Every night my father took the path from the cemetery to our house. I could hear his footsteps in the garden. I pretended to be asleep while he looked for the stick that he used to hide in my closet. I left the door open for him and played an amusing game with him – he left his eyes in his grave and every time I hid his stick in a different place.
I watched him with half an eye until he gave up. Then he curled up on the floor, miserable and tired. I got out of bed, took his hand and walked him back to the cemetery gate before the people of the house woke up. He walked through the gate confidently and with assurance, and I watched him from a short distance as he disappeared among the graves.
I’d never thought of getting rid of the stick—by throwing it in the river, for example, or breaking it on the garden wall. On the contrary, I’d taken extra care of it since my father’s night visits began. After each visit I got rid of one of the scars he had given me with it. I had one on my right shoulder, one on my left leg, and many small scars here and there—some visible and some beneath the skin.
I had gotten rid of all but one scar that was left at the bottom of the list. I didn’t know where it was on the skin or beneath it. One last visit from him and it would all be over and I would have eliminated them all. This time I would leave him lying curled up miserably in the corner of the room for longer than usual. I might wait until dawn or until he swallowed his pride and asked me openly to escort him back to his grave before the sun came up.
But he didn’t come for three nights. His absence made me very anxious. Had he caught on to the game? Or had he given up hope of finding his stick?
On the fourth night I decided to look for him. Maybe he had lost his way or was having a long doze in his grave. But this would be his last visit to us and then I would leave his stick on top of his grave and he wouldn’t bother walking around at night dead and blind.
At two o’clock in the morning I left my room quietly, taking care not to wake my mother, who leaves the door of her bedroom ajar. Then I crossed the living-room and the garden and made my way towards the cemetery. I didn’t think about how I was going to persuade my father to visit us for one last time. I didn’t have any particular plan in mind. But what dead person doesn’t hope to be invited out for a walk at night so that they can breathe cool refreshing air?
At the cemetery gate I spotted two shadows moving in the distance. I couldn’t make out their features in the dark. I went closer slowly and watched them from behind a large tree. It was my mother laying into my father with the stick. My father was trying to avoid her blows but he wasn’t moving from where he was or making any noise.
From my hiding place I heard her say, “You bastard, I told you not to hit him on the head. Don’t hit him on the head or you’ll kill him.”
I felt my head and found a deep wound covered with dried blood.
A few minutes later the two of them were making their way towards the house with tired and heavy steps.
I went through the cemetery gate and disappeared among the graves sunk in darkness.
It happened when I was about eighteen or nineteen years old (began Dr. Simsen). I was studying at the University, and being coached in anatomy by my old friend Solling. He was an amusing fellow, this Solling. Full of jokes and whimsical ideas, and equally merry, whether he was working at the dissecting table or brewing a punch for a jovial crowd.
He had but one fault—if one might call it so—and that was his exaggerated idea of punctuality. He grumbled if you were late two minutes; any longer delay would spoil the entire evening for him. He himself was never known to be late. At least not during the entire years of my studying.
One Wednesday evening our little circle of friends met as usual in my room at seven o’clock. I had made the customary preparations for the meeting, had borrowed three chairs—I had but one myself— had cleaned all my pipes, and had persuaded Hans to take the breakfast dishes from the sofa and carry them downstairs. One by one my friends arrived, the clock struck seven, and to our great astonishment, Solling had not yet appeared. One, two, even five minutes passed before we heard him run upstairs and knock at the door with his characteristic short blows.
When he entered the room he looked so angry and at the same time so upset that I cried out: “What’s the matter, Solling? You look as if you had been robbed.”
“That’s exactly what has happened,” replied Solling angrily. “But it was no ordinary sneak thief,” he added, hanging his overcoat behind the door.
“What have you lost?” asked my neighbor Nansen.
“Both arms from the new skeleton I’ve just recently received from the hospital,” said Solling with an expression as if his last cent had been taken from him. “It’s vandalism!”
We burst out into loud laughter at this remarkable answer, but Solling continued: “Can you imagine it? Both arms are gone, cut off at the shoulder joint;—and the strangest part of it is that the same thing has been done to my shabby old skeleton which stands in my bedroom. There wasn’t an arm on either of them.”
“That’s too bad,” I remarked. “For we were just going to study the
ANATOMY of the arm to-night.”
“Osteology,” corrected Solling gravely. “Get out your skeleton, little Simsen. It isn’t as good as mine, but it will do for this evening.”
I went to the corner where my anatomical treasures were hidden behind a green curtain—”the Museum,” was what Solling called it— but my astonishment was great when I found my skeleton in its accustomed place and wearing as usual my student’s uniform—but without arms.
“The devil!” cried Solling. “That was done by the same person who robbed me; the arms are taken off at the shoulder joint in exactly the same manner. You did it, Simsen!”
I declared my innocence, very angry at the abuse of my fine skeleton, while Nansen cried: “Wait a moment, I’ll bring in mine. There hasn’t been a soul in my room since this morning, I can swear to that. I’ll be back in an instant.”
He hurried into his room, but returned in a few moments greatly depressed and somewhat ashamed. The skeleton was in its usual place, but the arms were gone, cut off at the shoulder in exactly the same manner as mine.
The affair, mysterious in itself, had now come to be a serious matter. We lost ourselves in suggestions and explanations, none of which seemed to throw any light on the subject. Finally we sent a messenger to the other side of the house where, as I happened to know, was a new skeleton which the young student Ravn had recently received from the janitor of the hospital.
Ravn had gone out and taken the key with him. The messenger whom we had sent to the rooms of the Iceland students returned with the information that one of them had used the only skeleton they possessed to pummel the other with, and that consequently only the thigh bones were left unbroken.
What were we to do? We couldn’t understand the matter at all. Solling scolded and cursed and the company was about to break up when we heard some one coming noisily upstairs. The door was thrown open and a tall, thin figure appeared on the threshold—our good friend Niels Daae.
He was a strange chap, this Niels Daae, the true type of a species seldom found nowadays. He was no longer young, and by reason of a queer chain of circumstances, as he expressed it, he had been through nearly all the professions and could produce papers proving that he had been on the point of passing not one but three examinations.
He had begun with theology; but the story of the quarrel between Jacob and Esau had led him to take up the study of law. As a law student he had come across an interesting poisoning case, which had proved to him that a study of medicine was extremely necessary for lawyers; and he had taken up the study of medicine with such energy that he had forgotten all his law and was about to take his last examinations at the age of forty.
Niels Daae took the story of our troubles very seriously. “Every pot has two handles,” he began. “Every sausage two ends, every question two sides, except this one—this has three.” (Applause.) “When we look at it from the legal point of view there can be no doubt that it belongs in the category of ordinary theft. But from the fact that the thief took only the arms when he might have taken the entire skeleton, we must conclude that he is not in a responsible condition of mind, which therefore introduces a medical side to the affair. From a legal point of view, the thief must be convicted for robbery, or at least for the illegal appropriation of the property of others; but from the medical point of view, we must acquit him, because he is not responsible for his acts. Here we have two professions quarreling with one another, and who shall say which is right? But now I will introduce the theological point of view, and raise the entire affair up to a higher plane. Providence, in the material shape of a patron of mine in the country, whose children I have inoculated with the juice of wisdom, has sent me two fat geese and two first-class ducks. These animals are to be cooked and eaten this evening in Mathiesen’s establishment, and I invite this honored company to join me there. Personally I look upon the disappearance of these arms as an all- wise intervention of Providence, which sets its own inscrutable wisdom up against the wisdom which we would otherwise have heard from the lips of my venerable friend Solling.”
Daae’s confused speech was received with laughter and applause, and Solling’s weak protests were lost in the general delight at the invitation. I have often noticed that such improvised festivities are usually the most enjoyable, and so it was for us that evening. Niels Daae treated us to his ducks and to his most amusing jokes, Solling sang his best songs, our jovial host Mathiesen told his wittiest stories, and the merriment was in full swing when we heard cries in the street, and then a rush of confused noises broken by screams of pain.
“There’s been an accident,” cried Solling, running out to the door.
We all followed him and discovered that a pair of runaway horses had thrown a carriage against a tree, hurling the driver from his box, under the wheels. His right arm had been broken near the shoulder. In the twinkling of an eye the hall of festivities was transformed into an emergency hospital. Solling shook his head as he examined the injury, and ordered the transport of the patient to the city hospital. It was his belief that the arm would have to be amputated, cut off at the shoulder joint, just as had been the case with our skeleton. “Damned odd coincidence, isn’t it?” he remarked to me.
Our merry mood had vanished and we took our way, quiet and depressed, through the old avenues toward our home. For the first time in its existence possibly, our venerable “barracks,” as we called the dormitory, saw its occupants returning home from an evening’s bout just as the night watchman intoned his eleven o’clock verse.
“Just eleven,” exclaimed Solling. “It’s too early to go to bed, and too late to go anywhere else. We’ll go up to your room, little Simsen, and see if we can’t have some sort of a lesson this evening. You have your colored plates and we’ll try to get along with them. It’s a nuisance that we should have lost those arms just this evening.”
“The Doctor can have all the arms and legs he wants,” grinned Hans, who came out of the doorway just in time to hear Solling’s last word.
“What do you mean, Hans?” asked Solling in astonishment.
“It’ll be easy enough to get them,” said Hans. “They’ve torn down the planking around the Holy Trinity churchyard, and dug up the earth to build a new wall. I saw it myself, as I came past the church. Lord, what a lot of bones they’ve dug out there! There’s arms and legs and heads, many more than the Doctor could possibly need.”
“Much good that does us,” answered Solling. “They shut the gates at seven o’clock and it’s after eleven already.”
“Oh, yes, they shut them,” grinned Hans again. “But there’s another way to get in. If you go through the gate of the porcelain factory and over the courtyard, and through the mill in the fourth courtyard that leads out into Spring Street, there you will see where the planking is torn down, and you can get into the churchyard easily.”
“Hans, you’re a genius!” exclaimed Solling in delight. “Here, Simsen, you know that factory inside and out, you’re so friendly with that fellow Outzen who lives there. Run along to him and let him give you the key of the mill. It will be easy to find an arm that isn’t too much decayed. Hurry along, now; the rest of us will wait for you upstairs.”
To be quite candid I must confess that I was not particularly eager to fulfill Solling’s command. I was at an age to have still a sufficient amount of reverence for death and the grave, and the mysterious occurrence of the stolen arms still ran through my mind. But I was still more afraid of Solling’s irony and of the laughter of my comrades, so I trotted off as carelessly as if I had been sent to buy a package of cigarettes.
It was some time before I could arouse the old janitor of the factory from his peaceful slumbers. I told him that I had an important message for Outzen, and hurried upstairs to the latter’s room. Outzen was a strictly moral character; knowing this, I was prepared to have him refuse me the key which would let me into the fourth courtyard and from there into the cemetery. As I expected, Outzen took the matter very seriously. He closed the Hebrew Bible which he had been studying as I entered, turned up his lamp and looked at me in astonishment as I made my request.
“Why, my dear Simsen, it is a most sinful deed that you are about to do,” he said gravely. “Take my advice and desist. You will get no key from me for any such cause. The peace of the grave is sacred. No man dare disturb it.”
“And how about the gravedigger? He puts the newly dead down beside the old corpses, and lives as peacefully as anyone else.”
“He is doing his duty,” answered Outzen calmly. “But to disturb the peace of the grave from sheer daring, with the fumes of the punch still in your head,—that is a different matter,—that will surely be punished!”
His words irritated me. It is not very flattering, particularly if one is not yet twenty, to be told that you are about to perform a daring deed simply because you are drunk. Without any further reply to his protests I took the key from its place on the wall and ran downstairs two steps at a time, vowing to myself that I would take home an arm let cost what it would. I would show Outzen, and Solling, and all the rest, what a devil of a fellow I was.
My heart beat rapidly as I stole through the long dark corridor, past the ruins of the old convent of St. Clara, into the so-called third courtyard. Here I took a lantern from the hall, lit it and crossed to the mill where the clay was prepared for the factory. The tall wheels and cylinders, with their straps and bolts, looked like weird creatures of the night in the dim light of my tallow candle. I felt my courage sinking even here, but I pulled myself together, opened the last door with my key and stepped out into the fourth courtyard. A moment later I stood on the dividing line between the cemetery and the factory.
The entire length of the tall blackened planking had been torn down. The pieces of it lay about, and the earth had been dug up to considerable depth, to make a foundation for a new wall between Life and Death. The uncanny emptiness of the place seized upon me. I halted involuntarily as if to harden myself against it. It was a raw, cold, stormy evening. The clouds flew past the moon in jagged fragments, so that the churchyard, with its white crosses and stones, lay now in full light, now in dim shadow. Now and then a rush of wind rattled over the graves, roared through the leafless trees, bent the complaining bushes, and caught itself in the little eddy at the corner of the church, only to escape again over the roofs, turning the old weather vane with a sharp scream of the rusty iron.
I looked toward the left—there I saw several weird white shapes moving gently in the moonlight. “White sheets,” I said to myself, “it’s nothing but white sheets! This drying of linen in the churchyard ought to be stopped.”
I turned in the opposite direction and saw a heap of bones scarce two paces distant from me. Holding my lantern lower, I approached them and stretched out my hand—there was a rattling in the heap; something warm and soft touched my fingers.
I started and shivered. Then I exclaimed: “The rats! nothing but the rats in the churchyard! I must not get frightened. It will be so foolish—they would laugh at me. Where the devil is that arm? I can’t find one that isn’t broken!”
With trembling knees and in feverish haste I examined one heap after another. The light in my lantern flickered in the wind and suddenly went out. The foul smell of the smoking wick rose to my face and I felt as if I were about to faint, it took all my energy to recover my control. I walked two or three steps ahead, and saw at a little distance a coffin which had been still in good shape when taken out of the earth.
I approached it and saw that it was of old-fashioned shape, made of heavy oaken boards that were already rotting. On its cover was a metal plate with an illegible inscription. The old wood was so brittle that it would have been very easy for me to open the coffin with any sort of a tool. I looked about me and saw a hatchet and a couple of spades lying near the fence. I took one of the latter, put its flat end between the boards—the old coffin fell apart with a dull crackling protest.
I turned my head aside, put my hand in through the opening, felt about, and taking a firm hold on one arm of the skeleton, I loosened it from the body with a quick jerk. The movement loosened the head as well, and it rolled out through the opening right to my very feet. I took up the skull to lay it in the coffin again—and then I saw a greenish phosphorescent glimmer in its empty eye sockets, a glimmer which came and went. Mad terror shook me at the sight. I looked up at the houses in the distance, then back again to the skull; the empty sockets shone more brightly than before. I felt that I must have some natural explanation for this appearance or I would go mad. I took up the head again—and never in my life have I had so overpowering an impression of the might of death and decay than in this moment. Myriads of disgusting clammy insects poured out of every opening of the skull, and a couple of shining, wormlike centipedes—Geophiles, the scientists call them—crawled about in the eye sockets. I threw the skull back into the coffin, sprang over the heaps of bones without even taking time to pick up my lantern, and ran like a hunted thing through the dark mill, over the factory courtyards, until I reached the outer gate. Here I washed the arm at the fountain, and smoothed my disarranged clothing. I hid my booty under my overcoat, nodded to the sleepy old janitor as he opened the door to me, and a few moments later I entered my own room with an expression which I had attempted to make quite calm and careless.
“What the devil is the matter with you, Simsen?” cried Solling as he saw me. “Have you seen a ghost? Or is the punch wearing off already? We thought you’d never come; why, it’s nearly twelve o’clock!”
Without a word I drew back my overcoat and laid my booty on the table.
“By all the devils,” exclaimed Solling in anatomical enthusiasm, “where did you find that superb arm? Simsen knows what he’s about all right. It’s a girl’s arm; isn’t it beautiful? Just look at the hand—how fine and delicate it is! Must have worn a No. 6 glove. There’s a pretty hand to caress and kiss!”
The arm passed from one to the other amid general admiration. Every word that was said increased my disgust for myself and for what I had done. It was a woman’s arm, then—what sort of a woman might she have been? Young and beautiful possibly—her brothers’ pride, her parents’ joy. She had faded away in her youth, cared for by loving hands and tender thoughts. She had fallen asleep gently, and those who loved her had desired to give her in death the peace she had enjoyed throughout her lifetime. For this they had made her coffin of thick, heavy oaken boards. And this hand, loved and missed by so many—it lay there now on an anatomical table, encircled by clouds of tobacco smoke, stared at by curious glances, and made the object of coarse jokes. O God! how terrible it was!
“I must have that arm,” exclaimed Solling, when the first burst of admiration had passed. “When I bleach it and touch it up with varnish, it wild be a superb specimen. I’ll take it home with me.”
“No,” I exclaimed, “I can’t permit it. It was wrong of me to bring it away from the churchyard. I’m going right back to put the arm in its place.”
“Well, will you listen to that?” cried Solling, amid the hearty laughter of the others. “Simsen’s so lyric, he certainly must be drunk. I must have that arm at any cost.”
“Not much,” cut in Niels Daae; “you have no right to it. It was buried in the earth and dug out again; it is a find, and all the rest of us have just as much right to it as you have.”
“Yes, everyone of us has some share in it,” said some one else.
“But what are you going to do about it?” remarked Solling. “It would be vandalism to break up that arm. What God has joined together let no man put asunder,” he concluded with pathos.
“Let’s auction it off,” exclaimed Daae. “I will be the auctioneer, and this key to the graveyard will serve me for a hammer.”
The laughter broke out anew as Daae took his place solemnly at the head of the table and began to whine out the following announcement: “I hereby notify all present that on the 25th of November, at twelve o’clock at midnight, in corridor No. 5 of the student barracks, a lady’s arm in excellent condition, with all its appurtenances of wrist bones, joints, and finger tips, is to be offered at public auction. The buyer can have possession of his purchase immediately after the auction, and a credit of six weeks will be given to any reliable customer. I bid a Danish shilling.”
“One mark,” cried Solling mockingly.
“Two,” cried somebody else.
“Four,” exclaimed Solling. “It’s worth it. Why don’t you join in,
Simsen? You look as if you were sitting in a hornet’s nest.”
I bid one mark more, and Solling raised me a thaler. There were no more bids, the hammer fell, and the arm belonged to Solling.
“Here, take this,” he said, handing me a mark piece; “it’s part of your commission as grave robber. You shall have the rest later, unless you prefer that I should turn it over to the drinking fund.” With these words Solling wrapped the arm in a newspaper, and the gay crowd ran noisily down the stairs and through the streets, until their singing and laughter were lost in the distance.
I stood alone, still dazed and bewildered, staring at the piece of money in my hand. My thoughts were far too much excited that I should hope to sleep. I turned up my lamp and took out one of my books to try and study myself into a quieter mood. But without success.
Suddenly I heard a sound like that of a swinging pendulum. I raised my head and listened attentively. There was no clock either in my room or in the neighboring ones—but I could still hear the sound. At the same moment my lamp began to flicker. The oil was apparently exhausted. I was about to rise to fill it again, when my eyes fell upon the door, and I saw the graveyard key, which I had hung there, moving slowly back and forth with a rhythmic swing. Just as its motion seemed about to die away, it would receive a gentle push as from an unseen hand, and would swing back and forth more than ever. I stood there with open mouth and staring eyes, ice-cold chills ran down my back, and drops of perspiration stood out on my forehead. Finally, I could endure it no longer. I sprang to the door, seized the key with both hands and put it on my desk under a pile of heavy books. Then I breathed a sigh of relief.
My lamp was about to go out and I discovered that I had no more oil. With feverish haste I threw my clothes off, blew out the light and sprang into bed as if to smother my fears.
But once alone in the darkness the fears grew worse than ever. They grew into dreams and visions. It seemed to me as if I were out in the graveyard again, and heard the screaming of the rusty weather vane as the wind turned it. Then I was in the mill again; the wheels were turning and stretching out ghostly hands to draw me into the yawning maw of the machine. Then again, I found myself in a long, low, pitch-black corridor, followed by Something I could not see—Something that drove me to the mouth of a bottomless abyss. I would start up out of my half sleep, listen and look about me, then fall back again into an uneasy slumber.
Suddenly something fell from the ceiling onto the bed, and “buzz— buzz—buzz” sounded about my head. It was a huge fly which had been sleeping in a corner of my room and had been roused by the heat of the stove. It flew about in great circles, now around the bed, now in all four corners of the chamber—”buzz—buzz—buzz”—it was unendurable! At last I heard it creep into a bag of sugar which had been left on the window sill. I sprang up and closed the bag tight. The fly buzzed worse than ever, but I went back to bed and attempted to sleep again, feeling that I had conquered the enemy.
I began to count: I counted slowly to one hundred, two hundred, finally up to one thousand, and then at last I experienced that pleasant weakness which is the forerunner of true sleep. I seemed to be in a beautiful garden, bright with many flowers and odorous with all the perfumes of spring. At my side walked a beautiful young girl. I seemed to know her well, and yet it was not possible for me to remember her name, or even to know how we came to be wandering there together. As we walked slowly through the paths she would stop to pick a flower or to admire a brilliant butterfly swaying in the air. Suddenly a cold wind blew through the garden. The young girl trembled and her cheeks grew pale. “I am cold,” she said to me, “do you not see? It is Death who is approaching us.”
I would have answered, but in the same moment another stronger and still more icy gust roared through the garden. The leaves turned pale on the trees, the flowerets bent their heads, and the bees and butterflies fell lifeless to the earth. “That is Death,” whispered my companion, trembling.
A third icy gust blew the last leaves from the bushes, white crosses and gravestones appeared between the bare twigs—and I was in the churchyard again and heard the screaming of the rusty weather vane. Beside me stood a heavy brass-bound coffin with a metal plate on the cover. I bent down to read the inscription, the cover rolled off suddenly, and from out the coffin rose the form of the young girl who had been with me in the garden. I stretched out my arms to clasp her to my breast—then, oh horror! I saw the greenish-gleaming, empty eye sockets of the skull. I felt bony arms around me, dragging me back into the coffin. I screamed aloud for help and woke up.
My room seemed unusually light; but I remembered that it was a moonlight night and thought no more of it. I tried to explain the visions of my dream with various natural noises about me. The imprisoned fly buzzed as loudly as a whole swarm of bees; one half of my window had blown open, and the cold night air rushed in gusts into my room.
I sprang up to close the window, and then I saw that the strong white light that filled my room did not come from the moon, but seemed to shine out from the church opposite. I heard the chiming of the bells, soft at first, as if in far distance, then stronger and stronger until, mingled with the rolling notes of the organ, a mighty rush of sound struck against my windows. I stared out into the street and could scarcely believe my eyes. The houses in the market place just beyond were all little one-story buildings with bow windows and wooden eave troughs ending in carved dragon heads. Most of them had balconies of carved woodwork, and high stone stoops with gleaming brass rails.
But it was the church most of all that aroused my astonishment. Its position was completely changed. Its front turned toward our house where usually the side had stood. The church was brilliantly lighted, and now I perceived that it was this light which filled my room. I stood speechless amid the chiming of the bells and the roaring of the organ, and I saw a long wedding procession moving slowly up the center aisle of the church toward the altar. The light was so brilliant that I could distinguish each one of the figures. They were all in strange old-time costumes; the ladies in brocades and satins with strings of pearls in their powdered hair, the gentlemen in uniform with knee breeches, swords, and cocked hats held under their arms. But it was the bride who drew my attention most strongly. She was clothed in white satin, and a faded myrtle wreath was twisted through the powdered locks beneath her sweeping veil. The bridegroom at her side wore a red uniform and many decorations. Slowly they approached the altar, where an old man in black vestments and a heavy white wig was awaiting them. They stood before him, and I could see that he was reading the ritual from a gold-lettered book.
One of the train stepped forward and unbuckled the bridegroom’s sword, that his right hand might be free to take that of the bride. She seemed about to raise her own hand to his, when she suddenly sank fainting at his feet. The guests hurried toward the altar, the lights went out, the music stopped, and the figures floated together like pale white mists.
But outside in the square it was still brighter than before, and I suddenly saw the side portal of the church burst open and the wedding procession move out across the market place.
I turned as if to flee, but could not move a muscle. Quiet, as if turned to stone, I stood and watched the ghostly figures that came nearer and nearer. The clergyman led the train, then came the bridegroom and the bride, and as the latter raised her eyes to me I saw that it was the young girl of the garden. Her eyes were so full of pain, so full of sad entreaty that I could scarce endure them; but how shall I explain the feeling that shot through me as I suddenly discovered that the right sleeve of her white satin gown hung empty at her side? The train disappeared, and the tone of the church bells changed to a strange, dry, creaking sound, and the gate below me complained as it turned on its rusty hinges. I faced toward my own door. I knew that it was shut and locked, but I knew that the ghostly procession were coming to call me to account, and I felt that no walls could keep them out. My door flew open, there was a rustling as of silken gowns, but the figures seemed to float in in the changing forms of swaying white mists. Closer and closer they gathered around me, robbing me of breath, robbing me of the power to move. There was a silence as of the grave—and then I saw before me the old priest with his gold-lettered book. He raised his hand and spoke with a soft, deep voice: “The grave is sacred! Let no one dare to disturb the peace of the dead.”
“The grave is sacred!” an echo rolled through the room as the swaying figures moved like reeds in the wind.
“What do you want? What do you demand?” I gasped in the grip of a deathly fear.
“Give back to the grave that which belongs to it,” said the deep voice again.
“Give back to the grave that which belongs to it,” repeated the echo as the swaying forms pressed closer to me.
“But it’s impossible—I can’t—I have sold it—sold it at auction!” I screamed in despair. “It was buried and found in the earth—and sold for five marks eight shillings—”
A hideous scream came from the ghostly ranks. They threw themselves upon me as the white fog rolls in from the sea, they pressed upon me until I could no longer breathe. Beside myself, I threw open the window and attempted to spring out, screaming aloud: “Help! help! murder! they are murdering me!”
