My mother said to me: ‘You must go to school, or they will lock up your father.’ There were five of us children at home, four girls and one boy. The eldest was my sister, then me, one year behind her. But I was stronger than her. And naughtier. So my mother said: ‘You will be the one who goes to school, because at home you only make trouble.’ My sister was to stay at home with the little children. She carried them around on her back, washed their nappies, wiped their noses and their little bottoms, and swept and cleaned the house. Everything had to be done by the daughter who was at home, because mothers went into the village to work for the gadjos, and only came back home at night. That was what our mother did, too. Our father went to make bricks. If there was no work, he would work for the gadjos for some food.
In the morning, my mother woke me up: ‘Get up, Little Bighead, go down to the stream and have a wash.’ A little stream passed by about thirty metres from our house. That was where we went to wash, every morning and every night. At night, I would run down to the stream on both feet, but when I came back I hopped on one foot. I never had shoes, and so I wanted at least one of my feet to stay clean. In winter and summer we went barefoot. I only had one set of clothes, which my mother had begged from the gadjos. As for knickers and petticoats, we did not even know what they were.
I went to the stream and washed my feet and my face. My hair was full of feathers, because Romani beds were nothing but feathers and straw, which came out of the mattress and the dirty old quilt. I went to school. I had no bag, I had no readers, no pencil, no exercise book – nothing! I had never had anything of that kind.
I went through the village, and the village was still sleeping. There was no one outside, only two or three gadjos going to the fields with their horses. No one even looked at me, it was as though I were not there at all. I knew where the school was, because when I used to go into the village with my mother, she said to me: ‘This is where you will go to school, so I will have some peace and quiet, Little Bighead!’
I pushed hard to open the heavy school gates. It was dark and cold, and I was half-naked and barefoot. No one was there at all. Only one old gadjo, who looked at me and said: ‘What do you want here?’
‘Well, I’ve come to school. I want to learn things.’
‘You?’ He started to laugh. ‘Look at that skirt on her! Why haven’t you washed? Why haven’t you combed your hair? Where’s your bag? You have nothing, you don’t even have a bag! How will you study?’
‘I will study! I will come to school, I will!’
The old man laughed, and he shoved me into a classroom. I sat in the front desk. I looked all around me. I was alone, all by my little self. The old gadjo started to sweep the floor. I just sat there, thinking to myself how I was going to be somebody! I would know everything. All knowledge would come into my head if I just sat in school – that was what I believed. But then I looked at my bare feet, and my heart sank within me. How could a poor Romani girl become somebody? I closed my eyes, and saw myself in a pink satin dress, embroidered with gold roses. Then I believed again that I would be that clever woman who would pave the way for other Roma. Already as a little girl, I knew that we Roma were the last of the last. No one said a kind word to us. If I wanted to go out from the settlement, my mother said to me: ‘Don’t you dare go into the village! The other children will beat you up.’ And so I only dared to go into the village when there were several of us, or when the older boys came with us, to stand up for us.
It was half past seven, and the bells rang in the church. One after another, the boys and girls filed into the class. Their mothers brought them. Two or three mothers came into the classroom, and seated their little girls in the front desk. They looked askance at me. But I stayed where I was, because I wanted to become clever. I was just waiting to become clever. More and more gadjo boys and girls kept coming in. They were finely dressed, everyone had a bag, and the little girls had ribbons in their hair.
At long last the teacher arrived. She saw me in the front desk. ‘Who put you there?’ She dragged me up, and sent me to sit at the back. ‘That’ll be your place.’ In the first desk she sat the rich little gadjo girls. Then came the poorer ones, and the very back desk was for the Romani kids. ‘The gypsy desk.’ Next to the cracked window, separated from everyone else. I felt like an orphan. Why did I have to sit there all alone? It was hard for me, when there was not a single Romani child with me, and I was afraid. I would have felt stronger, if only someone had sat next to me. But I was alone, all by myself.
The first day in school went by. I learnt nothing. None of that knowledge went into my head, the only thing that forced its way into my mind was how poor I was. When I arrived home, no one asked me: ‘so how was school?’
‘Mummy, the teacher said that I needed a reader, an exercise book and a pencil.’ My mother slapped me. ‘Run away! There isn’t enough to buy bread, and you want a book from me! Just keep on going, so they don’t take your father and lock him up.’
