he took out fifty dollars and told Labios to serve another round on him. No, his father said, I’ll pay for it, and tucked the bill back into his son’s pocket, but Willy shouted in English, I’ll do what I like with my fucking money. His face was red and one of the veins on his head was throbbing. I earned it, didn’t I?
Labios picked the wrinkled note up from the floor and took it to Cristino. I don’t know how much we drank, I just remember that night fell. And that Cristino climbed up on a chair to turn a lamp around and the room was light, then dark, light, then dark, until it was all lit up and someone, maybe me, kicked over a beer and Labios mopped up. Olegario said, Don’t worry my friend, don’t cry, and everything inside me went dark, the sky was grey and black, and yellow light shone from a taco stall, and all I could think about was Diego …
I can’t remember how much I said, but Olegario told me to trust in the Virgin, She took care of my son in Iraq. I called William and asked him how he’d survived because sons always die on us, and he said that first he went to Australia and then to the African coast and then he came back to the States for two weeks. After that, the shooting began, they went into Baghdad to look for Saddam, and things were easier than they thought because the bastard had gone. So they started to look for him everywhere and killed all the sons of bitches they could find.
Olegario started to get upset about the things that his son was saying and at one point told him not to exaggerate. Will laughed. No, Dad, we were just picking flowers. Then he went for a piss, and Olegario apologized to me. He’s seeing an army psychologist, he told me. It’s normal.
Later, Will asked me if I’d seen YouTube videos made by terrorists when they blow up the American army’s tanks. I said that I had, and he started to talk about the videos, he couldn’t understand how someone could plan something like that and then record it so calm and calculated. He said that the worst thing was the moments immediately beforehand. A tank appeared on screen in a field, and you know what’s going to happen, I’ve seen how it ends, he said with sunken eyes. The tank rumbles on as though it were on a routine patrol, the people inside have no idea that someone’s filming them and especially not that we can see them, no one knows when it’s going to happen. That’s the worst part, he said, and then he made the sound of an explosion that had everyone in the cantina turning to stare at him.
Olegario blushed. He turned to look at everyone else, especially Cristino, who surveyed the scene from his game of dominoes. It’s not good for you to think about it, Willy, his father said. It’s in the past, you did your duty.
You talk like the men in suits, Will shouted. He was dangling his beer bottle from two of his fingers. They try to tell me how to act, but they never get their hands dirty, he shouted. The beer spat out foam and spilled onto Cristino’s wooden floor. What do you know about it, Dad? he said, just a few centimetres from his face. Olegario leaned backwards, more and more embarrassed. Thank God you’re OK, he said. The Virgin protected you. What fucking Virgin? Will shouted, and then he said in Spanish that the Virgin wasn’t worth shit, or Balls to the Virgin, or The Virgin can suck my cock.
Then Cristino, who’d put down his dominoes, said, Have more respect, young man, and William said, Fucking old cripple, stay out of it, and Cristino said, You can’t come here and act like that. Learn some respect. Will started to insult him in English, he said fuck you so much that Cristino had him thrown out. The old man’s dominoes buddies, three fat farm hands, crowded around the soldier, and he smashed a bottle over the heads of one of them.
I found an account by Raymond Cross, another soldier in Iraq, on a blog. The translation is mine:
“After the operation in the terrorists’ training camp, we went on a recon mission. Among the bodies of the bastards who were getting ready to blow up our tanks and planes, and even trains and buses with innocent civilians on them, I recognized a man.
“I nudged him with my boot. He didn’t move. Then I bent down and touched his neck. I’d seen him two or three weeks before, during a mission after the bombardment of a terrorist village. The ground was still smoking and there were small fires everywhere, as well as that white dust you get after bombings. The man appeared in the rubble with a dirty beard and face. He was shouting for someone and tried to come over to Panda, but we pointed our guns at his head and the bastard stopped. Friend, friend, he said with his hands raised. Danny searched him. He was clean. The sergeant came over and started to talk to him in Iraqi. We didn’t understand what he was saying, the translator hadn’t come with us, but he seemed truly desperate. Then he started to cry and pull his hair and said, Boys, boys, several times, in English. He went back off into the rubble and disappeared.
“When the mission was over – there was no one left in the village – and we got back to the armoured car, we saw him again. He was crying over the body of a small child, maybe eight or nine, lying on a cart full of mangled melons that gave off the only sweet scent there was that afternoon. The boy was wearing a Ronaldinho shirt, the one the Barcelona footballer wears, and blue flip-flops dangled from his little toes.
“When he saw us, he started to curse.”
After the funeral, Amalia left with her sister. She locked herself in a dark room and refused to see me. I couldn’t sleep in our bed. I woke up at the usual times – twelve, three and five in the morning – as though I still had to turn Diego over to keep his blood circulating. I went to his room and looked at his empty cot with the rails still up to stop him from falling. Gravity weighed more than his body. In the shadows I saw the chair that Amalia sat in to talk to him even though he couldn’t understand. I saw the harness and swing we used to move him when he got older, the wheelchair, folded up, unmoving, the stand for his drip and the nasogastric tube.
I thought that with time … but Amalia refused to see me. Her sister told me that she refused to eat and cried all day, looking at photographs of Diego. I tried to get her out of the room, to make her eat, but she accused me, from the other side of the door, of not suffering enough. It’s as though you wanted to get rid of him, she said.
For years I had a dream in which Amalia and I went to a beach or a mountain, and we didn’t need to ask anyone for impossible explanations, I dreamed that we could sleep as long as we wanted without fear of death intruding, that we were alone again and she got pregnant. And there I was, crying in the middle of the night in the empty bedroom that still smelled of medicine, afraid that she’d go crazy and not yet realizing that I would never understand who our son, the stranger we’d fussed over for twelve years, was, why he managed to survive for so long and why we so keenly missed someone who never even knew we existed.
I don’t believe in God, but the Bible still has answers. There’s a scene in Genesis, I don’t know if it’s on heaven or earth, when three strangers visit Abraham and Sarah, nomads from the desert. After resting in the shade, drinking goat’s milk and eating curd, a voice that miraculously belongs to both Jehovah and the three men says, Sarah will have a child.
Sarah, who’s listening to the conversation going on behind her, thinks that she’s ninety-nine and has already gone through the menopause. She can only laugh. What are you laughing at, Sarah? Jehovah (or the three guests) asks. I wasn’t laughing, Sarah says, and in the text there is an explanatory parenthesis, one of those parentheses that are like suction pumps: (“She was afraid”).
I find something hurtful about the reticence. Is that all it has to say about a withered old woman discovering that she can finally have a child? As though we didn’t already know that to be a parent is essentially to live in constant fear. What if something happens? What if I die? How will it survive?
The Bible story goes on, and after a short, or long, life of 105 verses, God asks Abraham to kill his son. With a knife. On a mountain top. God asks him to burn the body.
(And all the narrator says is that it took them three days to get there: three days in a few words.)
We know how it ends, because in all good stories, especially good biblical stories, the end is revealed in the first phrase: it was one of God’s tests.
I could say that I have a congenital disease. At first I was unaware, but now we know how it ends: with Diego, my son. Amalia and I did tests, and the doctors said go on, you can get pregnant again, but fifteen weeks in it was confirmed that the baby wasn’t developing properly. One of Jehovah’s tests, the narrator of Genesis would say, but that’s all they’d say. No, I said, looking at my unmoving baby, thinking of my poisoned genes. And after visiting the doctor so he could kill him, Amalia locked herself in a dark room and refused to talk to me.
That was the first time.
I went back to the town three years later. During that period I dreamed I was back in Cristino’s cantina several times. I dreamed of William, most of all I dreamed of his voice. Provocative. Violent. Resentful. His words mingled with my pain, images of cold dunes in the Iraqi desert and Amalia’s silence and a tank being turned into a coffin.
The only hotel in town was occupied by a group of gringos. As I looked for a place to stay, I saw Olegario in a butcher’s. He was with a pair of other men who must have been relatives, trying to cut up a chunk of meat, or a cow liver, pancreas or kidney.
I went over to say hello, and he didn’t recognize me. I reminded him of when we’d met. He smiled for a moment and nodded. How’s Willy? I asked. You remember! he said and then bowed his head. He pressed down on the meat with one hand while the other reached for a huge knife and split it open down the middle. It was vividly red but didn’t bleed.
I thought that he’d have three convictions under his belt for domestic violence and two more for drunk driving, that he suffered from recurring insomnia, that the pills didn’t chase away the shades of his dead friends. Or maybe one night he’d tripped on the stairs in his building and killed his baby, or crashed his motorbike against the wall of a school, or had become a junky, or was awaiting death in a prison in Orange County for smuggling the organs of Guatemalan children.
He went back to Iraq and was killed, said Olegario.
After standing in silence for a while I asked him if I could buy him a beer. We crossed the plaza and went into the cantina. Cristino, sitting in his usual spot, nodded at Olegario. He looked at me but without recognizing me. Then he told the waiter to serve us.
Labios wasn’t there any more.
It was said that a new person had appeared on the sea-front: a lady with a little dog. Dmitri Dmitritch Gurov, who had by then been a fortnight at Yalta, and so was fairly at home there, had begun to take an interest in new arrivals. Sitting in Verney’s pavilion, he saw, walking on the sea-front, a fair-haired young lady of medium height, wearing a béret; a white Pomeranian dog was running behind her.
And afterwards he met her in the public gardens and in the square several times a day. She was walking alone, always wearing the same béret, and always with the same white dog; no one knew who she was, and every one called her simply “the lady with the dog.”
“If she is here alone without a husband or friends, it wouldn’t be amiss to make her acquaintance,” Gurov reflected.
He was under forty, but he had a daughter already twelve years old, and two sons at school. He had been married young, when he was a student in his second year, and by now his wife seemed half as old again as he. She was a tall, erect woman with dark eyebrows, staid and dignified, and, as she said of herself, intellectual. She read a great deal, used phonetic spelling, called her husband, not Dmitri, but Dimitri, and he secretly considered her unintelligent, narrow, inelegant, was afraid of her, and did not like to be at home. He had begun being unfaithful to her long ago—had been unfaithful to her often, and, probably on that account, almost always spoke ill of women, and when they were talked about in his presence, used to call them “the lower race.”
It seemed to him that he had been so schooled by bitter experience that he might call them what he liked, and yet he could not get on for two days together without “the lower race.” In the society of men he was bored and not himself, with them he was cold and uncommunicative; but when he was in the company of women he felt free, and knew what to say to them and how to behave; and he was at ease with them even when he was silent. In his appearance, in his character, in his whole nature, there was something attractive and elusive which allured women and disposed them in his favour; he knew that, and some force seemed to draw him, too, to them.
Experience often repeated, truly bitter experience, had taught him long ago that with decent people, especially Moscow people—always slow to move and irresolute—every intimacy, which at first so agreeably diversifies life and appears a light and charming adventure, inevitably grows into a regular problem of extreme intricacy, and in the long run the situation becomes unbearable. But at every fresh meeting with an interesting woman this experience seemed to slip out of his memory, and he was eager for life, and everything seemed simple and amusing.
One evening he was dining in the gardens, and the lady in the béret came up slowly to take the next table. Her expression, her gait, her dress, and the way she did her hair told him that she was a lady, that she was married, that she was in Yalta for the first time and alone, and that she was dull there…. The stories told of the immorality in such places as Yalta are to a great extent untrue; he despised them, and knew that such stories were for the most part made up by persons who would themselves have been glad to sin if they had been able; but when the lady sat down at the next table three paces from him, he remembered these tales of easy conquests, of trips to the mountains, and the tempting thought of a swift, fleeting love affair, a romance with an unknown woman, whose name he did not know, suddenly took possession of him.
He beckoned coaxingly to the Pomeranian, and when the dog came up to him he shook his finger at it. The Pomeranian growled: Gurov shook his finger at it again.
The lady looked at him and at once dropped her eyes.
“He doesn’t bite,” she said, and blushed.
“May I give him a bone?” he asked; and when she nodded he asked courteously, “Have you been long in Yalta?”
“And I have already dragged out a fortnight here.”
There was a brief silence.
“Time goes fast, and yet it is so dull here!” she said, not looking at him.
“That’s only the fashion to say it is dull here. A provincial will live in Belyov or Zhidra and not be dull, and when he comes here it’s ‘Oh, the dulness! Oh, the dust!’ One would think he came from Grenada.”
She laughed. Then both continued eating in silence, like strangers, but after dinner they walked side by side; and there sprang up between them the light jesting conversation of people who are free and satisfied, to whom it does not matter where they go or what they talk about. They walked and talked of the strange light on the sea: the water was of a soft warm lilac hue, and there was a golden streak from the moon upon it. They talked of how sultry it was after a hot day. Gurov told her that he came from Moscow, that he had taken his degree in Arts, but had a post in a bank; that he had trained as an opera-singer, but had given it up, that he owned two houses in Moscow…. And from her he learnt that she had grown up in Petersburg, but had lived in S—— since her marriage two years before, that she was staying another month in Yalta, and that her husband, who needed a holiday too, might perhaps come and fetch her. She was not sure whether her husband had a post in a Crown Department or under the Provincial Council—and was amused by her own ignorance. And Gurov learnt, too, that she was called Anna Sergeyevna.
Afterwards he thought about her in his room at the hotel—thought she would certainly meet him next day; it would be sure to happen. As he got into bed he thought how lately she had been a girl at school, doing lessons like his own daughter; he recalled the diffidence, the angularity, that was still manifest in her laugh and her manner of talking with a stranger. This must have been the first time in her life she had been alone in surroundings in which she was followed, looked at, and spoken to merely from a secret motive which she could hardly fail to guess. He recalled her slender, delicate neck, her lovely grey eyes.
“There’s something pathetic about her, anyway,” he thought, and fell asleep.
A week had passed since they had made acquaintance. It was a holiday. It was sultry indoors, while in the street the wind whirled the dust round and round, and blew people’s hats off. It was a thirsty day, and Gurov often went into the pavilion, and pressed Anna Sergeyevna to have syrup and water or an ice. One did not know what to do with oneself.
In the evening when the wind had dropped a little, they went out on the groyne to see the steamer come in. There were a great many people walking about the harbour; they had gathered to welcome some one, bringing bouquets. And two peculiarities of a well-dressed Yalta crowd were very conspicuous: the elderly ladies were dressed like young ones, and there were great numbers of generals.
Owing to the roughness of the sea, the steamer arrived late, after the sun had set, and it was a long time turning about before it reached the groyne. Anna Sergeyevna looked through her lorgnette at the steamer and the passengers as though looking for acquaintances, and when she turned to Gurov her eyes were shining. She talked a great deal and asked disconnected questions, forgetting next moment what she had asked; then she dropped her lorgnette in the crush.
The festive crowd began to disperse; it was too dark to see people’s faces. The wind had completely dropped, but Gurov and Anna Sergeyevna still stood as though waiting to see some one else come from the steamer. Anna Sergeyevna was silent now, and sniffed the flowers without looking at Gurov.
“The weather is better this evening,” he said. “Where shall we go now? Shall we drive somewhere?”
She made no answer.
Then he looked at her intently, and all at once put his arm round her and kissed her on the lips, and breathed in the moisture and the fragrance of the flowers; and he immediately looked round him, anxiously wondering whether any one had seen them.
“Let us go to your hotel,” he said softly. And both walked quickly.
The room was close and smelt of the scent she had bought at the Japanese shop. Gurov looked at her and thought: “What different people one meets in the world!” From the past he preserved memories of careless, good-natured women, who loved cheerfully and were grateful to him for the happiness he gave them, however brief it might be; and of women like his wife who loved without any genuine feeling, with superfluous phrases, affectedly, hysterically, with an expression that suggested that it was not love nor passion, but something more significant; and of two or three others, very beautiful, cold women, on whose faces he had caught a glimpse of a rapacious expression—an obstinate desire to snatch from life more than it could give, and these were capricious, unreflecting, domineering, unintelligent women not in their first youth, and when Gurov grew cold to them their beauty excited his hatred, and the lace on their linen seemed to him like scales.
But in this case there was still the diffidence, the angularity of inexperienced youth, an awkward feeling; and there was a sense of consternation as though some one had suddenly knocked at the door. The attitude of Anna Sergeyevna—”the lady with the dog”—to what had happened was somehow peculiar, very grave, as though it were her fall—so it seemed, and it was strange and inappropriate. Her face dropped and faded, and on both sides of it her long hair hung down mournfully; she mused in a dejected attitude like “the woman who was a sinner” in an old-fashioned picture.
“It’s wrong,” she said. “You will be the first to despise me now.”
There was a water-melon on the table. Gurov cut himself a slice and began eating it without haste. There followed at least half an hour of silence.
Anna Sergeyevna was touching; there was about her the purity of a good, simple woman who had seen little of life. The solitary candle burning on the table threw a faint light on her face, yet it was clear that she was very unhappy.
“How could I despise you?” asked Gurov. “You don’t know what you are saying.”
“God forgive me,” she said, and her eyes filled with tears. “It’s awful.”
“You seem to feel you need to be forgiven.”
“Forgiven? No. I am a bad, low woman; I despise myself and don’t attempt to justify myself. It’s not my husband but myself I have deceived. And not only just now; I have been deceiving myself for a long time. My husband may be a good, honest man, but he is a flunkey! I don’t know what he does there, what his work is, but I know he is a flunkey! I was twenty when I was married to him. I have been tormented by curiosity; I wanted something better. ‘There must be a different sort of life,’ I said to myself. I wanted to live! To live, to live!… I was fired by curiosity … you don’t understand it, but, I swear to God, I could not control myself; something happened to me: I could not be restrained. I told my husband I was ill, and came here…. And here I have been walking about as though I were dazed, like a mad creature;… and now I have become a vulgar, contemptible woman whom any one may despise.”
Gurov felt bored already, listening to her. He was irritated by the naïve tone, by this remorse, so unexpected and inopportune; but for the tears in her eyes, he might have thought she was jesting or playing a part.
“I don’t understand,” he said softly. “What is it you want?”
She hid her face on his breast and pressed close to him.
“Believe me, believe me, I beseech you …” she said. “I love a pure, honest life, and sin is loathsome to me. I don’t know what I am doing. Simple people say: ‘The Evil One has beguiled me.’ And I may say of myself now that the Evil One has beguiled me.”
“Hush, hush!…” he muttered.
He looked at her fixed, scared eyes, kissed her, talked softly and affectionately, and by degrees she was comforted, and her gaiety returned; they both began laughing.
Afterwards when they went out there was not a soul on the sea-front. The town with its cypresses had quite a deathlike air, but the sea still broke noisily on the shore; a single barge was rocking on the waves, and a lantern was blinking sleepily on it.
They found a cab and drove to Oreanda.
“I found out your surname in the hall just now: it was written on the board—Von Diderits,” said Gurov. “Is your husband a German?”
“No; I believe his grandfather was a German, but he is an Orthodox Russian himself.”
At Oreanda they sat on a seat not far from the church, looked down at the sea, and were silent. Yalta was hardly visible through the morning mist; white clouds stood motionless on the mountain-tops. The leaves did not stir on the trees, grasshoppers chirruped, and the monotonous hollow sound of the sea rising up from below, spoke of the peace, of the eternal sleep awaiting us. So it must have sounded when there was no Yalta, no Oreanda here; so it sounds now, and it will sound as indifferently and monotonously when we are all no more. And in this constancy, in this complete indifference to the life and death of each of us, there lies hid, perhaps, a pledge of our eternal salvation, of the unceasing movement of life upon earth, of unceasing progress towards perfection. Sitting beside a young woman who in the dawn seemed so lovely, soothed and spellbound in these magical surroundings—the sea, mountains, clouds, the open sky—Gurov thought how in reality everything is beautiful in this world when one reflects: everything except what we think or do ourselves when we forget our human dignity and the higher aims of our existence.
A man walked up to them—probably a keeper—looked at them and walked away. And this detail seemed mysterious and beautiful, too. They saw a steamer come from Theodosia, with its lights out in the glow of dawn.
“There is dew on the grass,” said Anna Sergeyevna, after a silence.
“Yes. It’s time to go home.”
They went back to the town.
Then they met every day at twelve o’clock on the sea-front, lunched and dined together, went for walks, admired the sea. She complained that she slept badly, that her heart throbbed violently; asked the same questions, troubled now by jealousy and now by the fear that he did not respect her sufficiently. And often in the square or gardens, when there was no one near them, he suddenly drew her to him and kissed her passionately. Complete idleness, these kisses in broad daylight while he looked round in dread of some one’s seeing them, the heat, the smell of the sea, and the continual passing to and fro before him of idle, well-dressed, well-fed people, made a new man of him; he told Anna Sergeyevna how beautiful she was, how fascinating. He was impatiently passionate, he would not move a step away from her, while she was often pensive and continually urged him to confess that he did not respect her, did not love her in the least, and thought of her as nothing but a common woman. Rather late almost every evening they drove somewhere out of town, to Oreanda or to the waterfall; and the expedition was always a success, the scenery invariably impressed them as grand and beautiful.