The sound of my own voice awoke me. I found myself in my night clothes on the window sill, one leg already out of the window and both hands clutching at the center post. On the street below me stood the night watchman, staring up at me in astonishment, while faint white clouds of mist rolled out of my window like smoke. All around outside lay the November fog, gray and moist, and as the fresh air of the early dawn blew cool on my face I felt my senses returning to me. I looked down at the night watch man—God bless him! He was a big, strong, comfortably fat fellow made of real flesh and blood, and no ghost shape of the night. I looked at the round tower of the church—how massive and venerable it stood there, gray in the gray of the morning mists. I looked over at the market place. There was a light in the baker shop and a farmer stood before it, tying his horse to a post. Back in my own room everything was in its usual place. Even the little paper bag with the sugar lay there on the window sill, and the imprisoned fly buzzed louder than ever. I knew that I was really awake and that the day was coming. I sprang back hastily from the window and was about to jump into bed, when my foot touched something hard and sharp.
I stooped to see what it was, felt about on the floor in the half light, and touched a long, dry, skeleton arm which held a tiny roll of paper in its bony fingers. I felt about again, and found still another arm, also holding a roll of paper. Then I began to think that my reason must be going. What I had seen thus far was only an unusually vivid dream—a vision of my heated imagination. But I knew that I was awake now, and yet here lay two-no, three (for there was still another arm)—hard, undeniable, material proofs that what I had thought was hallucination, might have been reality. Trembling in the thought that madness was threatening me, I tore open the first roll of paper. On it was written the name: “Solling.” I caught at the second and opened it. There stood the word: “Nansen.” I had just strength enough left to catch the third paper and open it—there was my own name: “Simsen.”
Then I sank fainting to the floor.
When I came to myself again, Niels Daae stood beside me with an empty water bottle, the contents of which were dripping off my person and off the sofa upon which I was lying. “Here, drink this,” he said in a soothing tone. “It will make you feel better.”
I looked about me wildly, as I sipped at the glass of brandy which put new life into me once more. “What has happened?” I asked weakly.
“Oh, nothing of importance,” answered Niels. “You were just about to commit suicide by means of charcoal gas. Those are mighty bad ventilators on your old stove there. The wind must have blown them shut, unless you were fool enough to close them yourself before you went to bed. If you had not opened the window, you would have already been too far along the path to Paradise to be called back by a glass of brandy. Take another.”
“How did you get up here?” I asked, sitting upright on the sofa.
“Through the door in the usual simple manner,” answered Niels Daae. “I was on watch last night in the hospital; but Mathiesen’s punch is heavy and my watching was more like sleeping, so I thought it better to come away in the early morning. As I passed your barracks here, I saw you sitting in the window in your nightshirt and calling down to the night watchman that some one was murdering you. I managed to wake up Jansen down below you, and got into the house through his window. Do you usually sleep on the bare floor?”
“But where did the arms come from?” I asked, still half bewildered.
“Oh, the devil take those arms,” cried Niels. “Just see if you can stand up all right now. Oh, those arms there? Why, those are the arms I cut off your skeletons. Clever idea, wasn’t it? You know how grumpy Solling gets if anything interferes with his tutoring. You see, I’d had the geese sent me, and I wanted you to all come with me to Mathiesen’s place. I knew you were going to read the osteology of the arm, so I went up into Solling’s room, opened it with his own keys and took the arms from his skeleton. I did the same here while you were downstairs in the reading room. Have you been stupid enough to take them down off their frames, and take away their tickets? I had marked them so carefully, that each man should get his own again.”
I dressed hastily and went out with Niels into the fresh, cool morning air. A few minutes later we separated, and I turned toward the street where Solling lived. Without heeding the protest of his old landlady, I entered the room where he still slept the sleep of the just. The arm, still wrapped in newspaper, lay on his desk. I took it up, put the mark piece in its place and hastened with all speed to the churchyard.
How different it looked in the early dawn! The fog had risen and shining frost pearls hung in the bare twigs of the tall trees where the sparrows were already twittering their morning song. There was no one to be seen. The churchyard lay quiet and peaceful. I stepped over the heaps of bones to where the heavy oaken coffin lay under a tree. Cautiously I pushed the arm back into its interior, and hammered the rusty nails into their places again, just as the first rays of the pale November sun touched a gleam of light from the metal plate on the cover.—Then the weight was lifted from my soul.
*First published at “The Continental Classics, vol. 18, Mystery Tales, 1909.”
SOV THADE TAGE EM EREB, OF RER IN KARHIDE, ON GETHEN
I live in the oldest city in the world. Long before there were kings in Karhide, Rer was a city, the marketplace and meeting ground for all the Northeast, the Plains, and Kerm Land. The Fastness of Rer was a center of learning, a refuge, a judgment seat fifteen thousand years ago. Karhide became a nation here, under the Geger kings, who ruled for a thousand years. In the thousandth year Sedern Geger, the Unking, cast the crown into the River Arre from the palace towers, proclaiming an end to dominion. The time they call the Flowering of Rer, the Summer Century, began then. It ended when the Hearth of Harge took power and moved their capital across the mountains to Erhenrang. The Old Palace has been empty for centuries. But it stands. Nothing in Rer falls down. The Arre floods through the street-tunnels every year in the Thaw, winter blizzards may bring thirty feet of snow, but the city stands. Nobody knows how old the houses are, because they have been rebuilt forever. Each one sits in its gardens without respect to the position of any of the others, as vast and random and ancient as hills. The roofed streets and canals angle about among them. Rer is all corners. We say that the Harges left because they were afraid of what might be around the corner.
Time is different here. I learned in school how the Orgota, the Ekumen, and most other people count years. They call the year of some portentous event Year One and number forward from it. Here it’s always Year One. On Getheny Thern, New Year’s Day, the Year One becomes one-ago, one-to-come becomes One, and so on. It’s like Rer, everything always changing but the city never changing.
When I was fourteen (in the Year One, or fifty-ago) I came of age. I have been thinking about that a good deal recently.
It was a different world. Most of us had never seen an Alien, as we called them then. We might have heard the Mobile talk on the radio, and at school we saw pictures of Aliens—the ones with hair around their mouths were the most pleasingly savage and repulsive. Most of the pictures were disappointing. They looked too much like us. You couldn’t even tell that they were always in kemmer. The female Aliens were supposed to have enormous breasts, but my Mothersib Dory had bigger breasts than the ones in the pictures.
When the Defenders of the Faith kicked them out of Orgoreyn, when King Emran got into the Border War and lost Erhenrang, even when their Mobiles were outlawed and forced into hiding at Estre in Kerm, the Ekumen did nothing much but wait. They had waited for two hundred years, as patient as Handdara. They did one thing: they took our young king off-world to foil a plot, and then brought the same king back sixty years later to end her wombchild’s disastrous reign. Argaven XVII is the only king who ever ruled four years before her heir and forty years after.
The year I was born (the Year One, or sixty-four-ago) was the year Argaven’s second reign began. By the time I was noticing anything beyond my own toes, the war was over, the West Fall was part of Karhide again, the capital was back in Erhenrang, and most of the damage done to Rer during the Overthrow of Emran had been repaired. The old houses had been rebuilt again. The Old Palace had been patched again. Argaven XVII was miraculously back on the throne again. Everything was the way it used to be, ought to be, back to normal, just like the old days—everybody said so.
Indeed those were quiet years, an interval of recovery before Argaven, the first Gethenian who ever left our planet, brought us at last fully into the Ekumen; before we, not they, became the Aliens; before we came of age. When I was a child we lived the way people had lived in Rer forever. It is that way, that timeless world, that world around the corner, I have been thinking about, and trying to describe for people who never knew it. Yet as I write I see how also nothing changes, that it is truly the Year One always, for each child that comes of age, each lover who falls in love.
There were a couple of thousand people in the Ereb Hearths, and a hundred and forty of them lived in my Hearth, Ereb Tage. My name is Sov Thade Tage em Ereb, after the old way of naming we still use in Rer. The first thing I remember is a huge dark place full of shouting and shadows, and I am falling upward through a golden light into the darkness. In thrilling terror, I scream. I am caught in my fall, held, held close; I weep; a voice so close to me that it seems to speak through my body says softly, “Sov, Sov, Sov.” And then I am given something wonderful to eat, something so sweet, so delicate that never again will I eat anything quite so good…
I imagine that some of my wild elder hearthsibs had been throwing me about, and that my mother comforted me with a bit of festival cake. Later on when I was a wild elder sib we used to play catch with babies for balls; they always screamed, with terror or with delight, or both. It’s the nearest to flying anyone of my generation knew. We had dozens of different words for the way snow falls, floats, descends, glides; blows, for the way clouds move, the way ice floats, the way boats sail; but not that word. Not yet. And so I don’t remember “flying.” I remember falling upward through the golden light.
Family houses in Rer are built around a big central hall. Each story has an inner balcony clear round that space, and we call the whole story, rooms and all, a balcony. My family occupied the whole second balcony of Ereb Tage. There were a lot of us. My grandmother had borne four children, and all of them had children, so I had a bunch of cousins as well as a younger and an older wombsib. “The Thades always kemmer as women and always get pregnant,” I heard neighbors say, variously envious, disapproving, admiring. “And they never keep kemmer,” somebody would add. The former was an exaggeration, but the latter was true. Not one of us kids had a father. I didn’t know for years who my getter was, and never gave it a thought. Clannish, the Thades preferred not to bring outsiders, even other members of our own Hearth, into the family. If young people fell in love and started talking about keeping kemmer or making vows, Grandmother and the mothers were ruthless. “Vowing kemmer, what do you think you are, some kind of noble? some kind of fancy person? The kemmerhouse was good enough for me and it’s good enough for you,” the mothers said to their lovelorn children, and sent them away, clear off to the old Ereb Domain in the country, to hoe braties till they got over being in love.
So as a child I was a member of a flock, a school; a swarm, in and out of our warren of rooms, tearing up and down the staircases, working together and learning together and looking after the babies—in our own fashion—and terrorizing quieter hearthmates by our numbers and our noise. As far as I know we did no real harm. Our escapades were well within the rules and limits of the sedate, ancient Hearth, which we felt not as constraints but as protection, the walls that kept us safe. The only time we got punished was when my cousin Sether decided it would be exciting if we tied a long rope we’d found to the second-floor balcony railing, tied a big knot in the rope, held onto the knot, and jumped. “I’ll go first,” Sether said. Another misguided attempt at flight. The railing and Sether’s broken leg were mended, and the rest of us had to clean the privies, all the privies of the Hearth, for a month. I think the rest of the Hearth had decided it was time the young Thades observed some discipline.
Although I really don’t know what I was like as a child, I think that if I’d had any choice I might have been less noisy than my playmates, though just as unruly. I used to love to listen to the radio, and while the rest of them were racketing around the balconies or the centerhall in winter, or out in the streets and gardens in summer, I would crouch for hours in my mother’s room behind the bed, playing her old serem-wood radio very softly so that my sibs wouldn’t know I was there. I listened to anything, Lays and plays and hearthtales, the Palace news, the analyses of grain harvests and the detailed weather reports; I listened every day all one winter to an ancient saga from the Pering Storm-Border about snowghouls, perfidious traitors, and bloody ax-murders, which haunted me at night so that I couldn’t sleep and would crawl into bed with my mother for comfort. Often my younger sib was already there in the warm, soft, breathing dark. We would sleep all entangled and curled up together like a nest of Pesthry.
My mother, Guyr Thade Tage em Ereb, was impatient, warm-hearted, and impartial, not exerting much control over us three wombchildren, buy keeping watch. The Thades were all tradespeople working in Ereb shops and masteries, with little or no cash to spend; but when I was ten, Guyr bought me a radio, a new one, and said where my sibs could hear, “You don’t have to share it.” I treasured it for years and finally shared it with my own wombchild.
So the years went along and I went along in the warmth and density and certainty of a family and a Hearth embedded in tradition, threads on the quick ever-repeating shuttle weaving the timeless web of custom and act and work and relationship, and at this distance I can hardly tell one year from the other or myself from the other children: until I turned fourteen.
The reason most people in my Hearth would remember that year is for the big party known as Dory’s Somer-Forever Celebration. My Mothersib Dory had stopped going into kemmer that winter. Some people didn’t do anything when they stopped going into kemmer; others went to the Fastness for a ritual; some stayed on at the Fastness for months after, or even moved there. Dory, who wasn’t spiritually inclined, said, “If I can’t have kids and can’t have sex anymore and have to get old and die, at least I can have a party.”
I have already had some trouble trying to tell this story in a language that has no somer pronouns, only gendered pronouns. In their last years of kemmer, as the hormone balance chances, many people tend to go into kemmer as men; Dory’s kemmers had been male for over a year, so I’ll call Dory “he,” although of course the point was that he would never be either he or she again.
In any event, his party was tremendous. He invited everyone in our Hearth and the two neighboring Ereb Hearths, and it went on for three days. It had been a long winter and the spring was late and cold; people were ready for something new, something hot to happen. We cooked for a week, and a whole storeroom was packed full of beer kegs. A lot of people who were in the middle of going out of kemmer, or had already and hadn’t done anything about it, came and joined in the ritual. That’s what I remember vividly: in the firelit three-story centerhall of our Hearth, a circle of thirty or forty people, all middle-aged or old, singing and dancing, stamping the drumbeats. There was a fierce energy in them, their gray hair was loose and wild, they stamped as if their feet would go through the floor, their voices were deep and strong, they were laughing. The younger people watching them seemed pallid and shadowy. I looked at the dancers and wondered, why are they happy? Aren’t they old? Why do they act like they’d got free? What’s it like, then, kemmer?
No, I hadn’t thought much about kemmer before. What would be the use? Until we come of age we have no gender and no sexuality, our hormones don’t give us any trouble at all. And in a city Hearth we never see adults in kemmer. They kiss and go. Where’s Maba? In the kemmerhouse, love, now eat your porridge. When’s Maba coming back? Soon, love. And in a couple of days Maba comes back, looking sleepy and shiny and refreshed and exhausted. Is it like having a bath, Maba? Yes, a bit, love, and what have you been up to while I was away?
Of course we played kemmer, when we were seven or eight. This here’s the kemmerhouse and I get to be the woman. No, I do. No, I do, I thought of it! And we rubbed our bodies together and rolled around laughing, and then maybe we stuffed a ball under our shirt and were pregnant, and then we gave birth, and then we played catch with the ball. Children will play whatever adults do; but the kemmer game wasn’t much of a game. It often ended in a tickling match. And most children aren’t even very ticklish; till they come of age.
After Dory’s party, I was on duty in the Hearth creche all through Tuwa, the last month of spring; come summer I began my fast apprenticeship, in a furniture workshop in the Third Ward. I loved getting up early and running across the city on the wayroofs and up on the curbs of the open ways; after the late Thaw some of the ways were still full of water, deep enough for kayaks and poleboats. The air would be still and cold and clear; the sun would come up behind the old towers of the Unpalace, red as blood, and all the waters and the windows of the city would flash scarlet and gold. In the workshop there was the piercing sweet smell of fresh-cut wood and the company of grown people, hard-working, patient, and demanding, taking me seriously. I wasn’t a child anymore, I said to myself. I was an adult, a working person.
But why did I want to cry all the time? Why did I want to sleep all the time? Why did I get angry at Sether? Why did Sether keep bumping into me and saying “Oh sorry” in that stupid husky voice? Why was I so clumsy with the big electric lathe that I ruined six chair-legs one after the other? “Get that kid off the lathe,” shouted old Marth, and I slunk away in a fury of humiliation. I would never be a carpenter, I would never be adult, who gave a shit for chair-legs anyway?
“I want to work in the gardens,” I told my mother and grandmother.
“Finish your training and you can work in the gardens next summer,” Grand said, and Mother nodded. This sensible counsel appeared to me as a heartless injustice, a failure of love, a condemnation to despair. I Sulked. I raged.
“What’s wrong with the furniture shop?” my elders asked after several days of sulk and rage.
“Why does stupid Sether have to be there!” I shouted. Dory, who was Sether’s mother, raised an eyebrow and smiled.
“Are you all right?” my mother asked me as I slouched into the balcony after work, and I snarled, “I’m fine,” and rushed to the privies and vomited.
I was sick. My back ached all the time. My head ached and got dizzy and heavy. Something I could not locate anywhere, some part of my soul, hurt with a keen, desolate, ceaseless pain. I was afraid of myself: of my tears, my rage, my sickness, my clumsy body. It did not feel like my body, like me. It felt like something else, an ill-fitting garment, a smelly, heavy overcoat that belonged to some old person, some dead person. It wasn’t mine, it wasn’t me. Tiny needles of agony shot through my nipples, hot as fire. When I winced and held my arms across my chest, I knew that everybody could see what was happening. Anybody could smell me. I smelled sour, strong, like blood, tike raw pelts of animals. My clitopenis was swollen hugely and stuck out from between my labia, and then shrank nearly to nothing, so that it hurt to piss. My labia itched and reddened as with loathsome insect-bites. Deep in my belly something moved, some monstrous growth. I was utterly ashamed. I was dying.
“Sov,” my mother said, sitting down beside me on my bed, with a curious, tender, complicitous smile, “shall we choose your kemmerday?”
“I’m not in kemmer,” I said passionately.
“No,” Guyr said. “But next month I think you will be.”
“I won’t! “
My mother stroked my hair and face and arm. We shape each other to be human, old people used to say as they stroked babies or children or one another with those long, slow, soft caresses.
After a while my mother said, “Sether’s coming in, too. But a month or so later than you, I think. Dory said let’s have a double kemmerday, but I think you should have your own day in your own time.”
I burst into tears and cried, “I don’t want one, I don’t want to, I just want, I just want to go away…”
“Sov,” my mother said, “if you want to, you can go to the kemmerhouse at Gerodda Ereb, where you won’t know anybody. But I think it would be better here, where people do know you. They’d like it. They’ll be so glad for you. Oh, your Grand’s so proud of you! ‘Have you seen that grandchild of mine, Sov, have you seen what a beauty, what amahad! ‘ Everybody’s bored to tears hearing about you…”
Mahad is a dialect word, a Rer word; it means a strong, handsome, generous, upright person, a reliable person. My mother’s stern mother, who commanded and thanked, but never praised, said I was a mahad? A terrifying idea, that dried my tears.
“All right,” I said desperately, “Here. But not next month! It isn’t. I’m not.”
“Let me see,” my mother said. Fiercely embarrassed yet relieved to obey, I stood up and undid my trousers.
My mother took a very brief and delicate look, hugged me, and said, “Next month, yes, I’m sure. You’ll feel much better in a day or two. And next month it’ll be different. It really will.”
Sure enough, the next day the headache and the hot itching were gone, and though I was still tired and sleepy a lot of the time, I wasn’t quite so stupid and clumsy at work. After a few more days I felt pretty much myself, light and easy in my limbs. Only if I thought about it there was still that queer feeling that wasn’t quite in any part of my body, and that was sometimes very painful and sometimes only strange, almost something I wanted to feel again.
My cousin Sether and I had been apprenticed together at the furniture shop. We didn’t go to work together because Sether was still slightly lame from that rope trick a couple of years earlier, and got a lift to work in a poleboat so long as there was water in the streets. When they closed the Arre Watergate and the ways went dry, Sether had to walk. So we walked together. The first couple of days we didn’t talk much. I still felt angry at Sether. Because I couldn’t run through the dawn anymore but had to walk at a lame-leg pace. And because Sether was always around. Always there. Taller than me, and quicker at the lathe, and with that long, heavy, shining hair. Why did anybody want to wear their hair so long, anyhow? I felt as if Sether’s hair was in front of my own eyes.
We were walking home, tired, on a hot evening of Ockre, the first month of summer. I could see that Sether was limping and trying to hide or ignore it, trying to swing right along at my quick pace, very straight-backed, scowling. A great wave of pity and admiration overwhelmed me, and that thing, that growth, that new being, whatever it was in my bowels and in the ground of my soul moved and turned again, turned towards Sether, aching, yearning.
Are you coming into kemmer?” I said in a hoarse, husky voice I had never heard come out of my mouth.
“In a couple of months,” Sether said in a mumble, not looking at me, still very stiff and frowning.
“I guess I have to have this, do this, you know, this stuff, pretty soon.”
“I wish I could,” Sether said. “Get it over with.”
We did not look at each other. Very gradually, unnoticeably, I was slowing my pace till we were going along side by side at an easy walk.
“Sometimes do you feel like your tits are on fire?” I asked without knowing that I was going to say anything.
After a while, Sether said, “Listen, does your pisser get…”
“It must be what the Aliens look like,” Sether said with revulsion. “This, this thing sticking out, it gets so big … it gets in the way.”
We exchanged and compared symptoms for a mile or so. It was a relief to talk about it, to find company in misery, but it was also frightening to hear our misery confirmed by the other. Sether burst out, “I’ll tell you what I hate, what I really hate about it—it’s dehumanizing. To get jerked around like that by your own body, to lose control, I can’t stand the idea. Of being just a sex machine. And everybody just turns into something to have sex with. You know that people in kemmer go crazy and die if there isn’t anybody else in kemmer? That they’ll even attack people in somer? Their own mothers?”
“They can’t,” I said, shocked.
“Yes they can. Tharry told me. This truck driver up in the High Kargav went into kemmer as a male while their caravan was stuck in the snow, and he was big and strong, and he went crazy and he, he did it to his cab-mate, and his cab-mate was in somer and got hurt, really hurt, trying to fight him off. And then the driver came out of kemmer and committed suicide.”
This horrible story brought the sickness back up from the pit of my stomach, and I could say nothing.
Sether went on, “People in kemmer aren’t even human anymore! And we have to do that—to be that way!
Now that awful, desolate fear was out in the open. But it was not a relief to speak it. It was even larger and more terrible, spoken.
“It’s stupid,” Sether said. “It’s a primitive device for continuing the species. There’s no need for civilized people to undergo it. People who want to get pregnant could do it with injections. It would be genetically sound. You could choose your child’s better. There wouldn’t be all this inbreeding, people fucking with their sibs, like animals. Why do we have to be animals?”
Sether’s rage stirred me. I shared it. I also felt shocked and excited by the word “fucking,” which I had never heard spoken. I looked again at my cousin, the thin, ruddy face, the heavy, long, shining hair. My age, Sether looked older. A half year in pain from a shattered leg had darkened and matured the adventurous, mischievous child, teaching anger, pride, endurance. “Sether,” I said, “listen, it doesn’t matter, you’re human, even if you have to do that stuff, that fucking. You’re a mahad.”
“Getheny Kus,” Grand said: the first day of the month of Kus, midsummer day.
“I won’t be ready,” I said.
“You’ll be ready.”
“I want to go into kemmer with Sether.”
“Sether’s got a month or two yet to go. Soon enough. It looks like you might be on the same moon-time, though. Dark-of-the-mooners, eh? That’s what I used to be. So, just stay on the same wavelength, you and Sether…” Grand had never grinned at me this way, an inclusive grin, as if I were an equal.
My mother’s mother was sixty years old, short, brawny, broad-hipped, with keen clear eyes, a stone-mason by trade, an unquestioned autocrat in the Hearth. I, equal to this formidable person? It was my first intimation that I might be becoming more, rather than less, human.
“I’d like it,” said Grand, “if you spent this half-month at the Fastness. But it’s up to you.”
“At the Fastness?” I said, taken by surprise. We Thades were all Handdara, but very inert Handdara, keeping only the great festivals, muttering the grace all in one garbled word, practicing none of the disciplines. None of my older hearthsibs had been sent off to the Fastness before their kemmerday. Was there something wrong with me?
“You’ve got a good brain,” said Grand. “You and Sether. I’d like to see some of you lot casting some shadows, some day. We Thades sit here in our Hearth and breed like pesthry. Is that enough? It’d be a good thing if some of you got your heads out of the bedding.”
“What do they do in the Fastness?” I asked, and Grand answered frankly, “I don’t know. Go find out.
They teach you. They can teach you how to control kemmer.”
“All right,” I said promptly. I would tell Sether that the Indwellers could control kemmer. Maybe I could learn how to do it and come home and teach it to Sether.
Grand looked at me with approval. I had taken up the challenge.
Of course I didn’t learn how to control kemmer, in a halfmonth in the Fastness. The first couple of days there, I thought I wouldn’t even be able to control my homesickness. From our warm, dark warren of rooms full of people talking, sleeping, eating, cooking, washing, playing remma, playing music, kids running around, noise, family, I went across the city to a huge, clean, cold, quiet house of strangers. They were courteous, they treated me with respect. I was terrified. Why should a person of forty, who knew magic disciplines of superhuman strength and fortitude, who could walk barefoot through blizzards, who could Foretell, whose eyes were the wisest and calmest I had ever seen, why should an Adept of the Handdara respect me?
“Because you are so ignorant,” Ranharrer the Adept said, smiling, with great tenderness.
Having me only for a halfmonth, they didn’t try to influence the nature of my ignorance very much. I practiced the Untrance several hours a day, and came to like it: that was quite enough for them, and they praised me. “At fourteen, most people go crazy moving slowly,” my teacher said.
During my last six or seven days in the Fastness certain symptoms began to show up again, the headache, the swellings and shooting pains, the irritability. One morning the sheet of my cot in my bare, peaceful little room was bloodstained. I looked at the smear with horror and loathing. I thought I had scratched my itching labia to bleeding in my sleep, but I knew also what the blood was. I began to cry. I had to wash the sheet somehow. I had fouled, defiled this place where everything was clean, austere, and beautiful.
An old Indweller, finding me scrubbing desperately at the sheet in the washrooms, said nothing, but brought me some soap that bleached away the stain. I went back to my room, which I had come to love with the passion of one who had never before known any actual privacy, and crouched on the sheetless bed, miserable, checking every few minutes to be sure I was not bleeding again. I missed my Untrance practice time. The immense house was very quiet. Its peace sank into me. Again I felt that strangeness in my soul, but it was not pain now; it was a desolation like the air at evening, like the peaks of the Kargav seen far in the west in the clarity of winter. It was an immense enlargement.
Ranharrer the Adept knocked and entered at my word, looked at me for a minute, and asked gently, “What is it?”
“Everything is strange,” I said.
The Adept smiled radiantly and said, “Yes.”
I know now how Ranharrer cherished and honored my ignorance, in the Handdara sense. Then I knew only that somehow or other I had said the right thing and so pleased a person I wanted very much to please.
“We’re doing some singing,” Ranharrer said, “you might like to hear it.”