The next day, I washed my feet again and I combed my hair and put on my old clothes and went to school. And that’s how I went to school every day. A month went by, and the teacher did not ask me anything, but just looked to see that I was there. She did not know that I was listening to all that she said. When she asked one of the other girls or boys, in my mind I said along with them what they were supposed to say. I liked doing maths. The seven-times table was my favourite. At night, I was unable to fall asleep because the seven-times table kept dancing in my head. I raised my hand, and the teacher called on me: ‘Go on, count!’ And I counted very well. Again, the teacher asked: ‘What do they cultivate in Hungary?’ I knew. Peppers, melons.
‘You are not stupid,’ said the teacher. ‘If you had a reader and an exercise book and a pencil, you could learn something. Why doesn’t your mother buy you a reader?’
‘My mother has no money.’
‘Why do you go around so dirty? You don’t even have proper clothes!’
‘There are many of us at home, and there is no work.’
Then, one day, I did not go to school. ‘Where were you?’ asked the teacher when I returned.
‘You told me that my clothes were dirty, so my mother washed them for me.’ The teacher’s eyes popped out. ‘I couldn’t go out of the house until my clothes were dry.’
Then the teacher bought me an exercise book and started to give me little pencils, which the other children had thrown away. My fingers hurt from holding them, but I was glad to have them.
One day an order was given that all ‘gypsy’ children must go to school. That’s what the village mayor said. Among the Roma there was great horror, great panic. They ran up and down, the women tore their hair, what will they do with us? What will they do with us? The village guard came to the Romani settlement and began to drum, and the men ran out of their huts, half-naked, their hair full of feathers, and the women were screaming at the children: ‘Go to school! They’ll lock up your father if you don’t go! Who’ll support us?’
The children went. They all put on their ‘very best’ clothes – their mother’s skirt, their father’s trousers – and off they went to school. The village official went on his bicycle, and we chased after him. ‘Go on, run, you gypsy rabble!’
He took us in to the headmaster. I had never seen the headmaster before. He was short, fat-bellied and bald. He had onion eyes and a big moustache, which jigged up and down above his lips when he spoke. He only had two teeth, and God knows where the other teeth had gone. When he looked at us, his big eyes bulged out. He started to tell us off for being lazy Roma, who did not want to learn anything, who did not want to become real people! He cursed us, but you could see that he was a good man. ‘How will I divide you up? Filthy rabble! All the teachers are scared of you,’ he said, kindly. So he started to count: one, two, three, four, five. There were fifteen of us. He said: ‘You go there, you there, you there ’ So he divided us up among the classes. My sister Beži, who was a year older than me, also had to go to school. My mother cursed and cried that there was no one to be with the children when she went out to work.
We went into the classroom, and the teacher was scared of us. ‘Where will I put you!’ At the back were three desks, and she sat us there. We were separated from the gadjo children so that we wouldn’t fight with them. We couldn’t study.
Once, I was very hungry. It was just when there was a fair in the village. The gadjos were baking and boiling – the Roma were hungry. The teacher asked each of us what we had eaten, including the Romani children. Black Pot said: ‘I haven’t eaten anything since yesterday. We only eat when my mother gets home from the village.’
Bango said: ‘We don’t eat in the morning, either,’ which was true. Our first meal used to be in the afternoon, when our mothers came back from the village and brought potatoes, cottage cheese and milk, which the gadjo women gave them if they chopped firewood, cleaned the manure out of the stables, or wiped down the stove.
The teacher said to me: ‘What have you eaten?’
‘Wow!’ my eyes opened as wide as stars. ‘If you could see what I ate! Biscuits with cottage cheese, soup, buns and cake …!’
‘How is it that you have eaten, while there was nothing for your sister to put in her mouth?’ the teacher interrupted. ‘Why are you lying? Stick your tongue out! You’ll get something to make sure you don’t lie next time!’
I stuck my tongue out, and she hit me across it with a ruler. It hurt so much, I could not even speak. But when I came to myself again, I said to her: ‘I was not lying! I was eating all night long! I dreamed of eating, I ate in my dream.’
The teacher went red, said nothing and walked away.
A year went by. Everyone said I was not stupid. I did not fail. They let me move into the second year. I received my school report. There wasn’t a single C grade on it. And I was very proud!
I ran home, jumping up and down for joy, and shouting from far away: ‘Mummy, I only have As and Bs.’