They were expecting her husband to come, but a letter came from him, saying that there was something wrong with his eyes, and he entreated his wife to come home as quickly as possible. Anna Sergeyevna made haste to go.
“It’s a good thing I am going away,” she said to Gurov. “It’s the finger of destiny!”
She went by coach and he went with her. They were driving the whole day. When she had got into a compartment of the express, and when the second bell had rung, she said:
“Let me look at you once more … look at you once again. That’s right.”
She did not shed tears, but was so sad that she seemed ill, and her face was quivering.
“I shall remember you … think of you,” she said. “God be with you; be happy. Don’t remember evil against me. We are parting forever—it must be so, for we ought never to have met. Well, God be with you.”
The train moved off rapidly, its lights soon vanished from sight, and a minute later there was no sound of it, as though everything had conspired together to end as quickly as possible that sweet delirium, that madness. Left alone on the platform, and gazing into the dark distance, Gurov listened to the chirrup of the grasshoppers and the hum of the telegraph wires, feeling as though he had only just waked up. And he thought, musing, that there had been another episode or adventure in his life, and it, too, was at an end, and nothing was left of it but a memory…. He was moved, sad, and conscious of a slight remorse. This young woman whom he would never meet again had not been happy with him; he was genuinely warm and affectionate with her, but yet in his manner, his tone, and his caresses there had been a shade of light irony, the coarse condescension of a happy man who was, besides, almost twice her age. All the time she had called him kind, exceptional, lofty; obviously he had seemed to her different from what he really was, so he had unintentionally deceived her….
Here at the station was already a scent of autumn; it was a cold evening.
“It’s time for me to go north,” thought Gurov as he left the platform. “High time!”
At home in Moscow everything was in its winter routine; the stoves were heated, and in the morning it was still dark when the children were having breakfast and getting ready for school, and the nurse would light the lamp for a short time. The frosts had begun already. When the first snow has fallen, on the first day of sledge-driving it is pleasant to see the white earth, the white roofs, to draw soft, delicious breath, and the season brings back the days of one’s youth. The old limes and birches, white with hoar-frost, have a good-natured expression; they are nearer to one’s heart than cypresses and palms, and near them one doesn’t want to be thinking of the sea and the mountains.
Gurov was Moscow born; he arrived in Moscow on a fine frosty day, and when he put on his fur coat and warm gloves, and walked along Petrovka, and when on Saturday evening he heard the ringing of the bells, his recent trip and the places he had seen lost all charm for him. Little by little he became absorbed in Moscow life, greedily read three newspapers a day, and declared he did not read the Moscow papers on principle! He already felt a longing to go to restaurants, clubs, dinner-parties, anniversary celebrations, and he felt flattered at entertaining distinguished lawyers and artists, and at playing cards with a professor at the doctors’ club. He could already eat a whole plateful of salt fish and cabbage.
In another month, he fancied, the image of Anna Sergeyevna would be shrouded in a mist in his memory, and only from time to time would visit him in his dreams with a touching smile as others did. But more than a month passed, real winter had come, and everything was still clear in his memory as though he had parted with Anna Sergeyevna only the day before. And his memories glowed more and more vividly. When in the evening stillness he heard from his study the voices of his children, preparing their lessons, or when he listened to a song or the organ at the restaurant, or the storm howled in the chimney, suddenly everything would rise up in his memory: what had happened on the groyne, and the early morning with the mist on the mountains, and the steamer coming from Theodosia, and the kisses. He would pace a long time about his room, remembering it all and smiling; then his memories passed into dreams, and in his fancy the past was mingled with what was to come. Anna Sergeyevna did not visit him in dreams, but followed him about everywhere like a shadow and haunted him. When he shut his eyes he saw her as though she were living before him, and she seemed to him lovelier, younger, tenderer than she was; and he imagined himself finer than he had been in Yalta. In the evenings she peeped out at him from the bookcase, from the fireplace, from the corner—he heard her breathing, the caressing rustle of her dress. In the street he watched the women, looking for some one like her.
He was tormented by an intense desire to confide his memories to some one. But in his home it was impossible to talk of his love, and he had no one outside; he could not talk to his tenants nor to any one at the bank. And what had he to talk of? Had he been in love, then? Had there been anything beautiful, poetical, or edifying or simply interesting in his relations with Anna Sergeyevna? And there was nothing for him but to talk vaguely of love, of woman, and no one guessed what it meant; only his wife twitched her black eyebrows, and said:
“The part of a lady-killer does not suit you at all, Dimitri.”
One evening, coming out of the doctors’ club with an official with whom he had been playing cards, he could not resist saying:
“If only you knew what a fascinating woman I made the acquaintance of in Yalta!”
The official got into his sledge and was driving away, but turned suddenly and shouted:
“You were right this evening: the sturgeon was a bit too strong!”
These words, so ordinary, for some reason moved Gurov to indignation, and struck him as degrading and unclean. What savage manners, what people! What senseless nights, what uninteresting, uneventful days! The rage for card-playing, the gluttony, the drunkenness, the continual talk always about the same thing. Useless pursuits and conversations always about the same things absorb the better part of one’s time, the better part of one’s strength, and in the end there is left a life grovelling and curtailed, worthless and trivial, and there is no escaping or getting away from it—just as though one were in a madhouse or a prison.
Gurov did not sleep all night, and was filled with indignation. And he had a headache all next day. And the next night he slept badly; he sat up in bed, thinking, or paced up and down his room. He was sick of his children, sick of the bank; he had no desire to go anywhere or to talk of anything.
In the holidays in December he prepared for a journey, and told his wife he was going to Petersburg to do something in the interests of a young friend—and he set off for S——. What for? He did not very well know himself. He wanted to see Anna Sergeyevna and to talk with her—to arrange a meeting, if possible.
He reached S—— in the morning, and took the best room at the hotel, in which the floor was covered with grey army cloth, and on the table was an inkstand, grey with dust and adorned with a figure on horseback, with its hat in its hand and its head broken off. The hotel porter gave him the necessary information; Von Diderits lived in a house of his own in Old Gontcharny Street—it was not far from the hotel: he was rich and lived in good style, and had his own horses; every one in the town knew him. The porter pronounced the name “Dridirits.”
Gurov went without haste to Old Gontcharny Street and found the house. Just opposite the house stretched a long grey fence adorned with nails.
“One would run away from a fence like that,” thought Gurov, looking from the fence to the windows of the house and back again.
He considered: today was a holiday, and the husband would probably be at home. And in any case it would be tactless to go into the house and upset her. If he were to send her a note it might fall into her husband’s hands, and then it might ruin everything. The best thing was to trust to chance. And he kept walking up and down the street by the fence, waiting for the chance. He saw a beggar go in at the gate and dogs fly at him; then an hour later he heard a piano, and the sounds were faint and indistinct. Probably it was Anna Sergeyevna playing. The front door suddenly opened, and an old woman came out, followed by the familiar white Pomeranian. Gurov was on the point of calling to the dog, but his heart began beating violently, and in his excitement he could not remember the dog’s name.
He walked up and down, and loathed the grey fence more and more, and by now he thought irritably that Anna Sergeyevna had forgotten him, and was perhaps already amusing herself with some one else, and that that was very natural in a young woman who had nothing to look at from morning till night but that confounded fence. He went back to his hotel room and sat for a long while on the sofa, not knowing what to do, then he had dinner and a long nap.
“How stupid and worrying it is!” he thought when he woke and looked at the dark windows: it was already evening. “Here I’ve had a good sleep for some reason. What shall I do in the night?”
He sat on the bed, which was covered by a cheap grey blanket, such as one sees in hospitals, and he taunted himself in his vexation:
“So much for the lady with the dog… so much for the adventure…. You’re in a nice fix….”
That morning at the station a poster in large letters had caught his eye. “The Geisha” was to be performed for the first time. He thought of this and went to the theatre.
“It’s quite possible she may go to the first performance,” he thought.
The theatre was full. As in all provincial theatres, there was a fog above the chandelier, the gallery was noisy and restless; in the front row the local dandies were standing up before the beginning of the performance, with their hands behind them; in the Governor’s box the Governor’s daughter, wearing a boa, was sitting in the front seat, while the Governor himself lurked modestly behind the curtain with only his hands visible; the orchestra was a long time tuning up; the stage curtain swayed. All the time the audience were coming in and taking their seats Gurov looked at them eagerly.
Anna Sergeyevna, too, came in. She sat down in the third row, and when Gurov looked at her his heart contracted, and he understood clearly that for him there was in the whole world no creature so near, so precious, and so important to him; she, this little woman, in no way remarkable, lost in a provincial crowd, with a vulgar lorgnette in her hand, filled his whole life now, was his sorrow and his joy, the one happiness that he now desired for himself, and to the sounds of the inferior orchestra, of the wretched provincial violins, he thought how lovely she was. He thought and dreamed.
A young man with small side-whiskers, tall and stooping, came in with Anna Sergeyevna and sat down beside her; he bent his head at every step and seemed to be continually bowing. Most likely this was the husband whom at Yalta, in a rush of bitter feeling, she had called a flunkey. And there really was in his long figure, his side-whiskers, and the small bald patch on his head, something of the flunkey’s obsequiousness; his smile was sugary, and in his buttonhole there was some badge of distinction like the number on a waiter.
During the first interval the husband went away to smoke; she remained alone in her stall. Gurov, who was sitting in the stalls, too, went up to her and said in a trembling voice, with a forced smile:
She glanced at him and turned pale, then glanced again with horror, unable to believe her eyes, and tightly gripped the fan and the lorgnette in her hands, evidently struggling with herself not to faint. Both were silent. She was sitting, he was standing, frightened by her confusion and not venturing to sit down beside her. The violins and the flute began tuning up. He felt suddenly frightened; it seemed as though all the people in the boxes were looking at them. She got up and went quickly to the door; he followed her, and both walked senselessly along passages, and up and down stairs, and figures in legal, scholastic, and civil service uniforms, all wearing badges, flitted before their eyes. They caught glimpses of ladies, of fur coats hanging on pegs; the draughts blew on them, bringing a smell of stale tobacco. And Gurov, whose heart was beating violently, thought:
“Oh, heavens! Why are these people here and this orchestra!…”
And at that instant he recalled how when he had seen Anna Sergeyevna off at the station he had thought that everything was over and they would never meet again. But how far they were still from the end!
On the narrow, gloomy staircase over which was written “To the Amphitheatre,” she stopped.
“How you have frightened me!” she said, breathing hard, still pale and overwhelmed. “Oh, how you have frightened me! I am half dead. Why have you come? Why?”
“But do understand, Anna, do understand …” he said hastily in a low voice. “I entreat you to understand….”
She looked at him with dread, with entreaty, with love; she looked at him intently, to keep his features more distinctly in her memory.
“I am so unhappy,” she went on, not heeding him. “I have thought of nothing but you all the time; I live only in the thought of you. And I wanted to forget, to forget you; but why, oh, why, have you come?”
On the landing above them two schoolboys were smoking and looking down, but that was nothing to Gurov; he drew Anna Sergeyevna to him, and began kissing her face, her cheeks, and her hands.
“What are you doing, what are you doing!” she cried in horror, pushing him away. “We are mad. Go away to-day; go away at once…. I beseech you by all that is sacred, I implore you…. There are people coming this way!”
Some one was coming up the stairs.
“You must go away,” Anna Sergeyevna went on in a whisper. “Do you hear, Dmitri Dmitritch? I will come and see you in Moscow. I have never been happy; I am miserable now, and I never, never shall be happy, never! Don’t make me suffer still more! I swear I’ll come to Moscow. But now let us part. My precious, good, dear one, we must part!”
She pressed his hand and began rapidly going downstairs, looking round at him, and from her eyes he could see that she really was unhappy. Gurov stood for a little while, listened, then, when all sound had died away, he found his coat and left the theatre.
And Anna Sergeyevna began coming to see him in Moscow. Once in two or three months she left S——, telling her husband that she was going to consult a doctor about an internal complaint—and her husband believed her, and did not believe her. In Moscow she stayed at the Slaviansky Bazaar hotel, and at once sent a man in a red cap to Gurov. Gurov went to see her, and no one in Moscow knew of it.
Once he was going to see her in this way on a winter morning (the messenger had come the evening before when he was out). With him walked his daughter, whom he wanted to take to school: it was on the way. Snow was falling in big wet flakes.
“It’s three degrees above freezing-point, and yet it is snowing,” said Gurov to his daughter. “The thaw is only on the surface of the earth; there is quite a different temperature at a greater height in the atmosphere.”
“And why are there no thunderstorms in the winter, father?”
He explained that, too. He talked, thinking all the while that he was going to see her, and no living soul knew of it, and probably never would know. He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth—such, for instance, as his work in the bank, his discussions at the club, his “lower race,” his presence with his wife at anniversary festivities—all that was open. And he judged of others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night. All personal life rested on secrecy, and possibly it was partly on that account that civilised man was so nervously anxious that personal privacy should be respected.
After leaving his daughter at school, Gurov went on to the Slaviansky Bazaar. He took off his fur coat below, went upstairs, and softly knocked at the door. Anna Sergeyevna, wearing his favourite grey dress, exhausted by the journey and the suspense, had been expecting him since the evening before. She was pale; she looked at him, and did not smile, and he had hardly come in when she fell on his breast. Their kiss was slow and prolonged, as though they had not met for two years.
“Well, how are you getting on there?” he asked. “What news?”
“Wait; I’ll tell you directly…. I can’t talk.”
She could not speak; she was crying. She turned away from him, and pressed her handkerchief to her eyes.
“Let her have her cry out. I’ll sit down and wait,” he thought, and he sat down in an arm-chair.
Then he rang and asked for tea to be brought him, and while he drank his tea she remained standing at the window with her back to him. She was crying from emotion, from the miserable consciousness that their life was so hard for them; they could only meet in secret, hiding themselves from people, like thieves! Was not their life shattered?
“Come, do stop!” he said.
It was evident to him that this love of theirs would not soon be over, that he could not see the end of it. Anna Sergeyevna grew more and more attached to him. She adored him, and it was unthinkable to say to her that it was bound to have an end some day; besides, she would not have believed it!
He went up to her and took her by the shoulders to say something affectionate and cheering, and at that moment he saw himself in the looking-glass.
His hair was already beginning to turn grey. And it seemed strange to him that he had grown so much older, so much plainer during the last few years. The shoulders on which his hands rested were warm and quivering. He felt compassion for this life, still so warm and lovely, but probably already not far from beginning to fade and wither like his own. Why did she love him so much? He always seemed to women different from what he was, and they loved in him not himself, but the man created by their imagination, whom they had been eagerly seeking all their lives; and afterwards, when they noticed their mistake, they loved him all the same. And not one of them had been happy with him. Time passed, he had made their acquaintance, got on with them, parted, but he had never once loved; it was anything you like, but not love.
And only now when his head was grey he had fallen properly, really in love—for the first time in his life.
Anna Sergeyevna and he loved each other like people very close and akin, like husband and wife, like tender friends; it seemed to them that fate itself had meant them for one another, and they could not understand why he had a wife and she a husband; and it was as though they were a pair of birds of passage, caught and forced to live in different cages. They forgave each other for what they were ashamed of in their past, they forgave everything in the present, and felt that this love of theirs had changed them both.
In moments of depression in the past he had comforted himself with any arguments that came into his mind, but now he no longer cared for arguments; he felt profound compassion, he wanted to be sincere and tender….
“Don’t cry, my darling,” he said. “You’ve had your cry; that’s enough…. Let us talk now, let us think of some plan.”
Then they spent a long while taking counsel together, talked of how to avoid the necessity for secrecy, for deception, for living in different towns and not seeing each other for long at a time. How could they be free from this intolerable bondage?
“How? How?” he asked, clutching his head. “How?”
And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they had still a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning.
Sergeant Guy Bohn was a lawyer in civilian life. In the winter of 1939 he had been transferred from active front line service as a soldier of France near the Luxembourg border because of a serious lung inflammation. Now he was serving in the LEGAL SECTION of the Engineering Corps. On June 12, 1940, a Wednesday, the commander of the Corps, Colonel A. Reginbal, summoned Bohn to his office. Bohn’s file revealed that he had completed a course in the blasting of steel structures and iron bridges.
Reginbal disclosed to Bohn that he was to blow up the tallest and most powerful radio antenna in France, and with it the Eiffel Tower to whose tip this antenna was attached, before the German 18th Army marched into Paris. Bohn’s first response:
As Bohn knew, according to the Engineering Corps’ service regulations only an active officer was authorized to carry out a demolition on this scale, not a member of the Legal Section with the rank of sergeant.
— I regret, sir, that I cannot carry out your instructions.
— It is not instructions, but an order. You are the only man with the necessary skills.
— No doubt. But without authority.
— With my consent you have the authority.
— Will I receive the order in writing?
— Then I’m sorry.
A number of uncertainties. Paris had been declared an open city, which meant that “hostile actions” within it were prohibited. The blowing up of a structure important to military communication was undoubtedly a hostile act. Bohn saw a double danger. He could be called to account by his own disciplinary authorities, when these re-established themselves after the temporary loss of Paris, and the enemy, should Bohn fall into his hands, could also try him under martial law as a saboteur (i.e., for violating the status of Paris).
— A blasting on this scale requires a squad of engineers, fifteen strong. In addition I will require the building plans of the tower. I have to know whether niches for explosives are provided for.
— You are willing, therefore?
— I didn’t say that. Even if I have all these things, such an undertaking requires two days.
— Those you have, assuming the Germans wait that long.
— Do you think they will, Colonel?
— We have to start from certain assumptions.
— With powerful enough explosives the tower will perhaps collapse. But even if it tilts to the side, no one will be able to repair the damage. It would be an act of war.
— Acts of war are not permitted.
— You don’t need to tell me, Colonel.
— We find ourselves in an extraordinary situation.
— Under martial law there are only extraordinary situations.
— As your superior I’m giving you the order.
— I do not have to carry out an illegal order. I will be told: You are serving with the engineers as a lawyer.
— In war everyone does what he can. You have had training as explosives expert.
— Yes, but not in order to use my knowledge in an open city.
— You want to shirk your duty.
— Not at all. I am expressing misgivings about your order.
The colonel was silent. Bohn’s fundamental reason for refusing was not discussed: How can one blow up the symbol of Paris? The fact that foreign troops were going to occupy the city—as before in 1815, as before in 1871—was not sufficiently unusual. The colonel appeared agitated. By character Bohn was not a man of principle. And he would have enjoyed a large-scale demolition. But he did not possess sufficient presumption (“egotism”), to summon up the courage to be the DESTROYER OF THE EIFFEL TOWER. The nervousness, the turning upside-down of emotions in the great city on this Wednesday (the German troops did not in fact move in until two days later), could be expressed by other means. The colonel, too, hesitated. He instructed Bohn to remain at headquarters, to await further orders.
In the 1930s there was a radical shift in the image of intellectuals. While still studying they enrolled for practical courses, they wanted to get a training in something useful, appropriate to the CENTURY OF THE DEED. Young lawyers, doctors, the students of the grandes écoles, future parliamentarians, orientalists signed up for pilot, parachutist, and demolition courses, for survival training in North Africa, etc. Thus they shortened both their military service and their studies. Professionalism, according to Saint-Exupéry, grips head and hand. Which corresponds to the professional image of the engineer.
This future-oriented image of man, however, was of little use in defensive situations, characteristic of France at the time. Could the feeling of fear, the raging anger in the headquarters’ staffs in Paris be given a quality of attack? Through the radio the French armed forces still ruled over a world empire. At 3 p.m., so swiftly did the hours pass, Bohn was again called to the colonel’s office. Now the Eiffel Tower was not to be blown up after all; nor could the building plans be found. Instead there was something else. Just over a mile to the south of the Paris city line, hence just next to the OPEN CITY, in the Fort of Issy-Ies-Moulineaux, there was a military transmitter, a steel construction with two towers over 200 feet high, an object, therefore, not dissimilar to the Eiffel Tower, but not equally loved by the populace; this was the switching station, via which French troops in Syria could be reached by radio.
Bohm, with two suitcases full of Melinite in small bars, set off immediately. No vehicles in the courtyard. He made his way to the southern edge of the city by metro, no taxi at the terminus. The installation, which Bohn found, consisted of two Steel towers, 140 yards apart. They stood on curved supporting columns similar to those of the Eiffel Tower. Bohn deposited the Melinite under the pillars. At moments of danger action affects brain and nerves like a drug. More explosives, that was what Bohn needed. At a barracks he extorted the provision of a truck and a driver. He held the box with mercury fulminate detonators on his lap, though in the event of an accident still not far enough away from the explosives in the back. He was not sure whether he could reckon on official acknowledgment were successful.