They were in fact singing the Midsummer Chant, which goes on for the four days before Getheny Kus, night and day. Singers and drummers drop in and out at will, most of them singing on certain syllables in an endless group improvisation guided only by the drums and by melodic cues in the Chantbook, and failing into harmony with the soloist if one is present. At first I heard only a pleasantly thick-textured, droning sound over a quiet and subtle beat. I listened till I got bored and decided I could do it too. So I opened my mouth and sang “Aah” and heard all the other voices singing “Aah” above and with and below mine until I lost mine and heard only all the voices, and then only the music itself, and then suddenly the startling silvery rush of a single voice running across the weaving, against the current, and sinking into it and vanishing, and rising out of it again… Ranharrer touched my arm. It was time for dinner, I had been singing since Third Hour. I went back to the chantry after dinner, and after supper. I spent the next three days there. I would have spent the nights there if they had let me. I wasn’t sleepy at all anymore. I had sudden, endless energy, and couldn’t sleep. In my little room I sang to myself, or read the strange Handdara poetry which was the only book they had given me, and practiced the Untrance, trying to ignore the heat and cold, the fire and ice in my body, till dawn came and I could go sing again.
And then it was Ottormenbod, midsummer’s eve, and I must go home to my Hearth and the kemmerhouse.
To my surprise, my mother and grandmother and all the elders came to the Fastness to fetch me, wearing ceremonial hiebs and looking solemn. Ranharrer handed me over to them, saying to me only, “Come back to us.” My family paraded me through the streets in the hot summer morning; all the vines were in flower, perfuming the air, all the gardens were blooming, bearing, fruiting. “This is an excellent time,” Grand said judiciously, “to come into kemmer.”
The Hearth looked very dark to me after the Fastness, and somehow shrunken. I looked around for Sether, but it was a workday, Sether was at the shop. That gave me a sense of holiday, which was not unpleasant. And then up in the hearthroom of our balcony, Grand and the Hearth elders formally presented me with a whole set of new clothes, new everything, from the boots up, topped by a magnificently embroidered hieb. There was a spoken ritual that went with the clothes, not Handdara; I think, but a tradition of our Hearth; the words were all old and strange, the language of a thousand years ago. Grand rattled them out like somebody spitting rocks, and put the hieb on my shoulders. Everybody said, “Haya!”
All the elders, and a lot of younger kids, hung around helping me put on the new clothes as if I was a king or a baby, and some of the elders wanted to give me advice—”last advice,” they called it, since you gain shifgrethor when you go into kemmer, and once you have shifgrethor advice is insulting. “Now you just keep away from that old Ebbeche,” one of them told me shrilly. My mother took offense, snapping, “Keep your shadow to yourself, Tadsh!” And to me, “Don’t listen to the old fish. Flapmouth Tadsh! But now listen, Sov.”
I listened. Guyr had drawn me a little away from the others, and spoke gravely, with some embarrassment. “Remember, it will matter who you’re with first.”
I nodded. “I understand,” I said.
“No, you don’t,” my mother snapped, forgetting to be embarrassed. “Just keep it in mind!”
“What, ah,” I said. My mother waited. “If I, if I go into, as a, as female,” I said. “Don’t I, shouldn’t I—?”
“Ah,” Guyr said. “Don’t worry. It’ll be a year or more before you can conceive. Or get. Don’t worry, this time. The other people will see to it, just in case. They all know it’s your first kemmer. But do keep it in mind, who you’re with first! Around, oh, around Karrid, and Ebbeche, and some of them.”
“Come on!” Dory shouted, and we all got into a procession again to go downstairs and across the centerhall, where everybody cheered “Haya Sov! Haya Sov!” and the cooks beat on their saucepans. I wanted to die. But they all seemed so cheerful, so happy about me, wishing me well; I wanted also to live.
We went out the west door and across the sunny gardens and came to the kemmerhouse. Tage Ereb shares a kemmerhouse with two other Ereb Hearths; it’s a beautiful building, all carved with deep-figure friezes in the Old Dynasty style, terribly worn by the weather of a couple of thousand years. On the red stone steps my family all kissed me, murmuring, “Praise then Darkness,” or “In the act of creation praise,” and my mother gave me a hard push on my shoulders, what they call the sledge-push, for good luck, as I turned away from them and went in the door.
The doorkeeper was waiting for me; a queer-looking, rather stooped person, with coarse, pale skin.
Now I realized who this “Ebbeche” they’d been talking about was. I’d never met him, but I’d heard about him. He was the Doorkeeper of our kemmerhouse, a halfdead—that is, a person in permanent kemmer, like the Aliens.
There are always a few people born that way here. Some of them can be cured; those who can’t or choose not to be usually live in a Fastness and learn the disciplines, or they become Doorkeepers. It’s convenient for them, and for normal people too. After all, who else would want to live in a kemmerhouse? But there are drawbacks. If you come to the kemmerhouse in thorharmen, ready to gender, and the first person you meet is fully male, his pheromones are likely to gender you female right then, whether that’s what you had in mind this month or not. Responsible Doorkeepers, of course, keep well away from anybody who doesn’t invite them to come close. But permanent kemmer may not lead to responsibility of character; nor does being called halfdead and pervert all your life, I imagine. Obviously my family didn’t trust Ebbeche to keep his hands and his pheromones off me. But they were unjust. He honored a first kemmer as much as anyone else. He greeted me by name and showed me where to take off my new boots. Then he began to speak the ancient ritual welcome, backing down the hall before me; the first time I ever heard the words I would hear so many times again for so many years.
You cross earth now.
You cross water now.
You cross the Ice now….
And the exulting ending, as we came into the centerhall:
Together we have crossed the Ice.
Together we come into the Hearthplace,
Into life, bringing life!
In the act of creation, praise!
The solemnity of the words moved me and distracted me somewhat from my intense self-consciousness. As I had in the Fastness, I felt the familiar reassurance of being part of something immensely older and larger than myself, even if it was strange and new to me. I must entrust myself to it and be what it made me. At the same time I was intensely alert. All my senses were extraordinarily keen, as they had been all morning. I was aware of everything, the beautiful blue color of the walls, the lightness and vigor of my steps as I walked, the texture of the wood under my bare feet, the sound and meaning of the ritual words, the Doorkeeper himself. He fascinated me. Ebbeche was certainly not handsome, and yet I noticed how musical his rather deep voice was; and pale skin was more attractive than I had ever thought it. I felt that he had been maligned, that his life must be a strange one. I wanted to talk to him. But as he finished the welcome, standing aside for me at the doorway of the centerhall, a tall person strode forward eagerly to meet me.
I was glad to see a familiar face: it was the head cook of my Hearth, Karrid Arrage. Like many cooks a rather fierce and temperamental person, Karrid had often taken notice of me, singling me out in a joking, challenging way, tossing me some delicacy—”Here, youngun! get some meat on your bones!” As I saw Karrid now I went through the most extraordinary multiplicity of awarenesses: that Karrid was naked and that this nakedness was not like the nakedness of people in the Hearth, but a significant nakedness—that he was not the Karrid I had seen before but transfigured into great beauty—that he was he —that my mother had warned me about him—that I wanted to touch him—that I was afraid of him.
He picked me right up in his arms and pressed me against him. I felt his clitopenis like a fist between my legs. “Easy, now,” the Doorkeeper said to him, and some other people came forward from the room, which I could see only as large, dimly glowing, full of shadows and mist.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” Karrid said to me and them, with his hard laugh. “I won’t hurt my own get, will I? I just want to be the one that gives her kemmer. As a woman, like a proper Thade. I want to give you that joy, little Sov.” He was undressing me as he spoke, slipping off my hieb and shirt with big, hot, hasty hands. The Doorkeeper and the others kept close watch, but did not interfere. I felt totally defenseless, helpless, humiliated. I struggled to get free, broke loose, and tried to pick up and put on my shirt. I was shaking and felt terribly weak, I could hardly stand up. Karrid helped me clumsily; his big arm supported me. I leaned against him, feeling his hot, vibrant skin against mine, a wonderful feeling, like sunlight, like firelight. I leaned more heavily against him, raising my arms so that our sides slid together. “Hey, now,” he said. “Oh, you beauty, oh, you Sov, here, take her away, this won’t do!” And he backed right away from me, laughing and yet really alarmed, his clitopenis standing up amazingly. I stood there half-dressed, on my rubbery legs, bewildered. My eyes were full of mist, I could see nothing clearly.
“Come on,” somebody said, and took my hand, a soft, cool touch totally different from the fire of Karrid’s skin. It was a person from one of the other Hearths, I didn’t know her name. She seemed to me to shine like gold in the dim, misty place. “Oh, you’re going so fast,” she said, laughing and admiring and consoling. “Come on, come into the pool, take it easy for a while. Karrid shouldn’t have come on to you like that! But you’re lucky, first kemmer as a woman, there’s nothing like it. I kemmered as a man three times before I got to kemmer as a woman, it made me so mad, every time I got into thorharmen all my damn friends would all be women already. Don’t worry about me—I’d say Karrid’s influence was decisive,” and she laughed again. “Oh, you are so pretty!” and she bent her head and licked my nipples before I knew what she was doing.
It was wonderful, it cooled that stinging fire in them that nothing else could cool. She helped me finish undressing, and we stepped together into the warm water of the big, shallow pool that filled the whole center of this room. That was why it was so misty, why the echoes were so strange. The water lapped on my thighs, on my sex, on my belly. I turned to my friend and leaned forward to kiss her. It was a perfectly natural thing to do, it was what she wanted and I wanted, and I wanted her to lick and suck my nipples again, and she did. For a long time we lay in the shallow water playing, and I could have played forever. But then somebody else joined us, taking hold of my friend from behind, and she arched her body in the water like a golden fish leaping, threw her back, and began to play with him.
I got out of the water and dried myself, feeling sad and shy and forsaken, and yet extremely interested in what had happened to my body. It felt wonderfully alive and electric, so that the roughness of the towel made me shiver with pleasure. Somebody had come closer to me, somebody that had been watching me play with my friend in the water. He sat down by me now.
It was a hearthmate a few years older than I, Arrad Tehemmy. I had worked in the gardens with Arrad all last summer, and liked him. He looked like Sether, I now thought, with heavy black hair and a long, thin face, but in him was that shining, that glory they all had here—all the kemmerers, the women , the men —such vivid beauty as I had never seen in any human beings. “Sov,” he said, “I’d like—Your first—Will you—” His hands were already on me, and mine on him. “Come,” he said, and I went with him. He took me into a beautiful little room, in which there was nothing but a fire burning in a fireplace, and a wide bed. There Arrad took me into his arms and I took Arrad into my arms, and then between my legs, and fell upward, upward through the golden light.
Arrad and I were together all that first night, and besides fucking a great deal, we ate a great deal. It had not occurred to me that there would be food at a kemmerhouse, I had thought you weren’t allowed to do anything but fuck. There was a lot of food, very good, too, set out so that you could eat whenever you wanted. Drink was more limited; the person in charge, an old woman-halfdead, kept her canny eye on you, and wouldn’t give you any more beer if you showed signs of getting wild or stupid. I didn’t need any more beer. I didn’t need any more fucking. I was complete. I was in love forever for all time all my life to eternity with Arrad. But Arrad (who was a day farther into kemmer than I) fell asleep and wouldn’t wake up, and an extraordinary person named Hama sat down by me and began talking and also running his hand up and down my back in the most delicious way, so that before long we got further entangled, and began fucking, and it was entirely different with Hama than it had been with Arrad, so that I realized that I must be in love with Hama, until Gehardar joined us. After that I think I began to understand that I loved them all and they all loved me and that that was the secret of the kemmerhouse.
It’s been nearly fifty years, and I have to admit I do not recall everyone from my first kemmer; only Karrid and Arrad, Hama and Gehardar, old Tubanny, the most exquisitely skillful lover as a male that I ever knew—I met him often in later kemmers—and Berre, my golden fish, with whom I ended up in drowsy, peaceful, blissful lovemaking in front of the great hearth till we both fell asleep. And when we woke we were not women. We were not men. We were not in kemmer. We were very tired young adults.
“You’re still beautiful,” I said to Berre.
“So are you,” Berre said. “Where do you work?”
“Furniture shop, Third Ward.”
I tried licking Berre’s nipple, but it didn’t work; Berre flinched a little, and I said “Sorry,” and we both laughed.
“I’m in the radio trade,” Berre said. “Did you ever think of trying that?”
“No. Broadcasting. I do the Fourth Hour news and weather.”
“That’s you?” I said, awed.
“Come over to the tower some time, I’ll show you around,” said Berre.
Which is how I found my lifelong trade and a life-long friend. As I tried to tell Sether when I came back to the Hearth, kemmer isn’t exactly what we thought it was; it’s much more complicated.
Sether’s first kemmer was on Getheny Gor, the first day of the first month of autumn, at the dark of the moon. One of the family brought Sether into kemmer as a woman, and then Sether brought me in. That was the first time I kemmered as a man. And we stayed on the same wavelength, as Grand put it. We never conceived together, being cousins and having some modern scruples, but we made love in every combination, every dark of the moon, for years. And Sether brought my child, Tamor, into first kemmer—as a woman, like a proper Thade.
Later on Sether went into the Handdara, and became an Indweller in the old Fastness, and now is an Adept. I go over there often to join in one of the Chants or practice the Untrance or just to visit, and every few days Sether comes back to the Hearth. And we talk. The old days or the new times, somer or kemmer, love is love.
*Copyright © 1995 by Ursula K. Le Guin . The story first appeared NEW LEGENDS in 1995, and then in THE BIRTHDAY OF THE WORLD, published by HarperCollins in 2002 Reprinted by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd.
*Image: Dancing the Dance of Life by Andrea Wan.
Well, as I was saying, the Emperor got into bed.
“Chevalier,” says he to his valet, “let down those window-curtains, and shut the casement before you leave the room.”
Chevalier did as he was told, and then, taking up his candlestick, departed.
In a few minutes the Emperor felt his pillow becoming rather hard, and he got up to shake it. As he did so a slight rustling noise was heard near the bed-head. His Majesty listened, but all was silent as he lay down again.
Scarcely had he settled into a peaceful attitude of repose, when he was disturbed by a sensation of thirst. Lifting himself on his elbow, he took a glass of lemonade from the small stand which was placed beside him. He refreshed himself by a deep draught. As he returned the goblet to its station a deep groan burst from a kind of closet in one corner of the apartment.
“Who’s there?” cried the Emperor, seizing his pistols. “Speak, or I’ll blow your brains out.”
This threat produced no other effect than a short, sharp laugh, and a dead silence followed.
The Emperor started from his couch, and, hastily throwing on a robe-de-chambre which hung over the back of a chair, stepped courageously to the haunted closet. As he opened the door something rustled. He sprang forward sword in hand. No soul or even substance appeared, and the rustling, it was evident, proceeded from the falling of a cloak, which had been suspended by a peg from the door.
Half ashamed of himself he returned to bed.
Just as he was about once more to close his eyes, the light of the three wax tapers, which burned in a silver branch over the mantlepiece, was suddenly darkened. He looked up. A black, opaque shadow obscured it. Sweating with terror, the Emperor put out his hand to seize the bell- rope, but some invisible being snatched it rudely from his grasp, and at the same instant the ominous shade vanished.
“Pooh!” exclaimed Napoleon, “it was but an ocular delusion.”
“Was it?” whispered a hollow voice, in deep mysterious tones, close to his ear. “Was it a delusion, Emperor of France? No! all thou hast heard and seen is sad forewarning reality. Rise, lifter of the Eagle Standard! Awake, swayer of the Lily Sceptre! Follow me, Napoleon, and thou shalt see more.”
As the voice ceased, a form dawned on his astonished sight. It was that of a tall, thin man, dressed in a blue surtout edged with gold lace. It wore a black cravat very tightly round its neck, and confined by two little sticks placed behind each ear. The countenance was livid; the tongue protruded from between the teeth, and the eyes all glazed and bloodshot started with frightful prominence from their sockets.
“Mon Dieu!” exclaimed the Emperor, “what do I see? Spectre, whence cometh thou?”
The apparition spoke not, but gliding forward beckoned Napoleon with uplifted finger to follow.
Controlled by a mysterious influence, which deprived him of the capability of either thinking or acting for himself, he obeyed in silence.
The solid wall of the apartment fell open as they approached, and, when both had passed through, it closed behind them with a noise like thunder.
They would now have been in total darkness had it not been for a dim light which shone round the ghost and revealed the damp walls of a long, vaulted passage. Down this they proceeded with mute rapidity. Ere long a cool, refreshing breeze, which rushed wailing up the vault and caused the Emperor to wrap his loose nightdress closer round, announced their approach to the open air.
This they soon reached, and Nap found himself in one of the principal streets of Paris.
“Worthy Spirit,” said he, shivering in the chill night air, “permit me to return and put on some additional clothing. I will be with you again presently.”
“Forward,” replied his companion sternly.
He felt compelled, in spite of the rising indignation which almost choked him, to obey.
On they went through the deserted streets till they arrived at a lofty house built on the banks of the Seine. Here the Spectre stopped, the gates rolled back to receive them, and they entered a large marble hall which was partly concealed by a curtain drawn across, through the half transparent folds of which a bright light might be seen burning with dazzling lustre. A row of fine female figures, richly attired, stood before this screen. They wore on their heads garlands of the most beautiful flowers, but their faces were concealed by ghastly masks representing death’s-heads.
“What is all this mummery?” cried the Emperor, making an effort to shake off the mental shackles by which he was so unwillingly restrained, “Where am I, and why have I been brought here?”
“Silence,” said the guide, lolling out still further his black and bloody tongue. “Silence, if thou wouldst escape instant death.”
The Emperor would have replied, his natural courage overcoming the temporary awe to which he had at first been subjected, but just then a strain of wild, supernatural music swelled behind the huge curtain, which waved to and fro, and bellied slowly out as if agitated by some internal commotion or battle of waving winds. At the same moment an overpowering mixture of the scents of mortal corruption, blent with the richest Eastern odours, stole through the haunted hall.
A murmur of many voices was now heard at a distance, and something grasped his arm eagerly from behind.
He turned hastily round. His eyes met the well-known countenance of Marie Louise.
“What! are you in this infernal place, too?” said he. “What has brought you here?”
“Will your Majesty permit me to ask the same question of yourself?” said the Empress, smiling.
He made no reply; astonishment prevented him.
No curtain now intervened between him and the light. It had been removed as if by magic, and a splendid chandelier appeared suspended over his head. Throngs of ladies, richly dressed, but without death’s-head masks, stood round, and a due proportion of gay cavaliers was mingled with them. Music was still sounding, but it was seen to proceed from a band of mortal musicians stationed in an orchestra near at hand. The air was yet redolent of incense, but it was incense unblended with stench.
“Mon dieu!” cried the Emperor, “how is all this come about? Where in the world is Piche?”
“Piche?” replied the Empress. “What does your Majesty mean? Had you not better leave the apartment and retire to rest?”
“Leave the apartment? Why, where am I?”
“In my private drawing-room, surrounded by a few particular persons of the Court whom I had invited this evening to a ball. You entered a few minutes since in your nightdress with your eyes fixed and wide open. I suppose from the astonishment you now testify that you were walking in your sleep.”
The Emperor immediately fell into a fit of catalepsy, in which he continued during the whole of that night and the greater part of the next day.
* Taken from the manuscript of the “Green Dwarf” dated July 10, 1833 – September 2, 1833, and republished in The Twelve Adventurers and other stories, London, 1925.
At a late age, Thomas Francini, the engineer responsible for many of the grand fountains at Versailles and infamous for his will to control, married the sixteen-year-old daughter of the Compte de Frontenac, a pristine child whom he dressed in taffy-colored velvets and ribbons and paraded through the Villa di Pratolino near Florence. Francini bought his young wife what she pleased from torch-lit shops, and what she could not find, he invented for her, producing a variety of curious wind-ups. She possessed a clock in the shape of an oversized parakeet with pearl eyes and jade plumage, set to trill at the lunch and dinner hour. There was also a small silver man that cried like a newborn until held, at which point he would grow intensely warm to the touch. Finally, the pinnacle of her collection, a miniature Madonna that swung open to reveal a trinity—the fierce and stoic God and fiery dove of the Holy Ghost ready to be birthed alongside the infant Christ.
When asked about her husband, the child bride, called Florette, said it was as if the Lord had sent his kindest angel to care for her and keep her heart in a treasury box, safe from all those who would harm it. She could never be bruised or pierced with the great inventor at her side. But soon she learned that even Francini could not stop time and the persistence of disease. Plague blossoms spread on the skin of her throat, and he was reduced to sitting at her bedside, wiping sores with swabs until the organic machinery of Florette’s heart and lungs had stilled. He declared he would not marry again and wore a musical locket around his neck that held the child’s portrait and played strains of “Come, Heavy Sleep” at intervals timed to match those that sounded inside Florette’s own mechanical coffin. Soon after the girl’s funeral, Francini purchased a portion of land and announced he would construct his final great invention there, a monument to sorrow for everyone to see—the automatic garden at Saint-Germaine-en-Laye.
The writings of Clodio Sévat, Vicar Emeritus and servant to the Dauphin, give us a brief glimpse of Francini’s garden and echo the general anxiety of seventeenth century French and Italian aristocracy concerning that place: “Though it has been nearly a month since my pilgrimage to Saint-Germaine-en-Laye, I still cannot wipe the yellow-stained eyes of Thomas Francini’s metal men and beasts from my memory, nor can I forget the sight of Francini himself stalking through his field of glass flowers like some devil, dragging what appeared to be a common garden hoe behind. Does Francini believe that God’s good works should be made again, and that he, however noble an engineer, can improve upon them? And what soul motivates these new creatures? He assures us it is mere water and steam, but, dear reader, I tell you it is more than that.”
Gladly, not all travelers were as brief as the Vicar Emeritus, lest the automatic garden, which burned to the ground nearly a year after its opening, might have been lost entirely to time. “Maestro Francini’s water- and steam-powered automata,” wrote the Duchess of Langres in her private journal after a trip to the garden, “are of a new and unexpected breed. I was warned by my companion that these false creatures might disturb me with their preternatural resemblances to life, but I instead found myself intrigued. Their ability to exude what appeared as emotion was startling, yes, but not frightening. Never in my life did I think I would see a tiger ravaged by sadness crouching in the underbrush and looking at me with amber glass eyes, or Poseidon himself, crying tears into the very ocean that he rules—tears that were then swallowed by a thick and toothy monster who lives in the ocean’s depths. I was moved to call for an interview with Maestro Francini, wishing to enquire about the labyrinthine secrets of his inventions. And yet despite my status and the fact that I had attended the funeral of his bride, Florette, I was rebuked by what appeared to be a page in a red tunic who told me that the Master was frail and no longer tolerated audiences. It was only after the page’s retreat into a forest of metallic pines that my companion, characteristically droll, asked whether or not I’d caught the sun glinting oddly off the young man’s skin or whether I’d seen the glassiness in his eyes.
“I drew my wrap closer and begged my friend to assure me he was not implying that the page had been some advanced version of Francini’s moving statuary. He replied with a laugh, saying he’d only been trying to give me chills, but by the time I’d reached the garden’s third terrace, I did not need such humor to provide tremors. It was there that I saw what I can only describe as a ‘dragon’ rising from a stone basin, only to be slain by a lifelike knight in white armor who descended from the columned ceiling on a golden rope. The dragon’s blood was as red and real as my own, yet it spread across the flagstones in delicate calligraphy as if sketched by an artist’s hand. I was forced to ask my friend to find a bench on which I could gather my wits. ‘We shouldn’t have come here, Duchess,’ he said, but I replied that I was glad we’d come, despite the effect. Francini’s automatic garden showed me that a certain sickness—a questioning of one’s world—could serve as a kind of enlightenment.”
Like the automatic garden, the answer to whether the death of Francini’s wife, Florette, had truly given rise to his monument of sorrow is largely lost to history. Francini’s motivation for his final invention was a topic of debate in fashionable circles, and many argued that there was more to the inventor’s grief than the death of poor, simple Florette. Gossip about such details was often named as the cause of the inventor’s self-imposed exile to Saint-Germaine-en-Laye and his distancing himself from the aristocracy. It was not Florette who’d shamed him, after all, but the prior object of his passions who had made for a near public embarrassment and perhaps even venial sin.
Antonio Cornazzano had been a danseur and general actor of the Florentine stage who’d met the great engineer during the period when Francini was commissioned to build a revolving set for La Ballet de La Deliverance de Renaud. Francini, who could then still be called a young man, adored the danseur, and that affection was apparently reciprocated. The two were often seen huddled in dimly-lit taverns of Florence over a candle and a serving of black ale, discussing topics in such hushed voices that no one else could hear. Despite the apparent gravity of these discussions, Francini and Cornazzano sometimes burst into hearty laughter, and tavern patrons reported an unnatural magnetism between the two men. There were even rumors of sorcery, though André Félibien, court historian to Louis XIV, dismisses such conjecture as peasant talk. “Simply stated,” he writes, “Thomas Francini and Antonio Cornazzano behaved as artists will, and though such behavior seems, at times, against nature, we must learn to accept and make do if the theater is to persist.”
Francini’s revolving stage set for the ballet was said to be a marvel—a replica of the city of Florence itself. And the ninety-two dancers and singers employed to move through the mock streets, bedrooms and common houses did so in an exhaustive display of “city-life” which also encompassed a spiritual dimension, as the upper parts of the central stage contained sets for the unmovable Empyrean of the Heaven. Masked angels and demons pulled silken ropes connected to doorways that affected the lives of the human dancers. Cornazzano acted as choreographer for the production and worked closely with Francini to create what many called a “threatening sense of fantasy.”
The emotion between dark-featured Francini and agile Cornazzano developed a volatile irrepressibility. They could not contain themselves even when they worked with the dancers, and were often seen erupting into laughter and pulling each other out into the alley behind the theater to calm themselves with sobering talk. It was only when they lurched back to Francini’s rented villa one night after drinking and were set upon by a band of Florentine locals and dashed to the flagstones that the two men became more cautious.