‘I’ll give you ‘A’s! Do you think we can live off your A grades? A grades, A grades – at home you do everything to avoid working! At home you couldn’t care less about work!’ That’s how she cut me short. It was hard for me. The little gadjos got books, watches or money for good school reports – but what was there for me? Cursing. There was no one I could pour my heart out to.
Three Romani boys went up with me into the second year. I became friends with those little boys, and the Roma said of me that I was stronger than a boy! Whatever the boys said, I said it too, and what they did, I did too. When they were beaten, I was beaten too.
One time the circus came to the village. I was mad about dancing. I knew how to put my leg around my neck. And so Šulo and Bango and Tarzan – those were the names of the three who went with me into the second year – said: ‘Listen, you go to the circus – and whatever you see there, you can tell us about it afterwards!’
I said: ‘How can I go, if we don’t have any money?’
And they said: ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get some money somehow. Come with us.’
We went over to the church. In front of the church was a statue of Saint John. In the morning, when the gadjos walked by the church, they threw money at it. And Šulo said: ‘What does a statue need money for? You can keep guard, to make sure the priest or the verger doesn’t come, and we’ll collect the money.’ They made some clay with slime and spit, and made a kind of sticky paste, which they put on the end of a stick, then they poked the stick through the grating towards Saint John. They wanted to raise the money from the dead. ‘Bango, do a wee in the clay, wee in it, it will be better,’ said Šulo. And sure enough, he caught a sixpence on the stick. But the priest was coming!
‘The priest is coming!’ I shouted. The boys stuck the sixpence in my mouth. ‘Swallow it! Get it down!’ I swallowed, and started to choke. I choked, retched, spat, turned red, and the boys were thumping me on the back.
‘What are you doing here, you devils?’ said the priest.
‘We came to pray to Saint John – look, she almost choked,’ lied Bango.
Of course, the priest did not know that I was choking on stolen money, and he said: ‘Come here, let me give you a bit of holy water.’ He poured some into my palm, and so I washed down the stolen money with holy water.
Bango said: ‘We need to think of a way of getting the money.’ But how? What? Where? I used to go to work for one gadjo who had chickens. ‘Do you know what?’ the boys said, ‘You go into the hen-house, take the eggs from under the chickens’ bottoms, and we can sell them to the Jew.’
I did not know what to do. ‘Bango, you go!’ I said.
‘Alright,’ the boys said. ‘You go up the tree, up the pear-tree, and you can pick pears. Bango can go for the eggs.’
I climbed the pear tree – the dog didn’t bark, because it knew me. The boys were in the hen-house, and the hens made no noise, because Šulo and Bango knew what to do. But who should be coming? The gadjo! And I was up the tree! He came straight for me. ‘Is that how you thank me for giving you work?’ He picked up a big stick, the kind you use to knock down nuts, and he went for me! I looked to see whether Bango and Šulo would run out of the hen-house. I saw them jump over the gate, and then they were gone. The gadjo saw nothing. Good, now I could come down from the tree. So I jumped, straight onto a nail. Luckily, it didn’t go into my leg, but it tore my skirt at the back. I ran for it, and the torn skirt flew in the wind, while my naked bottom shone out like the moon.
The boys were waiting for me. They turned me round and round. ‘We need a patch to sew it up!’ said Bango. But where could we get a patch from?
‘Do you know what,’ said Bango, ‘you walk in front of me, and I’ll walk right behind you, and then no one will see your bottom.’ So that is how we walked. My mother was watching from a distance. ‘What on earth is that? Look! She’s with a boy! Stuck right up against him! Does an honest girl walk like that?’ (I was about seven or eight years old.) As I came nearer, my mother said: ‘Is that how you go about, my girl?!’ She beat me until I could not get up from the ground. My mother was wailing: ‘You have one set of clothes! And you’ve torn them up! How can you go to school?’ We never had cloth for a patch at home. My mother said to me, ‘Wait, we’ll do it somehow.’ She took a kind of apron, which was supposed to be tied to my front, and she tied it behind me. My naked bottom could not be seen.
As soon as my mother had tied the apron to me, we went to sell the eggs. The Jew said: ‘What kind of chickens do you have?’ Their shells were very thin. ‘You can see straight away that it’s a Romani chicken.’ The Jew would not buy the eggs from us.
Now what? How could we make money to go to the circus? I said: ‘Oh! I am so disappointed! I’ll never go anywhere. I’m going home.’