Evening fell. There was a west wind. The manual for conducting the blasting of steel frame structures, which he leafed through while eating a snack, dated from 1890. At 10 p.m. telegrams from the Eiffel Tower to be forwarded to Beirut were still arriving at this transmitting installation, which was manned by seventeen wireless operators. At one a.m. all French overseas stations were informed that the transmitter would now shut down.
An hour of leave-taking. An hour of excitement: they smashed the transmitting apparatus with hammers, cut the wires with pincers. At four in the morning day broke. The men moved off. Bohn lit the fuse with a cigarette. He ran, counted to 110. A single dry explosion, a rain of metal.
The second of the towers fell on the transmission building. A bonus. Sergeant Bohn inspected the wrecked pillars, the gaping hole, where only a short time before the main installation had been sending immaterial communications to the most far-off lands. At 8.30 a.m. Bohn arrived at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. He still had a reserve of explosives in the truck. Now, tired and unreflecting, still under the influence of the drug of action, he would have been ready also to topple this tower. A squad of engineers was available here. They smashed the generators on the first platform with blacksmith’s hammers. What advantage could the Germans have had from radio contact with Syria, Senegal, French Guiana, the Pacific, assuming they had French-speaking wireless operators with them?
The commander of the fort later wrote a DESTRUCTION REPORT about the professional demolition of the towers at Issy. There was no praise for Bohn, but also no punishment. When Bohn—this was still before the German forces marched into Paris—requested permission to inspect the remains at the fort, he was turned down. So for a short time he attended to putting his files in order. What else could he do for his country now?
The light of the sun—it’s never enough
Too sluggish is the planet’s path.
*This story is taken from: The Devil’s Blid Spot, Tales from the New Century, copyright © 2002 by Alexander Kluge.
*Translation copyright ©2004 by Martin Chalmers and Michael Hulse.
The low sun, the brass bands, the President’s face blazing with self-confidence. Everyone over thirty can still bring the images to mind. The President, who was on an official visit to Afrasia, a turbulent and largely corrupt country with which he wished to strengthen diplomatic relations. The President who, perturbed by the decrease in his popularity and by criticisms of his supposedly anti-African policies, wanted it to be seen that he did not feel disdain for the native population and their customs.
Flanked by his security forces he stepped out of his armoured vehicle to stroll through the narrow streets of Afraat. He was smiling.
I remember that large, unwieldy body falling backwards when the bullet hit him, I remember the bodyguards rushing to cover him, to no avail, I remember the feet of this once powerful man, limp and lifeless. 5th May, 2017, five five, a date now branded into the history books.
By that evening it was already clear that the assassination had been carried out by a twenty-five year old white man, born in the United States but living in Afrasia for the past few months as an exchange student. Within a short space of time his surname, Goldstein, was abbreviated to G. G., who had altered the course of world history, twenty years ago, when he took the life of the President of the United States of America with a single shot.
In spite of strong diplomatic pressure the Afrasian government had refused to simply hand G. over. They locked him up in a maximum security prison, hoping that the new US President would do a deal with them. Journalists from every country in the world wanted to interview G. Someone like me wouldn’t have the slightest chance, and nothing was going to change that fact. That, at least, was what I expected.
But yet another President was elected, someone who had little interest in the drawn-out affair the assassination had become. When it became apparent that the preferential arrangements the Afrasians had hoped for would never materialize, the ties between the two countries were officially cut. That was the point at which G. lost his political value, and many journalists lost interest in him. In the end I was the only one who still persisted. For months I corresponded with the relevant Prison Governor, until he finally agreed to permit direct contact with G., allowing an exchange of letters. That was three years ago. For three whole years I’ve been trying to win G.’s trust and although the tone of the letters was rather impersonal at first, slowly they began to show signs of warmth, of friendship even. When it was his birthday, I would ask how it had been celebrated. And he’d enquire about my wife, my career, my life in general. I was honest with him. Perhaps too honest.
I’d almost stopped hoping for an actual meeting, but then last month I received an official-looking letter. G. had managed to persuade the governing board of the prison to agree to a meeting. I would be allowed to interview him for an hour. That is why I’m here today, walking through that menacing iron gate, handing in my keys and phone, being frisked and scanned.
I am escorted to a white, ice-cold room, in the middle of which stands a small metal table. Above the table there’s a fluorescent strip-light, to my left a large mirror behind which the Governor is probably standing, surrounded by officers who could halt the conversation at any point. I sit down at the table, on one of two metal stools. The waiting for G. begins, the wait for the very first interview with the President’s assassin.
From a journalistic perspective G. remains an interesting figure. Books and academic papers have been written about him, a biopic came out last year. But my interest in the man isn’t purely journalistic. I can still remember exactly how I felt when the President came into power, when he bent the constitution to his will, violated international treaties, demeaned large groups of people, destroyed the country’s reputation. Gripped by a sense of impotence, immensely disorientated, I felt myself becoming part of history.
For months I’d asked myself what I could do to get rid of that feeling, how I could best articulate my anxieties. I started writing: letters to newspaper editors, and then opinion pieces. I wrote and printed pamphlets to hand out at demonstrations. If the President hadn’t been elected, I would probably still be working for a printing firm, counting the minutes till the next coffee break. When my pieces began to be published on a regular basis, I quit my job to devote myself entirely to writing. But the more I wrote, the greater my realization that my words weren’t getting through to the White House, not even close. The President didn’t hear and continued to rule, unscathed. But how else could I express my anger? Was there some kind of act that could compel what words could not compel: the fall of the President?
That kind of act existed, of course it did. I remember an Irish magazine cover from that period. It showed an image of the President’s head behind the cross-hairs of a hypothetical sniper. The headline: Why Not? In the article that went with it, the Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas was cited. He said that someone who killed a tyrant to save his land deserved nothing but praise. The case of Cassius and Brutus was examined, who had found reasons to kill Caesar, the dictator who had brought the Roman Republic to an end. The standpoint of utilitarian philosophers was also discussed: they believed that the correctness of an action was entirely determined by its ends. If an evil act led to an increase of happiness for a great number of people, could it still be described as evil? With hindsight this was how the theoretical framework for the forthcoming assassination was established. And two months later G. matched the deed to the word. The President collapsed, the bodyguards flung themselves over him, it was too late. I stared at the television, stunned, not knowing whether to weep or cheer.
Footsteps in the corridor. Six feet, three people. The light shining under the door is broken by shadows. A prison guard enters, and then G. appears. He sits down opposite me. The guards go and stand by the door, their arms folded. There he is, the physical, mortal, older version of G., as the world knows him. His eyes are more sunken than they used to be, and compared to the few photos of him in the papers, he has lost weight. He says that it took some doing but here we are at last, sitting opposite each other. His voice, which I’ve never heard before, is soft and melodious. His language is the same as in his letters: that feeling for understatement, that lightly archaic choice of words. All those hours I’ve thought about the first question I’ll ask him. And now I’m here I hear myself say: How are things for you now?
G.: ‘I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t answer that question. It’s the only question that anyone here still asks me, and then it’s just the welfare officer, who is obliged to ask occasionally, although my answer doesn’t interest him. In other words, the question has become a caricature. My answer, moreover, would be meaningless. You can probably imagine what kind of quality of life a presidential assassin is permitted. And if you can’t, then you’re lucky.’
You’ve been a prisoner for exactly twenty years. Can you still remember the day that brought you here?
‘I think everyone can still remember that day. But my memories will differ from most. I saw no television images afterwards, no programmes which endlessly analyzed the act. What I remember is the walk to the building I would shoot from, to the window I knew wouldn’t be properly checked, because of its so-called unrealistic position. Every step I took had been measured and calculated in advance. I only had to set in motion the actions I had so often imagined. It was as if I was sleepwalking. I sleepwalked to the window, took out the gun, put the end of the barrel on the window frame, between those two shards of glass that caught the sun. As you probably realize, I knew that building very well. The university was situated in the same quarter. I had carefully prepared myself, studying hundreds of clips on the internet, taking notes. I’d practised in forests, in the desert. The weapon, obtained from the dark web, was easy to operate, which is why I had chosen it. The President was less than forty metres away from my window. Even for someone who had never previously aimed at a living being, it was not a difficult shot. I waited and pulled the trigger at the right moment. That is my version of the day.’
And the arrest? What do you still recall of that?
‘All arrests are the same in principle. Shouting, handcuffs, a police van.’
Well, the aftermath then. It was striking that you never opposed the charges. Statements to the outside world would emerge every so often, in which you claimed responsibility for the act without ever displaying a grain of remorse.
‘Would remorse, whether feigned or not, have made the slightest difference? Before carrying out the assassination, I was not the typical future murderer. I harboured no violent fantasies or aggressive dreams. I paid my taxes. I walked the neighbour’s dog when necessary. I was an excellent student. I had never even touched a gun. In the years before this President emerged, my engagement with politics had been limited. Well, you’re familiar with my file. I had no peculiar or distorted picture of the value of life. I knew exactly what was entailed. I knew I would deprive someone of his life, that I would make his children orphans and his wife a widow. But I consider it a question of politeness not to lament matters after the act, nor to display obscene pangs of remorse. If I have these, then I suffer them alone, in my cell.’
No regrets, then? Never?
It is extremely difficult to feel sympathy for someone who shows no remorse.
‘If I attached much value to a positive image, I would probably not have assassinated the leader of the free world. I ask for no one’s sympathy.’
Did you realize what the assassination would bring about?
I did not know exactly what would happen, but I considered it likely that matters would improve with someone else at the helm. And I believe that history has proved me right. Of course, massive global problems still remain, but that period of mounting chaos, the utter lawlessness that could have been unleashed at any point, those are behind us now. The world is better for it.’
Just before the assassination you wrote a manifesto, Industrial Society and its Future. When it became apparent that the manifesto had been written by the President’s assassin, it was published as a supplement in a number of the more important newspapers. Somewhere in that manifesto you write: ‘Think of history as being the sum of two components: an erratic component that consists of unpredictable events that follow no discernible pattern, and a regular component that consists of long-term historical trends.’ 1
To which component do you feel your act belongs?
‘That is a difficult question. An attempted assassination is, of course, an unpredictable event. That is more or less its essence. On the other hand, history is full of examples of the assassination of autocrats and despots. There is even a word for it: tyrannicide. Many philosophers believe that it is not only desirable but legitimate to kill a despot who consistently acts against the interests of his own subjects, who creates and extends his own mandate. According to John of Salisbury, a twelfth-century philosopher, the state can be seen as a political organism in which all the members and organs of the body actively cooperate, for each other’s benefit and for the greater whole. If one of the organs no longer carries out its function, paying no further attention to the rest of the body, it is the duty of the body to reject the diseased part. You are familiar with the Great Seal of the United States, of course? The eagle imprinted on all documents of state? Do you know what Benjamin Franklin suggested as its motto? “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God”.’
But however you twist the matter, the President’s mandate was not created by himself. He was democratically elected.
‘He received around three million fewer votes than the opposing candidate. Moreover, the democratic vote is not a valid excuse. Hitler was also democratically elected. Is an elected tyrant so much better than a tyrant who just takes over? The democratic vote grants legitimacy to the very first day that the President is in office; thereafter he must earn his legitimacy himself, through his words and deeds. The President in question paid no attention to international treaties, national laws, or universal values. And make no mistake, the body certainly did rebel. Can you not remember the demonstrations, the protests, the resistance, the chaos in the stock markets? The body was suffering from a high, life-threatening fever that would quite possibly lead to its death.’
Do you have the feeling that the political and social climate of that era influenced your act?
It is difficult to say. It was not so much that I was influenced by that climate, as that I gave it shape. Undoubtedly the fever, as I prefer to call it, did have an influence on me. But nowadays my act is seen as the ultimate manifestation of that fever, its hysterical climax. That’s not the way I see it. My act was rational and considered. It was the act of a surgeon who had carefully and calmly studied the body and knew that the moment for action had arrived.’
The President’s supporters later claimed that the bullet came from the left, because of your former left-leaning sympathies.
‘I have always considered that a nonsensical and misleading idea. Left has nothing at all do with my actions. There is no political tendency or group that can be held responsible for what I did. I pulled the trigger; I, and I alone.’
You sacrificed yourself.
‘That is a very melodramatic way of representing it. Many people saw that something had to happen. In your letters you wrote that you were one of these. But I was the only one who decided on that particular day that the something would be an assassination. And to this very day I think I was right.’
Could you explain in two sentences why you carried out this act?
At a certain point apathy shades into complicity. I saw him behave exactly as he pleased and I knew it was more evil to conform to that narrow Christian commandment, Thou shalt not kill, than to take up the gauntlet myself. That realization weighed more heavily on me as each day passed. There were, of course, many people who thought as I did, but none of them lived where I lived, none of them knew the area the President would visit. Someone had to do it and I was the obvious person. Were those two sentences?
Your action understandably aroused extreme reactions. Many were overjoyed by the President’s death, others demanded nothing less than the death penalty for you.
‘That reaction is one I have always found extraordinarily ironic. But then, those who clamoured for blood – in the Biblical sense – had every right to speak. I had assassinated their President, with malice aforethought. Although I immediately confessed my guilt, I showed no remorse. If there ever was a perfect candidate for the chair, then I was it. And I was and am prepared to accept any kind of punishment, and also to defend my actions in an American court. It is not my fault that I have never been handed over.’
But that is the only reason why you’re still alive.
‘A heartbeat does not always signify life.’
‘Just fifteen more minutes,’ the guard says. The announcement leads to a change in G.’s manner. He leans back and asks me why I made no reaction to his earlier comment, that I was one of the people who had felt something had to happen. This is the first time he has taken the initiative, breaking with his superior but somewhat passive mode of response. He asks why I continued to press for an interview with him. Why all the other journalists gave up in the course of time, but I didn’t. I answer that it was my duty as a journalist to persist. He shakes his head. ‘That is not the real reason.’
I consider myself to be a witness to your deed. At that time, I barely slept at all. I was glued to the television.
‘That isn’t the real reason either.’
‘What is the real reason then, according to you?’
‘Let me ask you a question. When you saw the President collapse, when you saw that brute writhing, when you saw all that perverse power vanish in an instant, what did you think then? Or rather, what did you feel?
I was stunned. I felt so many things at once, and nothing in particular.
‘Did you ever write about it?’
The Governor sometimes permits me to use the internet, you know, under strict supervision. I noticed that when the President was still alive your work could be described as politically engaged, very engaged indeed. You were deeply concerned. You knew that the world would be better off with a different President. But after the assassination you never wrote anything political again. You wrote about universities, sport, books, science, in fact about everything except politics. My act was a breaking point in your career. You know what I think? I think that my actions made you realize the relativity of your own words. And that is perfectly understandable. An act does what no word ever can: it changes the world.’
‘Five minutes,’ the guard says. ‘Wrap it up now.’
Just five more minutes. It probably won’t be easy to get another chance to speak to him. Perhaps I never shall. But before I can react to G.’s analysis, he says that he already knows what my last question will be: how could someone like him, educated and from a good middle class background, possibly carry out such a deed? How did he end up on that side of the table? ‘But actually you’d like to ask me a different question,’ he continues. ‘In the depths of your soul, what you would actually like to ask is how I’ve ended up on this side of the table and how you, with near enough the same ideals, convictions and anxieties as myself, have continued to sit on the other side.’
I find it hard to breathe and am barely aware that I’m nodding. Indeed, how has that happened?
‘Are you sure you want to hear this? The answer is actually quite simple.’
Although I am not at all sure I want to hear it, I can’t retreat. I nod again.
‘Even for people who are truly engaged, the question remains what form of engagement best suits them. Naturally, that is also a question of effectiveness: which form of engagement seems to offer them the greatest chance of success, etcetera. I immersed myself in learning about guns and marksmen, but I don’t think I spent more hours on my training than you did in watching satiric internet clips. The final choice of form is deeper, more personal, more irrational than these practical considerations. There is no fundamental, unbridgeable difference between you and me. I knew the neighbourhood. You didn’t. The fact that I’m sitting here and you there is a question of taste and chance. Nothing more or less.’
Before I can disagree with him, the guard tells us our time is up. G. doesn’t say goodbye and doesn’t look back as he is led away. When they turn right, I catch a flash of his profile, the pronounced nose, and that mysterious smile which for the rest of my life will make me ask: did it express cruelty or perhaps, after all, compassion?
For half a century the housewives of Pont-l’Eveque had envied Madame Aubain her servant Felicite.
For a hundred francs a year, she cooked and did the housework, washed, ironed, mended, harnessed the horse, fattened the poultry, made the butter and remained faithful to her mistress – although the latter was by no means an agreeable person.
Madame Aubain had married a comely youth without any money, who died in the beginning of 1809, leaving her with two young children and a number of debts. She sold all her property excepting the farm of Toucques and the farm of Geffosses, the income of which barely amounted to 5,000 francs; then she left her house in Saint-Melaine, and moved into a less pretentious one which had belonged to her ancestors and stood back of the market-place. This house, with its slate-covered roof, was built between a passage-way and a narrow street that led to the river. The interior was so unevenly graded that it caused people to stumble. A narrow hall separated the kitchen from the parlour, where Madame Aubain sat all day in a straw armchair near the window. Eight mahogany chairs stood in a row against the white wainscoting. An old piano, standing beneath a barometer, was covered with a pyramid of old books and boxes. On either side of the yellow marble mantelpiece, in Louis XV. style, stood a tapestry armchair. The clock represented a temple of Vesta; and the whole room smelled musty, as it was on a lower level than the garden.
On the first floor was Madame’s bed-chamber, a large room papered in a flowered design and containing the portrait of Monsieur dressed in the costume of a dandy. It communicated with a smaller room, in which there were two little cribs, without any mattresses. Next, came the parlour (always closed), filled with furniture covered with sheets. Then a hall, which led to the study, where books and papers were piled on the shelves of a book-case that enclosed three quarters of the big black desk. Two panels were entirely hidden under pen-and-ink sketches, Gouache landscapes and Audran engravings, relics of better times and vanished luxury. On the second floor, a garret-window lighted Felicite’s room, which looked out upon the meadows.
She arose at daybreak, in order to attend mass, and she worked without interruption until night; then, when dinner was over, the dishes cleared away and the door securely locked, she would bury the log under the ashes and fall asleep in front of the hearth with a rosary in her hand. Nobody could bargain with greater obstinacy, and as for cleanliness, the lustre on her brass sauce-pans was the envy and despair of other servants. She was most economical, and when she ate she would gather up crumbs with the tip of her finger, so that nothing should be wasted of the loaf of bread weighing twelve pounds which was baked especially for her and lasted three weeks.
Summer and winter she wore a dimity kerchief fastened in the back with a pin, a cap which concealed her hair, a red skirt, grey stockings, and an apron with a bib like those worn by hospital nurses.
Her face was thin and her voice shrill. When she was twenty-five, she looked forty. After she had passed fifty, nobody could tell her age; erect and silent always, she resembled a wooden figure working automatically.
Like every other woman, she had had an affair of the heart. Her father, who was a mason, was killed by falling from a scaffolding. Then her mother died and her sisters went their different ways; a farmer took her in, and while she was quite small, let her keep cows in the fields. She was clad in miserable rags, beaten for the slightest offence and finally dismissed for a theft of thirty sous which she did not commit. She took service on another farm where she tended the poultry; and as she was well thought of by her master, her fellow-workers soon grew jealous.
One evening in August (she was then eighteen years old), they persuaded her to accompany them to the fair at Colleville. She was immediately dazzled by the noise, the lights in the trees, the brightness of the dresses, the laces and gold crosses, and the crowd of people all hopping at the same time. She was standing modestly at a distance, when presently a young man of well-to-do appearance, who had been leaning on the pole of a wagon and smoking his pipe, approached her, and asked her for a dance. He treated her to cider and cake, bought her a silk shawl, and then, thinking she had guessed his purpose, offered to see her home. When they came to the end of a field he threw her down brutally. But she grew frightened and screamed, and he walked off.
One evening, on the road leading to Beaumont, she came upon a wagon loaded with hay, and when she overtook it, she recognised Theodore. He greeted her calmly, and asked her to forget what had happened between them, as it “was all the fault of the drink.”
She did not know what to reply and wished to run away.
Presently he began to speak of the harvest and of the notables of the village; his father had left Colleville and bought the farm of Les Ecots, so that now they would be neighbours. “Ah!” she exclaimed. He then added that his parents were looking around for a wife for him, but that he, himself, was not so anxious and preferred to wait for a girl who suited him. She hung her head. He then asked her whether she had ever thought of marrying. She replied, smilingly, that it was wrong of him to make fun of her. “Oh! no, I am in earnest,” he said, and put his left arm around her waist while they sauntered along. The air was soft, the stars were bright, and the huge load of hay oscillated in front of them, drawn by four horses whose ponderous hoofs raised clouds of dust. Without a word from their driver they turned to the right. He kissed her again and she went home. The following week, Theodore obtained meetings.