When precisely they decided to begin living inside of Francini’s revolving set for the ballet, we do not know, but a number of sources document that Francini, who’d already made his fortune at Versailles, started stocking the taverns and shops of the set with actual goods and even hired out-of-work ballerinas to act as barmaids and shop keeps. He and Cornazzano lived privately on the stage, setting up house each night after the performance ended, enjoying that false city as they had previously enjoyed the actual streets of Florence. There were taverns in which the two could drink black ale by candlelight without the interruption of noisy patrons, and there was a library filled with fake books. Actual texts proved unnecessary because Francini could recite portions of Le Morte Darthur as well as Gargantua and Pantegruel by heart. At times, the two men climbed into the Heavenly domain, lit the wicks of the stars, and floated through the Empyrean on Francini’s cleverly concealed wooden pallets.
A ballerina managed to steal a letter that Francini had left for Cornazzano on a pillow in one of the small apartments. The letter ended with a line that became popular in Florence as fashionable blasphemy: “I do not love God, my darling, ’Tonio. For what is God when there is you?” Cornazzano’s response to those words remains in ellipsis. The content of the young man’s heart is largely unknown. It is only years later that we hear from him in his own words. By then, he had married and seen the birth of three children with his wife, Marie, and together they owned a small theater in Charleville. Cornazzano wrote his thoughts in a sturdy leather diary which he then concealed in one of the walls of his home. In recent times, the diary has surfaced, and while it provides an uncomfortable end to the story of the two men, it gives evocative details of the automatic garden itself, which Cornazzano was invited to visit by the great inventor a month before fire consumed it.
Cornazzano begins the journal with intimations of the falling out between Francini and him years before.
They’d apparently abandoned their home in the revolving set long before the Ballet de Renaud had closed. “It has been years,” he writes in his careful yet unschooled hand, “and I wonder if I am being overly cautious or cruel by suggesting that we meet at the garden itself rather than at Francini’s home. I do not want to recall our privacies or the invented world we shared. It wasn’t merely the stage—our fake city. We invented places in our minds, as well, that we could slip off to even in a crowd. I remember what Thomas said to me—that two men living together is in itself a kind of invention, a household of dream furniture and shadow servants. Is it wrong that I do not want to even come close to this dream again? How would I explain such a thing to my dear Marie or to my children, the eldest of whom is almost the age of Thomas’s own bizarre deceased bride. By coming to the automatic garden, I hope to appease him, so that his letters will stop. I admit I am nervous to see what he calls his ‘great defiance,’ his palace against the day.”
Cornazzano writes that he was greeted at the garden’s columned gate by a page draped in a cloak dyed the color of saffron and told that Master Francini was unwell and sent his apologies for not being able to join Cornazzano on the tour. This came as quite a surprise to Cornazzano who’d believed the entire reason for this trip was so that Francini could see him again and perhaps persuade him that this place was like the other fantasy in which they’d lived—a new set for a fresh and dangerous ballet.
He attempted to beg off, saying that he was a busy man with a theater to run and did not have time to walk the garden if Francini could not be bothered to escort him, but the page became insistent, grabbing Cornazzano’s arm and pulling him into the garden toward the forest of the gods. “Please, Monsieur. Master will be miserable if you don’t at least give me some word of praise for his inventions.” Finally Cornazzano conceded to take a short walk through the place, writing, “The page’s hand was cold—not like a dead man, but like one who has never lived. I feared disagreement, so I allowed myself to be led.” The walk turned into a game of mad circling through the garden’s multiple levels and in the dim light of a forest path, the page disappeared, and Cornazzano was left alone with Francini’s glowering mechanicals.
He became intrigued by a bed of glass chrysanthemums—a flower of the orient, rarely seen in France. The stem of the mechanical chrysanthemum was made of green copper with sharp-edged leaves protruding, and the petals of the flower itself were crafted from thin pieces of stained glass. Inside the stem was what appeared to be a small flame of the sort one finds in lanterns which was given oxygen at regular intervals, causing the chrysanthemum to pulse with a light that suggested the process of blooming. The brightening of the flower was subtle, nearly imperceptible, and Cornazzano writes that even after studying the chrysanthemum for a few minutes, he was hard-pressed to say whether it was growing brighter or dimmer. The light seemed to exist somewhere inside of his own body, in fact, a warmth in his core. “The mechanical chrysanthemum causes a momentary dizziness with its warmth,” he adds, “a sensation that is not altogether unpleasant.”
So entranced, Cornazzano did not recognize the approach of the figure in black, and when he caught his first glimpse of it standing at the stony edge of the garden path, he did not fully comprehend what he saw. He attests instead to being startled as one can be startled by an unexpected mirror hanging at the end of a gallery. The figure that stood in the grass and watched him was not an obvious automaton. Unlike the moving statue of Poseidon who wept into his miniature ocean, or the huntress, Diana, who drew her bowstring in the dark forest, this figure, had a versatile range of movement. It was able to crouch, then stand, and then to caper there at the edge of the path, as if begging for Cornazzano’s approach.
Our chronicler likens the figure to one of the dancing fauns in the garden’s Doric gallery, but man-sized and wearing a garment that looked like a merchant’s robe with a wide lace ruff around its neck. The collar was crenulated and gave the appearance that the automaton’s head, bearing its pale and almost luminous face, was displayed on a black plate. Its mouth was open in what could not be called a smile, and so surprising was the creature that Cornazzano did not at first recognize it as a replica of himself. “Would any man know himself clothed in such odd garments,” he writes, “and set to caper and leer like a demon?”
The automaton turned from the path, and its fluidity of movement made Cornazzano momentarily believe the thing must be an actor in heavy makeup or mask, merely pretending to be a machine. But there were subtle inhumanities to its gestures that soon convinced him otherwise. Just as one could never mistake the mechanical chrysanthemum for a real flower, neither could one think this object was a man.
The creature fled across the garden, black boots flickering over the grass, and was it any wonder that Cornazzano left the safety of the path to chase his double, hungry for a better look? The automaton darted playfully beneath an evening sky as dark as iron. It ran through a swamp of reeds that hummed sad flute-song, and then across a plain of grass which rippled, though there was no breeze in the air.
Cornazzano watched as his replica slipped into one of the many grottoes that were too smooth for nature. No longer the agile danseur he’d once been, he found himself winded at the entrance to the cave and stopped, considering whether he should continue following the creature. His blond hair lay wet against his forehead. His gut heaved. He knew he should walk away—leave Francini to his madness. But still some part of him wanted to doubt what his eyes had recorded. It was not possible that Francini had built his own Cornazzano to live in his garden of gods.
Cornazzano writes, I crept into the cave and found the creature no longer dancing but crouched near one wall, huddled in its tunic as if for warmth. Seeing the details of my own face—or rather the details of how I had once been, a young and foolish boy—gave rise to an intense and surprising anger. I wondered if Francini was making a mockery of me, or worse, if perhaps he used this metal man for some type of pleasure. And I found myself gripping the thing’s pallid face, feeling the contours of its chin and cheeks. I pulled at its nose which was made of some soft metal, pushed at its eyes until the bulbs of glass cracked beneath my thumbs. The automaton did not struggle. It allowed its destruction. Perhaps that is even why it led me to the cave. And when I reached into the creature’s mouth, trying to find some tongue to pull out, I heard behind me the scuff of a leather boot on the sandy cave floor.
I turned to see Francini himself—hair shot with silver, eyes set deep in his skull, standing and watching in the fading light. This was not my laughing friend from Florence with bright eyes and wine-stained lips. This was a poor copy—an old man—ruined and sad.
“What have you done?” he asked in a soft voice.
By then I had managed to rip the automaton’s lower jaw from its head, and I tossed it at Francini’s feet. “That question,” I said, “would be better put to you, maestro.”
“I thought you would like him, ’Tonio,” Francini whispered. He bent to pick up the jaw from the cave floor, and as I formulated some rebuke, feeling the old dangers and passions rushing back into the causeways of my heart, I realized something was wrong. Francini’s fingers were around the jaw bone, but he did not grasp it, nor did he attempt to straighten himself. He had grown intensely still in his awkward, bent position, and it was only then that I realized—this was not Francini. It was not even alive.
Such horror I felt. I could not move my arms or legs, could not look at this false Francini with limp gray hair hanging against its brow. I wondered if my old friend even still existed. I wanted to cry out for him. I wanted Francini to reveal himself in flesh and blood, but I held my tongue. How I escaped the automatic garden, I do not know. It seems to me that the gods called to me as I ran—begged me not to leave at first and then mocked me for my foolishness. And even as I sit composing these lines at my own wooden table in my home where I can hear the sound of my good wife speaking to my children in the upper rooms, I wonder if am I still in that garden, lying on the cave floor, broken into my separate parts.
Adam McOmber, “The Automatic Garden” from This New & Poisonous Air. Copyright © 2011 by Adam McOmber. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.
But the best evidence we have that time travel is not possible, and never will be, is that we have not been invaded by hordes of tourists from the future.
Stephen Hawking, “The Future of the Universe”
I remember now how lonely I was when I met Cross. I never let anyone know about it, because being alone back then didn’t make me quite so unhappy. Besides, I was just a kid. I thought it was my own fault.
It looked like I had friends. In 1962, I was on the swim team and got elected Assistant Patrol Leader of the Wolf Patrol in Boy Scout Troop 7. When sides got chosen for kickball at recess, I was usually the fourth or fifth pick. I wasn’t the best student in the sixth grade of John Jay Elementary School — that was Betty Garolli. But I was smart and the other kids made me feel bad about it. So I stopped raising my hand when I knew the answer and I watched my vocabulary. I remember I said albeit once in class and they teased me for weeks. Packs of girls would come up to me on the playground. “Oh Ray,” they’d call and when I turned around they’d scream, “All beat it!” and run away, choking with laughter.
It wasn’t that I wanted to be popular or anything. All I really wanted was a friend, one friend, a friend I didn’t have to hide anything from. Then came Cross, and that was the end of that.
One of the problems was that we lived so far away from everything. Back then, Westchester County wasn’t so suburban. Our house was deep in the woods in tiny Willoughby, New York, at the dead end of Cobb’s Hill Road. In the winter, we could see Long Island Sound, a silver needle on the horizon pointing toward the city. But school was a half hour drive away and the nearest kid lived in Ward’s Hollow, three miles down the road, and he was a dumb fourth-grader.
So I didn’t have any real friends. Instead, I had science fiction. Mom used to complain that I was obsessed. I watched Superman reruns every day after school. On Friday nights Dad used to let me stay up for Twilight Zone, but that fall CBS had temporarily cancelled it. It came back in January after everything happened, but was never quite the same. On Saturdays, I watched old sci-fi movies on Adventure Theater. My favorites were Forbidden Planet and The Day The Earth Stood Still. I think it was because of the robots. I decided that when I grew up and it was the future, I was going to buy one, so I wouldn’t have to be alone anymore.
On Monday mornings I’d get my weekly allowance — a quarter. Usually I’d get off the bus that same afternoon down in Ward’s Hollow so I could go to Village Variety. Twenty five cents bought two comics and a pack of red licorice. I especially loved DC’s Green Lantern, Marvel’s Fantastic Four and Incredible Hulk, but I’d buy almost any superhero. I read all the science fiction books in the library twice, even though Mom kept nagging me to try different things. But what I loved best of all was Galaxy magazine. Dad had a subscription and when he was done reading them he would slip them to me. Mom didn’t approve. I always used to read them up in the attic or out in the lean-to I’d lashed together in the woods. Afterwards I’d store them under my bunk in the bomb shelter. I knew that after the nuclear war, there would be no TV or radio or anything and I’d need something to keep me busy when I wasn’t fighting mutants.
I was too young in 1962 to understand about Mom’s drinking. I could see that she got bright and wobbly at night, but she was always up in the morning to make me a hot breakfast before school. And she would have graham crackers and peanut butter waiting when I came home — sometimes cinnamon toast. Dad said I shouldn’t ask Mom for rides after five because she got so tired keeping house for us. He sold Andersen windows and was away a lot, so I was pretty much stranded most of the time. But he always made a point of being home on the first Tuesday of the month, so he could take me to the Scout meeting at 7:30.
No, looking back on it, I can’t really say that I had an unhappy childhood — until I met Cross.
I remember it was a warm Saturday afternoon in October. The leaves covering the ground were still crisp and their scent spiced the air. I was in the lean-to I’d built that spring, mostly to practice the square and diagonal lashings I needed for Scouts. I was reading Galaxy. I even remember the story: “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell” by Cordwainer Smith. The squirrels must have been chittering for some time, but I was too engrossed by Lord Jestocost’s problems to notice. Then I heard a faint crunch, not ten feet away. I froze, listening. Crunch, crunch … then silence. It could’ve been a dog, except that dogs didn’t usually slink through the woods. I was hoping it might be a deer — I’d never seen deer in Willoughby before, although I’d heard hunters shooting. I scooted silently across the dirt floor and peered between the dead saplings.
At first I couldn’t see anything, which was odd. The woods weren’t all that thick and the leaves had long since dropped from the understory brush. I wondered if I had imagined the sounds; it wouldn’t have been the first time. Then I heard a twig snap, maybe a foot away. The wall shivered as if something had brushed against it, but there was nothing there. Nothing. I might have screamed then, except my throat started to close. I heard whatever it was skulk to the front of the lean-to. I watched in horror as an unseen weight pressed an acorn into the soft earth and then I scrambled back into the farthest corner. That’s when I noticed that, when I wasn’t looking directly at it, the air where the invisible thing should have been shimmered like a mirage. The lashings that held the frame creaked, as if it were bending over to see what it had caught, getting ready to drag me, squealing, out into the sun and ….
“Oh, fuck,” it said in a high, panicky voice and then it thrashed away into the woods.
In that moment I was transformed — and I suppose that history too was forever changed. I had somehow scared the thing off, twelve-year-old scrawny me! But more important was what it had said. Certainly I was well aware of the existence of the word fuck before then, but I had never dared use it myself, nor do I remember hearing it spoken by an adult. A spaz like the Murphy kid might say it under his breath, but he hardly counted. I’d always thought of it as language’s atomic bomb; used properly the word should make brains shrivel, eardrums explode. But when the invisible thing said fuck and then ran away, it betrayed a vulnerability that made me reckless and more than a little stupid.
“Hey, stop!” I took off in pursuit.
I didn’t have any trouble chasing it. The thing was no Davy Crockett; it was noisy and clumsy and slow. I could see a flickery outline as it lumbered along. I closed to within twenty feet and then had to hold back or I would’ve caught up to it. I had no idea what to do next. We blundered on in slower and slower motion until finally I just stopped.
“W-Wait,” I called. “W-What do you want?” I put my hands on my waist and bent over like I was trying to catch my breath, although I didn’t need to.
The thing stopped too but didn’t reply. Instead it sucked air in wheezy, ragged hooofs. It was harder to see, now that it was standing still, but I think it must have turned toward me.
“Are you okay?” I said.
“You are a child.” It spoke with an odd, chirping kind of accent. Child was Ch-eye-eld.
“I’m in the sixth grade.” I straightened, spread my hands in front of me to show that I wasn’t a threat. “What’s your name?” It didn’t answer. I took a step toward it and waited. Still nothing, but at least it didn’t bolt. “I’m Ray Beaumont,” I said finally. “I live over there.” I pointed. “How come I can’t see you?”
“What is the date?” It said da-ate-eh.
For a moment I thought it meant data. Data? I puzzled over an answer. I didn’t want it thinking I was just a stupid little kid. “I don’t know,” I said cautiously. “October twentieth?”
The thing considered this, then asked a question that took my breath away. “And what is the year?”
“Oh jeez,” I said. At that point I wouldn’t have been surprised if Rod Serling himself had popped out from behind a tree and started addressing the unseen TV audience. Which might have included me, except this was really happening. “Do you know what you just … what it means when ….”
“What, what?” Its voice rose in alarm.
“You’re invisible and you don’t know what year it is? Everyone knows what year it is. Are you … you’re not from here.”
“Yes, yes, I am. 1962, of course. This is 1962.” It paused. “And I am not invisible.” It squeezed about eight syllables into invisible. I heard a sound like paper ripping. “This is only camel.” Or at least, that’s what I thought it said.
“No, camo.” The air in front of me crinkled and slid away from a dark face. “You have not heard of camouflage?”
“Oh sure, camo.”
I suppose the thing meant to reassure me by showing itself, but the effect was just the opposite. Yes, it had two eyes, a nose, and a mouth. It stripped off the camouflage to reveal a neatly-pressed gray three piece business suit, a white shirt and a red and blue striped tie. At night, on a crowded street in Manhattan, I might’ve passed it right by — Dad had taught me not to stare at the kooks in the city. But in the afternoon light, I could see all the things wrong with its disguise. The hair, for example. Not exactly a crewcut, it was more of a stubble, like Mr. Rudowski’s chin when he was growing his beard. The thing was way too thin, its skin was shiny, its fingers too long and its face — it looked like one of those Barbie dolls.
“Are you a boy or a girl?” I said.
It started. “There is something wrong?”
I cocked my head to one side. “I think maybe it’s your eyes. They’re too big or something. Are you wearing makeup?”
“I am naturally male.” It — he bristled as he stepped out of the camouflage suit. “Eyes do not have gender.”
“If you say so.” I could see he was going to need help getting around, only he didn’t seem to know it. I was hoping he’d reveal himself, brief me on the mission. I even had an idea how we could contact President Kennedy or whoever he needed to meet with. Mr. Newell, the Scoutmaster, used to be a colonel in the Army — he would know some general who could call the Pentagon. “What’s your name?” I said.
He draped the suit over his arm. “Cross.”
I waited for the rest of it as he folded the suit in half. “Just Cross?” I said.
“My given name is Chitmansing.” He warbled it like he was calling birds.
“That’s okay,” I said. “Let’s just make it Mr. Cross.”
“As you wish, Mr. Beaumont.” He folded the suit again, again and again.
He continued to fold it.
“How do you do that? Can I see?”
He handed it over. The camo suit was more impossible than it had been when it was invisible. He had reduced it to a six inch square card, as thin and flexible as the queen of spades. I folded it in half myself. The two sides seemed to meld together; it would’ve fit into my wallet perfectly. I wondered if Cross knew how close I was to running off with his amazing gizmo. He’d never catch me. I could see flashes of my brilliant career as the invisible superhero. Tales to Confound presents: the origin of Camo Kid! I turned the card over and over, trying to figure out how to unfold it again. There was no seam, no latch. How could I use it if I couldn’t open it? “Neat,” I said. Reluctantly, I gave the card back to him.
Besides, real superheroes didn’t steal their powers.
I watched Cross slip the card into his vest pocket. I wasn’t scared of him. What scared me was that at any minute he might walk out of my life. I had to find a way to tell him I was on his side, whatever that was.
“So you live around here, Mr. Cross?”
“I am from the island of Mauritius.”
“It is in the Indian Ocean, Mr. Beaumont, near Madagascar.”
I knew where Madagascar was from playing Risk, so I told him that but then I couldn’t think of what else to say. Finally, I had to blurt out something — anything — to fill the silence. “It’s nice here. Real quiet, you know. Private.”
“Yes, I had not expected to meet anyone.” He, too, seemed at a loss. “I have business in New York City on the twenty-sixth of October.”
“New York, that’s a ways away.”
“Is it? How far would you say?”
“Fifty miles. Sixty, maybe. You have a car?”
“No, I do not drive, Mr. Beaumont. I am to take the train.”
The nearest train station was New Canaan, Connecticut. I could’ve hiked it in maybe half a day. It would be dark in a couple of hours. “If your business isn’t until the twenty-sixth, you’ll need a place to stay.”
“The plan is to take rooms at a hotel in Manhattan.”
“That costs money.”
He opened a wallet and showed me a wad of crisp new bills. For a minute I thought they must be counterfeit; I hadn’t realized that Ben Franklin’s picture was on money. Cross was giving me the goofiest grin. I just knew they’d eat him alive in New York and spit out the bones.
“Are you sure you want to stay in a hotel?” I said.
He frowned. “Why would I not?”
“Look, you need a friend, Mr. Cross. Things are different here than … than on your island. Sometimes people do, you know, bad stuff. Especially in the city.”
He nodded and put his wallet away. “I am aware of the dangers, Mr. Beaumont. I have trained not to draw attention to myself. I have the proper equipment.” He tapped the pocket where the camo was.
I didn’t point out to him that all his training and equipment hadn’t kept him from being caught out by a twelve-year-old. “Sure, okay. It’s just … Look, I have a place for you to stay, if you want. No one will know.”
“Your parents, Mr. Beaumont …”
“My dad’s in Massachusetts until next Friday. He travels; he’s in the window business. And my mom won’t know.”
“How can she not know that you have invited a stranger into your house?”
“Not the house,” I said. “My dad built us a bomb shelter. You’ll be safe there, Mr. Cross. It’s the safest place I know.”
I remember how Cross seemed to lose interest in me, his mission and the entire twentieth century the moment he entered the shelter. He sat around all of Sunday, dodging my attempts to draw him out. He seemed distracted, like he was listening to a conversation I couldn’t hear. When he wouldn’t talk, we played games. At first it was cards: Gin and Crazy Eights, mostly. In the afternoon, I went back to the house and brought over checkers and Monopoly. Despite the fact that he did not seem to be paying much attention, he beat me like a drum. Not one game was even close. But that wasn’t what bothered me. I believed that this man had come from the future, and here I was building hotels on Baltic Avenue!
Monday was a school day. I thought Cross would object to my plan of locking him in and taking both my key and Mom’s key with me, but he never said a word. I told him that it was the only way I could be sure that Mom didn’t catch him by surprise. Actually, I doubted she’d come all the way out to the shelter. She’d stayed away after Dad gave her that first tour; she had about as much use for nuclear war as she had for science fiction. Still, I had no idea what she did during the day while I was gone. I couldn’t take chances. Besides, it was a good way to make sure that Cross didn’t skin out on me.
Dad had built the shelter instead of taking a vacation in 1960, the year Kennedy beat Nixon. It was buried about a hundred and fifty feet from the house. Nothing special — just a little cellar without anything built on top of it. The entrance was a steel bulkhead that led down five steps to another steel door. The inside was cramped; there were a couple of cots, a sink and a toilet. Almost half of the space was filled with supplies and equipment. There were no windows and it always smelled a little musty, but I loved going down there to pretend the bombs were falling.
When I opened the shelter door after school on that Monday, Cross lay just as I had left him the night before, sprawled across the big cot, staring at nothing. I remember being a little worried; I thought he might be sick. I stood beside him and still he didn’t acknowledge my presence.
“Are you all right, Mr. Cross?” I said. “I bought Risk.” I set it next to him on the bed and nudged him with the corner of the box to wake him up. “Did you eat?”
He sat up, took the cover off the game and started reading the rules. “President Kennedy will address the nation,” he said, “this evening at seven o’clock.”
For a moment, I thought he had made a slip. “How do you know that?”
“The announcement came last night.” I realized that his pronunciation had improved a lot; announcement had only three syllables. “I have been studying the radio.”
I walked over to the radio on the shelf next to the sink. Dad said we were supposed to leave it unplugged — something about the bombs making a power surge. It was a brand new solid-state, multi-band Heath kit that I’d helped him build. When I pressed the on button, women immediately started singing about shopping: Where the values go up, up, up! And the prices go down, down, down! I turned it off again.
“Do me a favor, okay?” I said. “Next time when you’re done would you please unplug this? I could get in trouble if you don’t.” I stooped to yank the plug.
When I stood up, he was holding a sheet of paper. “I will need some things tomorrow, Mr. Beaumont. I would be grateful if you could assist me.”
I glanced at the list without comprehension. He must have typed it, only there was no typewriter in the shelter.
-One General Electric transistor radio with earplug
-One General Electric replacement earplug
-Two Eveready Heavy Duty nine volt batteries
-One New York Times, Tuesday, October 23
-Rand McNally map of New York City and vicinity
To receive in change:
-Five dollars in coins
When I looked up, I could feel the change in him. His gaze was electric; it seemed to crackle down my nerves. I could tell that what I did next would matter very much. “I don’t get it,” I said.
“There are inaccuracies?”
I tried to stall. “Look, you’ll pay almost double if we buy a transistor radio at Ward’s Hollow. I’ll have to buy it at Village Variety. Wait a couple of days — we can get one much cheaper down in Stamford.”
“My need is immediate.” He extended his hand and tucked something into the pocket of my shirt. “I am assured this will cover the expense.”
I was afraid to look, even though I knew what it was. He’d given me a hundred dollar bill. I tried to thrust it back at him but he stepped away and it spun to the floor between us. I can’t spend that.”
“You must read your own money, Mr. Beaumont.” He picked the bill up and brought it into the light of the bare bulb on the ceiling. “This note is legal tender for all debts public and private.”
“No, no, you don’t understand. A kid like me doesn’t walk into Village Variety with a hundred bucks. Mr. Rudowski will call my mom!”
“If it is inconvenient for you, I will secure the items myself.” He offered me the money again.
If I didn’t agree, he’d leave and probably never come back. I was getting mad at him. Everything would be so much easier if only he’d admit what we both knew about who he was. Then I could do whatever he wanted with a clear conscience. Instead he was keeping all the wrong secrets and acting really weird. It made me feet dirty, like I was helping a pervert. “What’s going on,” I said.
“I do not know how to respond, Mr. Beaumont. You have the list. Read it now and tell me please with which item you have a problem.”
I snatched the hundred dollars from him and jammed it into my pants pocket. “Why don’t you trust me?”
He stiffened as if I had hit him.
“I let you stay here. I didn’t tell anyone. You have to give me something, Mr. Cross.”
“Well then … ” He looked uncomfortable. “I would ask you to keep the change.”
“Oh jeez, thanks.” I snorted in disgust. “Okay, okay, I’ll buy this stuff right after school tomorrow.”
With that, he seemed to lose interest again. When we opened the Risk board, he showed me where his island was, except it wasn’t there because it was too small. We played three games and he crushed me every time. I remember at the end of the last game, watching in disbelief as he finished building a wall of invading armies along the shores of North Africa. South America, my last continent, was doomed. “Looks like you win again,” I said. I traded in the last of my cards for new armies and launched a final, useless counter-attack. When I was done, he studied the board for a moment.