‘Aha!’ said the boys. ‘So you swallowed the money and now you want to go home!’ Šulo caught me by the ear. ‘Have no fear. Wherever you try to go, we’ll follow you, because that Saint-John sixpence is not just yours! It’s ours, too.’ But what use was the sixpence to us anyway, when the circus cost one crown twenty!
‘Let’s go and see what we can do,’ said Tarzan. We went to the place where the circus was, and it was already full of circus wagons. Bango went to ask whether he could go and carry wood, or help in any way. What the circus manager said was: ‘Yeah, I need nappies washing, and you can wash them if you want.’ Bango ran for water, Šulo washed, and I just stood there as if I was their princess. Bango said to the circus manager: ‘Let her go in! She can go and see the circus!’
The circus manager pushed me forward: ‘Hop in! Run off, then!’ I went inside, and the boys went on and on washing the nappies.
I was inside the circus! The acrobats swung on the bars, walked on the rope, and the clowns fell off bicycles – most of all, I liked the snake woman in the golden skirt, who did somersaults in the air and walked on her hands. In my mind, I did everything alongside her. I’d show the boys a thing or two!
I went home, glowing like a star. I was beaten by my mother for gadding about! I went to sleep in tears and hungry. As soon as I closed my eyes, I imagined myself as that circus lady, jumping through the air, walking on my hands, with the golden skirt shining on me like the sun.
It was not yet light when I got up secretly and disappeared off to the cemetery. There was a large lawn there, beautiful and soft, so that I would not break any bones. I did a crab. I could do that. I put my foot around my neck. I attempted a handspring. I fell crashing down on my back. No sooner had I recovered a little than I tried to do it again. I spun through the air. Good, now I could do a flip, as well. There was one thing I couldn’t do – I could not walk on my hands. I fell and fell again. I was broken and bruised. Everything hurt.
The bells were ringing in the church, and I fled to school. My first lesson was catechism. The priest came into the classroom, saying: ‘You were at the circus, weren’t you?’
‘Yes, I was.’
‘You go to the circus, but you don’t go to church!’
I said: ‘The floor is cold in the church, and I don’t have shoes.’
‘Tell me how our great God was born.’
‘I can’t tell you how God was born, but if you want I can tell you how my little sister Ili was born.’
‘Come out from behind your desk! You’ll get your bottom smacked for having no manners!’
‘Oh no! I can’t have my bottom smacked!’ I cried. The priest pulled me out of my desk, the apron flew open, and my naked bottom glowed like a full moon. The boys started to laugh. The priest sent me home. And finally my mother brought me some worn-out clothes from the village.
A week later, when I was not so bruised, I said to the boys, during a maths lesson: ‘Come with me.’ I put my hand up and said I needed to go to the toilet. The boys did the same thing, one after another. We had a modern school, with three flushing toilets and a corridor in front of them. In the corridor, I began to show them what the circus was like. The teacher started to wonder where the Romani boys were. Where had they gone? No one had come back from the toilet. The teacher came after us. And when she saw us, I was walking on my hands, spinning through the air and twisting my face like a clown.
‘So that’s what you’re doing! You’re teaching them circus acts. Wait here!’ I was beaten again. How many times had I been beaten for one circus! And what had I gained from it? One swallowed sixpence. When it came out of me again, I hid it in the cemetery. It’s buried there to this day.
A new teacher came. He was tall and young. He looked at us. ‘Are those all the Romani children? Are there no more of you?’
‘There are more of us, but the others don’t come to school. If there were more of us, the teachers would be scared!’
‘So I will take all the Romani children!’ said the new teacher. ‘But none of you will interrupt me or disturb me!’
The next day, what should we see but the new teacher, riding his bicycle into the middle of our settlement. He had come among the ‘gypsies’. Not a single gadjo had ever visited us, apart from the village guard. The teacher called out: ‘Every child who is supposed to be going to school, come outside!’ He even said ‘aven avri’, ‘come outside’, in our own language!
We ran out of the shacks – the teacher had a stick in his hand. ‘Get going, get going, run along to school!’ When we got to the classroom, he asked: ‘Hands up if you haven’t combed your hair.’ He didn’t need to ask, he could see that none of us had combed our hair.
‘Why haven’t you combed your hair?’
‘We don’t have any combs.’
‘Have you washed?’