They met in yards, behind walls or under isolated trees. She was not ignorant, as girls of well-to-do families are – for the animals had instructed her; – but her reason and her instinct of honour kept her from falling. Her resistance exasperated Theodore’s love and so in order to satisfy it (or perchance ingenuously), he offered to marry her. She would not believe him at first, so he made solemn promises. But, in a short time he mentioned a difficulty; the previous year, his parents had purchased a substitute for him; but any day he might be drafted and the prospect of serving in the army alarmed him greatly. To Felicite his cowardice appeared a proof of his love for her, and her devotion to him grew stronger. When she met him, he would torture her with his fears and his entreaties. At last, he announced that he was going to the prefect himself for information, and would let her know everything on the following Sunday, between eleven o’clock and midnight.
When the time grew near, she ran to meet her lover.
But instead of Theodore, one of his friends was at the meeting-place.
He informed her that she would never see her sweetheart again; for, in order to escape the conscription, he had married a rich old woman, Madame Lehoussais, of Toucques.
The poor girl’s sorrow was frightful. She threw herself on the ground, she cried and called on the Lord, and wandered around desolately until sunrise. Then she went back to the farm, declared her intention of leaving, and at the end of the month, after she had received her wages, she packed all her belongings in a handkerchief and started for Pont-l’Eveque.
In front of the inn, she met a woman wearing widow’s weeds, and upon questioning her, learned that she was looking for a cook. The girl did not know very much, but appeared so willing and so modest in her requirements, that Madame Aubain finally said:
“Very well, I will give you a trial.”
And half an hour later Felicite was installed in her house.
At first she lived in a constant anxiety that was caused by “the style of the household” and the memory of “Monsieur,” that hovered over everything. Paul and Virginia, the one aged seven, and the other barely four, seemed made of some precious material; she carried them pig-a-back, and was greatly mortified when Madame Aubain forbade her to kiss them every other minute.
But in spite of all this, she was happy. The comfort of her new surroundings had obliterated her sadness.
Every Thursday, friends of Madame Aubain dropped in for a game of cards, and it was Felicite’s duty to prepare the table and heat the foot-warmers. They arrived at exactly eight o’clock and departed before eleven.
Every Monday morning, the dealer in second-hand goods, who lived under the alley-way, spread out his wares on the sidewalk. Then the city would be filled with a buzzing of voices in which the neighing of horses, the bleating of lambs, the grunting of pigs, could be distinguished, mingled with the sharp sound of wheels on the cobble-stones. About twelve o’clock, when the market was in full swing, there appeared at the front door a tall, middle-aged peasant, with a hooked nose and a cap on the back of his head; it was Robelin, the farmer of Geffosses. Shortly afterwards came Liebard, the farmer of Toucques, short, rotund and ruddy, wearing a grey jacket and spurred boots.
Both men brought their landlady either chickens or cheese. Felicite would invariably thwart their ruses and they held her in great respect.
At various times, Madame Aubain received a visit from the Marquis de Gremanville, one of her uncles, who was ruined and lived at Falaise on the remainder of his estates. He always came at dinner-time and brought an ugly poodle with him, whose paws soiled their furniture. In spite of his efforts to appear a man of breeding (he even went so far as to raise his hat every time he said “My deceased father”), his habits got the better of him, and he would fill his glass a little too often and relate broad stories. Felicite would show him out very politely and say: “You have had enough for this time, Monsieur de Gremanville! Hoping to see you again!” and would close the door.
She opened it gladly for Monsieur Bourais, a retired lawyer. His bald head and white cravat, the ruffling of his shirt, his flowing brown coat, the manner in which he took snuff, his whole person, in fact, produced in her the kind of awe which we feel when we see extraordinary persons. As he managed Madame’s estates, he spent hours with her in Monsieur’s study; he was in constant fear of being compromised, had a great regard for the magistracy and some pretensions to learning.
In order to facilitate the children’s studies, he presented them with an engraved geography which represented various scenes of the world; cannibals with feather head-dresses, a gorilla kidnapping a young girl, Arabs in the desert, a whale being harpooned, etc.
Paul explained the pictures to Felicite. And, in fact, this was her only literary education.
The children’s studies were under the direction of a poor devil employed at the town-hall, who sharpened his pocket-knife on his boots and was famous for his penmanship.
When the weather was fine, they went to Geffosses. The house was built in the centre of the sloping yard; and the sea looked like a grey spot in the distance. Felicite would take slices of cold meat from the lunch basket and they would sit down and eat in a room next to the dairy. This room was all that remained of a cottage that had been torn down. The dilapidated wall-paper trembled in the drafts. Madame Aubain, overwhelmed by recollections, would hang her head, while the children were afraid to open their mouths. Then, “Why don’t you go and play?” their mother would say; and they would scamper off.
Paul would go to the old barn, catch birds, throw stones into the pond, or pound the trunks of the trees with a stick till they resounded like drums. Virginia would feed the rabbits and run to pick the wild flowers in the fields, and her flying legs would disclose her little embroidered pantalettes. One autumn evening, they struck out for home through the meadows. The new moon illumined part of the sky and a mist hovered like a veil over the sinuosities of the river. Oxen, lying in the pastures, gazed mildly at the passing persons. In the third field, however, several of them got up and surrounded them. “Don’t be afraid,” cried Felicite; and murmuring a sort of lament she passed her hand over the back of the nearest ox; he turned away and the others followed. But when they came to the next pasture, they heard frightful bellowing.
It was a bull which was hidden from them by the fog. He advanced towards the two women, and Madame Aubain prepared to flee for her life. “No, no! not so fast,” warned Felicite. Still they hurried on, for they could hear the noisy breathing of the bull behind them. His hoofs pounded the grass like hammers, and presently he began to gallop! Felicite turned around and threw patches of grass in his eyes. He hung his head, shook his horns and bellowed with fury. Madame Aubain and the children, huddled at the end of the field, were trying to jump over the ditch. Felicite continued to back before the bull, blinding him with dirt, while she shouted to them to make haste.
Madame Aubain finally slid into the ditch, after shoving first Virginia and then Paul into it, and though she stumbled several times she managed, by dint of courage, to climb the other side of it.
The bull had driven Felicite up against a fence; the foam from his muzzle flew in her face and in another minute he would have disembowelled her. She had just time to slip between two bars and the huge animal, thwarted, paused.
For years, this occurrence was a topic of conversation in Pont-l’Eveque. But Felicite took no credit to herself, and probably never knew that she had been heroic.
Virginia occupied her thoughts solely, for the shock she had sustained gave her a nervous affection, and the physician, M. Poupart, prescribed the salt-water bathing at Trouville. In those days, Trouville was not greatly patronised. Madame Aubain gathered information, consulted Bourais, and made preparations as if they were going on an extended trip.
The baggage was sent the day before on Liebard’s cart. On the following morning, he brought around two horses, one of which had a woman’s saddle with a velveteen back to it, while on the crupper of the other was a rolled shawl that was to be used for a seat. Madame Aubain mounted the second horse, behind Liebard. Felicite took charge of the little girl, and Paul rode M. Lechaptois’ donkey, which had been lent for the occasion on the condition that they should be careful of it.
The road was so bad that it took two hours to cover the eight miles. The two horses sank knee-deep into the mud and stumbled into ditches; sometimes they had to jump over them. In certain places, Liebard’s mare stopped abruptly. He waited patiently till she started again, and talked of the people whose estates bordered the road, adding his own moral reflections to the outline of their histories. Thus, when they were passing through Toucques, and came to some windows draped with nasturtiums, he shrugged his shoulders and said: “There’s a woman, Madame Lehoussais, who, instead of taking a young man –” Felicite could not catch what followed; the horses began to trot, the donkey to gallop, and they turned into a lane; then a gate swung open, two farm-hands appeared and they all dismounted at the very threshold of the farm-house.
Mother Liebard, when she caught sight of her mistress, was lavish with joyful demonstrations. She got up a lunch which comprised a leg of mutton, tripe, sausages, a chicken fricassee, sweet cider, a fruit tart and some preserved prunes; then to all this the good woman added polite remarks about Madame, who appeared to be in better health, Mademoiselle, who had grown to be “superb,” and Paul, who had become singularly sturdy; she spoke also of their deceased grandparents, whom the Liebards had known, for they had been in the service of the family for several generations.
Like its owners, the farm had an ancient appearance. The beams of the ceiling were mouldy, the walls black with smoke and the windows grey with dust. The oak sideboard was filled with all sorts of utensils, plates, pitchers, tin bowls, wolf-traps. The children laughed when they saw a huge syringe. There was not a tree in the yard that did not have mushrooms growing around its foot, or a bunch of mistletoe hanging in its branches. Several of the trees had been blown down, but they had started to grow in the middle and all were laden with quantities of apples. The thatched roofs, which were of unequal thickness, looked like brown velvet and could resist the fiercest gales. But the wagon-shed was fast crumbling to ruins. Madame Aubain said that she would attend to it, and then gave orders to have the horses saddled.
It took another thirty minutes to reach Trouville. The little caravan dismounted in order to pass Les Ecores, a cliff that overhangs the bay, and a few minutes later, at the end of the dock, they entered the yard of the Golden Lamb, an inn kept by Mother David.
During the first few days, Virginia felt stronger, owing to the change of air and the action of the sea-baths. She took them in her little chemise, as she had no bathing suit, and afterwards her nurse dressed her in the cabin of a customs officer, which was used for that purpose by other bathers.
In the afternoon, they would take the donkey and go to the Roches-Noires, near Hennequeville. The path led at first through undulating grounds, and thence to a plateau, where pastures and tilled fields alternated. At the edge of the road, mingling with the brambles, grew holly bushes, and here and there stood large dead trees whose branches traced zigzags upon the blue sky.
Ordinarily, they rested in a field facing the ocean, with Deauville on their left, and Havre on their right. The sea glittered brightly in the sun and was as smooth as a mirror, and so calm that they could scarcely distinguish its murmur; sparrows chirped joyfully and the immense canopy of heaven spread over it all. Madame Aubain brought out her sewing, and Virginia amused herself by braiding reeds; Felicite wove lavender blossoms, while Paul was bored and wished to go home.
Sometimes they crossed the Toucques in a boat, and started to hunt for sea-shells. The outgoing tide exposed star-fish and sea-urchins, and the children tried to catch the flakes of foam which the wind blew away. The sleepy waves lapping the sand unfurled themselves along the shore that extended as far as the eye could see, but where land began, it was limited by the downs which separated it from the “Swamp,” a large meadow shaped like a hippodrome. When they went home that way, Trouville, on the slope of a hill below, grew larger and larger as they advanced, and, with all its houses of unequal height, seemed to spread out before them in a sort of giddy confusion.
When the heat was too oppressive, they remained in their rooms. The dazzling sunlight cast bars of light between the shutters. Not a sound in the village, not a soul on the sidewalk. This silence intensified the tranquility of everything. In the distance, the hammers of some calkers pounded the hull of a ship, and the sultry breeze brought them an odour of tar.
The principal diversion consisted in watching the return of the fishing-smacks. As soon as they passed the beacons, they began to ply to windward. The sails were lowered to one third of the masts, and with their fore-sails swelled up like balloons they glided over the waves and anchored in the middle of the harbour. Then they crept up alongside of the dock and the sailors threw the quivering fish over the side of the boat; a line of carts was waiting for them, and women with white caps sprang forward to receive the baskets and embrace their men-folk.
One day, one of them spoke to Felicite, who, after a little while, returned to the house gleefully. She had found one of her sisters, and presently Nastasie Barette, wife of Leroux, made her appearance, holding an infant in her arms, another child by the hand, while on her left was a little cabin-boy with his hands in his pockets and his cap on his ear.
At the end of fifteen minutes, Madame Aubain bade her go.
They always hung around the kitchen, or approached Felicite when she and the children were out walking. The husband, however, did not show himself.
Felicite developed a great fondness for them; she bought them a stove, some shirts and a blanket; it was evident that they exploited her. Her foolishness annoyed Madame Aubain, who, moreover did not like the nephew’s familiarity, for he called her son “thou”; – and, as Virginia began to cough and the season was over, she decided to return to Pont-l’Eveque.
Monsieur Bourais assisted her in the choice of a college. The one at Caen was considered the best. So Paul was sent away and bravely said good-bye to them all, for he was glad to go to live in a house where he would have boy companions.
Madame Aubain resigned herself to the separation from her son because it was unavoidable. Virginia brooded less and less over it. Felicite regretted the noise he made, but soon a new occupation diverted her mind; beginning from Christmas, she accompanied the little girl to her catechism lesson every day.
After she had made a curtsey at the threshold, she would walk up the aisle between the double lines of chairs, open Madame Aubain’s pew, sit down and look around.
Girls and boys, the former on the right, the latter on the left-hand side of the church, filled the stalls of the choir; the priest stood beside the reading-desk; on one stained window of the side-aisle the Holy Ghost hovered over the Virgin; on another one, Mary knelt before the Child Jesus, and behind the altar, a wooden group represented Saint Michael felling the dragon.
The priest first read a condensed lesson of sacred history. Felicite evoked Paradise, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, the blazing cities, the dying nations, the shattered idols; and out of this she developed a great respect for the Almighty and a great fear of His wrath. Then, when she had listened to the Passion, she wept. Why had they crucified Him who loved little children, nourished the people, made the blind see, and who, out of humility, had wished to be born among the poor, in a stable? The sowings, the harvests, the wine-presses, all those familiar things which the Scriptures mention, formed a part of her life; the word of God sanctified them; and she loved the lambs with increased tenderness for the sake of the Lamb, and the doves because of the Holy Ghost.
She found it hard, however, to think of the latter as a person, for was it not a bird, a flame, and sometimes only a breath? Perhaps it is its light that at night hovers over swamps, its breath that propels the clouds, its voice that renders church-bells harmonious. And Felicite worshipped devoutly, while enjoying the coolness and the stillness of the church.
As for the dogma, she could not understand it and did not even try. The priest discoursed, the children recited, and she went to sleep, only to awaken with a start when they were leaving the church and their wooden shoes clattered on the stone pavement.
In this way, she learned her catechism, her religious education having been neglected in her youth; and thenceforth she imitated all Virginia’s religious practices, fasted when she did, and went to confession with her. At the Corpus-Christi Day they both decorated an altar.
She worried in advance over Virginia’s first communion. She fussed about the shoes, the rosary, the book and the gloves. With what nervousness she helped the mother dress the child!
During the entire ceremony, she felt anguished. Monsieur Bourais hid part of the choir from view, but directly in front of her, the flock of maidens, wearing white wreaths over their lowered veils, formed a snow-white field, and she recognised her darling by the slenderness of her neck and her devout attitude. The bell tinkled. All the heads bent and there was a silence. Then, at the peals of the organ the singers and the worshippers struck up the Agnes Dei; the boys’ procession began; behind them came the girls. With clasped hands, they advanced step by step to the lighted altar, knelt at the first step, received one by one the Host, and returned to their seats in the same order. When Virginia’s turn came, Felicite leaned forward to watch her, and through that imagination which springs from true affection, she at once became the child, whose face and dress became hers, whose heart beat in her bosom, and when Virginia opened her mouth and closed her lids, she did likewise and came very near fainting.
The following day, she presented herself early at the church so as to receive communion from the cure. She took it with the proper feeling, but did not experience the same delight as on the previous day.
Madame Aubain wished to make an accomplished girl of her daughter; and as Guyot could not teach English or music, she decided to send her to the Ursulines at Honfleur.
The child made no objection, but Felicite sighed and thought Madame was heartless. Then, she thought that perhaps her mistress was right, as these things were beyond her sphere. Finally, one day, an old fiacre stopped in front of the door and a nun stepped out. Felicite put Virginia’s luggage on top of the carriage, gave the coachman some instructions, and smuggled six jars of jam, a dozen pears and a bunch of violets under the seat.
At the last minute, Virginia had a fit of sobbing; she embraced her mother again and again, while the latter kissed her on the forehead, and said: “Now, be brave, be brave!” The step was pulled up and the fiacre rumbled off.
Then Madame Aubain had a fainting spell, and that evening all her friends, including the two Lormeaus, Madame Lechaptois, the ladies Rochefeuille, Messieurs de Houppeville and Bourais, called on her and tendered their sympathy.
At first the separation proved very painful to her. But her daughter wrote her three times a week and the other days she, herself, wrote to Virginia. Then she walked in the garden, read a little, and in this way managed to fill out the emptiness of the hours.
Each morning, out of habit, Felicite entered Virginia’s room and gazed at the walls. She missed combing her hair, lacing her shoes, tucking her in her bed, and the bright face and little hand when they used to go out for a walk. In order to occupy herself she tried to make lace. But her clumsy fingers broke the threads; she had no heart for anything, lost her sleep and “wasted away,” as she put it.
In order to have some distraction, she asked leave to receive the visits of her nephew Victor.
He would come on Sunday, after church, with ruddy cheeks and bared chest, bringing with him the scent of the country. She would set the table and they would sit down opposite each other, and eat their dinner; she ate as little as possible, herself, to avoid any extra expense, but would stuff him so with food that he would finally go to sleep. At the first stroke of vespers, she would wake him up, brush his trousers, tie his cravat and walk to church with him, leaning on his arm with maternal pride.
His parents always told him to get something out of her, either a package of brown sugar, or soap, or brandy, and sometimes even money. He brought her his clothes to mend, and she accepted the task gladly, because it meant another visit from him.
In August, his father took him on a coasting-vessel.
It was vacation time and the arrival of the children consoled Felicite. But Paul was capricious, and Virginia was growing too old to be thee-and-thou’d, a fact which seemed to produce a sort of embarrassment in their relations.
Victor went successively to Morlaix, to Dunkirk, and to Brighton; whenever he returned from a trip he would bring her a present. The first time it was a box of shells; the second, a coffee-cup; the third, a big doll of ginger-bread. He was growing handsome, had a good figure, a tiny moustache, kind eyes, and a little leather cap that sat jauntily on the back of his head. He amused his aunt by telling her stories mingled with nautical expressions.
One Monday, the 14th of July, 1819 (she never forgot the date), Victor announced that he had been engaged on a merchant-vessel and that in two days he would take the steamer at Honfleur and join his sailer, which was going to start from Havre very soon. Perhaps he might be away two years.
The prospect of his departure filled Felicite with despair, and in order to bid him farewell, on Wednesday night, after Madame’s dinner, she put on her pattens and trudged the four miles that separated Pont-l’Eveque from Honfleur.
When she reached the Calvary, instead of turning to the right, she turned to the left and lost herself in coal-yards; she had to retrace her steps; some people she spoke to advised her to hasten. She walked helplessly around the harbour filled with vessels, and knocked against hawsers. Presently the ground sloped abruptly, lights flitted to and fro, and she thought all at once that she had gone mad when she saw some horses in the sky.
Others, on the edge of the dock, neighed at the sight of the ocean. A derrick pulled them up in the air, and dumped them into a boat, where passengers were bustling about among barrels of cider, baskets of cheese and bags of meal; chickens cackled, the captain swore and a cabin-boy rested on the railing, apparently indifferent to his surroundings. Felicite, who did not recognise him, kept shouting: “Victor!” He suddenly raised his eyes, but while she was preparing to rush up to him, they withdrew the gangplank.
The packet, towed by singing women, glided out of the harbour. Her hull squeaked and the heavy waves beat up against her sides. The sail had turned and nobody was visible; – and on the ocean, silvered by the light of the moon, the vessel formed a black spot that grew dimmer and dimmer, and finally disappeared.
When Felicite passed the Calvary again, she felt as if she must entrust that which was dearest to her to the Lord; and for a long while she prayed, with uplifted eyes and a face wet with tears. The city was sleeping; some customs officials were taking the air; and the water kept pouring through the holes of the dam with a deafening roar. The town clock struck two.
The parlour of the convent would not open until morning, and surely a delay would annoy Madame, so, in spite of her desire to see the other child, she went home. The maids of the inn were just arising when she reached Pont-l’Eveque.
So the poor boy would be on the ocean for months! His previous trips had not alarmed her. One can come back from England and Brittany; but America, the colonies, the islands, were all lost in an uncertain region at the very end of the world.
From that time on, Felicite thought solely of her nephew. On warm days she feared he would suffer from thirst, and when it stormed, she was afraid he would be struck by lightning. When she harkened to the wind that rattled in the chimney and dislodged the tiles on the roof, she imagined that he was being buffeted by the same storm, perched on top of a shattered mast, with his whole body bend backward and covered with sea-foam; or, – these were recollections of the engraved geography – he was being devoured by savages, or captured in a forest by apes, or dying on some lonely coast. She never mentioned her anxieties, however.
Madame Aubain worried about her daughter.
The sisters thought that Virginia was affectionate but delicate. The slightest emotion enervated her. She had to give up her piano lessons. Her mother insisted upon regular letters from the convent. One morning, when the postman failed to come, she grew impatient and began to pace to and fro, from her chair to the window. It was really extraordinary! No news since four days!
In order to console her mistress by her own example, Felicite said:
“Why, Madame, I haven’t had any news since six months! –”
“From whom? –”
The servant replied gently:
“Why – from my nephew.”