“I think Risk is not a proper simulation, Mr. Beaumont. We should both lose for fighting such a war.”
“That’s crazy,” I said. “Both sides can’t lose.”
“Yet they can,” he said. “It sometimes happens that the victors envy the dead.”
That night was the first time I can remember being bothered by Mom talking back to the TV. I used to talk to the TV too. When Buffalo Bob asked what time it was, I would screech It’s Howdy Doody Time just like every other kid in America.
“My fellow citizens,” said President Kennedy, “let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out.” I thought the president looked tired, like Mr. Newell on the third day of a campout. “No one can foresee precisely what course it will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred.”
“Oh my god,” Mom screamed at him. “You’re going to kill us all!”
Despite the fact that it was close to her bedtime and she was shouting at the President of the United States, Mom looked great. She was wearing a shiny black dress and a string of pearls. She always got dressed up at night, whether Dad was home or not. I suppose most kids don’t notice how their mothers look, but everyone always said how beautiful Mom was. And since Dad thought so too, I went along with it — as long as she didn’t open her mouth. The problem was that a lot of the time, Mom didn’t make any sense. When she embarrassed me, it didn’t matter how pretty she was. I just wanted to crawl behind the couch.
As she leaned toward the television, the martini in her glass came close to slopping over the edge.
President Kennedy stayed calm. “The path we have chosen for the present is full of hazards, as all paths are — but it is the one most consistent with our character and courage as a nation and our commitments around the world. The cost of freedom is always high — but Americans have always paid it. And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender or submission.”
“Shut up! You foolish man, stop this.” She shot out of her chair and then some of her drink did spill. “Oh, damn!”
“Take it easy, Mom.”
“Don’t you understand?” She put the glass down and tore a Kleenex from the box on the end table. “He wants to start World War III!” She dabbed at the front of her dress and the phone rang.
I said, “Mom, nobody wants World War III.”
She ignored me, brushed by and picked up the phone on the third ring.
“Oh thank God,” she said. I could tell from the sound of her voice that it was Dad. “You heard him then?” She bit her lip as she listened to him. “Yes, but….”
Watching her face made me sorry I was in the sixth grade. Better to be a stupid little kid again, who thought grownups knew everything. I wondered whether Cross had heard the speech.
“No, I can’t, Dave. No.” She covered the phone with her hand. “Raymie, turn off that TV!”
I hated it when she called me Raymie, so I only turned the sound down.
“You have to come home now, Dave. No, you listen to me. Can’t you see, the man’s obsessed? Just because he has a grudge against Castro doesn’t mean he’s allowed to … .”
With the sound off, Chet Huntley looked as if he were speaking at his own funeral.
“I am not going in there without you.”
I think Dad must have been shouting because Mom held the receiver away from her ear.
She waited for him to calm down and said, “And neither is Raymie. He’ll stay with me.”
“Let me talk to him,” I said. I bounced off the couch. The look she gave me stopped me dead.
“What for?” she said to Dad. “No, we are going to finish this conversation, David, do you hear me?”
She listened for a moment. “Okay, all right, but don’t you dare hang up.” She waved me over and slapped the phone into my hand as if I had put the missiles in Cuba. She stalked to the kitchen.
I needed a grownup so bad that I almost cried when I heard Dad’s voice. “Ray,” he said, “your mother is pretty upset.”
“Yes,” I said.
“I want to come home — I will come home — but I can’t just yet. If I just up and leave and this blows over, I’ll get fired.”
“But, Dad ….”
“You’re in charge until I get there. Understand, son? If the time comes, everything is up to you.”
“Yes, sir,” I whispered. I’d heard what he didn’t say — it wasn’t up to her.
“I want you to go out to the shelter tonight. Wait until she goes to sleep. Top off the water drums. Get all the gas out of the garage and store it next to the generator. But here’s the most important thing. You know the sacks of rice? Drag them off to one side, the pallet too. There’s a hatch underneath, the key to the airlock door unlocks it. You’ve got two new guns and plenty of ammunition. The revolver is a .357 Magnum. You be careful with that, Ray, it can blow a hole in a car but it’s hard to aim. The double-barreled shotgun is easy to aim but you have to be close to do any harm. And I want you to bring down the Gamemaster from my closet and the .38 from my dresser drawer.” He had been talking as if there would be no tomorrow; he paused then to catch his breath. “Now, this is all just in case, okay? I just want you to know.”
I had never been so scared in my life.
I should have told him about Cross then, but Mom weaved into the room. “Got it, Dad,” I said. “Here she is.”
Mom smiled at me. It was a lopsided smile that was trying to be brave but wasn’t doing a very good job of it. She had a new glass and it was full. She held out her hand for the phone and I gave it to her.
I remember waiting until almost ten o’clock that night, reading under the covers with a flashlight. The Fantastic Four invaded Latveria to defeat Doctor Doom; Superman tricked Mr. Mxyzptlk into saying his name backwards once again. When I opened the door to my parents’ bedroom, I could hear Mom snoring. It spooked me; I hadn’t realized that women did that. I thought about sneaking in to get the guns, but decided to take care of them tomorrow.
I stole out to the shelter, turned my key in the lock and pulled on the bulkhead door. It didn’t move. That didn’t make any sense, so I gave it a hard yank. The steel door rattled terribly but did not swing away. The air had turned frosty and the sound carried in the cold. I held my breath, listening to my blood pound. The house stayed dark, the shelter quiet as stones. After a few moments, I tried one last time before I admitted to myself what had happened.
Cross had bolted the door shut from the inside.
I went back to my room, but couldn’t sleep. I kept going to the window to watch the sky over New York, waiting for a flash of killing light. I was all but convinced that the city would burn that very night in thermonuclear fire and that mom and I would die horrible deaths soon after, pounding on the unyielding steel doors of our shelter. Dad had left me in charge and I had let him down.
I didn’t understand why Cross had locked us out. If he knew that a nuclear war was about to start, he might want our shelter all to himself. But that made him a monster and I still didn’t see him as a monster. I tried to tell myself that he’d been asleep and couldn’t hear me at the door — but that couldn’t be right. What if he’d come to prevent the war? He’d said he had business in the city on Thursday; he could be doing something really, really futuristic in there that he couldn’t let me see. Or else he was having problems. Maybe our twentieth century germs had got to him, like they killed H. G. Wells’s Martians.
I must have teased a hundred different ideas apart that night, in between uneasy trips to the window and glimpses at the clock. The last time I remember seeing was 4:16. I tried to stay up to face the end, but I couldn’t.
I wasn’t dead when I woke up the next morning, so I had to go to school. Mom had Cream of Wheat all ready when I dragged myself to the table. Although she was all bright and bubbly, I could feel her giving me the mother’s eye when I wasn’t looking. She always knew when something was wrong. I tried not to show her anything. There was no time to sneak out to the shelter; I barely had time to finish eating before she bundled me off to the bus.
Right after the morning bell, Miss Toohey told us to open The Story of New York State to Chapter Seven, Resources and Products and read to ourselves. Then she left the room. We looked at each other in amazement. I heard Bobby Coniff whisper something. It was probably dirty; a few kids snickered. Chapter Seven started with a map of product symbols. Two teeny little cows grazed near Binghamton. Rochester was cog and a pair of glasses. Elmira was an adding machine, Oswego an apple. There was a lightning bolt over Niagara Falls. Dad had promised to take us there someday. I had the sick feeling that we’d never get the chance. Miss Toohey looked pale when she came back, but that didn’t stop her from giving us a spelling test. I got a ninety-five. The word I spelled wrong was enigma. The hot lunch was American Chop Suey, a roll, a salad and a bowl of butterscotch pudding. In the afternoon we did decimals.
Nobody said anything about the end of the world.
I decided to get off the bus in Ward’s Hollow, buy the stuff Cross wanted and pretend I didn’t know he had locked the shelter door last night. If he said something about it, I’d act surprised. If he didn’t … I didn’t know what I’d do then.
Village Variety was next to Warren’s Esso and across the street from the Post Office. It had once been two different stores located in the same building, but then Mr. Rudowski had bought the building and knocked down the dividing wall. On the fun side were pens and pencil and paper and greeting cards and magazines and comics and paperbacks and candy. The other side was all boring hardware and small appliances.
Mr. Rudowski was on the phone when I came in, but then he was always on the phone when he worked. He could sell you a hammer or a pack of baseball cards, tell you a joke, ask about your family, complain about the weather and still keep the guy on the other end of the line happy. This time though, when he saw me come in, he turned away, wrapping the phone cord across his shoulder.
I went through the store quickly and found everything Cross had wanted. I had to blow dust off the transistor radio box but the batteries looked fresh. There was only one New York Times left; the headlines were so big they were scary.
US IMPOSES ARMS BLOCKADE ON CUBA
ON FINDING OF OFFENSIVE MISSILE SITES;
KENNEDY READY FOR SOVIET SHOWDOWN
Ships Must Stop President Grave Prepared To Risk War.
I set my purchases on the counter in front of Mr. Rudowski. He cocked his head to one side, trapping the telephone receiver against his shoulder, and rang me up. The paper was on the bottom of the pile.
“Since when do you read the Times, Ray?” Mr. Rudowski punched it into the cash register and hit total. “I just got the new Fantastic Four.” The cash drawer popped open.
“Maybe tomorrow,” I said.
“All right then. It comes to twelve dollars and forty-seven cents.”
I gave him the hundred dollar bill.
“What is this, Ray?” He stared at it and then at me.
I had my story all ready. “It was a birthday gift from my grandma in Detroit. She said I could spend it on whatever I wanted so I decided to treat myself but I’m going to put the rest in the bank.”
“You’re buying a radio? From me?”
“Well, you know. I thought maybe I should have one with me with all this stuff going on.”
He didn’t say anything for a moment. He just pulled a paper bag from under the counter and put my things into it. His shoulders were hunched; I thought maybe he felt guilty about overcharging for the radio. “You should be listening to music, Ray,” he said quietly. “You like Elvis? All kids like Elvis. Or maybe that colored, the one who does the Twist?”
“They’re all right, I guess.”
“You’re too young to be worrying about the news. You hear me? Those politicians ….” He shook his head. “It’s going to be okay, Ray. You heard it from me.”
“Sure, Mr. Rudowski. I was wondering, could I get five dollars in change?”
I could feel him watching me as I stuffed it all into my book bag. I was certain he’d call my mom, but he never did. Home was three miles up Cobb’s Hill. I did it in forty minutes, a record.
I remember I started running when I saw the flashing lights. The police car had left skid marks in the gravel on our driveway.
“Where were you?” Mom burst out of the house as I came across the lawn. “Oh, my God, Raymie, I was worried sick.” She caught me up in her arms.
“I got off the bus in Ward’s Hollow.” She was about to smother me; I squirmed free. “What happened?”
“This the boy, ma’am?” The state trooper had taken his time catching up to her. He had almost the same hat as Scoutmaster Newell.
“Yes, yes! Oh, thank God, officer!”
The trooper patted me on the head like I was a lost dog. “You had your mom worried, Ray.”
“Raymie, you should’ve told me.”
“Somebody tell me what happened!” I said.
A second trooper came from behind the house. We watched him approach. “No sign of any intruder.” He looked bored: I wanted to scream.
“Intruder?” I said.
“He broke into the shelter,” said Mom. “He knew my name.”
“There was no sign of forcible entry,” said the second trooper. I saw him exchange a glance with his partner. “Nothing disturbed that I could see.”
“He didn’t have time,” Mom said. “When I found him in the shelter, I ran back to the house and got your father’s gun from the bedroom.”
The thought of Mom with the .38 scared me. I had my Shooting merit badge, but she didn’t know a hammer from a trigger. “You didn’t shoot him?”
“No.” She shook her head. “He had plenty of time to leave but he was still there when I came back. That’s when he said my name.”
I had never been so mad at her before. “You never go out to the shelter.”
She had that puzzled look she always gets at night. “I couldn’t find my key. I had to use the one your father leaves over the breezeway door.”
“What did he say again, ma’am? The intruder.”
“He said, ‘Mrs. Beaumont, I present no danger to you.’ And I said, ‘Who are you?’ And then he came toward me and I thought he said ‘Margaret,’ and I started firing.
“You did shoot him!”
Both troopers must have heard the panic in my voice. The first one said, “You know something about this man, Ray?”
“No, I-I was at school all day and then I stopped at Rudowski’s ….” I could feel my eyes burning. I was so embarrassed; I knew I was about to cry in front of them.
Mom acted annoyed that the troopers had stopped paying attention to her. “I shot at him. Three, four times, I don’t know. I must have missed, because he just stood there staring at me. It seemed like forever. Then he walked past me and up the stairs like nothing had happened.”
“And he didn’t say anything?”
“Not a word.”
“Well, it beats me,” said the second trooper. “The gun’s been fired four times but there are no bullet holes in the shelter and no bloodstains.”
“You mind if I ask you a personal question, Mrs. Beaumont?” the first trooper said.
She colored. “I suppose not.”
“Have you been drinking, ma’am?”
“Oh that!” She seemed relieved. “No. Well, I mean, after I called you, I did pour myself a little something. Just to steady my nerves. I was worried because my son was so late and … Raymie, what’s the matter?”
I felt so small. The tears were pouring down my face.
After the troopers left, I remember Mom baking brownies while I watched Superman. I wanted to go out and hunt for Cross, but it was already sunset and there was no excuse I could come up with for wandering around in the dark. Besides, what was the point? He was gone, driven off by my mother. I’d had a chance to help a man from the future change history, maybe prevent World War III, and I had blown it. My life was ashes.
I wasn’t hungry that night, for brownies or spaghetti or anything, but Mom made that clucking noise when I pushed supper around the plate, so I ate a few bites just to shut her up. I was surprised at how easy it was to hate her, how good it felt. Of course, she was oblivious, but in the morning she would notice if I wasn’t careful. After dinner she watched the news and I went upstairs to read. I wrapped a pillow around my head when she yelled at David Brinkley. I turned out the lights at 8:30, but I couldn’t get to sleep. She went to her room a little after that.
I must have dozed off, but when I heard his voice I snapped awake immediately.
“Is that you, Mr. Cross?” I peered into the darkness. “I bought the stuff you wanted.” The room filled with an awful stink, like when Mom drove with the parking brake on.
“Mr. Beaumont,” he said, “I am damaged.”
I slipped out of bed, picked my way across the dark room, locked the door and turned on the light.
He slumped against my desk like a nightmare. I remember thinking then that Cross wasn’t human, that maybe he wasn’t even alive. His proportions were wrong: an ear, a shoulder and both feet sagged like they had melted. Little wisps of steam or something curled off him; they were what smelled. His skin had gone all shiny and hard; so had his business suit. I’d wondered why he never took the suit coat off and now I knew. His clothes were part of him. The middle fingers of his right hand beat spasmodically against his palm.
“Mr. Beaumont,” he said. “I calculate your chances at 1016 to 1.”
“Chances of what?” I said. “What happened to you?”
“You must listen most attentively, Mr. Beaumont. My decline is very bad for history. It is for you now to alter the time line probabilities.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Your government greatly overestimates the nuclear capability of the Soviet Union. If you originate a first strike, the United States will achieve overwhelming victory.”
“Does the President know this? We have to tell him!”
“John Kennedy will not welcome such information. If he starts this war, he will be responsible for the deaths of tens of millions, both Russians and Americans. But he does not grasp the future of the arms race. The war must happen now, because those who come after will build and build until they control arsenals which can destroy the world many times over. People are not capable of thinking for very long of such fearsome weapons. They tire of the idea of extinction and then become numb to it. The buildup slows but does not stop and they congratulate themselves on having survived it. But there are still too many weapons and they never go away. The Third War comes as a surprise. The First War was called the one to end all wars. The Third War is the only such war possible, Mr. Beaumont, because it ends everything. History stops in 2009. Do you understand? A year later, there is no life. All dead, the world a hot, barren rock.”
“But you …?”
“I am nothing, a construct. Mr. Beaumont, please, the chances are 1016 to 1,” he said. “Do you know how improbable that is?” His laugh sounded like a hiccup. “But for the sake of those few precious time lines, we must continue. There is a man, a politician in New York. If he dies on Thursday night, it will create the incident that forces Kennedy’s hand.”
“Dies?” For days, I had been desperate for him to talk. Now all I wanted was to run away. “You’re going to kill somebody?”
“The world will survive a Third War that starts on Friday, October 22, 1962.”
“What about me? My parents? Do we survive?”
“I cannot access that time line. I have no certain answer for you. Please, Mr. Beaumont, this politician will die of a heart attack in less than three years. He has made no great contribution to history, yet his assassination can save the world.”
“What do you want from me?” But I had already guessed.
“He will speak most eloquently at the United Nations on Friday evening. Afterward he will have dinner with his friend, Ruth Fields. Around ten o’clock he will return to his residence at the Waldorf Towers. Not the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, but the Towers. He will take the elevator to Suite 42A. He is the American ambassador to the United Nations. His name is Adlai Stevenson.”
“Stop it! Don’t say anything else.”
When he sighed, his breath was a cloud of acrid steam. “I have based my calculation of the time line probabilities on two data points, Mr. Beaumont, which I discovered in your bomb shelter. The first is the .357 Magnum revolver, located under a pallet of rice bags. I trust you know of this weapon?”
“Yes.” I whispered.
“The second is the collection of magazines, located under your cot. It would seem that you take an interest in what is to come, Mr. Beaumont, and that may lend you the terrible courage you will need to divert this time line from disaster. You should know that there is not just one future. There are an infinite number of futures in which all possibilities are expressed, an infinite number of Raymond Beaumonts”
“Mr. Cross, I can’t ….”
“Perhaps not,” he said, “but I believe that another one of you can.”
“You don’t understand … .” I watched in horror as a boil swelled on the side of his face and popped, expelling an evil jet of yellow steam. “What?”
“Oh fuck.” That was the last thing he said.
He slid to the floor — or maybe he was just a body at that point. More boils formed and burst. I opened all the windows in my room and got the fan down out of the closet and still I can’t believe that the stink didn’t wake Mom up. Over the course of the next few hours, he sort of vaporized.
When it was over, there was a sticky, dark spot on the floor the size of my pillow. I moved the throw rug from one side of the room to the other to cover it up. I had nothing to prove that Cross existed but a transistor radio, a couple of batteries, an earplug and eighty-seven dollars and fifty-three cents in change.
I might have done things differently if I hadn’t had a day to think. I can’t remember going to school on Wednesday, who I talked to, what I ate. I was feverishly trying to figure out what to do and how to do it. I had no place to go for answers, not Miss Toohey, not my parents, not the Bible or the Boy Scout Handbook, certainly not Galaxy magazine. Whatever I did had to come out of me. I watched the news with Mom that night. President Kennedy had brought our military to the highest possible state of alert. There were reports that some Russian ships had turned away from Cuba; others continued on course. Dad called and said his trip was being cut short and that he would be home the next day.
But that was too late.
I hid behind the stone wall when the school bus came on Thursday morning. Mrs. Johnson honked a couple of times, and then drove on. I set out for New Canaan, carrying my bookbag. In it were the radio, the batteries, the coins, the map of New York and the .357. I had the rest of Cross’s money in my wallet.
It took more than five hours to hike to the train station. I expected to be scared, but the whole time I felt light as air. I kept thinking of what Cross had said about the future, that I was just one of millions and millions of Raymond Beaumonts. Most of them were in school, diagramming sentences and watching Miss Toohey bite her nails. I was the special one, walking into history. I was super. I caught the 2:38 train, changed in Stamford, and arrived at Grand Central just after four. I had six hours. I bought myself a hot pretzel and a coke and tried to decide where I should go. I couldn’t just sit around the hotel lobby for all that time; I thought that would draw too much attention. I decided to go to the top of the Empire State Building. I took my time walking down Park Avenue and tried not to see all the ghosts I was about to make. In the lobby of the Empire State Building, I used Cross’s change to call home.
“Hello?” I hadn’t expected Dad to answer. I would’ve hung up except that I knew I might never speak to him again.
“Dad, this is Ray. I’m safe, don’t worry.”
“Ray, where are you?”
“I can’t talk. I’m safe but I won’t be home tonight. Don’t worry.”
“Ray!” He was frantic. “What’s going on?”
I hung up; I had to. “I love you,” I said to the dial tone.
I could imagine the expression on Dad’s face, how he would tell Mom what I’d said. Eventually they would argue about it. He would shout; she would cry. As I rode the elevator up, I got mad at them. He shouldn’t have picked up the phone. They should’ve protected me from Cross and the future he came from. I was in the sixth grade, I shouldn’t have to have feelings like this. The observation platform was almost deserted. I walked completely around it, staring at the city stretching away from me in every direction. It was dusk; the buildings were shadows in the failing light. I didn’t feel like Ray Beaumont anymore; he was my secret identity. Now I was the superhero Bomb Boy; I had the power of bringing nuclear war. Wherever I cast my terrible gaze, cars melted and people burst into flame.
And I loved it.
It was dark when I came down from the Empire State Building. I had a sausage pizza and a coke on 47th Street. While I ate, I stuck the plug into my ear and listened to the radio. I searched for the news. One announcer said the debate was still going on in the Security Council. Our ambassador was questioning Ambassador Zorin. I stayed with that station for a while, hoping to hear his voice. I knew what he looked like, of course. I knew Adlai Stevenson had run for President a couple of times when I was just a baby. But I couldn’t remember what he sounded like. He might talk to me, ask me what I was doing in his hotel; I wanted to be ready for that.
I arrived at the Waldorf Towers around nine o’clock. I picked a plush velvet chair that had a direct view of the elevator bank and sat there for about ten minutes. Nobody seemed to care but it was hard to sit still. Finally I got up and went to the men’s room. I took my bookbag into a stall, closed the door and got the .357 out. I aimed it at the toilet. The gun was heavy and I could tell it would have a big kick. I probably ought to hold it with both hands. I put it back into my bookbag and flushed.
When I came out of the bathroom, I had stopped believing that I was going to shoot anyone, that I could. But I had to find out for Cross’s sake. If I was really meant to save the world, then I had to be in the right place at the right time. I went back to my chair, checked my watch. It was nine-twenty.
I started thinking of the one who would pull the trigger, the unlikely Ray. What would make the difference? Had he read some story in Galaxy that I had skipped? Was it a problem with Mom? Or Dad? Maybe he had spelled enigma right; maybe Cross had lived another thirty seconds in his time line. Or maybe he was just the best that I could possibly be.
I was so tired of it all. I must have walked thirty miles since morning and I hadn’t slept well in days. The lobby was warm. People laughed and murmured. Elevator doors dinged softly. I tried to stay up to face history, but I couldn’t. I was Raymond Beaumont, but I was just a twelve-year-old kid.
I remember the doorman waking me up at eleven o’clock. Dad drove all the way into the city that night to get me. When we got home, Mom was already in the shelter.
Only the Third War didn’t start that night. Or the next.
I lost television privileges for a month.
For most people my age, the most traumatic memory of growing up came on November 22, 1963. But the date I remember is July 14, 1965, when Adlai Stevenson dropped dead of a heart attack in London.
I’ve tried to do what I can, to make up for what I didn’t do that night. I’ve worked for the cause wherever I could find it. I belong to CND and SANE and the Friends of the Earth and was active in the nuclear freeze movement. I think the Green Party is the only political organization worth your vote. I don’t know if any of it will change Cross’s awful probabilities; maybe we’ll survive in a few more time lines.
When I was a kid, I didn’t mind being lonely. Now it’s hard, knowing what I know. Oh, I have lots of friends, all of them wonderful people, but people who know me say that there’s a part of myself that I always keep hidden. They’re right. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to tell anyone about what happened with Cross, what I didn’t do that night. It wouldn’t be fair to them.
Besides, whatever happens, chances are very good that it’s my fault.
All over the pavement of the church spread the exaggerated cross-hatching of the old pews’ oak, a Smithfield market of intersecting lines such as children made with cards in the old days when kings and knaves had fat legs bulging above their serviceable feet, and queens had skirts to their gowns and were not cut across their royal middles by mirrors reflecting only the bedizened torso of them and the charge—heart, trefoil, or the like—in the right-hand top corner of the oblong that framed them.
The pew had qualities: tall fat hassocks, red cushions, a comparative seclusion, and, in the case of the affluent, red curtains drawn at sermon-time.
The child wearied by the spectacle of a plump divine, in black gown and Geneva bands, thumping the pulpit-cushions in the madness of incomprehensible oratory, surrendered his ears to the noise of intonations which, in his own treble, would have earned the reprimand, ‘Naughty temper.’ His eyes, however, were, through some oversight of the gods of his universe, still his own. They found their own pasture: not, to be sure, the argent and sable of gown and bands, still less the gules of flushed denunciatory gills.
There is fair pasture in an old church which, when Norman work was broken down, men loved and built again as from the heart, with pillars and arches, which, to their rude time, symbolized all that the heart desires to materialize, in symbolic stone. The fretted tombs where the effigies of warrior and priest lay life-like in dead marble, the fretted canopies that brooded above their rest. Tall pillars like the trunks of the pine woods that smelt so sweet, the marvel of the timbered roof—turned upside down it would be like a ship. And what could be easier than to turn it upside down? Imagination shrank bashfully from the pulpit already tightly tenanted, but the triforium was plainly and beautifully empty; there one could walk, squeezing happily through the deep thin arches and treading carefully by the unguarded narrow ledge. Only if one played too long in the roof aunts nudged, and urgent whispers insisted that one must not look about like that in church. When this moment came it came always as a crisis foreseen, half dreaded, half longed-for. After that the child kept his eyes lowered, and looked only at the faded red hassocks from which the straw bulged, and in brief, guarded, intimate moments, at the other child.
The other child was kneeling, always, whether the congregation knelt or stood or sat. Its hands were clasped. Its face was raised, but its back bowed under a weight—the weight of the font, for the other child was of marble and knelt always in the church, Sundays and week-days. There had been once three marble figures holding up the shallow basin, but two had crumbled or been broken away, and now it seemed that the whole weight of the superimposed marble rested on those slender shoulders.
The child who was not marble was sorry for the other. He must be very tired.
The child who was not marble,—his name was Ernest,—that child of weary eyes and bored brain, pitied the marble boy while he envied him.