‘We don’t have any towels.’ One after another, we started to tell him everything that we did not have.
‘Good. Tomorrow you can come to school one hour earlier! If not, I’ll give you what-for!’
The next day, we really did come an hour early. The teacher was already waiting for us. He had brought towels, soap, a washbowl and combs.
‘Who hasn’t eaten anything?’
We all put our hands up. The teacher sent Bango for bread rolls. He bought a roll for each one of us. Then he said: ‘Well, now we can start learning something! Today you can all stay in school for the afternoon, too.’ At midday, he bought food for us again, bread and margarine. He asked us: ‘What do you want to be when you are older?’
‘I want to dance and sing!’ I said.
He slapped me. ‘You won’t earn a living that way. You need to study, then you can dance and sing.’ Then he grabbed the boys by the hair. ‘What do you want to do?’
‘Me – a blacksmith.’
‘Good, you will be a blacksmith.’
‘I want to be a musician like my dad.’
‘That’s all fine, but you must still know how to read and write.’
Then he gave us pencils and exercise books and we really did start to learn something.
There was a fair in the village. The teachers chose good pupils to recite poems. So our teacher said:
‘Just wait and we’ll show them what you can do!’ He asked me: ‘Do you know how to sing?’
I sang a very amorous love song from a film. I must have been about eight years old.
‘Who taught you that?’ the teacher asked.
‘My father sings that to my mother at night,’ I said.
‘Which of you can recite a poem?’
‘Meeeeee!’ I shouted. I recited a patriotic poem which I had heard from the gadjo children. My face was red and my eyes shone – he stared at me.
‘Good,’ he said, ‘you can recite a poem, and then you can all sing and play music.’
The boys brought violins and basses and whatever they could from home. But we had nothing to wear, we had no smart clothes. The teacher said: ‘Oh my God, if I was not so poor! How I could help you all! Look what beautiful hair you have! Would you like ribbons in your hair?’
‘Wow! I’d love that.’
‘Look, boys and girls, you have to study so that you won’t be stupid! So that the gadjos can’t do whatever they want with you. If you study, you will be cleverer than your parents. You will hold your heads up high, you will know how to find your own place among the other people. Study, and pay no attention if I shout at you, or if I box your ears. I cannot get angry with those who treat you in such a way, so I have to vent my anger on you. Oh God! When I see how the gadjo children eat so well and bring bread with dripping, and you eat your hunger, how the anger rises in me! How am I supposed to help you? Grow up good and honourable, so that the gentlemen see that your poverty is not your fault but theirs.’
And we took an oath that we would never again be naughty or bad, that we would not steal money from Saint John, and that we would study.
We went to the celebrations. No one expected the Romani children there. The gadjo children were there with their mothers and fathers. They put on a play about a princess and a cobbler.
Then our teacher stood up. He said: ‘Now let me introduce my pupils to you.’ The boys began to play. The old men started pulling at their moustaches big and small and started tapping their feet, it made them so keen to dance! Then I recited the poem. The gadjos were astonished. Then I took a plate, as my teacher had told me to, and went to collect money. ‘We want to study, too, but we don’t have readers or exercise books.’ Everyone gave some money.
I did not go to school for long. The war began, and Roma were not allowed to go into the village. They did not allow us to go to school. I did three years of school.
*This Story is taken from: Povídky: Short Stories by Czech Women, ed. Nancy Hawker, copyright © Nancy Hawker, 2006.
Dr. Spencer looked up from his misery to the long, winding lines— dark eyes, brown clothes, the occasional red and yellow native costume—and each day before this and after seemed a wretched sameness to him, as if Ellis Island were a prison rather than a reception point, and he was the one locked inside. It made him wonder for the first time if these people were worth all the trouble.
Dr. Hauss, down the line, was new, so his inspection—just clubfeet and goiters—still took twice as long as it should. Waiting for him to finish, Spencer slumped against the metal railing and pressed his palms over his ears, gently rubbing his temples with his extended pinkie fingers, aware that he looked haggard, but not caring. These people’s murmurings—a dozen disparate languages ricocheting like a symphony of ignorance off the tile walls—made his head throb more than last night’s bottle of brandy. Who were they to judge him? Human flotsam. Desperate castoffs. They had no right. They did not know him.