“Oh, yes, your nephew!” And shrugging her shoulders, Madame Aubain continued to pace the floor as if to say: “I did not think of it. – Besides, I do not care, a cabin-boy, a pauper! – but my daughter – what a difference! just think of it! –”
Felicite, although she had been reared roughly, was very indignant. Then she forgot about it.
It appeared quite natural to her that one should lose one’s head about Virginia.
The two children were of equal importance; they were united in her heart and their fate was to be the same.
The chemist informed her that Victor’s vessel had reached Havana. He had read the information in a newspaper.
Felicite imagined that Havana was a place where people did nothing but smoke, and that Victor walked around among negroes in a cloud of tobacco. Could a person, in case of need, return by land? How far was it from Pont-l’Eveque? In order to learn these things, she questioned Monsieur Bourais. He reached for his map and began some explanations concerning longitudes, and smiled with superiority at Felicite’s bewilderment. At last, he took a pencil and pointed out an imperceptible black point in the scallops of an oval blotch, adding: “There it is.” She bent over the map; the maze of coloured lines hurt her eyes without enlightening her; and when Bourais asked her what puzzled her, she requested him to show her the house Victor lived in. Bourais threw up his hands, sneezed, and then laughed uproariously; such ignorance delighted his soul; but Felicite failed to understand the cause of his mirth, she whose intelligence was so limited that she perhaps expected to see even the picture of her nephew!
It was two weeks later that Liebard came into the kitchen at market-time, and handed her a letter from her brother-in-law. As neither of them could read, she called upon her mistress.
Madame Aubain, who was counting the stitches of her knitting, laid her work down beside her, opened the letter, started, and in a low tone and with a searching look said: “They tell you of a – misfortune. Your nephew –”
He had died. The letter told nothing more.
Felicite dropped on a chair, leaned her head against the back, and closed her lids; presently they grew pink. Then, with drooping head, inert hands and staring eyes she repeated at intervals:
“Poor little chap! poor little chap!”
Liebard watched her and sighed. Madame Aubain was trembling.
She proposed to the girl to go to see her sister in Trouville.
With a single motion, Felicite replied that it was not necessary.
There was a silence. Old Liebard thought it about time for him to take leave.
Then Felicite uttered:
“They have no sympathy, they do not care!”
Her head fell forward again, and from time to time, mechanically, she toyed with the long knitting-needles on the work-table.
Some women passed through the yard with a basket of wet clothes.
When she saw them through the window, she suddenly remembered her own wash; as she had soaked it the day before, she must go and rinse it now. So she arose and left the room.
Her tub and her board were on the bank of the Toucques. She threw a heap of clothes on the ground, rolled up her sleeves and grasped her bat; and her loud pounding could be heard in the neighbouring gardens. The meadows were empty, the breeze wrinkled the stream, at the bottom of which were long grasses that looked like the hair of corpses floating in the water. She restrained her sorrow and was very brave until night; but, when she had gone to her own room, she gave way to it, burying her face in the pillow and pressing her two fists against her temples.
A long while afterward, she learned through Victor’s captain, the circumstances which surrounded his death. At the hospital they had bled him too much, treating him for yellow fever. Four doctors held him at one time. He died almost instantly, and the chief surgeon had said:
“Here goes another one!”
His parents had always treated him barbarously; she preferred not to see them again, and they made no advances, either from forgetfulness or out of innate hardness.
Virginia was growing weaker.
A cough, continual fever, oppressive breathing and spots on her cheeks indicated some serious trouble. Monsieur Popart had advised a sojourn in Provence. Madame Aubain decided that they would go, and she would have had her daughter come home at once, had it not been for the climate of Pont-l’Eveque.
She made an arrangement with a livery-stable man who drove her over to the convent every Tuesday. In the garden there was a terrace, from which the view extends to the Seine. Virginia walked in it, leaning on her mother’s arm and treading the dead vine leaves. Sometimes the sun, shining through the clouds, made her blink her lids, when she gazed at the sails in the distance, and let her eyes roam over the horizon from the chateau of Tancarville to the lighthouses of Havre. Then they rested on the arbour. Her mother had bought a little cask of fine Malaga wine, and Virginia, laughing at the idea of becoming intoxicated, would drink a few drops of it, but never more.
Her strength returned. Autumn passed. Felicite began to reassure Madame Aubain. But, one evening, when she returned home after an errand, she met M. Boupart’s coach in front of the door; M. Boupart himself was standing in the vestibule and Madame Aubain was tying the strings of her bonnet. “Give me my foot-warmer, my purse and my gloves; and be quick about it,” she said.
Virginia had congestion of the lungs; perhaps it was desperate.
“Not yet,” said the physician, and both got into the carriage, while the snow fell in thick flakes. It was almost night and very cold.
Felicite rushed to the church to light a candle. Then she ran after the coach which she overtook after an hour’s chase, sprang up behind and held on to the straps. But suddenly a thought crossed her mind: “The yard had been left open; supposing that burglars got in!” And down she jumped.
The next morning, at daybreak, she called at the doctor’s. He had been home, but had left again. Then she waited at the inn, thinking that strangers might bring her a letter. At last, at daylight she took the diligence for Lisieux.
The convent was at the end of a steep and narrow street. When she arrived about at the middle of it, she heard strange noises, a funeral knell. “It must be for some one else,” thought she; and she pulled the knocker violently.
After several minutes had elapsed, she heard footsteps, the door was half opened and a nun appeared. The good sister, with an air of compunction, told her that “she had just passed away.” And at the same time the tolling of Saint-Leonard’s increased.
Felicite reached the second floor. Already at the threshold, she caught sight of Virginia lying on her back, with clasped hands, her mouth open and her head thrown back, beneath a black crucifix inclined toward her, and stiff curtains which were less white than her face. Madame Aubain lay at the foot of the couch, clasping it with her arms and uttering groans of agony. The Mother Superior was standing on the right side of the bed. The three candles on the bureau made red blurs, and the windows were dimmed by the fog outside. The nuns carried Madame Aubain from the room.
For two nights, Felicite never left the corpse. She would repeat the same prayers, sprinkle holy water over the sheets, get up, come back to the bed and contemplate the body. At the end of the first vigil, she noticed that the face had taken on a yellow tinge, the lips grew blue, the nose grew pinched, the eyes were sunken. She kissed them several times and would not have been greatly astonished had Virginia opened them; to souls like this the supernatural is always quite simple. She washed her, wrapped her in a shroud, put her into the casket, laid a wreath of flowers on her head and arranged her curls. They were blond and of an extraordinary length for her age. Felicite cut off a big lock and put half of it into her bosom, resolving never to part with it.
The body was taken to Pont-l’Eveque, according to Madame Aubain’s wishes; she followed the hearse in a closed carriage.
After the ceremony it took three quarters of an hour to reach the cemetery. Paul, sobbing, headed the procession; Monsieur Bourais followed, and then came the principal inhabitants of the town, the women covered with black capes, and Felicite. The memory of her nephew, and the thought that she had not been able to render him these honours, made her doubly unhappy, and she felt as if he were being buried with Virginia.
Madame Aubain’s grief was uncontrollable. At first she rebelled against God, thinking that he was unjust to have taken away her child – she who had never done anything wrong, and whose conscience was so pure! But no! she ought to have taken her South. Other doctors would have saved her. She accused herself, prayed to be able to join her child, and cried in the midst of her dreams. Of the latter, one more especially haunted her. Her husband, dressed like a sailor, had come back from a long voyage, and with tears in his eyes told her that he had received the order to take Virginia away. Then they both consulted about a hiding-place.
Once she came in from the garden, all upset. A moment before (and she showed the place), the father and daughter had appeared to her, one after the other; they did nothing but look at her.
During several months she remained inert in her room. Felicite scolded her gently; she must keep up for her son and also for the other one, for “her memory.”
“Her memory!” replied Madame Aubain, as if she were just awakening, “Oh! yes, yes, you do not forget her!” This was an allusion to the cemetery where she had been expressly forbidden to go.
But Felicite went there every day. At four o’clock exactly, she would go through the town, climb the hill, open the gate and arrive at Virginia’s tomb. It was a small column of pink marble with a flat stone at its base, and it was surrounded by a little plot enclosed by chains. The flower-beds were bright with blossoms. Felicite watered their leaves, renewed the gravel, and knelt on the ground in order to till the earth properly. When Madame Aubain was able to visit the cemetery she felt very much relieved and consoled.
Years passed, all alike and marked by no other events than the return of the great church holidays: Easter, Assumption, All Saints’ Day. Household happenings constituted the only data to which in later years they often referred. Thus, in 1825, workmen painted the vestibule; in 1827, a portion of the roof almost killed a man by falling into the yard. In the summer of 1828, it was Madame’s turn to offer the hallowed bread; at that time, Bourais disappeared mysteriously; and the old acquaintances, Guyot, Liebard, Madame Lechaptois, Robelin, old Gremanville, paralysed since a long time, passed away one by one. One night, the driver of the mail in Pont-l’Eveque announced the Revolution of July. A few days afterward a new sub-prefect was nominated, the Baron de Larsonniere, ex-consul in America, who, besides his wife, had his sister-in-law and her three grown daughters with him. They were often seen on their lawn, dressed in loose blouses, and they had a parrot and a negro servant. Madame Aubain received a call, which she returned promptly. As soon as she caught sight of them, Felicite would run and notify her mistress. But only one thing was capable of arousing her: a letter from her son.
He could not follow any profession as he was absorbed in drinking. His mother paid his debts and he made fresh ones; and the sighs that she heaved while she knitted at the window reached the ears of Felicite who was spinning in the kitchen.
They walked in the garden together, always speaking of Virginia, and asking each other if such and such a thing would have pleased her, and what she would probably have said on this or that occasion.
All her little belongings were put away in a closet of the room which held the two little beds. But Madame Aubain looked them over as little as possible. One summer day, however, she resigned herself to the task and when she opened the closet the moths flew out.
Virginia’s frocks were hung under a shelf where there were three dolls, some hoops, a doll-house, and a basic which she had used. Felicite and Madame Aubain also took out the skirts, the handkerchiefs, and the stockings and spread them on the beds, before putting them away again. The sun fell on the piteous things, disclosing their spots and the creases formed by the motions of the body. The atmosphere was warm and blue, and a blackbird trilled in the garden; everything seemed to live in happiness. They found a little hat of soft brown plush, but it was entirely moth-eaten. Felicite asked for it. Their eyes met and filled with tears; at last the mistress opened her arms and the servant threw herself against her breast and they hugged each other and giving vent to their grief in a kiss which equalised them for a moment.
It was the first time that this had ever happened, for Madame Aubain was not of an expansive nature. Felicite was as grateful for it as if it had been some favour, and thenceforth loved her with animal-like devotion and a religious veneration.
Her kind-heartedness developed. When she heard the drums of a marching regiment passing through the street, she would stand in the doorway with a jug of cider and give the soldiers a drink. She nursed cholera victims. She protected Polish refugees, and one of them even declared that he wished to marry her. But they quarrelled, for one morning when she returned from the Angelus she found him in the kitchen coolly eating a dish which he had prepared for himself during her absence.
After the Polish refugees, came Colmiche, an old man who was credited with having committed frightful misdeeds in ‘93. He lived near the river in the ruins of a pig-sty. The urchins peeped at him through the cracks in the walls and threw stones that fell on his miserable bed, where he lay gasping with catarrh, with long hair, inflamed eyelids, and a tumour as big as his head on one arm.
She got him some linen, tried to clean his hovel and dreamed of installing him in the bake-house without his being in Madame’s way. When the cancer broke, she dressed it every day; sometimes she brought him some cake and placed him in the sun on a bundle of hay; and the poor old creature, trembling and drooling, would thank her in his broken voice, and put out his hands whenever she left him. Finally he died; and she had a mass said for the repose of his soul.
That day a great joy came to her: at dinner-time, Madame de Larsonniere’s servant called with the parrot, the cage, and the perch and chain and lock. A note from the baroness told Madame Aubain that as her husband had been promoted to a prefecture, they were leaving that night, and she begged her to accept the bird as a remembrance and a token of her esteem.
Since a long time the parrot had been on Felicite’s mind, because he came from America, which reminded her of Victor, and she had approached the negro on the subject.
Once even, she had said:
“How glad Madame would be to have him!”
The man had repeated this remark to his mistress who, not being able to keep the bird, took this means of getting rid of it.
He was called Loulou. His body was green, his head blue, the tips of his wings were pink and his breast was golden.
But he had the tiresome tricks of biting his perch, pulling his feathers out, scattering refuse and spilling the water of his bath. Madame Aubain grew tired of him and gave him to Felicite for good.
She undertook his education, and soon he was able to repeat: “Pretty boy! Your servant, sir! I salute you, Marie!” His perch was placed near the door and several persons were astonished that he did not answer to the name of “Jacquot,” for every parrot is called Jacquot. They called him a goose and a log, and these taunts were like so many dagger thrusts to Felicite. Strange stubbornness of the bird which would not talk when people watched him!
Nevertheless, he sought society; for on Sunday, when the ladies Rochefeuille, Monsieur de Houppeville and the new habitues, Onfroy, the chemist, Monsieur Varin and Captain Mathieu, dropped in for their game of cards, he struck the window-panes with his wings and made such a racket that it was impossible to talk.
Bourais’ face must have appeared very funny to Loulou. As soon as he saw him he would begin to roar. His voice re-echoed in the yard, and the neighbours would come to the windows and begin to laugh, too; and in order that the parrot might not see him, Monsieur Bourais edged along the wall, pushed his hat over his eyes to hide his profile, and entered by the garden door, and the looks he gave the bird lacked affection. Loulou, having thrust his head into the butcher-boy’s basket, received a slap, and from that time he always tried to nip his enemy. Fabu threatened to ring his neck, although he was not cruelly inclined, notwithstanding his big whiskers and tattooings. On the contrary, he rather liked the bird, and, out of devilry, tried to teach him oaths. Felicite, whom his manner alarmed, put Loulou in the kitchen, took off his chain and let him walk all over the house.
When he went downstairs, he rested his beak on the steps, lifted his right foot and then his left one; but his mistress feared that such feats would give him vertigo. He became ill and was unable to eat. There was a small growth under his tongue like those chickens are sometimes afflicted with. Felicite pulled it off with her nails and cured him. One day, Paul was imprudent enough to blow the smoke of his cigar in his face; another time, Madame Lormeau was teasing him with the tip of her umbrella and he swallowed the tip. Finally he got lost.
She had put him on the grass to cool him and went away only for a second; when she returned, she found no parrot! She hunted among the bushes, on the bank of the river, and on the roofs, without paying any attention to Madame Aubain who screamed at her: “Take care! you must be insane!” Then she searched every garden in Pont-l’Eveque and stopped the passers-by to inquire of them: “Haven’t you perhaps seen my parrot?” To those who had never seen the parrot, she described him minutely. Suddenly she thought she saw something green fluttering behind the mills at the foot of the hill. But when she was at the top of the hill she could not see it. A hod-carrier told her that he had just seen the bird in Saint-Melaine, in Mother Simon’s store. She rushed to the place. The people did not know what she was talking about. At last she came home, exhausted, with her slippers worn to shreds, and despair in her heart. She sat down on the bench near Madame and was telling of her search when presently a light weight dropped on her shoulder – Loulou! What the deuce had he been doing? Perhaps he had just taken a little walk around the town!
She did not easily forget her scare; in fact, she never got over it. In consequence of a cold, she caught a sore throat; and some time later she had an earache. Three years later she was stone deaf, and spoke in a very loud voice even in church. Although her sins might have been proclaimed throughout the diocese without any shame to herself, or ill effects to the community, the cure thought it advisable to receive her confession in the vestry-room.
Imaginary buzzings also added to her bewilderment. Her mistress often said to her: “My goodness, how stupid you are!” and she would answer: “Yes, Madame,” and look for something.
The narrow circle of her ideas grew more restricted than it already was; the bellowing of the oxen, the chime of the bells no longer reached her intelligence. All things moved silently, like ghosts. Only one noise penetrated her ears; the parrot’s voice.
As if to divert her mind, he reproduced for her the tick-tack of the spit in the kitchen, the shrill cry of the fish-vendors, the saw of the carpenter who had a shop opposite, and when the door-bell rang, he would imitate Madame Aubain: “Felicite! go to the front door.”
They held conversations together, Loulou repeating the three phrases of his repertory over and over, Felicite replying by words that had no greater meaning, but in which she poured out her feelings. In her isolation, the parrot was almost a son, a love. He climbed upon her fingers, pecked at her lips, clung to her shawl, and when she rocked her head to and fro like a nurse, the big wings of her cap and the wings of the bird flapped in unison. When clouds gathered on the horizon and the thunder rumbled, Loulou would scream, perhaps because he remembered the storms in his native forests. The dripping of the rain would excite him to frenzy; he flapped around, struck the ceiling with his wings, upset everything, and would finally fly into the garden to play. Then he would come back into the room, light on one of the andirons, and hop around in order to get dry.
One morning during the terrible winter of 1837, when she had put him in front of the fire-place on account of the cold, she found him dead in his cage, hanging to the wire bars with his head down. He had probably died of congestion. But she believed that he had been poisoned, and although she had no proofs whatever, her suspicion rested on Fabu.
She wept so sorely that her mistress said: “Why don’t you have him stuffed?”
She asked the advice of the chemist, who had always been kind to the bird.
He wrote to Havre for her. A certain man named Fellacher consented to do the work. But, as the diligence driver often lost parcels entrusted to him, Felicite resolved to take her pet to Honfleur herself.
Leafless apple-trees lined the edges of the road. The ditches were covered with ice. The dogs on the neighbouring farms barked; and Felicite, with her hands beneath her cape, her little black sabots and her basket, trotted along nimbly in the middle of the sidewalk. She crossed the forest, passed by the Haut-Chene, and reached Saint-Gatien.
Behind her, in a cloud of dust and impelled by the steep incline, a mail-coach drawn by galloping horses advanced like a whirlwind. When he saw a woman in the middle of the road, who did not get out of the way, the driver stood up in his seat and shouted to her and so did the postilion, while the four horses, which he could not hold back, accelerated their pace; the two leaders were almost upon her; with a jerk of the reins he threw them to one side, but, furious at the incident, he lifted his big whip and lashed her from her head to her feet with such violence that she fell to the ground unconscious.
Her first thought, when she recovered her senses, was to open the basket. Loulou was unharmed. She felt a sting on her right cheek; when she took her hand away it was red, for the blood was flowing.
She sat down on a pile of stones, and sopped her cheek with her handkerchief; then she ate a crust of bread she had put in her basket, and consoled herself by looking at the bird.
Arriving at the top of Ecquemanville, she saw the lights of Honfleur shining in the distance like so many stars; further on, the ocean spread out in a confused mass. Then a weakness came over her; the misery of her childhood, the disappointment of her first love, the departure of her nephew, the death of Virginia; all these things came back to her at once, and, rising like a swelling tide in her throat, almost choked her.
Then she wished to speak to the captain of the vessel, and without stating what she was sending, she gave him some instructions.
Fellacher kept the parrot a long time. He always promised that it would be ready for the following week; after six months he announced the shipment of a case, and that was the end of it. Really, it seemed as if Loulou would never come back to his home. “They have stolen him,” thought Felicite.
Finally he arrived, sitting bold upright on a branch which could be screwed into a mahogany pedestal, with his foot in the air, his head on one side, and in his beak a nut which the naturalist, from love of the sumptuous, had gilded. She put him in her room.
This place, to which only a chosen few were admitted, looked like a chapel and a second-hand shop, so filled was it with devotional and heterogeneous things. The door could not be opened easily on account of the presence of a large wardrobe. Opposite the window that looked out into the garden, a bull’s-eye opened on the yard; a table was placed by the cot and held a wash-basin, two combs, and a piece of blue soap in a broken saucer. On the walls were rosaries, medals, a number of Holy Virgins, and a holy-water basin made out of a cocoanut; on the bureau, which was covered with a napkin like an altar, stood the box of shells that Victor had given her; also a watering-can and a balloon, writing-books, the engraved geography and a pair of shoes; on the nail which held the mirror, hung Virginia’s little plush hat! Felicite carried this sort of respect so far that she even kept one of Monsieur’s old coats. All the things which Madame Aubain discarded, Felicite begged for her own room. Thus, she had artificial flowers on the edge of the bureau, and the picture of the Comte d’Artois in the recess of the window. By means of a board, Loulou was set on a portion of the chimney which advanced into the room. Every morning when she awoke, she saw him in the dim light of dawn and recalled bygone days and the smallest details of insignificant actions, without any sense of bitterness or grief.
As she was unable to communicate with people, she lived in a sort of somnambulistic torpor. The processions of Corpus-Christi Day seemed to wake her up. She visited the neighbours to beg for candlesticks and mats so as to adorn the temporary altars in the street.