‘I suppose he doesn’t really feel, if he’s stone,’ he said. ‘That’s what they mean by the stony-hearted tyrant. But if he does feel— How jolly it would be if he could come out and sit in my pew, or if I could creep under the font beside him. If he would move a little there would be just room for me.’
The first time that Ernest ever saw the marble child move was on the hottest Sunday in the year. The walk across the fields had been a breathless penance, the ground burned the soles of Ernest’s feet as red-hot ploughshares the feet of the saints. The corn was cut, and stood in stiff yellow stooks, and the shadows were very black. The sky was light, except in the west beyond the pine trees, where blue-black clouds were piled.
‘Like witches’ feather-beds,’ said Aunt Harriet, shaking out the folds of her lace shawl.
‘Not before the child, dear,’ whispered Aunt Emmeline.
Ernest heard her, of course. It was always like that: as soon as any one spoke about anything interesting, Aunt Emmeline intervened. Ernest walked along very melancholy in his starched frill. The dust had whitened his strapped shoes, and there was a wrinkle in one of his white socks.
‘Pull it up, child, pull it up,’ said Aunt Jessie; and shielded from the world by the vast silk-veiled crinolines of three full-sized aunts, he pulled it up.
On the way to church, and indeed, in all walks abroad, you held the hand of an aunt; the circumferent crinolines made the holding an arm’s-length business, very tiring. Ernest was always glad when, in the porch, the hand was dropped. It was just as the porch was reached that the first lonely roll of thunder broke over the hills.
‘I knew it,’ said Aunt Jessie, in triumph; ‘but you would wear your blue silk.’
There was no more thunder till after the second lesson, which was hardly ever as interesting as the first, Ernest thought. The marble child looked more tired than usual, and Ernest lost himself in a dream-game where both of them got out from prison and played hide-and-seek among the tombstones. Then the thunder cracked deafeningly right over the church. Ernest forgot to stand up, and even the clergyman waited till it died away.
It was a most exciting service, well worth coming to church for, and afterwards people crowded in the wide porch and wondered whether it would clear, and wished they had brought their umbrellas. Some went back and sat in their pews till the servants should have had time to go home and return with umbrellas and cloaks. The more impetuous made clumsy rushes between the showers, bonnets bent, skirts held well up. Many a Sunday dress was ruined that day, many a bonnet fell from best to second-best.
And it was when Aunt Jessie whispered to him to sit still and be a good boy and learn a hymn, that he looked to the marble child with, ‘Isn’t it a shame?’ in his heart and his eyes, and the marble child looked back, ‘Never mind, it will soon be over,’ and held out its marble hands. Ernest saw them come toward him, reaching well beyond the rim of the basin under which they had always, till now, stayed.
‘Oh!’ said Ernest, quite out loud; and, dropping the hymn-book, held out his hands, or began to hold them out. For before he had done more than sketch the gesture, he remembered that marble does not move and that one must not be silly. All the same, marble had moved. Also Ernest had ‘spoken out loud’ in church. Unspeakable disgrace!
He was taken home in conscious ignominy, treading in all the puddles to distract his mind from his condition.
He was put to bed early, as a punishment, instead of sitting up and learning his catechism under the charge of one of the maids while the aunts went to evening church. This, while it was terrible to Ernest, was in the nature of a reprieve to the housemaid, who found means to modify her own consequent loneliness. Far-away whispers and laughs from the back or kitchen windows assured Ernest that the front or polite side of the house was unguarded. He got up, simulated the appearance of the completely dressed, and went down the carpeted stairs, through the rosewood-furnished drawing-room, rose-scented and still as a deathbed, and so out through the French windows to the lawn, where already the beginnings of dew lay softly.
His going out had no definite aim. It was simply an act of rebellion such as, secure from observation, the timid may achieve; a demonstration akin to putting the tongue out behind people’s backs.
Having got himself out on the lawn, he made haste to hide in the shrubbery, disheartened by a baffling consciousness of the futility of safe revenges. What is the tongue put out behind the back of the enemy without the applause of some admirer?
The red rays of the setting sun made splendor in the dripping shrubbery.
‘I wish I hadn’t,’ said Ernest.
But it seemed silly to go back now, just to go out and to go back. So he went farther into the shrubbery and got out at the other side where the shrubbery slopes down into the wood, and it was nearly dark there—so nearly that the child felt more alone than ever.
And then quite suddenly he was not alone. Hands parted the hazels and a face he knew looked out from between them.
He knew the face, and yet the child he saw was not any of the children he knew.
‘Well,’ said the child with the face he knew; ‘I’ve been watching you. What did you come out for?’
‘I was put to bed.’
‘Do you not like it?’
‘Not when it’s for punishment.’
‘If you’ll go back now,’ said the strange child, ‘I’ll come and play with you after you’re asleep.’
‘You daren’t. Suppose the aunts catch you?’
‘They won’t,’ said the child, shaking its head and laughing. ‘I’ll race you to the house!’
Ernest ran. He won the race. For the other child was not there at all when he reached the house.
‘How odd!’ he said. But he was tired and there was thunder again and it was beginning to rain, large spots as big as pennies on the step of the French window. So he went back to bed, too sleepy to worry about the question of where he had seen the child before, and only a little disappointed because his revenge had been so brief and inadequate.
Then he fell asleep and dreamed that the marble child had crept out from under the font, and that he and it were playing hide-and-seek among the pews in the gallery at church. It was a delightful dream and lasted all night, and when he woke he knew that the child he had seen in the wood in yesterday’s last light was the marble child from the church.
This did not surprise him as much as it would surprise you: the world where children live is so full of amazing and incredible-looking things that turn out to be quite real. And if Lot’s wife could be turned into a pillar of salt, why should not a marble child turn into a real one? It was all quite plain to Ernest, but he did not tell any one: because he had a feeling that it might not be easy to make it plain to them.
‘That child doesn’t look quite the thing,’ said Aunt Emmeline at breakfast. ‘A dose of Gregory’s, I think, at eleven.’
Ernest’s morning was blighted. Did you ever take Gregory’s powder? It is worse than quinine, worse than senna, worse than anything except castor oil.
But Ernest had to take it—in raspberry jam.
‘And don’t make such faces,’ said Aunt Emmeline, rinsing the spoon at the pantry sink. ‘You know it’s all for your own good.’
As if the thought that it is for one’s own good ever kept any one from making faces!
The aunts were kind in their grown-up crinolined way. But Ernest wanted some one to play with. Every night in his dreams he played with the marble child. And at church on Sunday the marble child still held out its hands, farther than before.
‘Come along then,’ Ernest said to it, in that voice with which heart speaks to heart; ‘come and sit with me behind the red curtains. Come!’
The marble child did not look at him. Its head seemed to be bent farther forward than ever before.
When it came to the second hymn Ernest had an inspiration. All the rest of the churchful, sleepy and suitable, were singing,—
‘The roseate hues of early dawn,
The brightness of the day,
The crimson of the sunset sky,
How fast they fade away.’
Ernest turned his head towards the marble child and softly mouthed,—you could hardly call it singing,—
‘The rosy tews of early dawn,
The brightness of the day;
Come out, come out, come out, come out,
Come out with me and play.’
And he pictured the rapture of that moment when the marble child should respond to this appeal, creep out from under the font, and come and sit beside him on the red cushions beyond the red curtains. The aunts would not see, of course. They never saw the things that mattered. No one would see except Ernest. He looked hard at the marble child.
‘You must come out,’ he said; and again, ‘You must come, you must.’
And the marble child did come. It crept out and came to sit by him, holding his hand. It was a cold hand certainly, but it did not feel like marble.
And the next thing he knew, an aunt was shaking him and whispering with fierceness tempered by reverence for the sacred edifice,—
‘Wake up, Ernest. How can you be so naughty?’
And the marble child was back in its place under the font.
When Ernest looks back on that summer it seems to have thundered every time he went to church. But of course this cannot really have been the case.
But it was certainly a very lowering purple-skied day which saw him stealthily start on the adventure of his little life. He was weary of aunts—they were kind yet just; they told him so and he believed them. But their justice was exactly like other people’s nagging, and their kindness he did not want at all. He wanted some one to play with.
‘May we walk up to the churchyard?’ was a request at first received graciously as showing a serious spirit. But its reiteration was considered morbid, and his walks took the more dusty direction of the County Asylum.
His longing for the only child he knew, the marble child, exacerbated by denial, drove him to rebellion. He would run away. He would live with the marble child in the big church porch; they would eat berries from the wood near by, just as children did in books, and hide there when people came to church.
So he watched his opportunity and went quietly out through the French window, skirted the side of the house where all the windows were blank because of the old window-tax, took the narrow strip of lawn at a breathless run, and found safe cover among the rhododendrons.
The church-door was locked, of course, but he knew where there was a broken pane in the vestry window, and his eye had marked the lop-sided tombstone underneath it. By climbing upon that and getting a knee in the carved water-spout— He did it, got his hand through, turned the catch of the window, and fell through upon the dusty table of the vestry.
The door was ajar and he passed into the empty church. It seemed very large and gray now that he had it to himself. His feet made a loud echoing noise that was disconcerting. He had meant to call out, ‘Here I am!’ But in the face of these echoes he could not.
He found the marble child, its head bent more than ever, its hands reaching out quite beyond the edge of the font; and when he was quite close he whispered,—
‘Here I am.—Come and play!’
But his voice trembled a little. The marble child was so plainly marble. And yet it had not always been marble. He was not sure. Yet—
‘I am sure,’ he said. ‘You did talk to me in the shrubbery, didn’t you?’
But the marble child did not move or speak.
‘You did come and hold my hand last Sunday,’ he said, a little louder.
And only the empty echoes answered him.
‘Come out,’ he said then, almost afraid now of the church’s insistent silence. ‘I’ve come to live with you altogether. Come out of your marble, do come out!’
He reached up to stroke the marble cheek. A sound thrilled him, a loud everyday sound. The big key turning in the lock of the south door. The aunts!
‘Now they’ll take me back,’ said Ernest; ‘you might have come.’
But it was not the aunts. It was the old pew-opener, come to scrub the chancel. She came slowly in with pail and brush; the pail slopped a little water on to the floor close to Ernest as she passed him, not seeing.
Then the marble child moved, turned toward Ernest with speaking lips and eyes that saw.
‘You can stay with me forever if you like,’ it said, ‘but you’ll have to see things happen. I have seen things happen.’
‘What sort of things?’ Ernest asked.
‘What things shall I have to see?’
‘Her,’—the marble child moved a free arm to point to the old woman on the chancel steps,—’and your aunt who will be here presently, looking for you. Do you hear the thunder? Presently the lightning will strike the church. It won’t hurt us, but it will fall on them.’
Ernest remembered in a flash how kind Aunt Emmeline had been when he was ill, how Aunt Jessie had given him his chessmen, and Aunt Harriet had taught him how to make paper rosettes for picture-frames.
‘I must go and tell them,’ he said.
‘If you go, you’ll never see me again,’ said the marble child, and put its arms round his neck.
‘Can’t I come back to you when I’ve told them?’ Ernest asked, returning the embrace.
‘There will be no coming back,’ said the marble child.
‘But I want you. I love you best of everybody in the world,’ Ernest said.
‘I’ll stay with you,’ said Ernest.
The marble child said nothing.
‘But if I don’t tell them I shall be the same as a murderer,’ Ernest whispered. ‘Oh! let me go, and come back to you.’
‘I shall not be here.’
‘But I must go. I must,’ said Ernest, torn between love and duty.
‘And I shan’t have you any more?’ the living child urged.
‘You’ll have me in your heart,’ said the marble child—’that’s where I want to be. That’s my real home.’
They kissed each other again.
‘It was certainly a direct Providence,’ Aunt Emmeline used to say in later years to really sympathetic friends, ‘that I thought of going up to the church when I did. Otherwise nothing could have saved dear Ernest. He was terrified, quite crazy with fright, poor child, and he rushed out at me from behind our pew shouting, “Come away, come away, auntie, come away!” and dragged me out. Mrs. Meadows providentially followed, to see what it was all about, and the next thing was the catastrophe.’
‘The church was struck by a thunder-bolt was it not?’ the sympathetic friend asks.
‘It was indeed—a deafening crash, my dear—and then the church slowly crumbled before our eyes. The south wall broke like a slice of cake when you break it across—and the noise and the dust! Mrs. Meadows never had her hearing again, poor thing, and her mind was a little affected too. I became unconscious, and Ernest—well, it was altogether too much for the child. He lay between life and death for weeks. Shock to the system, the physician said. He had been rather run down before. We had to get a little cousin to come and live with us afterwards. The physicians said that he required young society.’
‘It must indeed have been a shock,’ says the sympathetic friend, who knows there is more to come.
‘His intellect was quite changed, my dear,’ Aunt Emmeline resumes; ‘on regaining consciousness he demanded the marble child! Cried and raved, my dear, always about the marble child. It appeared he had had fancies about one of the little angels that supported the old font, not the present font, my dear. We presented that as a token of gratitude to Providence for our escape. Of course we checked his fancifulness as well as we could, but it lasted quite a long time.’
‘What became of the little marble angel?’ the friend inquires as in friendship bound.
‘Crushed to powder, dear, in the awful wreck of the church. Not a trace of it could be found. And poor Mrs. Meadows! So dreadful those delusions.’
‘What form did her delusions take?’ the friend, anxious to be done with the old story, hastily asks.
‘Well, she always declared that two children ran out to warn me and that one of them was very unusual looking. “It wasn’t no flesh and blood, ma’am,” she used to say in her ungrammatical way; “it was a little angel a-taking care of Master Ernest. It ‘ad ‘old of ‘is ‘and. And I say it was ‘is garden angel, and its face was as bright as a lily in the sun.”‘
The friend glances at the India cabinet, and Aunt Emmeline rises and unlocks it.
‘Ernest must have been behaving in a very naughty and destructive way in the church—but the physician said he was not quite himself probably, for when they got him home and undressed him they found this in his hand.’
Then the sympathizing friend polishes her glasses and looks, not for the first time, at the relic from the drawer of the India cabinet. It is a white marble finger.
Thus flow the reminiscences of Aunt Emmeline. The memories of Ernest run as this tale runs.
I had seen the Magic Shop from afar several times; I had passed it once or twice, a shop window of alluring little objects, magic balls, magic hens, wonderful cones, ventriloquist dolls, the material of the basket trick, packs of cards that LOOKED all right, and all that sort of thing, but never had I thought of going in until one day, almost without warning, Gip hauled me by my finger right up to the window, and so conducted himself that there was nothing for it but to take him in. I had not thought the place was there, to tell the truth—a modest-sized frontage in Regent Street, between the picture shop and the place where the chicks run about just out of patent incubators, but there it was sure enough. I had fancied it was down nearer the Circus, or round the corner in Oxford Street, or even in Holborn; always over the way and a little inaccessible it had been, with something of the mirage in its position; but here it was now quite indisputably, and the fat end of Gip’s pointing finger made a noise upon the glass.
“If I was rich,” said Gip, dabbing a finger at the Disappearing Egg, “I’d buy myself that. And that”—which was The Crying Baby, Very Human—“and that,” which was a mystery, and called, so a neat card asserted, “Buy One and Astonish Your Friends.”
“Anything,” said Gip, “will disappear under one of those cones. I have read about it in a book.
“And there, dadda, is the Vanishing Halfpenny—, only they’ve put it this way up so’s we can’t see how it’s done.”
Gip, dear boy, inherits his mother’s breeding, and he did not propose to enter the shop or worry in any way; only, you know, quite unconsciously he lugged my finger doorward, and he made his interest clear.
“That,” he said, and pointed to the Magic Bottle.
“If you had that?” I said; at which promising inquiry he looked up with a sudden radiance.
“I could show it to Jessie,” he said, thoughtful as ever of others.
“It’s less than a hundred days to your birthday, Gibbles,” I said, and laid my hand on the door-handle.
Gip made no answer, but his grip tightened on my finger, and so we came into the shop.
It was no common shop this; it was a magic shop, and all the prancing precedence Gip would have taken in the matter of mere toys was wanting. He left the burthen of the conversation to me.
It was a little, narrow shop, not very well lit, and the door-bell pinged again with a plaintive note as we closed it behind us. For a moment or so we were alone and could glance about us. There was a tiger in papier-mache on the glass case that covered the low counter—a grave, kind-eyed tiger that waggled his head in a methodical manner; there were several crystal spheres, a china hand holding magic cards, a stock of magic fish-bowls in various sizes, and an immodest magic hat that shamelessly displayed its springs. On the floor were magic mirrors; one to draw you out long and thin, one to swell your head and vanish your legs, and one to make you short and fat like a draught; and while we were laughing at these the shopman, as I suppose, came in.
At any rate, there he was behind the counter—a curious, sallow, dark man, with one ear larger than the other and a chin like the toe-cap of a boot.
“What can we have the pleasure?” he said, spreading his long, magic fingers on the glass case; and so with a start we were aware of him.
“I want,” I said, “to buy my little boy a few simple tricks.”
“Legerdemain?” he asked. “Mechanical? Domestic?”
“Anything amusing?” said I.
“Um!” said the shopman, and scratched his head for a moment as if thinking. Then, quite distinctly, he drew from his head a glass ball. “Something in this way?” he said, and held it out.
The action was unexpected. I had seen the trick done at entertainments endless times before—it’s part of the common stock of conjurers—but I had not expected it here.
“That’s good,” I said, with a laugh.
“Isn’t it?” said the shopman.
Gip stretched out his disengaged hand to take this object and found merely a blank palm.
“It’s in your pocket,” said the shopman, and there it was!
“How much will that be?” I asked.
“We make no charge for glass balls,” said the shopman politely. “We get them,”—he picked one out of his elbow as he spoke—“free.” He produced another from the back of his neck, and laid it beside its predecessor on the counter. Gip regarded his glass ball sagely, then directed a look of inquiry at the two on the counter, and finally brought his round-eyed scrutiny to the shopman, who smiled.
“You may have those too,” said the shopman, “and, if you DON’T mind, one from my mouth. SO!”
Gip counselled me mutely for a moment, and then in a profound silence put away the four balls, resumed my reassuring finger, and nerved himself for the next event.
“We get all our smaller tricks in that way,” the shopman remarked.
I laughed in the manner of one who subscribes to a jest. “Instead of going to the wholesale shop,” I said. “Of course, it’s cheaper.”
“In a way,” the shopman said. “Though we pay in the end. But not so heavily—as people suppose…. Our larger tricks, and our daily provisions and all the other things we want, we get out of that hat… And you know, sir, if you’ll excuse my saying it, there ISN’T a wholesale shop, not for Genuine Magic goods, sir. I don’t know if you noticed our inscription—the Genuine Magic shop.” He drew a business-card from his cheek and handed it to me. “Genuine,” he said, with his finger on the word, and added, “There is absolutely no deception, sir.”
He seemed to be carrying out the joke pretty thoroughly, I thought.
He turned to Gip with a smile of remarkable affability. “You, you know, are the Right Sort of Boy.”
I was surprised at his knowing that, because, in the interests of discipline, we keep it rather a secret even at home; but Gip received it in unflinching silence, keeping a steadfast eye on him.
“It’s only the Right Sort of Boy gets through that doorway.”
And, as if by way of illustration, there came a rattling at the door, and a squeaking little voice could be faintly heard. “Nyar! I WARN ‘a go in there, dadda, I WARN ‘a go in there. Ny-a-a-ah!” and then the accents of a down-trodden parent, urging consolations and propitiations. “It’s locked, Edward,” he said.
“But it isn’t,” said I.
“It is, sir,” said the shopman, “always—for that sort of child,” and as he spoke we had a glimpse of the other youngster, a little, white face, pallid from sweet-eating and over-sapid food, and distorted by evil passions, a ruthless little egotist, pawing at the enchanted pane. “It’s no good, sir,” said the shopman, as I moved, with my natural helpfulness, doorward, and presently the spoilt child was carried off howling.
“How do you manage that?” I said, breathing a little more freely.
“Magic!” said the shopman, with a careless wave of the hand, and behold! sparks of coloured fire flew out of his fingers and vanished into the shadows of the shop.
“You were saying,” he said, addressing himself to Gip, “before you came in, that you would like one of our ‘Buy One and Astonish your Friends’ boxes?”
Gip, after a gallant effort, said “Yes.”
“It’s in your pocket.”
And leaning over the counter—he really had an extraordinarily long body—this amazing person produced the article in the customary conjurer’s manner. “Paper,” he said, and took a sheet out of the empty hat with the springs; “string,” and behold his mouth was a string-box, from which he drew an unending thread, which when he had tied his parcel he bit off—and, it seemed to me, swallowed the ball of string. And then he lit a candle at the nose of one of the ventriloquist’s dummies, stuck one of his fingers (which had become sealing-wax red) into the flame, and so sealed the parcel. “Then there was the Disappearing Egg,” he remarked, and produced one from within my coat-breast and packed it, and also The Crying Baby, Very Human. I handed each parcel to Gip as it was ready, and he clasped them to his chest.
He said very little, but his eyes were eloquent; the clutch of his arms was eloquent. He was the playground of unspeakable emotions. These, you know, were REAL Magics. Then, with a start, I discovered something moving about in my hat—something soft and jumpy. I whipped it off, and a ruffled pigeon—no doubt a confederate—dropped out and ran on the counter, and went, I fancy, into a cardboard box behind the papier-mache tiger.
“Tut, tut!” said the shopman, dexterously relieving me of my headdress; “careless bird, and—as I live—nesting!”
He shook my hat, and shook out into his extended hand two or three eggs, a large marble, a watch, about half-a-dozen of the inevitable glass balls, and then crumpled, crinkled paper, more and more and more, talking all the time of the way in which people neglect to brush their hats INSIDE as well as out, politely, of course, but with a certain personal application. “All sorts of things accumulate, sir…. Not YOU, of course, in particular…. Nearly every customer…. Astonishing what they carry about with them….” The crumpled paper rose and billowed on the counter more and more and more, until he was nearly hidden from us, until he was altogether hidden, and still his voice went on and on. “We none of us know what the fair semblance of a human being may conceal, sir. Are we all then no better than brushed exteriors, whited sepulchres—”
His voice stopped—exactly like when you hit a neighbour’s gramophone with a well-aimed brick, the same instant silence, and the rustle of the paper stopped, and everything was still….
“Have you done with my hat?” I said, after an interval.
There was no answer.
I stared at Gip, and Gip stared at me, and there were our distortions in the magic mirrors, looking very rum, and grave, and quiet….
“I think we’ll go now,” I said. “Will you tell me how much all this comes to?….
“I say,” I said, on a rather louder note, “I want the bill; and my hat, please.”
It might have been a sniff from behind the paper pile….
“Let’s look behind the counter, Gip,” I said. “He’s making fun of us.”
I led Gip round the head-wagging tiger, and what do you think there was behind the counter? No one at all! Only my hat on the floor, and a common conjurer’s lop-eared white rabbit lost in meditation, and looking as stupid and crumpled as only a conjurer’s rabbit can do. I resumed my hat, and the rabbit lolloped a lollop or so out of my way.
“Dadda!” said Gip, in a guilty whisper.
“What is it, Gip?” said I.
“I DO like this shop, dadda.”
“So should I,” I said to myself, “if the counter wouldn’t suddenly extend itself to shut one off from the door.” But I didn’t call Gip’s attention to that. “Pussy!” he said, with a hand out to the rabbit as it came lolloping past us; “Pussy, do Gip a magic!” and his eyes followed it as it squeezed through a door I had certainly not remarked a moment before. Then this door opened wider, and the man with one ear larger than the other appeared again. He was smiling still, but his eye met mine with something between amusement and defiance. “You’d like to see our show-room, sir,” he said, with an innocent suavity. Gip tugged my finger forward. I glanced at the counter and met the shopman’s eye again. I was beginning to think the magic just a little too genuine. “We haven’t VERY much time,” I said. But somehow we were inside the show-room before I could finish that.
“All goods of the same quality,” said the shopman, rubbing his flexible hands together, “and that is the Best. Nothing in the place that isn’t genuine Magic, and warranted thoroughly rum. Excuse me, sir!”
I felt him pull at something that clung to my coat-sleeve, and then I saw he held a little, wriggling red demon by the tail—the little creature bit and fought and tried to get at his hand—and in a moment he tossed it carelessly behind a counter. No doubt the thing was only an image of twisted indiarubber, but for the moment—! And his gesture was exactly that of a man who handles some petty biting bit of vermin. I glanced at Gip, but Gip was looking at a magic rocking-horse. I was glad he hadn’t seen the thing. “I say,” I said, in an undertone, and indicating Gip and the red demon with my eyes, “you haven’t many things like THAT about, have you?”
“None of ours! Probably brought it with you,” said the shopman—also in an undertone, and with a more dazzling smile than ever. “Astonishing what people WILL carry about with them unawares!” And then to Gip, “Do you see anything you fancy here?”
There were many things that Gip fancied there.
He turned to this astonishing tradesman with mingled confidence and respect. “Is that a Magic Sword?” he said.
“A Magic Toy Sword. It neither bends, breaks, nor cuts the fingers. It renders the bearer invincible in battle against any one under eighteen. Half-a-crown to seven and sixpence, according to size. These panoplies on cards are for juvenile knights-errant and very useful—shield of safety, sandals of swiftness, helmet of invisibility.”
“Oh, daddy!” gasped Gip.
I tried to find out what they cost, but the shopman did not heed me. He had got Gip now; he had got him away from my finger; he had embarked upon the exposition of all his confounded stock, and nothing was going to stop him. Presently I saw with a qualm of distrust and something very like jealousy that Gip had hold of this person’s finger as usually he has hold of mine. No doubt the fellow was interesting, I thought, and had an interestingly faked lot of stuff, really GOOD faked stuff, still—
I wandered after them, saying very little, but keeping an eye on this prestidigital fellow. After all, Gip was enjoying it. And no doubt when the time came to go we should be able to go quite easily.
It was a long, rambling place, that show-room, a gallery broken up by stands and stalls and pillars, with archways leading off to other departments, in which the queerest-looking assistants loafed and stared at one, and with perplexing mirrors and curtains. So perplexing, indeed, were these that I was presently unable to make out the door by which we had come.