In church, she always gazed at the Holy Ghost, and noticed that there was something about it that resembled a parrot. The likenesses appeared even more striking on a coloured picture by Espinal, representing the baptism of our Saviour. With his scarlet wings and emerald body, it was really the image of Loulou. Having bought the picture, she hung it near the one of the Comte d’Artois so that she could take them in at one glance.
They associated in her mind, the parrot becoming sanctified through the neighbourhood of the Holy Ghost, and the latter becoming more lifelike in her eyes, and more comprehensible. In all probability the Father had never chosen as messenger a dove, as the latter has no voice, but rather one of Loulou’s ancestors. And Felicite said her prayers in front of the coloured picture, though from time to time she turned slightly towards the bird.
She desired very much to enter in the ranks of the “Daughters of the Virgin.” But Madame Aubain dissuaded her from it.
A most important event occurred: Paul’s marriage.
After being first a notary’s clerk, then in business, then in the customs, and a tax collector, and having even applied for a position in the administration of woods and forests, he had at last, when he was thirty-six years old, by a divine inspiration, found his vocation: registrature! and he displayed such a high ability that an inspector had offered him his daughter and his influence.
Paul, who had become quite settled, brought his bride to visit his mother.
But she looked down upon the customs of Pont-l’Eveque, put on airs, and hurt Felicite’s feelings. Madame Aubain felt relieved when she left.
The following week they learned of Monsieur Bourais’ death in an inn. There were rumours of suicide, which were confirmed; doubts concerning his integrity arose. Madame Aubain looked over her accounts and soon discovered his numerous embezzlements; sales of wood which had been concealed from her, false receipts, etc. Furthermore, he had an illegitimate child, and entertained a friendship for “a person in Dozule.”
These base actions affected her very much. In March, 1853, she developed a pain in her chest; her tongue looked as if it were coated with smoke, and the leeches they applied did not relieve her oppression; and on the ninth evening she died, being just seventy-two years old.
People thought that she was younger, because her hair, which she wore in bands framing her pale face, was brown. Few friends regretted her loss, for her manner was so haughty that she did not attract them. Felicite mourned for her as servants seldom mourn for their masters. The fact that Madame should die before herself perplexed her mind and seemed contrary to the order of things, and absolutely monstrous and inadmissible. Ten days later (the time to journey from Besancon), the heirs arrived. Her daughter-in-law ransacked the drawers, kept some of the furniture, and sold the rest; then they went back to their own home.
Madame’s armchair, foot-warmer, work-table, the eight chairs, everything was gone! The places occupied by the pictures formed yellow squares on the walls. They had taken the two little beds, and the wardrobe had been emptied of Virginia’s belongings! Felicite went upstairs, overcome with grief.
The following day a sign was posted on the door; the chemist screamed in her ear that the house was for sale.
For a moment she tottered, and had to sit down.
What hurt her most was to give up her room, – so nice for poor Loulou! She looked at him in despair and implored the Holy Ghost, and it was this way that she contracted the idolatrous habit of saying her prayers kneeling in front of the bird. Sometimes the sun fell through the window on his glass eye, and lighted a spark in it which sent Felicite into ecstasy.
Her mistress had left her an income of three hundred and eighty francs. The garden supplied her with vegetables. As for clothes, she had enough to last her till the end of her days, and she economised on the light by going to bed at dusk.
She rarely went out, in order to avoid passing in front of the second-hand dealer’s shop where there was some of the old furniture. Since her fainting spell, she dragged her leg, and as her strength was failing rapidly, old Mother Simon, who had lost her money in the grocery business, came very morning to chop the wood and pump the water.
Her eyesight grew dim. She did not open the shutters after that. Many years passed. But the house did not sell or rent. Fearing that she would be put out, Felicite did not ask for repairs. The laths of the roof were rotting away, and during one whole winter her bolster was wet. After Easter she spit blood.
Then Mother Simon went for a doctor. Felicite wished to know what her complaint was. But, being too deaf to hear, she caught only one word: “Pneumonia.” She was familiar with it and gently answered: –”Ah! like Madame,” thinking it quite natural that she should follow her mistress.
The time for the altars in the street drew near.
The first one was always erected at the foot of the hill, the second in front of the post-office, and the third in the middle of the street. This position occasioned some rivalry among the women and they finally decided upon Madame Aubain’s yard.
Felicite’s fever grew worse. She was sorry that she could not do anything for the altar. If she could, at least, have contributed something towards it! Then she thought of the parrot. Her neighbours objected that it would not be proper. But the cure gave his consent and she was so grateful for it that she begged him to accept after her death, her only treasure, Loulou. From Tuesday until Saturday, the day before the event, she coughed more frequently. In the evening her face was contracted, her lips stuck to her gums and she began to vomit; and on the following day, she felt so low that she called for a priest.
Three neighbours surrounded her when the dominie administered the Extreme Unction. Afterwards she said that she wished to speak to Fabu.
He arrived in his Sunday clothes, very ill at ease among the funereal surroundings.
“Forgive me,” she said, making an effort to extend her arm, “I believed it was you who killed him!”
What did such accusations mean? Suspect a man like him of murder! And Fabu became excited and was about to make trouble.
“Don’t you see she is not in her right mind?”
From time to time Felicite spoke to shadows. The women left her and Mother Simon sat down to breakfast.
A little later, she took Loulou and holding him up to Felicite:
“Say good-bye to him, now!” she commanded.
Although he was not a corpse, he was eaten up by worms; one of his wings was broken and the wadding was coming out of his body. But Felicite was blind now, and she took him and laid him against her cheek. Then Mother Simon removed him in order to set him on the altar.
The grass exhaled an odour of summer; flies buzzed in the air, the sun shone on the river and warmed the slated roof. Old Mother Simon had returned to Felicite and was peacefully falling asleep.
The ringing of bells woke her; the people were coming out of church. Felicite’s delirium subsided. By thinking of the procession, she was able to see it as if she had taken part in it. All the school-children, the singers and the firemen walked on the sidewalks, while in the middle of the street came first the custodian of the church with his halberd, then the beadle with a large cross, the teacher in charge of the boys and a sister escorting the little girls; three of the smallest ones, with curly heads, threw rose leaves into the air; the deacon with outstretched arms conducted the music; and two incense-bearers turned with each step they took toward the Holy Sacrament, which was carried by M. le Cure, attired in his handsome chasuble and walking under a canopy of red velvet supported by four men. A crowd of people followed, jammed between the walls of the houses hung with white sheets; at last the procession arrived at the foot of the hill.
A cold sweat broke out on Felicite’s forehead. Mother Simon wiped it away with a cloth, saying inwardly that some day she would have to go through the same thing herself.
The murmur of the crowd grew louder, was very distinct for a moment and then died away. A volley of musketry shook the window-panes. It was the postilions saluting the Sacrament. Felicite rolled her eyes, and said as loudly as she could:
“Is he all right?” meaning the parrot.
Her death agony began. A rattle that grew more and more rapid shook her body. Froth appeared at the corners of her mouth, and her whole frame trembled. In a little while could be heard the music of the bass horns, the clear voices of the children and the men’s deeper notes. At intervals all was still, and their shoes sounded like a herd of cattle passing over the grass.
The clergy appeared in the yard. Mother Simon climbed on a chair to reach the bull’s-eye, and in this manner could see the altar. It was covered with a lace cloth and draped with green wreaths. In the middle stood a little frame containing relics; at the corners were two little orange-trees, and all along the edge were silver candlesticks, porcelain vases containing sun-flowers, lilies, peonies, and tufts of hydrangeas. This mount of bright colours descended diagonally from the first floor to the carpet that covered the sidewalk. Rare objects arrested one’s eye. A golden sugar-bowl was crowned with violets, earrings set with Alencon stones were displayed on green moss, and two Chinese screens with their bright landscapes were near by. Loulou, hidden beneath roses, showed nothing but his blue head which looked like a piece of lapis-lazuli.
The singers, the canopy-bearers and the children lined up against the sides of the yard. Slowly the priest ascended the steps and placed his shining sun on the lace cloth. Everybody knelt. There was deep silence; and the censers slipping on their chains were swung high in the air. A blue vapour rose in Felicite’s room. She opened her nostrils and inhaled with a mystic sensuousness; then she closed her lids. Her lips smiled. The beats of her heart grew fainter and fainter, and vaguer, like a fountain giving out, like an echo dying away; – and when she exhaled her last breath, she thought she saw in the half-opened heavens a gigantic parrot hovering above her head.
You never saw such surprise as that of the people of Ros Dha Loch when they heard that Nora, daughter of Marcus Beag, was to go to England. A sister of hers was already over there, working, but Nora was needed at home. There would be nobody left after her except the old couple. The two brothers she had never did any good – for themselves or for anyone belonging to them. Martin, the eldest one, was sent to Galway to be a shop-boy, (old Marcus always had notions), but he wasn’t long there when he lost his job because of the drink and after that he joined the British Army. As for Stephen, the second one, there was no stopping the old fellow from thinking that he would make a “gentleman” of him, but when the headstrong lad didn’t get his own way from the father he stole off with the price of two bullocks sold at Uachtarard fair in his pocket.
“He’s no better here than out of here,” the old man said on hearing that he was gone. But he was only pretending that the story didn’t hurt him. Often at night he was unable to sleep a wink thinking about the two sons who had left him and gone astray. With any one of the neighbours who would try to brighten the dark old man then, as to sympathise with him over the misfortune of his sons, he would say nothing except – “What’s the good in talking? Very little thanks I got for trying to keep them in the old nest. The two of them took flight and left me by myself. They’ll give me little cause for worry from now on.”
But they did. And up until Nora said that she had decided not to stay at home any longer nothing troubled him but the way the two sons had left him. He had been shamed by them. People were making fun of him. He was the laughing stock of the village – himself and his family. And the way that he’d thought that he’d give them a decent livelihood. The way he worked himself to the bone, labouring morning to dusk in all weathers to keep them at school until they might be as erudite as the master himself, indeed!
But it would be a different story with Nora, according to himself. He would keep her at home. He would find a match for her. He would leave the small-holding to herself and her husband after death. When she told him that she would leave he thought that she was just joking. But it was soon clear to him that she wasn’t. Then he did his level best to keep her at home. It was useless. It was no use his wife talking to her either. For a month there was great antagonism between them: the old man threatening every evil on her head if she left, herself trying to better him. But her mind was set on going, and across she’d go no matter what was said.
“You had two sons,” she said to him one night, “and they left you. The two of them showed you. You don’t know that I would do the same, if you don’t leave me go willingly.”
“She’s the last of them, Marcus,” said the wife, “and by God I hate to part with her at the end of my life, but,” she continued and she nearly weeping, “maybe ’tis for her own good.”
The father didn’t think so. He was adamant. He was certain that it was far far better for her to stay where she was and make a match there. Her husband would have forty acres of land when her old father died. She was a pleasant and affectionate girl. There wasn’t a farmer or a shop-keeper in the seven parishes which were nearest to them who wouldn’t be very happy to marry her.
“And why wouldn’t they be,” he said, “such a lovely girl and with forty acres of land.”
But he had to give in in the end.
It’s then they saw the work! The great vexation and anxiety that had come over Nora for a while was all gone, apparently. There wasn’t a trace to be seen. She was as light and festive as the best days of her life, or so it seemed. They had so many things to do. Hats and dresses to make and decorate. Cloth and ribbons of every kind to be bought and dyed. She hadn’t one break in the weeks before she went. Visiting here today and elsewhere tomorrow.
She didn’t shed one tear until the two big travelling boxes that she had bought in Galway were put on the cart that was to take them to the railway station at Ballinahinch. Then she wept profusely. When they were east at the crossroads the showers of tears were on the cheeks.
“May God have mercy on them,” said one of the boys who was thrown on a ditch that was on a smooth mossy patch by the roadside.
“Amen,” said another one of them, “and everyone like them.”
“But do you know what’s the matter with her that she’s going away?”
“It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if she could do well at home.”
“Three fellows came asking for her last year – the three of them well known for their money.”
“It’s said that she had great time for the son of Sean Matthew, the shop-keeper,” said the old man in their midst.
“The one who was at the big college in Galway?”
“The very one.”
“I don’t believe it. He was a bad lad.”
“You don’t say.”
The cart was moving northwards through the great flat bogland between Ross and Ballinahinch. Nora could still see her own house below in the glen. It wasn’t about that she was thinking, but on the misfortunate day that the son of Sean Matthew met her at the Ros Dha Loch crossroads, and he spending his holidays at his uncle’s house in the village eastwards. She didn’t stop thinking about that until she reached Ballinahinch. The train let off a sharp impatient whistle as if it was telling people to hurry up and not delay something so huge and lively and powerful. Nora went in. The train gave a little jolt. It started to move slowly. Marcus Beag walked by its side. He took leave of his daughter and returned home sad and sorrowful.
It was true for the wise old man who was thrown on the mossy green looking at life and letting it go by that she once gave her heart to the son of Sean Matthew at one point in her life. But that time was gone. And it wouldn’t be a lie to say that it was an angry and intense hatred that she had for the fine young man who was over in Glasgow in a college studying to be a doctor. Because of that love that she had had for him she now had to leave Ros Dha Loch and her closest friends and bring the burden of the world on herself. He had been her most beloved once, that bright young man who spent his holidays in Ros Dha Loch, more so than any other person she’d ever met. And weren’t those wonderful stories that he told her about the life they’d have in the great towns out foreign! And how his tales pleased her! And when he said to the foolish naïve girl that he’d never met anyone he loved more than her, how pleased and heart-warmed she’d been! And the wonderful house that they’d have when he’d be a doctor!
And she believed everything that the young fellow told her. He believed it himself – while he was saying it. Indeed, such foolish talk didn’t worry him too much when he went away. But it was different with Nora. It would be a long time before he’d come back again. Summertime was a long way away! ‘Twould be a long time before it would be summer always.
She had had great trust but she was deceived. The letters she sent him were returned to her. He was in another place. Nobody had any information on him. Her life was confused. Her mind was in a turmoil when she understood the story correctly. She was thinking about him and turning it all over in her mind by day and by night. She could do nothing but leave the place entirely. She, herself, and everyone associated with her were ashamed in front of people. A young girl who used to be a servant in Ros Dha Loch was working over in London. She would head for that city. She would make for that city now and not for the big town where her sister was.
Sitting in the train she was filled with wonder at the way rivers and harbours, lake, mountain and plain flew past while she herself did nothing. Why were they all moving away from her? What kind of life would be there for her in the foreign faraway land where this wonderful vehicle would leave her? Dread and trembling came over her. Darkness was falling on the flatland and the mountains. A halt was put to her thoughts but it was clear to her that she was borne away on some strange animal; until she felt her heart starting and jumping with the force of anger; until she was a fire-dragon, and flames leaping from her eyes; that she was being taken to some terrible wasteland – a place where there was neither sunshine nor rainfall; that she had to go there against her will; that she was being banished to this wasteland because of one sin.
The train reached Dublin. She felt that the whole place was disturbed by a great single drone of sound. Men screaming and shouting. Trains coming and going and blowing whistles. The noise of men, of trains, of carriages. Everything she saw filled her with wonder. The boats and shipping on the Liffey. The bridges, the streets that were lit up at midnight. The people, the city itself that was so beautiful, so full of life, so bright in those dead hours of the night. For a little while she nearly forgot the misfortune that drove her from her own hometown.
But when she was on the train over, the reverse was true. The terrible dark thoughts pressed down on her again. There was no stopping them. Why did she leave her home anyway? Wouldn’t it have been better to stay, no matter what happened to her? What would she do now? What was going to happen to her in the place where she was going?
Things like that. If there were people long ago who spent a hundred years to discover that life was but a day, as the old storytellers tell us, she herself did something more marvellous. She made a hundred years out of one single day. She became old and withered in just one day. Every sorrow and heartbreak, and every great trouble of the mind that comes upon a person over a lifetime came to her in one single day from the time she left Ros Dha Loch to the moment she was at the centre of London, England – the moment she saw Kate Ryan, the servant girl they had had at home, waiting for her at the side of the train to give welcome. She never understood life until that very day.
The two young women were living in a miserable ugly back street on the southside of the city. In a large sprawling house where the people were on top of each other in one great heap was where they lived at the time. You never saw the likes of Nora’s amazement when she saw the number of them that were there. She could have sworn that there was at least one hundred people, between men, women and children. She used to be left alone there for the whole day, because Kate had to go out to work from morning until dusk. She would sit at the window looking at all the people going by, wondering where they could all be going. She wasn’t long like that until she began to wonder if she’s made a mistake in coming at all. She wondered why she had left the lonely village in the west among the hills on the edge of the great ocean. What would her father say if he knew why? He’d be furious of course.
“Why had I the misfortune more than anyone else?” she would say. But that was too insoluble a question, and when she couldn’t find an answer she’d go out onto the street; but she wouldn’t go far for fear of getting lost. But the same thoughts pressed down on her in the street among people, just like in the house.
One night, when Kate came home from work, Nora was sitting by the fire crying.
“Now, now, Nora love,” she said, “dry your eyes and drink a cup of tea with me. I was told to tell you that a girl is needed by relatives of my mistress, and if you would go there….”
“I’ll go there,” Nora said, rising quickly.
On the following morning she journeyed to the house of the lady. She started work there. She had so much to do there, so many new thoughts entered her mind, that she couldn’t think of anything else for a little while. In the letters she sent home she included a little money even though she knew that they didn’t lack much because they were already well set up. And the letters her father sent to her, she used to read and reread every night before going to bed. They used to have news of the village. That Tomas Pats Mor had bought a new boat. That Nell Griffin had emigrated to America.
A few months went like that but in the end the lady told her that she wasn’t satisfied with her and that she’d have to leave. She had to do that. She left what she had behind her and went. She had no shelter or protection that night but the rain falling on her and the hard streets under her feet.
Is it necessary to talk about everything that happened to her after that? About the “young nobleman” who gave her food and drink and money and she at the end of her tether with want and need. About the way that she started on the drink. About the way she tried to deceive herself, and daze and blind her mind. About the different people who met her in houses of drink and otherwise. About their talk and their conversation. About the way her self-esteem was narrowed until after a while she didn’t care what might become of her. About the way she was going to the bad day by day, until in the end she had no care or honour, but walked the streets.
Nine years she had like that. Drinking and carousing at night. Dressing up and getting herself ready during the day for the next night. Any thought that used to come into her head about the life she lived now and the one she lived at home she banished as quickly as she could. It was thoughts like that that caused her most unease. And – even if it’s true that a person would have no interest whatsoever in living unless he thought that somehow he was doing more good than bad – she couldn’t do any differently. But those thoughts came mercilessly against her will in their hundreds and hundreds during the day – especially after she had just sent a letter home, a thing she often did. And when they came upon her thickly like that she would go out drinking.
She was out one night walking the streets after she had just sent a letter home that contained some money. It was eleven o’clock. The people were coming out of the theatres in their thousands and thousands and she looking at them. There were some among them who stared at her and at women of her kind. The kind of looks that shows the desire and greed which brings destruction on people, that drives countries against each other and which gave material to poets and storytellers of the world from the time of Troy to the present day.
She wasn’t long like that when she saw a man in front of her, his woman by his side. They started at each other, without knowing why. They recognised each other. It was the son of Sean Matthew who was a doctor in London. She turned on her heels quickly. She heard him say it to his wife on going into a restaurant that was near them, and that he would join her shortly. Nora moved off on hearing that. He was after her. She quickened her walk. He did the same. She was trotting, he trotting after her. She had a head start on him. She ran up one street and down another. She feeling that he was at her heels. She worried to death that he might catch her. That everyone would find out about her predicament at home. That everyone would know.
A chapel was just in front of her – a small chapel that stayed open all night because of some feast day. She needed the shelter there from the man who was after her – that man to whom she gave the love in her heart and who’d deceived her. She had no recollection of getting inside, but in she went. What she saw made her feel strange, it had been so long since she was inside a church. Her youth came back to her. She was in Ros Dha Loch Church again. A statue of the Blessed Virgin was in a corner and a red light in front of it. She made for that corner. She threw her hands around it. She was shaking and rocking back and forth with heaviness of mind. Her bright peaked hat almost falling off her head. Her bright red ribbons drenched and soiled by the mud of the street. She was praying to God and the Virgin out loud, prayer after prayer, until she exclaimed in a strong fervent voice: “Holy Mary – Mother of God – pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death – Amen!”
An old priest behind her heard her pray. He spoke to her in a kind gentle manner. He calmed her. He took her with him. He questioned her. She told him her story without holding anything back. She showed him the letters she had received from her father.
He put further questions to her.
Yes – she was satisfied going home. ‘Twas she who sent the money home with which the old man bought the fishing boat. She was certain that they didn’t – they didn’t know anything about the life she led in London.
“And did your father ask you why you didn’t go to your sister in the first place?”
“He did. But I told him that the work was better in London.”