The shopman showed Gip magic trains that ran without steam or clockwork, just as you set the signals, and then some very, very valuable boxes of soldiers that all came alive directly you took off the lid and said—. I myself haven’t a very quick ear and it was a tongue-twisting sound, but Gip—he has his mother’s ear—got it in no time. “Bravo!” said the shopman, putting the men back into the box unceremoniously and handing it to Gip. “Now,” said the shopman, and in a moment Gip had made them all alive again.
“You’ll take that box?” asked the shopman.
“We’ll take that box,” said I, “unless you charge its full value. In which case it would need a Trust Magnate—”
“Dear heart! NO!” and the shopman swept the little men back again, shut the lid, waved the box in the air, and there it was, in brown paper, tied up and—WITH GIP’S FULL NAME AND ADDRESS ON THE PAPER!
The shopman laughed at my amazement.
“This is the genuine magic,” he said. “The real thing.”
“It’s a little too genuine for my taste,” I said again.
After that he fell to showing Gip tricks, odd tricks, and still odder the way they were done. He explained them, he turned them inside out, and there was the dear little chap nodding his busy bit of a head in the sagest manner.
I did not attend as well as I might. “Hey, presto!” said the Magic Shopman, and then would come the clear, small “Hey, presto!” of the boy. But I was distracted by other things. It was being borne in upon me just how tremendously rum this place was; it was, so to speak, inundated by a sense of rumness. There was something a little rum about the fixtures even, about the ceiling, about the floor, about the casually distributed chairs. I had a queer feeling that whenever I wasn’t looking at them straight they went askew, and moved about, and played a noiseless puss-in-the-corner behind my back. And the cornice had a serpentine design with masks—masks altogether too expressive for proper plaster.
Then abruptly my attention was caught by one of the odd-looking assistants. He was some way off and evidently unaware of my presence—I saw a sort of three-quarter length of him over a pile of toys and through an arch—and, you know, he was leaning against a pillar in an idle sort of way doing the most horrid things with his features! The particular horrid thing he did was with his nose. He did it just as though he was idle and wanted to amuse himself. First of all it was a short, blobby nose, and then suddenly he shot it out like a telescope, and then out it flew and became thinner and thinner until it was like a long, red, flexible whip. Like a thing in a nightmare it was! He flourished it about and flung it forth as a fly-fisher flings his line.
My instant thought was that Gip mustn’t see him. I turned about, and there was Gip quite preoccupied with the shopman, and thinking no evil. They were whispering together and looking at me. Gip was standing on a little stool, and the shopman was holding a sort of big drum in his hand.
“Hide and seek, dadda!” cried Gip. “You’re He!”
And before I could do anything to prevent it, the shopman had clapped the big drum over him. I saw what was up directly. “Take that off,” I cried, “this instant! You’ll frighten the boy. Take it off!”
The shopman with the unequal ears did so without a word, and held the big cylinder towards me to show its emptiness. And the little stool was vacant! In that instant my boy had utterly disappeared?…
You know, perhaps, that sinister something that comes like a hand out of the unseen and grips your heart about. You know it takes your common self away and leaves you tense and deliberate, neither slow nor hasty, neither angry nor afraid. So it was with me.
I came up to this grinning shopman and kicked his stool aside.
“Stop this folly!” I said. “Where is my boy?”
“You see,” he said, still displaying the drum’s interior, “there is no deception—-”
I put out my hand to grip him, and he eluded me by a dexterous movement. I snatched again, and he turned from me and pushed open a door to escape. “Stop!” I said, and he laughed, receding. I leapt after him—into utter darkness.
“Lor’ bless my ‘eart! I didn’t see you coming, sir!”
I was in Regent Street, and I had collided with a decent-looking working man; and a yard away, perhaps, and looking a little perplexed with himself, was Gip. There was some sort of apology, and then Gip had turned and come to me with a bright little smile, as though for a moment he had missed me.
And he was carrying four parcels in his arm!
He secured immediate possession of my finger.
For the second I was rather at a loss. I stared round to see the door of the magic shop, and, behold, it was not there! There was no door, no shop, nothing, only the common pilaster between the shop where they sell pictures and the window with the chicks!…
I did the only thing possible in that mental tumult; I walked straight to the kerbstone and held up my umbrella for a cab.
“‘Ansoms,” said Gip, in a note of culminating exultation.
I helped him in, recalled my address with an effort, and got in also. Something unusual proclaimed itself in my tail-coat pocket, and I felt and discovered a glass ball. With a petulant expression I flung it into the street.
Gip said nothing.
For a space neither of us spoke.
“Dada!” said Gip, at last, “that WAS a proper shop!”
I came round with that to the problem of just how the whole thing had seemed to him. He looked completely undamaged—so far, good; he was neither scared nor unhinged, he was simply tremendously satisfied with the afternoon’s entertainment, and there in his arms were the four parcels.
Confound it! what could be in them?
“Um!” I said. “Little boys can’t go to shops like that every day.”
He received this with his usual stoicism, and for a moment I was sorry I was his father and not his mother, and so couldn’t suddenly there, coram publico, in our hansom, kiss him. After all, I thought, the thing wasn’t so very bad.
But it was only when we opened the parcels that I really began to be reassured. Three of them contained boxes of soldiers, quite ordinary lead soldiers, but of so good a quality as to make Gip altogether forget that originally these parcels had been Magic Tricks of the only genuine sort, and the fourth contained a kitten, a little living white kitten, in excellent health and appetite and temper.
I saw this unpacking with a sort of provisional relief. I hung about in the nursery for quite an unconscionable time….
That happened six months ago. And now I am beginning to believe it is all right. The kitten had only the magic natural to all kittens, and the soldiers seem as steady a company as any colonel could desire. And Gip—?
The intelligent parent will understand that I have to go cautiously with Gip.
But I went so far as this one day. I said, “How would you like your soldiers to come alive, Gip, and march about by themselves?”
“Mine do,” said Gip. “I just have to say a word I know before I open the lid.”
“Then they march about alone?”
“Oh, QUITE, dadda. I shouldn’t like them if they didn’t do that.”
I displayed no unbecoming surprise, and since then I have taken occasion to drop in upon him once or twice, unannounced, when the soldiers were about, but so far I have never discovered them performing in anything like a magical manner.
It’s so difficult to tell.
There’s also a question of finance. I have an incurable habit of paying bills. I have been up and down Regent Street several times, looking for that shop. I am inclined to think, indeed, that in that matter honour is satisfied, and that, since Gip’s name and address are known to them, I may very well leave it to these people, whoever they may be, to send in their bill in their own time.
One confidential evening, not three months ago, Lionel Wallace told me this story of the Door in the Wall. And at the time I thought that so far as he was concerned it was a true story.
He told it me with such a direct simplicity of conviction that I could not do otherwise than believe in him. But in the morning, in my own flat, I woke to a different atmosphere, and as I lay in bed and recalled the things he had told me, stripped of the glamour of his earnest slow voice, denuded of the focussed shaded table light, the shadowy atmosphere that wrapped about him and the pleasant bright things, the dessert and glasses and napery of the dinner we had shared, making them for the time a bright little world quite cut off from every-day realities, I saw it all as frankly incredible. “He was mystifying!” I said, and then: “How well he did it!. . . . . It isn’t quite the thing I should have expected him, of all people, to do well.”
Afterwards, as I sat up in bed and sipped my morning tea, I found myself trying to account for the flavour of reality that perplexed me in his impossible reminiscences, by supposing they did in some way suggest, present, convey—I hardly know which word to use—experiences it was otherwise impossible to tell.
Well, I don’t resort to that explanation now. I have got over my intervening doubts. I believe now, as I believed at the moment of telling, that Wallace did to the very best of his ability strip the truth of his secret for me. But whether he himself saw, or only thought he saw, whether he himself was the possessor of an inestimable privilege, or the victim of a fantastic dream, I cannot pretend to guess. Even the facts of his death, which ended my doubts forever, throw no light on that. That much the reader must judge for himself.
I forget now what chance comment or criticism of mine moved so reticent a man to confide in me. He was, I think, defending himself against an imputation of slackness and unreliability I had made in relation to a great public movement in which he had disappointed me. But he plunged suddenly. “I have” he said, “a preoccupation—”
“I know,” he went on, after a pause that he devoted to the study of his cigar ash, “I have been negligent. The fact is—it isn’t a case of ghosts or apparitions—but—it’s an odd thing to tell of, Redmond—I am haunted. I am haunted by something—that rather takes the light out of things, that fills me with longings…”
He paused, checked by that English shyness that so often overcomes us when we would speak of moving or grave or beautiful things. “You were at Saint Athelstan’s all through,” he said, and for a moment that seemed to me quite irrelevant. “Well”—and he paused. Then very haltingly at first, but afterwards more easily, he began to tell of the thing that was hidden in his life, the haunting memory of a beauty and a happiness that filled his heart with insatiable longings that made all the interests and spectacle of worldly life seem dull and tedious and vain to him.
Now that I have the clue to it, the thing seems written visibly in his face. I have a photograph in which that look of detachment has been caught and intensified. It reminds me of what a woman once said of him—a woman who had loved him greatly. “Suddenly,” she said, “the interest goes out of him. He forgets you. He doesn’t care a rap for you—under his very nose…”
Yet the interest was not always out of him, and when he was holding his attention to a thing Wallace could contrive to be an extremely successful man. His career, indeed, is set with successes. He left me behind him long ago; he soared up over my head, and cut a figure in the world that I couldn’t cut—anyhow. He was still a year short of forty, and they say now that he would have been in office and very probably in the new Cabinet if he had lived. At school he always beat me without effort—as it were by nature. We were at school together at Saint Athelstan’s College in West Kensington for almost all our school time. He came into the school as my co-equal, but he left far above me, in a blaze of scholarships and brilliant performance. Yet I think I made a fair average running. And it was at school I heard first of the Door in the Wall—that I was to hear of a second time only a month before his death.
To him at least the Door in the Wall was a real door leading through a real wall to immortal realities. Of that I am now quite assured.
And it came into his life early, when he was a little fellow between five and six. I remember how, as he sat making his confession to me with a slow gravity, he reasoned and reckoned the date of it. “There was,” he said, “a crimson Virginia creeper in it—all one bright uniform crimson in a clear amber sunshine against a white wall. That came into the impression somehow, though I don’t clearly remember how, and there were horse-chestnut leaves upon the clean pavement outside the green door. They were blotched yellow and green, you know, not brown nor dirty, so that they must have been new fallen. I take it that means October. I look out for horse-chestnut leaves every year, and I ought to know.
“If I’m right in that, I was about five years and four months old.”
He was, he said, rather a precocious little boy—he learned to talk at an abnormally early age, and he was so sane and “old-fashioned,” as people say, that he was permitted an amount of initiative that most children scarcely attain by seven or eight. His mother died when he was born, and he was under the less vigilant and authoritative care of a nursery governess. His father was a stern, preoccupied lawyer, who gave him little attention, and expected great things of him. For all his brightness he found life a little grey and dull I think. And one day he wandered.
He could not recall the particular neglect that enabled him to get away, nor the course he took among the West Kensington roads. All that had faded among the incurable blurs of memory. But the white wall and the green door stood out quite distinctly.
As his memory of that remote childish experience ran, he did at the very first sight of that door experience a peculiar emotion, an attraction, a desire to get to the door and open it and walk in. And at the same time he had the clearest conviction that either it was unwise or it was wrong of him—he could not tell which—to yield to this attraction. He insisted upon it as a curious thing that he knew from the very beginning—unless memory has played him the queerest trick—that the door was unfastened, and that he could go in as he chose.
I seem to see the figure of that little boy, drawn and repelled. And it was very clear in his mind, too, though why it should be so was never explained, that his father would be very angry if he went through that door.
Wallace described all these moments of hesitation to me with the utmost particularity. He went right past the door, and then, with his hands in his pockets, and making an infantile attempt to whistle, strolled right along beyond the end of the wall. There he recalls a number of mean, dirty shops, and particularly that of a plumber and decorator, with a dusty disorder of earthenware pipes, sheet lead ball taps, pattern books of wall paper, and tins of enamel. He stood pretending to examine these things, and coveting, passionately desiring the green door.
Then, he said, he had a gust of emotion. He made a run for it, lest hesitation should grip him again, he went plump with outstretched hand through the green door and let it slam behind him. And so, in a trice, he came into the garden that has haunted all his life.
It was very difficult for Wallace to give me his full sense of that garden into which he came.
There was something in the very air of it that exhilarated, that gave one a sense of lightness and good happening and well being; there was something in the sight of it that made all its colour clean and perfect and subtly luminous. In the instant of coming into it one was exquisitely glad—as only in rare moments and when one is young and joyful one can be glad in this world. And everything was beautiful there…
Wallace mused before he went on telling me. “You see,” he said, with the doubtful inflection of a man who pauses at incredible things, “there were two great panthers there… Yes, spotted panthers. And I was not afraid. There was a long wide path with marble-edged flower borders on either side, and these two huge velvety beasts were playing there with a ball. One looked up and came towards me, a little curious as it seemed. It came right up to me, rubbed its soft round ear very gently against the small hand I held out and purred. It was, I tell you, an enchanted garden. I know. And the size? Oh! it stretched far and wide, this way and that. I believe there were hills far away. Heaven knows where West Kensington had suddenly got to. And somehow it was just like coming home.
“You know, in the very moment the door swung to behind me, I forgot the road with its fallen chestnut leaves, its cabs and tradesmen’s carts, I forgot the sort of gravitational pull back to the discipline and obedience of home, I forgot all hesitations and fear, forgot discretion, forgot all the intimate realities of this life. I became in a moment a very glad and wonder-happy little boy—in another world. It was a world with a different quality, a warmer, more penetrating and mellower light, with a faint clear gladness in its air, and wisps of sun-touched cloud in the blueness of its sky. And before me ran this long wide path, invitingly, with weedless beds on either side, rich with untended flowers, and these two great panthers. I put my little hands fearlessly on their soft fur, and caressed their round ears and the sensitive corners under their ears, and played with them, and it was as though they welcomed me home. There was a keen sense of home-coming in my mind, and when presently a tall, fair girl appeared in the pathway and came to meet me, smiling, and said ‘Well?’ to me, and lifted me, and kissed me, and put me down, and led me by the hand, there was no amazement, but only an impression of delightful rightness, of being reminded of happy things that had in some strange way been overlooked. There were broad steps, I remember, that came into view between spikes of delphinium, and up these we went to a great avenue between very old and shady dark trees. All down this avenue, you know, between the red chapped stems, were marble seats of honour and statuary, and very tame and friendly white doves…
“And along this avenue my girl-friend led me, looking down—I recall the pleasant lines, the finely-modelled chin of her sweet kind face—asking me questions in a soft, agreeable voice, and telling me things, pleasant things I know, though what they were I was never able to recall… And presently a little Capuchin monkey, very clean, with a fur of ruddy brown and kindly hazel eyes, came down a tree to us and ran beside me, looking up at me and grinning, and presently leapt to my shoulder. So we went on our way in great happiness…”
“Go on,” I said.
“I remember little things. We passed an old man musing among laurels, I remember, and a place gay with paroquets, and came through a broad shaded colonnade to a spacious cool palace, full of pleasant fountains, full of beautiful things, full of the quality and promise of heart’s desire. And there were many things and many people, some that still seem to stand out clearly and some that are a little vague, but all these people were beautiful and kind. In some way—I don’t know how—it was conveyed to me that they all were kind to me, glad to have me there, and filling me with gladness by their gestures, by the touch of their hands, by the welcome and love in their eyes. Yes—”
He mused for awhile. “Playmates I found there. That was very much to me, because I was a lonely little boy. They played delightful games in a grass-covered court where there was a sun-dial set about with flowers. And as one played one loved…
“But—it’s odd—there’s a gap in my memory. I don’t remember the games we played. I never remembered. Afterwards, as a child, I spent long hours trying, even with tears, to recall the form of that happiness. I wanted to play it all over again—in my nursery—by myself. No! All I remember is the happiness and two dear playfellows who were most with me… Then presently came a sombre dark woman, with a grave, pale face and dreamy eyes, a sombre woman wearing a soft long robe of pale purple, who carried a book and beckoned and took me aside with her into a gallery above a hall—though my playmates were loth to have me go, and ceased their game and stood watching as I was carried away. ‘Come back to us!’ they cried. ‘Come back to us soon!’ I looked up at her face, but she heeded them not at all. Her face was very gentle and grave. She took me to a seat in the gallery, and I stood beside her, ready to look at her book as she opened it upon her knee. The pages fell open. She pointed, and I looked, marvelling, for in the living pages of that book I saw myself; it was a story about myself, and in it were all the things that had happened to me since ever I was born…
“It was wonderful to me, because the pages of that book were not pictures, you understand, but realities.”
Wallace paused gravely—looked at me doubtfully.
“Go on,” I said. “I understand.”
“They were realities—yes, they must have been; people moved and things came and went in them; my dear mother, whom I had near forgotten; then my father, stern and upright, the servants, the nursery, all the familiar things of home. Then the front door and the busy streets, with traffic to and fro: I looked and marvelled, and looked half doubtfully again into the woman’s face and turned the pages over, skipping this and that, to see more of this book, and more, and so at last I came to myself hovering and hesitating outside the green door in the long white wall, and felt again the conflict and the fear.
“‘And next?’ I cried, and would have turned on, but the cool hand of the grave woman delayed me.
“‘Next?’ I insisted, and struggled gently with her hand, pulling up her fingers with all my childish strength, and as she yielded and the page came over she bent down upon me like a shadow and kissed my brow.
“But the page did not show the enchanted garden, nor the panthers, nor the girl who had led me by the hand, nor the playfellows who had been so loth to let me go. It showed a long grey street in West Kensington, on that chill hour of afternoon before the lamps are lit, and I was there, a wretched little figure, weeping aloud, for all that I could do to restrain myself, and I was weeping because I could not return to my dear play-fellows who had called after me, ‘Come back to us! Come back to us soon!’ I was there. This was no page in a book, but harsh reality; that enchanted place and the restraining hand of the grave mother at whose knee I stood had gone—whither have they gone?”
He halted again, and remained for a time, staring into the fire.
“Oh! the wretchedness of that return!” he murmured.
“Well?” I said after a minute or so.
“Poor little wretch I was—brought back to this grey world again! As I realised the fulness of what had happened to me, I gave way to quite ungovernable grief. And the shame and humiliation of that public weeping and my disgraceful homecoming remain with me still. I see again the benevolent-looking old gentleman in gold spectacles who stopped and spoke to me—prodding me first with his umbrella. ‘Poor little chap,’ said he; ‘and are you lost then?’—and me a London boy of five and more! And he must needs bring in a kindly young policeman and make a crowd of me, and so march me home. Sobbing, conspicuous and frightened, I came from the enchanted garden to the steps of my father’s house.
“That is as well as I can remember my vision of that garden—the garden that haunts me still. Of course, I can convey nothing of that indescribable quality of translucent unreality, that difference from the common things of experience that hung about it all; but that—that is what happened. If it was a dream, I am sure it was a day-time and altogether extraordinary dream… H’m!—naturally there followed a terrible questioning, by my aunt, my father, the nurse, the governess—everyone…
“I tried to tell them, and my father gave me my first thrashing for telling lies. When afterwards I tried to tell my aunt, she punished me again for my wicked persistence. Then, as I said, everyone was forbidden to listen to me, to hear a word about it. Even my fairy tale books were taken away from me for a time—because I was ‘too imaginative.’ Eh? Yes, they did that! My father belonged to the old school… And my story was driven back upon myself. I whispered it to my pillow—my pillow that was often damp and salt to my whispering lips with childish tears. And I added always to my official and less fervent prayers this one heartfelt request: ‘Please God I may dream of the garden. Oh! take me back to my garden! Take me back to my garden!’
“I dreamt often of the garden. I may have added to it, I may have changed it; I do not know… All this you understand is an attempt to reconstruct from fragmentary memories a very early experience. Between that and the other consecutive memories of my boyhood there is a gulf. A time came when it seemed impossible I should ever speak of that wonder glimpse again.”
I asked an obvious question.
“No,” he said. “I don’t remember that I ever attempted to find my way back to the garden in those early years. This seems odd to me now, but I think that very probably a closer watch was kept on my movements after this misadventure to prevent my going astray. No, it wasn’t until you knew me that I tried for the garden again. And I believe there was a period—incredible as it seems now—when I forgot the garden altogether—when I was about eight or nine it may have been. Do you remember me as a kid at Saint Athelstan’s?”
“I didn’t show any signs did I in those days of having a secret dream?”
He looked up with a sudden smile.
“Did you ever play North-West Passage with me? . . . . . No, of course you didn’t come my way!”
“It was the sort of game,” he went on, “that every imaginative child plays all day. The idea was the discovery of a North-West Passage to school. The way to school was plain enough; the game consisted in finding some way that wasn’t plain, starting off ten minutes early in some almost hopeless direction, and working one’s way round through unaccustomed streets to my goal. And one day I got entangled among some rather low-class streets on the other side of Campden Hill, and I began to think that for once the game would be against me and that I should get to school late. I tried rather desperately a street that seemed a cul de sac, and found a passage at the end. I hurried through that with renewed hope. ‘I shall do it yet,’ I said, and passed a row of frowsy little shops that were inexplicably familiar to me, and behold! there was my long white wall and the green door that led to the enchanted garden!
“The thing whacked upon me suddenly. Then, after all, that garden, that wonderful garden, wasn’t a dream!”…
“I suppose my second experience with the green door marks the world of difference there is between the busy life of a schoolboy and the infinite leisure of a child. Anyhow, this second time I didn’t for a moment think of going in straight away. You see… For one thing my mind was full of the idea of getting to school in time—set on not breaking my record for punctuality. I must surely have felt some little desire at least to try the door—yes, I must have felt that… But I seem to remember the attraction of the door mainly as another obstacle to my overmastering determination to get to school. I was immediately interested by this discovery I had made, of course—I went on with my mind full of it—but I went on. It didn’t check me. I ran past tugging out my watch, found I had ten minutes still to spare, and then I was going downhill into familiar surroundings. I got to school, breathless, it is true, and wet with perspiration, but in time. I can remember hanging up my coat and hat… Went right by it and left it behind me. Odd, eh?”
He looked at me thoughtfully. “Of course, I didn’t know then that it wouldn’t always be there. School boys have limited imaginations. I suppose I thought it was an awfully jolly thing to have it there, to know my way back to it, but there was the school tugging at me. I expect I was a good deal distraught and inattentive that morning, recalling what I could of the beautiful strange people I should presently see again. Oddly enough I had no doubt in my mind that they would be glad to see me… Yes, I must have thought of the garden that morning just as a jolly sort of place to which one might resort in the interludes of a strenuous scholastic career.
“I didn’t go that day at all. The next day was a half holiday, and that may have weighed with me. Perhaps, too, my state of inattention brought down impositions upon me and docked the margin of time necessary for the detour. I don’t know. What I do know is that in the meantime the enchanted garden was so much upon my mind that I could not keep it to myself.
“I told—What was his name?—a ferrety-looking youngster we used to call Squiff.”
“Young Hopkins,” said I.
“Hopkins it was. I did not like telling him, I had a feeling that in some way it was against the rules to tell him, but I did. He was walking part of the way home with me; he was talkative, and if we had not talked about the enchanted garden we should have talked of something else, and it was intolerable to me to think about any other subject. So I blabbed.
“Well, he told my secret. The next day in the play interval I found myself surrounded by half a dozen bigger boys, half teasing and wholly curious to hear more of the enchanted garden. There was that big Fawcett—you remember him?—and Carnaby and Morley Reynolds. You weren’t there by any chance? No, I think I should have remembered if you were…
“A boy is a creature of odd feelings. I was, I really believe, in spite of my secret self-disgust, a little flattered to have the attention of these big fellows. I remember particularly a moment of pleasure caused by the praise of Crawshaw—you remember Crawshaw major, the son of Crawshaw the composer?—who said it was the best lie he had ever heard. But at the same time there was a really painful undertow of shame at telling what I felt was indeed a sacred secret. That beast Fawcett made a joke about the girl in green—”
Wallace’s voice sank with the keen memory of that shame. “I pretended not to hear,” he said. “Well, then Carnaby suddenly called me a young liar and disputed with me when I said the thing was true. I said I knew where to find the green door, could lead them all there in ten minutes. Carnaby became outrageously virtuous, and said I’d have to—and bear out my words or suffer. Did you ever have Carnaby twist your arm? Then perhaps you’ll understand how it went with me. I swore my story was true. There was nobody in the school then to save a chap from Carnaby though Crawshaw put in a word or so. Carnaby had got his game. I grew excited and red-eared, and a little frightened, I behaved altogether like a silly little chap, and the outcome of it all was that instead of starting alone for my enchanted garden, I led the way presently—cheeks flushed, ears hot, eyes smarting, and my soul one burning misery and shame—for a party of six mocking, curious and threatening school-fellows.
“We never found the white wall and the green door …”
“I mean I couldn’t find it. I would have found it if I could.
“And afterwards when I could go alone I couldn’t find it. I never found it. I seem now to have been always looking for it through my school-boy days, but I’ve never come upon it again.”
“Did the fellows—make it disagreeable?”
“Beastly… Carnaby held a council over me for wanton lying. I remember how I sneaked home and upstairs to hide the marks of my blubbering. But when I cried myself to sleep at last it wasn’t for Carnaby, but for the garden, for the beautiful afternoon I had hoped for, for the sweet friendly women and the waiting playfellows and the game I had hoped to learn again, that beautiful forgotten game…
“I believed firmly that if I had not told—… I had bad times after that—crying at night and wool-gathering by day. For two terms I slackened and had bad reports. Do you remember? Of course you would! It was you—your beating me in mathematics that brought me back to the grind again.”
For a time my friend stared silently into the red heart of the fire. Then he said: “I never saw it again until I was seventeen.
“It leapt upon me for the third time—as I was driving to Paddington on my way to Oxford and a scholarship. I had just one momentary glimpse. I was leaning over the apron of my hansom smoking a cigarette, and no doubt thinking myself no end of a man of the world, and suddenly there was the door, the wall, the dear sense of unforgettable and still attainable things.
“We clattered by—I too taken by surprise to stop my cab until we were well past and round a corner. Then I had a queer moment, a double and divergent movement of my will: I tapped the little door in the roof of the cab, and brought my arm down to pull out my watch. ‘Yes, sir!’ said the cabman, smartly. ‘Er—well—it’s nothing,’ I cried. ‘My mistake! We haven’t much time! Go on!’ and he went on…
“I got my scholarship. And the night after I was told of that I sat over my fire in my little upper room, my study, in my father’s house, with his praise—his rare praise—and his sound counsels ringing in my ears, and I smoked my favourite pipe—the formidable bulldog of adolescence—and thought of that door in the long white wall. ‘If I had stopped,’ I thought, ‘I should have missed my scholarship, I should have missed Oxford—muddled all the fine career before me! I begin to see things better!’ I fell musing deeply, but I did not doubt then this career of mine was a thing that merited sacrifice.
“Those dear friends and that clear atmosphere seemed very sweet to me, very fine, but remote. My grip was fixing now upon the world. I saw another door opening—the door of my career.”
He stared again into the fire. Its red lights picked out a stubborn strength in his face for just one flickering moment, and then it vanished again.
“Well”, he said and sighed, “I have served that career. I have done—much work, much hard work. But I have dreamt of the enchanted garden a thousand dreams, and seen its door, or at least glimpsed its door, four times since then. Yes—four times. For a while this world was so bright and interesting, seemed so full of meaning and opportunity that the half-effaced charm of the garden was by comparison gentle and remote. Who wants to pat panthers on the way to dinner with pretty women and distinguished men? I came down to London from Oxford, a man of bold promise that I have done something to redeem. Something—and yet there have been disappointments…
“Twice I have been in love—I will not dwell on that—but once, as I went to someone who, I know, doubted whether I dared to come, I took a short cut at a venture through an unfrequented road near Earl’s Court, and so happened on a white wall and a familiar green door. ‘Odd!’ said I to myself, ‘but I thought this place was on Campden Hill. It’s the place I never could find somehow—like counting Stonehenge—the place of that queer day dream of mine.’ And I went by it intent upon my purpose. It had no appeal to me that afternoon.
“I had just a moment’s impulse to try the door, three steps aside were needed at the most—though I was sure enough in my heart that it would open to me—and then I thought that doing so might delay me on the way to that appointment in which I thought my honour was involved. Afterwards I was sorry for my punctuality—I might at least have peeped in I thought, and waved a hand to those panthers, but I knew enough by this time not to seek again belatedly that which is not found by seeking. Yes, that time made me very sorry…
“Years of hard work after that and never a sight of the door. It’s only recently it has come back to me. With it there has come a sense as though some thin tarnish had spread itself over my world. I began to think of it as a sorrowful and bitter thing that I should never see that door again. Perhaps I was suffering a little from overwork—perhaps it was what I’ve heard spoken of as the feeling of forty. I don’t know. But certainly the keen brightness that makes effort easy has gone out of things recently, and that just at a time with all these new political developments—when I ought to be working. Odd, isn’t it? But I do begin to find life toilsome, its rewards, as I come near them, cheap. I began a little while ago to want the garden quite badly. Yes—and I’ve seen it three times.”
“No—the door! And I haven’t gone in!”
He leaned over the table to me, with an enormous sorrow in his voice as he spoke. “Thrice I have had my chance—thrice! If ever that door offers itself to me again, I swore, I will go in out of this dust and heat, out of this dry glitter of vanity, out of these toilsome futilities. I will go and never return. This time I will stay… I swore it and when the time came—I didn’t go.
“Three times in one year have I passed that door and failed to enter. Three times in the last year.
“The first time was on the night of the snatch division on the Tenants’ Redemption Bill, on which the Government was saved by a majority of three. You remember? No one on our side—perhaps very few on the opposite side—expected the end that night. Then the debate collapsed like eggshells. I and Hotchkiss were dining with his cousin at Brentford, we were both unpaired, and we were called up by telephone, and set off at once in his cousin’s motor. We got in barely in time, and on the way we passed my wall and door—livid in the moonlight, blotched with hot yellow as the glare of our lamps lit it, but unmistakable. ‘My God!’ cried I. ‘What?’ said Hotchkiss. ‘Nothing!’ I answered, and the moment passed.
“‘I’ve made a great sacrifice,’ I told the whip as I got in.
‘They all have,’ he said, and hurried by.
“I do not see how I could have done otherwise then. And the next occasion was as I rushed to my father’s bedside to bid that stern old man farewell. Then, too, the claims of life were imperative. But the third time was different; it happened a week ago. It fills me with hot remorse to recall it. I was with Gurker and Ralphs—it’s no secret now you know that I’ve had my talk with Gurker. We had been dining at Frobisher’s, and the talk had become intimate between us. The question of my place in the reconstructed ministry lay always just over the boundary of the discussion. Yes—yes. That’s all settled. It needn’t be talked about yet, but there’s no reason to keep a secret from you… Yes—thanks! thanks! But let me tell you my story.
“Then, on that night things were very much in the air. My position was a very delicate one. I was keenly anxious to get some definite word from Gurker, but was hampered by Ralphs’ presence. I was using the best power of my brain to keep that light and careless talk not too obviously directed to the point that concerns me. I had to. Ralphs’ behaviour since has more than justified my caution… Ralphs, I knew, would leave us beyond the Kensington High Street, and then I could surprise Gurker by a sudden frankness. One has sometimes to resort to these little devices… And then it was that in the margin of my field of vision I became aware once more of the white wall, the green door before us down the road.
“We passed it talking. I passed it. I can still see the shadow of Gurker’s marked profile, his opera hat tilted forward over his prominent nose, the many folds of his neck wrap going before my shadow and Ralphs’ as we sauntered past.
“I passed within twenty inches of the door. ‘If I say good-night to them, and go in,’ I asked myself, ‘what will happen?’ And I was all a-tingle for that word with Gurker.
“I could not answer that question in the tangle of my other problems. ‘They will think me mad,’ I thought. ‘And suppose I vanish now!—Amazing disappearance of a prominent politician!’ That weighed with me. A thousand inconceivably petty worldlinesses weighed with me in that crisis.”
Then he turned on me with a sorrowful smile, and, speaking slowly; “Here I am!” he said.
“Here I am!” he repeated, “and my chance has gone from me. Three times in one year the door has been offered me—the door that goes into peace, into delight, into a beauty beyond dreaming, a kindness no man on earth can know. And I have rejected it, Redmond, and it has gone—”
“How do you know?”
“I know. I know. I am left now to work it out, to stick to the tasks that held me so strongly when my moments came. You say, I have success—this vulgar, tawdry, irksome, envied thing. I have it.” He had a walnut in his big hand. “If that was my success,” he said, and crushed it, and held it out for me to see.
“Let me tell you something, Redmond. This loss is destroying me. For two months, for ten weeks nearly now, I have done no work at all, except the most necessary and urgent duties. My soul is full of inappeasable regrets. At nights—when it is less likely I shall be recognised—I go out. I wander. Yes. I wonder what people would think of that if they knew. A Cabinet Minister, the responsible head of that most vital of all departments, wandering alone—grieving—sometimes near audibly lamenting—for a door, for a garden!”
I can see now his rather pallid face, and the unfamiliar sombre fire that had come into his eyes. I see him very vividly to-night. I sit recalling his words, his tones, and last evening’s Westminster Gazette still lies on my sofa, containing the notice of his death. At lunch to-day the club was busy with him and the strange riddle of his fate.
They found his body very early yesterday morning in a deep excavation near East Kensington Station. It is one of two shafts that have been made in connection with an extension of the railway southward. It is protected from the intrusion of the public by a hoarding upon the high road, in which a small doorway has been cut for the convenience of some of the workmen who live in that direction. The doorway was left unfastened through a misunderstanding between two gangers, and through it he made his way…
My mind is darkened with questions and riddles.
It would seem he walked all the way from the House that night—he has frequently walked home during the past Session—and so it is I figure his dark form coming along the late and empty streets, wrapped up, intent. And then did the pale electric lights near the station cheat the rough planking into a semblance of white? Did that fatal unfastened door awaken some memory?
Was there, after all, ever any green door in the wall at all?
I do not know. I have told his story as he told it to me. There are times when I believe that Wallace was no more than the victim of the coincidence between a rare but not unprecedented type of hallucination and a careless trap, but that indeed is not my profoundest belief. You may think me superstitious if you will, and foolish; but, indeed, I am more than half convinced that he had in truth, an abnormal gift, and a sense, something—I know not what—that in the guise of wall and door offered him an outlet, a secret and peculiar passage of escape into another and altogether more beautiful world. At any rate, you will say, it betrayed him in the end. But did it betray him? There you touch the inmost mystery of these dreamers, these men of vision and the imagination. We see our world fair and common, the hoarding and the pit. By our daylight standard he walked out of security into darkness, danger and death. But did he see like that?
That very singular man old Dr. Heidegger once invited four venerable friends to meet him in his study. There were three white-bearded gentlemen—Mr. Medbourne, Colonel Killigrew and Mr. Gascoigne—and a withered gentlewoman whose name was the widow Wycherly. They were all melancholy old creatures who had been unfortunate in life, and whose greatest misfortune it was that they were not long ago in their graves. Mr. Medbourne, in the vigor of his age, had been a prosperous merchant, but had lost his all by a frantic speculation, and was now little better than a mendicant. Colonel Killigrew had wasted his best years and his health and substance in the pursuit of sinful pleasures which had given birth to a brood of pains, such as the gout and divers other torments of soul and body. Mr. Gascoigne was a ruined politician, a man of evil fame—or, at least, had been so till time had buried him from the knowledge of the present generation and made him obscure instead of infamous. As for the widow Wycherly, tradition tells us that she was a great beauty in her day, but for a long while past she had lived in deep seclusion on account of certain scandalous stories which had prejudiced the gentry of the town against her. It is a circumstance worth mentioning that each of these three old gentlemen—Mr. Medbourne, Colonel Killigrew and Mr. Gascoigne—were early lovers of the widow Wycherly, and had once been on the point of cutting each other’s throats for her sake. And before proceeding farther I will merely hint that Dr. Heidegger and all his four guests were sometimes thought to be a little beside themselves, as is not infrequently the case with old people when worried either by present troubles or woeful recollections.
“My dear old friends,” said Dr. Heidegger, motioning them to be seated, “I am desirous of your assistance in one of those little experiments with which I amuse myself here in my study.”
If all stories were true, Dr. Heidegger’s study must have been a very curious place. It was a dim, old-fashioned chamber festooned with cobwebs and besprinkled with antique dust. Around the walls stood several oaken bookcases, the lower shelves of which were filled with rows of gigantic folios and black-letter quartos, and the upper with little parchment-covered duodecimos. Over the central bookcase was a bronze bust of Hippocrates, with which, according to some authorities, Dr. Heidegger was accustomed to hold consultations in all difficult cases of his practice. In the obscurest corner of the room stood a tall and narrow oaken closet with its door ajar, within which doubtfully appeared a skeleton. Between two of the bookcases hung a looking-glass, presenting its high and dusty plate within a tarnished gilt frame. Among many wonderful stories related of this mirror, it was fabled that the spirits of all the doctor’s deceased patients dwelt within its verge and would stare him in the face whenever he looked thitherward. The opposite side of the chamber was ornamented with the full-length portrait of a young lady arrayed in the faded magnificence of silk, satin and brocade, and with a visage as faded as her dress. Above half a century ago Dr. Heidegger had been on the point of marriage with this young lady, but, being affected with some slight disorder, she had swallowed one of her lover’s prescriptions and died on the bridal-evening. The greatest curiosity of the study remains to be mentioned: it was a ponderous folio volume bound in black leather, with massive silver clasps. There were no letters on the back, and nobody could tell the title of the book. But it was well known to be a book of magic, and once, when a chambermaid had lifted it merely to brush away the dust, the skeleton had rattled in its closet, the picture of the young lady had stepped one foot upon the floor and several ghastly faces had peeped forth from the mirror, while the brazen head of Hippocrates frowned and said, “Forbear!”
Such was Dr. Heidegger’s study. On the summer afternoon of our tale a small round table as black as ebony stood in the centre of the room, sustaining a cut-glass vase of beautiful form and elaborate workmanship. The sunshine came through the window between the heavy festoons of two faded damask curtains and fell directly across this vase, so that a mild splendor was reflected from it on the ashen visages of the five old people who sat around. Four champagne-glasses were also on the table.
“My dear old friends,” repeated Dr. Heidegger, “may I reckon on your aid in performing an exceedingly curious experiment?”
Now, Dr. Heidegger was a very strange old gentleman whose eccentricity had become the nucleus for a thousand fantastic stories. Some of these fables—to my shame be it spoken—might possibly be traced back to mine own veracious self; and if any passages of the present tale should startle the reader’s faith, I must be content to bear the stigma of a fiction-monger.
When the doctor’s four guests heard him talk of his proposed experiment, they anticipated nothing more wonderful than the murder of a mouse in an air-pump or the examination of a cobweb by the microscope, or some similar nonsense with which he was constantly in the habit of pestering his intimates. But without waiting for a reply Dr. Heidegger hobbled across the chamber and returned with the same ponderous folio bound in black leather which common report affirmed to be a book of magic. Undoing the silver clasps, he opened the volume and took from among its black-letter pages a rose, or what was once a rose, though now the green leaves and crimson petals had assumed one brownish hue and the ancient flower seemed ready to crumble to dust in the doctor’s hands.
“This rose,” said Dr. Heidegger, with a sigh—”this same withered and crumbling flower—blossomed five and fifty years ago. It was given me by Sylvia Ward, whose portrait hangs yonder, and I meant to wear it in my bosom at our wedding. Five and fifty years it has been treasured between the leaves of this old volume. Now, would you deem it possible that this rose of half a century could ever bloom again?”
“Nonsense!” said the widow Wycherly, with a peevish toss of her head. “You might as well ask whether an old woman’s wrinkled face could ever bloom again.”
“See!” answered Dr. Heidegger. He uncovered the vase and threw the faded rose into the water which it contained. At first it lay lightly on the surface of the fluid, appearing to imbibe none of its moisture. Soon, however, a singular change began to be visible. The crushed and dried petals stirred and assumed a deepening tinge of crimson, as if the flower were reviving from a deathlike slumber, the slender stalk and twigs of foliage became green, and there was the rose of half a century, looking as fresh as when Sylvia Ward had first given it to her lover. It was scarcely full-blown, for some of its delicate red leaves curled modestly around its moist bosom, within which two or three dewdrops were sparkling.
“That is certainly a very pretty deception,” said the doctor’s friends—carelessly, however, for they had witnessed greater miracles at a conjurer’s show. “Pray, how was it effected?”
“Did you never hear of the Fountain of Youth?” asked Dr. Heidegger, “which Ponce de Leon, the Spanish adventurer, went in search of two or three centuries ago?”
“But did Ponce de Leon ever find it?” said the widow Wycherly.
“No,” answered Dr. Heidegger, “for he never sought it in the right place. The famous Fountain of Youth, if I am rightly informed, is situated in the southern part of the Floridian peninsula, not far from Lake Macaco. Its source is overshadowed by several gigantic magnolias which, though numberless centuries old, have been kept as fresh as violets by the virtues of this wonderful water. An acquaintance of mine, knowing my curiosity in such matters, has sent me what you see in the vase.”
“Ahem!” said Colonel Killigrew, who believed not a word of the doctor’s story; “and what may be the effect of this fluid on the human frame?”
“You shall judge for yourself, my dear colonel,” replied Dr. Heidegger.—”And all of you, my respected friends, are welcome to so much of this admirable fluid as may restore to you the bloom of youth. For my own part, having had much trouble in growing old, I am in no hurry to grow young again. With your permission, therefore, I will merely watch the progress of the experiment.”
While he spoke Dr. Heidegger had been filling the four champagne-glasses with the water of the Fountain of Youth. It was apparently impregnated with an effervescent gas, for little bubbles were continually ascending from the depths of the glasses and bursting in silvery spray at the surface. As the liquor diffused a pleasant perfume, the old people doubted not that it possessed cordial and comfortable properties, and, though utter sceptics as to its rejuvenescent power, they were inclined to swallow it at once. But Dr. Heidegger besought them to stay a moment.
“Before you drink, my respectable old friends,” said he, “it would be well that, with the experience of a lifetime to direct you, you should draw up a few general rules for your guidance in passing a second time through the perils of youth. Think what a sin and shame it would be if, with your peculiar advantages, you should not become patterns of virtue and wisdom to all the young people of the age!”
The doctor’s four venerable friends made him no answer except by a feeble and tremulous laugh, so very ridiculous was the idea that, knowing how closely Repentance treads behind the steps of Error, they should ever go astray again.
“Drink, then,” said the doctor, bowing; “I rejoice that I have so well selected the subjects of my experiment.”
With palsied hands they raised the glasses to their lips. The liquor, if it really possessed such virtues as Dr. Heidegger imputed to it, could not have been bestowed on four human beings who needed it more woefully. They looked as if they had never known what youth or pleasure was, but had been the offspring of Nature’s dotage, and always the gray, decrepit, sapless, miserable creatures who now sat stooping round the doctor’s table without life enough in their souls or bodies to be animated even by the prospect of growing young again. They drank off the water and replaced their glasses on the table.
Assuredly, there was an almost immediate improvement in the aspect of the party—not unlike what might have been produced by a glass of generous wine—together with a sudden glow of cheerful sunshine, brightening over all their visages at once. There was a healthful suffusion on their cheeks instead of the ashen hue that had made them look so corpse-like. They gazed at one another, and fancied that some magic power had really begun to smooth away the deep and sad inscriptions which Father Time had been so long engraving on their brows. The widow Wycherly adjusted her cap, for she felt almost like a woman again.
“Give us more of this wondrous water,” cried they, eagerly. “We are younger, but we are still too old. Quick! give us more!”
“Patience, patience!” quoth Dr. Heidegger, who sat, watching the experiment with philosophic coolness. “You have been a long time growing old; surely you might be content to grow young in half an hour. But the water is at your service.” Again he filled their glasses with the liquor of youth, enough of which still remained in the vase to turn half the old people in the city to the age of their own grandchildren.
While the bubbles were yet sparkling on the brim the doctor’s four guests snatched their glasses from the table and swallowed the contents at a single gulp. Was it delusion? Even while the draught was passing down their throats it seemed to have wrought a change on their whole systems. Their eyes grew clear and bright; a dark shade deepened among their silvery locks: they sat around the table three gentlemen of middle age and a woman hardly beyond her buxom prime.
“My dear widow, you are charming!” cried Colonel Killigrew, whose eyes had been fixed upon her face while the shadows of age were flitting from it like darkness from the crimson daybreak.
The fair widow knew of old that Colonel Killigrew’s compliments were not always measured by sober truth; so she started up and ran to the mirror, still dreading that the ugly visage of an old woman would meet her gaze.
Meanwhile, the three gentlemen behaved in such a manner as proved that the water of the Fountain of Youth possessed some intoxicating qualities—unless, indeed, their exhilaration of spirits were merely a lightsome dizziness caused by the sudden removal of the weight of years. Mr. Gascoigne’s mind seemed to run on political topics, but whether relating to the past, present or future could not easily be determined, since the same ideas and phrases have been in vogue these fifty years. Now he rattled forth full-throated sentences about patriotism, national glory and the people’s right; now he muttered some perilous stuff or other in a sly and doubtful whisper, so cautiously that even his own conscience could scarcely catch the secret; and now, again, he spoke in measured accents and a deeply-deferential tone, as if a royal ear were listening to his well-turned periods. Colonel Killigrew all this time had been trolling forth a jolly bottle-song and ringing his glass in symphony with the chorus, while his eyes wandered toward the buxom figure of the widow Wycherly. On the other side of the table, Mr. Medbourne was involved in a calculation of dollars and cents with which was strangely intermingled a project for supplying the East Indies with ice by harnessing a team of whales to the polar icebergs. As for the widow Wycherly, she stood before the mirror courtesying and simpering to her own image and greeting it as the friend whom she loved better than all the world besides. She thrust her face close to the glass to see whether some long-remembered wrinkle or crow’s-foot had indeed vanished; she examined whether the snow had so entirely melted from her hair that the venerable cap could be safely thrown aside. At last, turning briskly away, she came with a sort of dancing step to the table.
“My dear old doctor,” cried she, “pray favor me with another glass.”
“Certainly, my dear madam—certainly,” replied the complaisant doctor. “See! I have already filled the glasses.”
There, in fact, stood the four glasses brimful of this wonderful water, the delicate spray of which, as it effervesced from the surface, resembled the tremulous glitter of diamonds.
It was now so nearly sunset that the chamber had grown duskier than ever, but a mild and moonlike splendor gleamed from within the vase and rested alike on the four guests and on the doctor’s venerable figure. He sat in a high-backed, elaborately-carved oaken arm-chair with a gray dignity of aspect that might have well befitted that very Father Time whose power had never been disputed save by this fortunate company. Even while quaffing the third draught of the Fountain of Youth, they were almost awed by the expression of his mysterious visage. But the next moment the exhilarating gush of young life shot through their veins. They were now in the happy prime of youth. Age, with its miserable train of cares and sorrows and diseases, was remembered only as the trouble of a dream from which they had joyously awoke. The fresh gloss of the soul, so early lost and without which the world’s successive scenes had been but a gallery of faded pictures, again threw its enchantment over all their prospects. They felt like new-created beings in a new-created universe.
“We are young! We are young!” they cried, exultingly.
Youth, like the extremity of age, had effaced the strongly-marked characteristics of middle life and mutually assimilated them all. They were a group of merry youngsters almost maddened with the exuberant frolicsomeness of their years. The most singular effect of their gayety was an impulse to mock the infirmity and decrepitude of which they had so lately been the victims. They laughed loudly at their old-fashioned attire—the wide-skirted coats and flapped waistcoats of the young men and the ancient cap and gown of the blooming girl. One limped across the floor like a gouty grandfather; one set a pair of spectacles astride of his nose and pretended to pore over the black-letter pages of the book of magic; a third seated himself in an arm-chair and strove to imitate the venerable dignity of Dr. Heidegger. Then all shouted mirthfully and leaped about the room.
The widow Wycherly—if so fresh a damsel could be called a widow—tripped up to the doctor’s chair with a mischievous merriment in her rosy face.
“Doctor, you dear old soul,” cried she, “get up and dance with me;” and then the four young people laughed louder than ever to think what a queer figure the poor old doctor would cut.
“Pray excuse me,” answered the doctor, quietly. “I am old and rheumatic, and my dancing-days were over long ago. But either of these gay young gentlemen will be glad of so pretty a partner.”
“Dance with me, Clara,” cried Colonel Killigrew.
“No, no! I will be her partner,” shouted Mr. Gascoigne.
“She promised me her hand fifty years ago,” exclaimed Mr. Medbourne.
They all gathered round her. One caught both her hands in his passionate grasp, another threw his arm about her waist, the third buried his hand among the glossy curls that clustered beneath the widow’s cap. Blushing, panting, struggling, chiding, laughing, her warm breath fanning each of their faces by turns, she strove to disengage herself, yet still remained in their triple embrace. Never was there a livelier picture of youthful rivalship, with bewitching beauty for the prize. Yet, by a strange deception, owing to the duskiness of the chamber and the antique dresses which they still wore, the tall mirror is said to have reflected the figures of the three old, gray, withered grand-sires ridiculously contending for the skinny ugliness of a shrivelled grandam. But they were young: their burning passions proved them so.
Inflamed to madness by the coquetry of the girl-widow, who neither granted nor quite withheld her favors, the three rivals began to interchange threatening glances. Still keeping hold of the fair prize, they grappled fiercely at one another’s throats. As they struggled to and fro the table was overturned and the vase dashed into a thousand fragments. The precious Water of Youth flowed in a bright stream across the floor, moistening the wings of a butterfly which, grown old in the decline of summer, had alighted there to die. The insect fluttered lightly through the chamber and settled on the snowy head of Dr. Heidegger.
“Come, come, gentlemen! Come, Madam Wycherly!” exclaimed the doctor. “I really must protest against this riot.”
They stood still and shivered, for it seemed as if gray Time were calling them back from their sunny youth far down into the chill and darksome vale of years. They looked at old Dr. Heidegger, who sat in his carved armchair holding the rose of half a century, which he had rescued from among the fragments of the shattered vase. At the motion of his hand the four rioters resumed their seats—the more readily because their violent exertions had wearied them, youthful though they were.
“My poor Sylvia’s rose!” ejaculated Dr. Heidegger, holding it in the light of the sunset clouds. “It appears to be fading again.”
And so it was. Even while the party were looking at it the flower continued to shrivel up, till it became as dry and fragile as when the doctor had first thrown it into the vase. He shook off the few drops of moisture which clung to its petals.
“I love it as well thus as in its dewy freshness,” observed he, pressing the withered rose to his withered lips.
While he spoke the butterfly fluttered down from the doctor’s snowy head and fell upon the floor. His guests shivered again. A strange dullness—whether of the body or spirit they could not tell—was creeping gradually over them all. They gazed at one another, and fancied that each fleeting moment snatched away a charm and left a deepening furrow where none had been before. Was it an illusion? Had the changes of a lifetime been crowded into so brief a space, and were they now four aged people sitting with their old friend Dr. Heidegger?
“Are we grown old again so soon?” cried they, dolefully.
In truth, they had. The Water of Youth possessed merely a virtue more transient than that of wine; the delirium which it created had effervesced away. Yes, they were old again. With a shuddering impulse that showed her a woman still, the widow clasped her skinny hands before her face and wished that the coffin-lid were over it, since it could be no longer beautiful.
“Yes, friends, ye are old again,” said Dr. Heidegger, “and, lo! the Water of Youth is all lavished on the ground. Well, I bemoan it not; for if the fountain gushed at my very doorstep, I would not stoop to bathe my lips in it—no, though its delirium were for years instead of moments. Such is the lesson ye have taught me.”
But the doctor’s four friends had taught no such lesson to themselves. They resolved forthwith to make a pilgrimage to Florida and quaff at morning, noon and night from the Fountain of Youth.