They spent a good while like that – himself questioning and she giving the answers. He found decent lodging for her for the night. He told her to send a letter home to say that she was thinking of returning, and that he would visit her the following day and that she would be able to make a confession. That night before he went to sleep he wrote a long letter to the Parish Priest of Ros Dha Loch telling him the story and asking him to keep an eye on the young woman when she arrived home.
They were expecting her at home. Everybody was saying that no person ever left Ros Dha Loch who did as well as her. There was no one among them who had sent that kind of money home.
“It must give you great satisfaction, Marcus,” Sean the Blacksmith was saying and he putting a shoe on Marcus’ horse down in the forge on the day she was coming home, “that in the end she’s coming home, because you haven’t got anybody to leave the land to.”
“Well you may say it,” he replied, “and I’m a fair old age an’ all.”
The horse and cart was fitted out for his journey to the railway station for her.
“They used to say,” he said boastfully and he fixing the horse to the cart, “that the other two did nothing, which was true I suppose, but you wouldn’t believe the help she gave me. Look at the big fishing boat that’ll be chasing mackerel tonight – I couldn’t have bought it but for her.”
“You’re saying nothing but the truth now, Marcus,” said the old man who was giving him a hand, “but tell me this,” he said nervously: “Did she ever tell you that my Seamus met her in some place?”
“I did ask her that, but she never saw him.”
“Well, look at that now…. And I haven’t had a letter from him in six months.”
Marcus left. He hadn’t been so light-hearted for many a long day as he went off to the railway station. If his sons had gone to the bad his daughter had surpassed all. She was an example for the whole parish. Now they wouldn’t be able to say that he’d have to sell the land in the end. He would keep Nora at home. He would make a match for her. He would find her a solid, prudent man….
These thoughts hadn’t ended when the train came in majestically. Nora came off it. And he had some welcome for her! And even greater than his, if that was possible, was the welcome that her mother gave her at home.
But didn’t she look spent and tired! What did they do to her at all? Was it the way she’d been doing too much work? But she wouldn’t be at home long before she would have a good appearance again. The wan cheeks would be gone; if she stayed at home and took their advice.
“And the first bit of advice I’ll give you is to have this lovely bit of meat and cabbage, because I suppose you never had time to have a bit to eat in that city,” said the old woman and she laughing.
But Nora couldn’t eat. She wasn’t a bit hungry. She was too upset from the long journey, she said. She would go straight to the room and undress. She would rest there. And after a while maybe she’d be able to eat something.
“Or maybe you’d like a cup of tea to begin with,” her mother said when she was back in the room.
“I’d prefer that,” she said, “maybe it would do me some good.”
That night when the people of the town came in to welcome her they couldn’t see her. They were told that she was so exhausted from the journey that she had to go asleep, but that they would see her tomorrow. Nora heard their talk and conversation as she was across in her room praying to God and The Virgin to put her on the right road from now on and to give her the power to stay that way forever.
It was amazing the way Nora worked after her homecoming. Within the person who was called Nora Marcus Beag in Ros Dha Loch there were two actual women: the young gentle one who had spent some time in England earning money and another woman who remained unknown to the people of the village, but who had suffered the hardships of life in a foreign city. And just as there were two persons, you might say, there were two minds and two modes of thought there as well. She had the outlook of the woman who had been led astray in London as well as the viewpoint she had before she ever left her native place at all.
And she bore the constant conflict between them. The woman who had once led a wild life fighting with the other woman who never left and who wanted nothing except to stay at home, settled and secure. It was a hard struggle. Sometimes the evil was stronger, she’d think, and then she could be seen making for the Chapel. And all the people saying that they’d never seen a young woman so devout and pious and polite as herself.
During this time the village nearest to them had a pattern-day. A large number of people from Ros went there. Some of them walking, some riding, and some others across the harbour in their boats. Some of them went there to sell stock. Yet others had no particular business there.
Nora was one of this crowd. She was walking around the fair looking at the cattle that were being sold. Getting to know people here and enquiring after some person who had left the district since she first left for London. She was cheery, all dressed-up and upright. A dress of the best white cotton, the most expensive, was what she wore. A dress that she’d brought back from London. Fine satin ribbons trailing after her. Peacock feathers standing up in her hat. She hadn’t been so breezy and happy for a long time. It was a terribly hot day. The sun was glaring down ferociously. If it wasn’t for the little breeze that came in off the harbour now and again, one couldn’t take the heat. Nora was exhausted by the day. She heard violin music close by. Soft, sweet, pleasant music. The fiddler was sitting by the door of the cabin. His head swaying back and forth. Such a satisfied and contented expression on his face and in his manner that you’d think he’d never had any worry or trouble in his life before and never would.
Nora went in. she sat on a stool by the door to listen to the music. She was exhausted. If she could only have a drink! That’s what she thought. That conflict was started again. She was just about to leave when a young man from Ros came over to her to ask if she’d have a glass with him.
“The day itself is so hot that it wouldn’t do a bit of harm to you. Have anything you like.”
She took a glass from him.
Any person who’s been fond of the drink at a point in their life and who’s stayed off it for a while, and who again touches a drop, ’tis certain that he’ll drink a second glass, and a third one, and maybe a ninth one, because the old desire is reawakened.
That was the way it was with Nora. She drank the second one. And the third one. It soon went to her head. She began to make a show. She went out and danced. But she had to give up before long. Dizziness was in her head. Her legs had gone from under her. She was barely able to go out but she hadn’t got far when she fell on a bank by the side of the road.
A few hours of night had gone by when her father found her like that.
He lifted her into the cart and drove her home.
The following morning the same cart was being prepared outside the door.
“If those are the kind of tricks you learned in England,” he said and bitterness in his voice, “it’s there you can be practising them.”
The two off them went to the railway station.
The very night that Nora left you could see an old man inside a fishing boat if you were by Ros Dha Loch shore. A container was drawn up by his side and he trying to obliterate the name that was written on the boat. Even if he did, he didn’t succeed in rubbing the name from his heart. ‘Twas the name of his daughter that was on the boat.
*This story is taken from: Padraic O Conaire – M’Asal Beag Dubh and 14 more of his greatest stories, Poolberg Press Ltd., 1982.
North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free. An uninhabited house of two storeys stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbours in a square ground. The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.
The former tenant of our house, a priest, had died in the back drawing-room. Air, musty from having been long enclosed, hung in all the rooms, and the waste room behind the kitchen was littered with old useless papers. Among these I found a few paper-covered books, the pages of which were curled and damp: The Abbot, by Walter Scott, The Devout Communicant and The Memoirs of Vidocq. I liked the last best because its leaves were yellow. The wild garden behind the house contained a central apple-tree and a few straggling bushes under one of which I found the late tenant’s rusty bicycle-pump. He had been a very charitable priest; in his will he had left all his money to institutions and the furniture of his house to his sister.
When the short days of winter came dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners. When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent street. The career of our play brought us through the dark muddy lanes behind the houses where we ran the gauntlet of the rough tribes from the cottages, to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens where odours arose from the ashpits, to the dark odorous stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness. When we returned to the street light from the kitchen windows had filled the areas. If my uncle was seen turning the corner we hid in the shadow until we had seen him safely housed. Or if Mangan’s sister came out on the doorstep to call her brother in to his tea we watched her from our shadow peer up and down the street. We waited to see whether she would remain or go in and, if she remained, we left our shadow and walked up to Mangan’s steps resignedly. She was waiting for us, her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door. Her brother always teased her before he obeyed and I stood by the railings looking at her. Her dress swung as she moved her body and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side.
Every morning I lay on the floor in the front parlour watching her door. The blind was pulled down to within an inch of the sash so that I could not be seen. When she came out on the doorstep my heart leaped. I ran to the hall, seized my books and followed her. I kept her brown figure always in my eye and, when we came near the point at which our ways diverged, I quickened my pace and passed her. This happened morning after morning. I had never spoken to her, except for a few casual words, and yet her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.
Her image accompanied me even in places the most hostile to romance. On Saturday evenings when my aunt went marketing I had to go to carry some of the parcels. We walked through the flaring streets, jostled by drunken men and bargaining women, amid the curses of labourers, the shrill litanies of shop-boys who stood on guard by the barrels of pigs’ cheeks, the nasal chanting of street-singers, who sang a come-all-you about O’Donovan Rossa, or a ballad about the troubles in our native land. These noises converged in a single sensation of life for me: I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes. Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand. My eyes were often full of tears (I could not tell why) and at times a flood from my heart seemed to pour itself out into my bosom. I thought little of the future. I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.
One evening I went into the back drawing-room in which the priest had died. It was a dark rainy evening and there was no sound in the house. Through one of the broken panes I heard the rain impinge upon the earth, the fine incessant needles of water playing in the sodden beds. Some distant lamp or lighted window gleamed below me. I was thankful that I could see so little. All my senses seemed to desire to veil themselves and, feeling that I was about to slip from them, I pressed the palms of my hands together until they trembled, murmuring: “O love! O love!” many times.
At last she spoke to me. When she addressed the first words to me I was so confused that I did not know what to answer. She asked me was I going to Araby. I forgot whether I answered yes or no. It would be a splendid bazaar, she said; she would love to go.
“And why can’t you?” I asked.
While she spoke she turned a silver bracelet round and round her wrist. She could not go, she said, because there would be a retreat that week in her convent. Her brother and two other boys were fighting for their caps and I was alone at the railings. She held one of the spikes, bowing her head towards me. The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing. It fell over one side of her dress and caught the white border of a petticoat, just visible as she stood at ease.
“It’s well for you,” she said.
“If I go,” I said, “I will bring you something.”
What innumerable follies laid waste my waking and sleeping thoughts after that evening! I wished to annihilate the tedious intervening days. I chafed against the work of school. At night in my bedroom and by day in the classroom her image came between me and the page I strove to read. The syllables of the word Araby were called to me through the silence in which my soul luxuriated and cast an Eastern enchantment over me. I asked for leave to go to the bazaar on Saturday night. My aunt was surprised and hoped it was not some Freemason affair. I answered few questions in class. I watched my master’s face pass from amiability to sternness; he hoped I was not beginning to idle. I could not call my wandering thoughts together. I had hardly any patience with the serious work of life which, now that it stood between me and my desire, seemed to me child’s play, ugly monotonous child’s play.
On Saturday morning I reminded my uncle that I wished to go to the bazaar in the evening. He was fussing at the hallstand, looking for the hat-brush, and answered me curtly:
“Yes, boy, I know.”
As he was in the hall I could not go into the front parlour and lie at the window. I left the house in bad humour and walked slowly towards the school. The air was pitilessly raw and already my heart misgave me.
When I came home to dinner my uncle had not yet been home. Still it was early. I sat staring at the clock for some time and, when its ticking began to irritate me, I left the room. I mounted the staircase and gained the upper part of the house. The high cold empty gloomy rooms liberated me and I went from room to room singing. From the front window I saw my companions playing below in the street. Their cries reached me weakened and indistinct and, leaning my forehead against the cool glass, I looked over at the dark house where she lived. I may have stood there for an hour, seeing nothing but the brown-clad figure cast by my imagination, touched discreetly by the lamplight at the curved neck, at the hand upon the railings and at the border below the dress.
When I came downstairs again I found Mrs Mercer sitting at the fire. She was an old garrulous woman, a pawnbroker’s widow, who collected used stamps for some pious purpose. I had to endure the gossip of the tea-table. The meal was prolonged beyond an hour and still my uncle did not come. Mrs Mercer stood up to go: she was sorry she couldn’t wait any longer, but it was after eight o’clock and she did not like to be out late as the night air was bad for her. When she had gone I began to walk up and down the room, clenching my fists. My aunt said:
“I’m afraid you may put off your bazaar for this night of Our Lord.”
At nine o’clock I heard my uncle’s latchkey in the halldoor. I heard him talking to himself and heard the hallstand rocking when it had received the weight of his overcoat. I could interpret these signs. When he was midway through his dinner I asked him to give me the money to go to the bazaar. He had forgotten.
“The people are in bed and after their first sleep now,” he said.
I did not smile. My aunt said to him energetically:
“Can’t you give him the money and let him go? You’ve kept him late enough as it is.”
My uncle said he was very sorry he had forgotten. He said he believed in the old saying: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” He asked me where I was going and, when I had told him a second time he asked me did I know The Arab’s Farewell to his Steed. When I left the kitchen he was about to recite the opening lines of the piece to my aunt.
I held a florin tightly in my hand as I strode down Buckingham Street towards the station. The sight of the streets thronged with buyers and glaring with gas recalled to me the purpose of my journey. I took my seat in a third-class carriage of a deserted train. After an intolerable delay the train moved out of the station slowly. It crept onward among ruinous houses and over the twinkling river. At Westland Row Station a crowd of people pressed to the carriage doors; but the porters moved them back, saying that it was a special train for the bazaar. I remained alone in the bare carriage. In a few minutes the train drew up beside an improvised wooden platform. I passed out on to the road and saw by the lighted dial of a clock that it was ten minutes to ten. In front of me was a large building which displayed the magical name.
I could not find any sixpenny entrance and, fearing that the bazaar would be closed, I passed in quickly through a turnstile, handing a shilling to a weary-looking man. I found myself in a big hall girdled at half its height by a gallery. Nearly all the stalls were closed and the greater part of the hall was in darkness. I recognised a silence like that which pervades a church after a service. I walked into the centre of the bazaar timidly. A few people were gathered about the stalls which were still open. Before a curtain, over which the words Café Chantant were written in coloured lamps, two men were counting money on a salver. I listened to the fall of the coins.
Remembering with difficulty why I had come I went over to one of the stalls and examined porcelain vases and flowered tea-sets. At the door of the stall a young lady was talking and laughing with two young gentlemen. I remarked their English accents and listened vaguely to their conversation.
“O, I never said such a thing!”
“O, but you did!”
“O, but I didn’t!”
“Didn’t she say that?”
“Yes. I heard her.”
“O, there’s a … fib!”
Observing me the young lady came over and asked me did I wish to buy anything. The tone of her voice was not encouraging; she seemed to have spoken to me out of a sense of duty. I looked humbly at the great jars that stood like eastern guards at either side of the dark entrance to the stall and murmured:
“No, thank you.”
The young lady changed the position of one of the vases and went back to the two young men. They began to talk of the same subject. Once or twice the young lady glanced at me over her shoulder.
I lingered before her stall, though I knew my stay was useless, to make my interest in her wares seem the more real. Then I turned away slowly and walked down the middle of the bazaar. I allowed the two pennies to fall against the sixpence in my pocket. I heard a voice call from one end of the gallery that the light was out. The upper part of the hall was now completely dark.
Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.
Why can’t we try Mike or Robert or Knosi? Because the guys say that Mike and Robert and Knosi are busy today and that we’ve no other choice, so up we go again, back up to Watan’s dump on the tenth floor, where it smells of dog though there is no dog, and where the shutters are always down. It’s grim. He sits at the table, weighing the weed with his weird handheld scales, and then he adds a bit and weighs it once more, and you’re just praying he doesn’t start reciting Persian poems again, but then what difference would it make really? He’s going to talk and talk one way or another. And we know exactly what’s coming, too: that stuff about wood splinters being driven down beneath his uncle’s fingernails, and the other stuff about a hot egg being shoved up his uncle’s backside. And then he nods suddenly as if he’s about to tell us a joke, but instead he just says that his father was a very courageous man, just like he, Watan, is a very courageous man, and he keeps weighing and weighing as he tells us about the pamphlets he had to hand out at school, a story he’s told us a thousand times before. He’s drawn us the symbol with the barbed wire and the carnation a thousand times, too, yet now he asks whether we’d like him to draw us the Communist Party symbol. We ask whether he remembers drawing it for us yesterday, but he’s not listening. He describes the film he was watching when his father was shot, but we already know every last detail: we know about the sudden uneasiness that made him leave the cinema, we know that his father bled to death, and we know that he was a courageous man, as Watan last reminded us barely two minutes ago. We say: We’re on our way to a party, Watan, we don’t have much time.
He asks if we want tea.
And he starts making tea and talking about women, and it would be tempting to think: OK, this is a bit better, except we know exactly where he’s leading us: to his aunts by the Caspian Sea, where he and his dead father lay low for a while, and we know that these women were proper women, these ten fat aunts, all of them beating their heads in grief.
And Watan laughs.
Watan laughs away to himself as he brings the tea, describing yet again how his father, washed and made up, was laid out in the cellar and then buried in the garden. We could write a book about it. We say: Watan, you buried your father, and then you hung around the Caspian Sea, where the women go into the water with their veils on, and then you met little Asfael, who stood out from all the others with her short hair. You followed her through the fields, past the pomegranate trees and dumped fridges, and she was almost like a boy, and she used to sit up on the walls, and her kisses were bites. But do you really think we want to hear it all again, Watan? Do you really think we want to hear about how she vanished, and about how the police came and kicked you in the stomach because they had seen the two of you together? And about how you thought they were going to hang you from a crane in the scrapyard, and about how in the end the police left without hanging you from the crane, and about how Asfael climbed out of a refrigerator and laughed as if she hadn’t been the slightest bit scared? No, Watan, we’d rather not hear it all again, not for the thousandth time, and why are you bringing us stuffed vine leaves now, cracking the same old joke, calling them Eva’s knickers? Just weigh the weed, Watan, weigh the weed.
And Watan silently weighs the weed and says: The war, and we say: No, Watan, less war and more weed, because by now we know everything there is to know about the war, don’t we? We know that you were conscripted and that you ran away and that you were holed up in a cave for three days waiting for the smugglers, don’t we? And we know that Asfael came with you and wanted to get away too, don’t we, and that the smugglers didn’t want to take her, but that they changed their mind when she took the money out of her bag? And that the smugglers all called themselves “Ali”, we know that too, don’t we? We know that you travelled across the mountains on horseback and that there was so much snow you couldn’t see a thing, don’t we? We say: Yes, Watan, we know all about it, we’ve ridden across those mountains with you a thousand times, and we too have wondered a thousand times whether the horse is going backwards or forwards or whether we’re dead already. We’ve seen the bluish snow and the cranes and the barbed wire, none of which was real, and we know that the strongest Ali hit you, Watan, because you were so feeble. We’ve seen the helicopters above the mountain villages and the two of you hiding among the goats and you touching the post on the Turkish border three times to assure yourself you weren’t just imagining it. We could tell the story in our sleep, Watan: There were twenty of you in the lorry, all Iranians, hidden away behind rugs, and your girl’s thumbs started bleeding and you had to kiss them, and all she wanted to hear was how much you loved her, but by then you had no strength left for her. And someone knocked over the canister you’d all pissed into, and it turned out it was the weightlifter from Zahedan, the one you really couldn’t stand because he was always showing off the newspaper article with his photo and loudly going on about all the prizes he’d won, even when you were stopped at service stations, which is the one place it’s important to keep quiet, did you know that? Believe us, Watan, we know it only too well. Asfael held on to you so tightly you could hardly breathe, and then you noticed a hole in the tarpaulin, and you saw houses again for the first time. We can see them before us now, Watan.
I see, says Watan, I see, but how would you like a hot egg? How would you like a hot egg shoved up your backside like they did to my uncle? And he stands up as if he’s about to boil an egg, but then he raises an eyebrow, and he’s obviously trying to be funny, and we all smile. Yes, we all smile, sort of, but we’re not really smiling at all, and we say: Watan, please just weigh the weed. And he weighs the weed, but the words keep pouring out of him; they pour out from his lower lip. Because there’s one thing he’s never told us about, he says: how he got the rash that made him scratch his chest with a fork until it bled. By then they had got to Istanbul, he and Asfael, and they had spent the whole winter in a tiny room there, waiting for passports. And he had to grow a beard, and the plan was to shave off the beard on the day his photo was taken, because then the skin underneath would be pale and smooth and he would look younger, but the rash was in his beard too, and he was itching all over. And then, to make matters worse, Asfael used the wardrobe as firewood even though one of the Alis had warned them not to use the wardrobe as firewood. And they had had a fight, and he wanted to sleep with her, but she would only sleep with him if he loved her, and he wasn’t able to tell her that he loved her. And how, he asks us, is it possible to love someone when the shutters are always down and Ali only occasionally brings bread for you to eat, and when your sole distraction is Turkish TV, which only broadcasts between six and nine, and then it’s only love stories you don’t understand a word of, just rababababab, which probably means I love you. How is it possible to love someone in a place like that, can someone please tell him? When the boss Ali shows up with a photographer and two women, and struts around in his fur coat like a king, when he gropes Asfael’s breasts, even though she hardly has any, and when Asfael keeps smiling politely because she wants fuel for the stove? And when the boss Ali says they don’t use enough lighter fluid, these Iranians don’t know how to get a fire going, and when he then wants to demonstrate how to use the stove. And this is a funny story, isn’t it, asks Watan, funny, right? The way the boss Ali squirted lighter fluid into the stove and threw in a match so there was a bang and a huge cloud of soot turned the whole room black. Though it wasn’t so hilarious when, as punishment for his own stupidity, the boss Ali disappeared again, only returning with the passports six weeks later, but he won’t tell us about that now, he doesn’t want to bore us. Nor will he tell us about how the boss Ali continued to humiliate him, telling him that when he got to the airport, he should say he was brain damaged and travelling to Germany for an operation. Or about how that’s what he actually did say when he got to the airport and flew to Germany as a Turk called Amir Huschang Rahbarsare, though that story really is funny. But he won’t go into that now, nor will he tell us about how the man behind the counter rubbed his fingers over Asfael’s photo and saw that it had been swapped, and that he, Watan, could do nothing to help her and instead just stared at the man’s thumbs and tried to say something about the weather, but by then she had made a run for it and was gone for good. And he won’t tell us about how he suddenly did love her then, not unless we want to hear about it, that is.
And we say: to be honest, not really, Watan, we’ve heard that one a thousand times before too; now weigh the damn weed! And he weighs the weed and says: These scales are acting up, go ahead and take the weed. Hallelujah, we think, and thank him. We get up, but of course just as we’re about to leave, Watan asks if he can come too. And we say: No, Watan, it’s just a small get-together, sorry. And he says it’s okay, but then he comes with us anyway because he needs to go to the corner shop, which is in the same direction, but after we say goodbye to him outside the shop, we notice that he keeps following us. Every time we turn around, he’s lurking in the shadows, and by the time we finally get to the party we’re feeling on edge. The girls we promised we’d bring the weed for are waiting outside the front door, and they throw us a quick glance but don’t pay us much attention; instead, they crane their necks and ask: What’s that behind you?
And we say: That’s Watan. We buy our weed off him.
*© Andreas Stichmann, 2013.
She has long legs like a pair of rivers coming together at the source, a deep lagoon: dark, wet and mysterious. But she also has a pair of repeating words, a tattoo on her back and hands that knead you like you were dough.
She says that she killed her uncle. She walks barefoot because she feels the earth growing inside her: she says that the earth slips up through her heels and grows along her veins like power lines, or roads, grew up next to the railway.
The earth makes her strong, she says, it’s how she can stand the way people stare at her. If it weren’t for the earth, by now she’d be cracked like an ombú: crazy, she says.
And she says that she left a newborn baby in a field in Benítez, about five years ago. Time has clearly left its mark. So has the cumbia music she whistles as she walks down Avenida Güemes, just where Avenida Güemes starts to go downhill so sharply that it seems as though it’s burrowed underground. It doesn’t just lose its asphalt coating, it acquires a carpet of shards of brick that were supposedly meant to fill in the potholes around the ceramics factory.
So now you tell me a story, she says when she’s finished her own. She always tells me her story. And then she chews on a blade of grass sitting by the side of the stream that bears away the waste from the pigsties and the ceramics factory behind us. On this hot evening the factory looks like a crumbling empire. I make up a story for her. She likes adventures involving warriors and princesses. She likes castles and witches. She likes landscapes that take her far away from these ruins. She likes tigers.
She’s not from around here, say the taxi drivers lined up along the curve. She came with the guys who built the Federation and stayed. She lives behind the ceramics factory in an abandoned house choked with weeds. You see her with the dogs (she talks to the dogs) and hanging around with the kids from the country. They’re much younger than her, they say. She can’t have kids yet but the way she’s going, it’s only a matter of time, someone will take her, the taxi drivers say from their wicker chairs on the pavement. They don’t know the girl’s real story. They’d never be able to imagine the scene inside the corrugated iron shack, on a farm in Castilla, her uncle pulling her hair, tearing off her clothes, entering her with dark pleasure in his eyes and a continuous whisper on his lips. Neither are they capable of imagining her six months pregnant, on a rainy night when her uncle came back and she firmly plunged a knife into his torso, coolly, no different from slicing a loaf of bread. And they can’t imagine the girl’s face, the image that pursues her every time she closes her eyes lying on an old mattress in the abandoned house, of when she left her son behind – because he didn’t feel like hers, he’d been born dirty – amid the bales of hay in a field in Benítez. She’s unimaginable to them even though they make up stories about her, even though they’re watching her now as she disappears down Avenida Güemes, swaying atop her long legs like a pair of rivers coming together at the source.
From my patio, I can see George at the edge of his pool, thirty yards down the hillside. A thicket separates us, which covers an incline of red, cracked earth, bordered on both sides by walls of dry stone. George is in his swimsuit and sandals, and is wearing sunglasses from the 70s which, I know because we bought them together, cover the upper halves of his cheeks, like two fat drops of water just about to fall, and which don’t suit him. George’s pool has a kind of bean shape that recalls the shape of his sunglasses and even though every morning he comes out to analyze the pH balance and slowly drag a net across the surface to collect debris, he never swims there, neither he nor anyone else for that matter, except the wasps. The wasps, who make George nervous, and against whom he has set every kind of trap, clump along the edge of his pool. I see him sometimes crush one under his foot, then rub the sole of his shoe against the sparse grass in his yard. No longer does he raise his head in the direction of my patio, so I can watch him as long as I want while he is maintaining his pool – every morning the same ritual. Quite often I fall asleep beneath my sun umbrella, until Louis brings me lunch, with the mail and two newspapers. Then I make a few quick, impersonal phone calls. George, at this hour, has abandoned his pool and I suppose gone back into his house, of which I can only make out the tip of the roof. On that side, fairly tall and dense trees block the view I might have of George’s patio, a hideous slab of flambé flagstone, overhung by a striped orange awning trimmed with grayish fringe, underneath which I imagine him seated, like me, motionless. He might have put on a shirt and served himself a glass of something – I don’t know whether or not he has completely given up drinking. Our two houses are the lowest and the most modest in the development, both dating from the 50s, both fairly ugly, although George’s is particularly so – all his attempts at improvement only made things worse, and it is not rare for people who are lost to come ringing his doorbell, convinced they are ringing at the caretaker’s house.
Underneath the noonday sun, George’s pool forms a gleaming spot that doesn’t turn blue again until later in the day. Also gleaming is the enormous red sign of the Champion supermarket, whose customers now include the most influential hillside residents, the very same ones who had initially worked so determinedly to ensure its immediate demolition. From what I hear, Champion meat, especially Champion veal, is remarkable, and the Champion butcher can size up, in a single glance, who he’s dealing with. Wherever you are invited to dinner around here, you are now served Champion veal, prepared in every kind of sauce and reputed to be so tender that no one is offended anymore by the sign which, lit up day and night, can be seen from every patio, including the Klausens’ patio, highest of them all, and where, defeated by Susi Klausen’s insistence and her endless telephone calls since June, I finally had dinner last night. Last night, after having resisted their solicitations for over a month, I subjected myself to the Klausens’ house, the Klausens’ champagne, the Klausens’ conversation, and while Louis was taking me to their house, I thought about what awaited me there, Rolf Klausen in his yachtsman’s outfit, leaning against his balustrade as if against the railing of a ship, Susi Klausen appearing, like a bolt of lightning, out of nowhere, to dismiss Louis with a sweep of her hand, seize the handles of my wheelchair, and, with the dexterity of the nurse she had been before getting Rolf Klausen in her clutches, whip it suddenly in the direction of the rectangle of lawn dedicated to aperitifs. There, lit by tiny spotlights, were a mix of botanical species, sculptures, and guests, bearing testimony to the use Susi Klausen makes of Rolf Klausen’s millions, the latter who, invariably affable, displayed, as he did at every party, a studied bonhomie, awaiting the moment when he could go off to bed. And last night I found myself shaking Rolf Klausen’s hand as if I were shaking the hand of the good and amiable man he appeared to be, all the while perfectly aware that I was shaking the hand of a crook, and as I was shaking Rolf Klausen’s hand and then those of the guests, I could still hear George’s voice, the voice I miss, declaring that the entire hillside is nothing but a pile of crooked businessmen. In each of the houses on this hillside, George would say, when we were still friends, there is a con man who has lived his murderous existence in perfect legality, completely devoted to speculation. And the money he has made, he recycles into art foundations and art galleries and museums worldwide, wherever there is art, George would say, there is a crook who, along with art, buys himself an artistic conscience, even though he understands nothing about art, even though art bores the shit out of him, he has, nevertheless, perfectly understood and evaluated all the profit, with regards to respectability, he can extract from art. George, back when the Klausens first moved to the hillside, was an art critic and it was as an art critic that he was invited to dinner at the Klausens, only once, after which the Klausens did not want to hear anymore about George, either because he had subjected the paintings with which the Klausens covered the walls of their new home to his criticisms, or else because he had contented himself to walk past them without uttering a single word, or had lifted Susi Klausen’s skirt at the moment when she was offering him a plate of hors d’oeuvres, one way or another George managed to avoid ever getting invited again.
And while Susi Klausen, who had positioned my wheelchair with its back to a shallow pool whose moisture spread diffusely across the small of my back, recounted the burglary of which they had been victims that very afternoon – a small Renaissance-era bronze that was still in the living room when she had come down from the second floor at five-thirty on the dot to go to the kitchen, was no longer there when she came back out some ten minutes later – I was thinking that I myself was not so lucky, as to be done with the Klausens’ invitations. It would have been, Susi Klausen was saying, just as easy to take this or that painting down from the living room walls, because naturally the alarm system to which each painting was connected was not activated during the day. But, overlooking the paintings, they had only taken the little Renaissance bronze, as well as a table lighter next to it, so that the policemen were leaning towards the theory of an amateur burglary, the first of the season, according to them. At that moment, each of the guests, pretending to be interested in the Klausens’ burglary, must have actually been worrying about his own house and the doors and windows that he had perhaps neglected to lock, I hope that you have all taken precautions, went on Susi Klausen, come on, said Rolf Klausen calmly, after all, we’re pretty well protected here, proof positive, countered Susi Klausen with bitterness. Believe it or not, she added, it’s my table lighter that I most regret, we’d been using that lighter for years, and everyone knows a table lighter that works after the first twenty-four hours is priceless. The woman seated to my right turned towards me, looked at me with her head slightly cocked, and I had yet again to acknowledge the strange attraction that it has on certain people, this wheelchair, without which I cannot go anywhere since a year ago now, when I was ejected from George’s car. The woman had placed her hand on the wheel of the chair that she was stroking slowly with her index finger. Her husband, or at least the man I finally understood to be her husband, was extremely old. He must have been the famous Genevan philosopher whose presence Susi Klausen had mentioned to me. His wife, roughly thirty years his junior, had vaguely red, frothy hair, a dress with a loose neckline, and was speaking quickly, with the false gaiety of a melancholic, they had rented one of the houses on the hillside for the summer, probably the only house on the hillside without a pool, she announced, smiling, and I did not disabuse her of the idea, although I myself have never had a pool, except George’s, George’s pool was always enough for me, but what were we waiting for to be seated at table?
Silently, I observed the Klausens’ guests who – we were fourteen – formed an indeterminate cluster in the night, illuminated here and there by the garden spotlights and from which Rolf and Susi Klausen appeared more clearly distinct, as did the old philosopher and his now clearly too-young wife, two couples whose intimacies I imagined at the end of dinner, the mute ceremony of their going to bed in the silence of their rooms, the swallowed sleeping pills, the bitterness of Susi Klausen stuffing ear plugs into her ears, the impotent advances of the old philosopher, the lights turned out without the faintest attempt to move closer to one another, now that they had passed from indifference to disgust, disillusionment to loathing. My neighbor, though still leaning towards me, had fallen silent, she had not asked me anything about my wheelchair, informed, no doubt by Susi Klausen, on the subject of the horrible accident, and no doubt quite familiar with the manner in which, a year ago, George, completely drunk, managed to ram his car into the guardrail of the highway that overlooks the sea here, and how he walked away without a scratch, while I, thrown through the windshield, went gliding over the guardrail. It’s Susi Klausen who, whenever she mentions the accident, uses the term gliding, an acrobatic movement I personally have no memory of making, that no witness confirmed, and that, the way she describes it, has for me, every time, the rather burlesque effect of a scene of a movie perpetually rewound and replayed in fast forward. I know that no one thought much of my chances of survival when they picked me up from the other side of the guardrail, lying between two rows of vines, but things being what they are, I am still here, behaving like a reasonable invalid, in possession of excellent faculties and a sufficient amount of fatalism. Nevertheless, George is nothing less than my murderer, in the eyes of Susi Klausen, who, I must acknowledge, came daily to see me in the hospital, instantly rediscovering her nurse’s reflexes, so well that it was she who was entrusted with the task of breaking the news to me about which of my body parts I could still count on. But as precious as Susi Klausen probably was to me in the context of the hospital, Susi Klausen is equally as intolerable outside of that context, on the one hand an excellent ex-nurse, on the other a fatuous acquaintance whom I have been doing my utmost, since coming home, to keep at a distance. My ingratitude towards Susi Klausen is equaled only by the rudeness with which I send her packing each time she calls, that is to say at least twice a week, when it’s not Louis who I put in charge of dismissing her. Louis was supplied to me by Susi Klausen as soon as I left the hospital, the day I arrived home Louis was waiting for me at the door, a tall, thin man with a lugubrious look, impassive, whom nothing could disturb. In the eyes of Susi Klausen, George is not only my murderer but also his wife’s. George’s wife died at the end of last summer, in George’s pool, a few weeks after my return from the hospital, without anyone being able to determine whether she had meant to swim or to drown herself. No one here really knew her – she was Italian, their wedding had taken place six months earlier in Italy – but Susi Klausen, as she let it be widely known, has every reason to think that George, in one way or another, is responsible for the death of his wife who, it has been established, never swam in their pool, but always in the sea. An excellent swimmer, emphasizes Susi Klausen. Married, to her downfall, to this destructive being who could do nothing, she insists, but push her to the limit, destroy her, as he destroys everything. I let her go on, even though I know how much they loved each other and how inconsolable George is now, whom I watch every morning executing the same vain gestures around his pool. They took away his driver’s license (George is prohibited from driving for life, just as I am prohibited, for life, from walking), so that it is very difficult for him to visit the grave of his wife, who is buried in the Italian family crypt. I momentarily thought that George was going to leave and settle down there, near his wife’s grave, but no, he stays here, near the pool in which he found her and from which he himself pulled her out, and that, day after day, he cleans under my watch, with a terrifying fastidiousness, manifestly aware, although he never looks in my direction, that I am watching him from my patio. That man is nothing but a criminal, repeats Susi Klausen and, by the sweep of her arm which accompanies this remark, it does not escape me that she includes not only my wheelchair and George’s pool, at the bottom of which his wife was found, but also the paintings and the sculptures with which she filled her house, the Klausens’ notorious collection, that George, the only time he was invited over, probably only glanced at distractedly, if not, that is, passing them by altogether without noticing them. The worst of George’s crimes is to have neglected, as Susi Klausen expected, to admire and thus legitimize the Klausens’ reputedly audacious collection, an assortment of trifles, as he later restricted himself to commenting. Only a very small canvas, stuck in a hidden corner at the foot of the staircase, vaguely aroused his interest, precisely a painting Susi Klausen told him she had acquired in a moment of confusion and which she urged him to overlook. As for the rest of it, it is obvious, to hear it from George, that the Klausens, incapable of even the remotest artistic feeling, were scammed by every art dealer on the planet. That they lacked artistic culture is of little importance to George, but such a dearth of artistic sensibility, is. They bought what is currently most insignificant, most vulgar, and most expensive, George told me of the Klausens. I have pity for artists, he further told me, no matter how mediocre, who have to traffic with these individuals, the Klausens that we know and all other Klausens, incapable of behaving in the presence of artists in a way that is not insulting, because when presented with their work, they think nothing and feel nothing that is not dictated by vanity and insensitivity. People, and not only idiots, come every summer to admire the Klausens’ collection and the latest acquisitions of the Klausens, when in reality what fascinates them is the fortune of the Klausens, of whom it is known that their other house, where they retire as soon as autumn ends and stay, as Susi Klausen reports, all winter like hermits, contains not a single piece of art of the kind they display here. The Klausens spend the winter in a house that is several centuries old, in the middle of the trusted values of antiquity; they spend it, as George heard Susi Klausen declare, surrounded by their palliating antiques.
And how’s your friend George? asked Rolf Klausen in a loud voice, who, having crossed the lawn with a bottle in hand, had come up to me, a little too close, so that the buttons of his jacket that gleamed like eyes bulging out of their sockets were level with my eyes. It seemed to me that he was wobbling slightly. A pretty funny guy, if I remember correctly, he added. I saw Susi Klausen coming straight at me in her multicolored tunic to dismiss her husband with a brusque gesture and, bracelets jangling, retake control of my wheelchair, at which point the guests rose and we were all directed towards the patio where the dinner table had been set, the seats set slightly further apart around the one assigned to me, between the old philosopher’s wife and Susi Klausen’s sister, Laure, as she introduced herself to me, very simply, unfolding her napkin with her frail hands. I had not noticed her until that moment, and I immediately wondered how she could possibly be the sister of Susi Klausen, while noting that the old philosopher’s wife, to my left – and next to her Rolf Klausen – was wearing a offensively insidious perfume that, each time she manipulated her fork or seized her glass, wafted in my direction, depriving me of any possibility of eating. Susi Klausen’s sister did not seem very hungry either, and when I pointed this out to her she smiled and said no, no actually, perhaps because she herself had prepared this course, so that I made an effort to swallow the contents of my plate. Laure’s hair was extremely smooth and silky, and swept across her face in a disarming way without seeming to bother her, as opposed to the old philosopher’s wife who ruffled and shook out her hair constantly, and to whom I completely turned my back, turning towards Laure in a deliberate move that seemed to disconcert her slightly. Across from her, crammed into his chair, the old philosopher, with his prominent eyes and his short, frizzy beard creeping up his cheeks, stared without expression at a spot on the tablecloth, as if dozing. Other dishes were brought out, and Laure asked me politely if I lived here year-round. I answered yes with the same politeness, adding that it had been a while since I had settled here, long before all these houses were built. A dreadful place, thundered the old philosopher, suddenly roused from his torpor. And, fork in fist, he banged on the table. Someone laughed briefly and conversations resumed. I didn’t know Susi had a sister, I said to Laure. We don’t see each other often, she said, I live abroad in Bombay, well for now, in Bombay. In Bombay, I said. Yes, she said. Far away, I thought. Are you familiar with India? asked Laure. No, I said, suddenly imagining myself roaming the streets of Bombay, full of invalids, I’ve always been quite sedentary. I smiled. You have had a difficult year, said Laure. I’m getting used to it, I said, which was almost true, as the months went by I ended up thinking that the accident had not actually changed much in my life, I had never seen much of life anyway, I said to Laure, I’ve always liked solitude, a certain silence around me, and when I’d had enough of being alone, I had George, I told her, I only had to walk a few yards and I was at George’s, I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. Get rid of everything, bellowed the old philosopher suddenly, fixing his round eyes on Laure. George? resumed Laure. The one who was driving, I told her. Laure nodded her head slowly and I told myself that perhaps she thought George was dead, as I myself immediately had thought upon waking up in the hospital, until he entered the room, with his wife, and they stood there at the side of my bed, hand in hand. For weeks, I could have told Laure, I saw George and his wife enter my room and hold hands at my bedside and then, when I was able to approach the window, George’s arm around his wife’s shoulders while they walked together to their car in the hospital parking lot. Once, I could have told Laure, George’s wife came alone. I was not having a very good day, and I was afraid that she had come with the intention of talking to me about the accident, which would have been completely pointless, but she had only come, she said, to sit near me for a moment, because I was constantly on her mind, of course, and, she added, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, she had felt the sudden need to come, it was for her own sake that she had come. I told her ok, and then, a little bit later, that I really liked her smile, and I thought that if there were, in the future, other moments like these perhaps in the end it would be all right. And there were several of them, even if never exactly the same as that one, then George’s wife drowned, one morning while I was on my patio, and Louis somewhere behind me, busy clipping a hedge and all I would have had to do was to call out when I saw her, all of a sudden, just after waving to me, wobbling on the edge of the pool that she was hosing down, probably to chase away the wasps, and, as if surprised, letting go of the hose and slowly toppling over into the water, with her sunglasses on. Motionless in my wheelchair, I watched George’s wife sink, to the sound of Louis’ clippers, and when this sound was interrupted and Louis dropped his clippers and started running, alerted by George’s shouting, I could see nothing more, having stared too long at the gleaming surface of the pool. I remember the body laid out on the edge of the pool, I could have also told Laure, the stupefied face that George, kneeling, raised in my direction, the extraordinary silence of that moment. You had fallen asleep, Louis told me later, in a tone of voice that would accept no alternative. And as desserts were being placed on the Klausens’ table, I mused that Louis would soon be here, who would take me back home and help me to bed, then I heard myself asking Laure, although I didn’t listen to her answer, how much longer she intended to stay.
* This story is taken from: Gardeners By Véronique Bizot, Translated by Youna Kwak, Diálogos Books: June 2017. dialogosbooks.com
The Short Story Project C | The Short Story Project INC 2018
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