The next person was a woman in her forties, then a man in his twenties, followed by a family of four who all had conjunctivitis. He passed them on, then stopped and glanced at their backs. Really? Had he run his finger under every eyelid? Of course. It was so automatic he did it without thinking.
Spencer reached for his face, then jerked his hand back. Damn her!
He’d almost touched his eye without disinfecting. Spencer dunked his hands up to the wrists, splashing solution onto his instrument stand. It took only a moment to risk his sight, his whole life.
Just like it took Laura only a moment to excise him from hers. Six words—I don’t want to marry you—had reduced thirty years of confidence, work, friends, and good looks to the simple, ridiculous fear of not being good enough to love. It felt as though she’d stamped his forehead “undesirable” and he would walk around trying to hide under his hat the rest of his life, tripping over obstacles with his brim pulled down too far. Spencer wasn’t sure whether or not to believe what she had said—that there was no one else—but what did it matter? Was it better or worse than what his sister had said—that Laura came from a different class of people. “I’m surprised she ever went out with you.”
While Hauss muddled through the next large family, Spencer absently arranged the things on his stand—a row of blue chalk, a flat piece of metal like a buttonhook for inverting eyelids, a notebook for interesting observations and a gold-plated, new ballpoint-style pen Laura had given him. Spencer opened his notebook and looked at his name, written with the pen in the top left-hand corner of the inside cover. The crisp lines of his signature, the perfectly round dots between his M and his D, suddenly seemed a mockery. He decided to throw the pen out as soon as he could get a different one.
Spencer had gotten a job on Ellis Island right after he finished his training and last year he’d been promoted to the eye and brain man, responsible for diagnosing trachoma, a highly contagious infection that caused blindness, and mental deficiencies. Like all the physicians, he used blue chalk to mark his diagnosis on the person’s shoulder, in his case CT for trachoma and a circled X for the deranged and retarded. Inspectors further down the line separated people based on their marks. People marked with CT were sent to the infirmary for a second check. If confirmed for trachoma, they joined those with a circled X back on the boat, bound for wherever they started. Which is why Spencer’s position was left to the most experienced.
Finally Hauss sent up a group of eight and Spencer worked through, starting youngest to oldest—the best way since younger kids got scared off if they saw him use the buttonhook.
Done, he leaned on his podium, head in his hands. God, Hauss was so damn slow! Perhaps he could go to the administrator’s office and tell them he was ill. Who would question a doctor’s diagnosis of himself? But with Hauss’s speed, if he went home sick, they might have to shut the whole line down for the day. People whose relatives were waiting for them to disembark would get stuck on the boats. Maybe he could at least get a damn chair to sit on. Wasn’t he entitled to that much? A chair? He was a doctor after all.
Spencer pushed his glasses up on his tall nose and rubbed his eyes, then glanced quickly at his hands. What the hell was wrong with him? He never touched his eyes at work. Had he remembered to disinfect? Of course, he hadn’t seen a case of trachoma all day. Still.
He dipped his hands in the bowl of disinfectant on the stand’s lower shelf. Some of the doctors on the Island didn’t bother with this precaution—as if they had no common sense at all. Sometimes, seeing this, Spencer wondered if he should feel proud of his job. Was it true what Laura had implied, that only the desperate take a job on the Island? Spencer’s father owned a grocery. He had no medical connections. So what of it?
A man approached with red, watery eyes. Spencer swirled his instrument in the disinfectant, flipped up the man’s eyelid and ran his finger along the underside. It took only a second to feel the white granules. The man forced his eye shut, face wrinkled in outrage, and muttered something in Yiddish. Trachoma and the Jews. They had it the worst, especially of late.
Spencer marked him on the shoulder with a CT, then smiled kindly, eager not to alarm him—he looked as though he could be trouble—and motioned for him to go on ahead.
Waiting for the next group, he scanned the lines, focusing on the women, wondering what they thought of him. Were they ashamed to have a strange man touch them? Or did they admire him, a doctor, an American? Did they resent him for judging them or seek his approval gladly, like a child seeks a parent’s?
Spencer washed his hands again, straightened his tie, then glanced up. Laura stood in front of Hauss. Laura? The same crackly red hair, like fall leaves. The same white neck. The mole? Was it there? Hauss had his hand on the woman’s neck, checking for goiters. She looked afraid and angry. Spencer’s stomach felt bound like a tourniquet on a wound. He knew now: that’s what Laura went to last night. Someone else’s touch.
He passed the next two people without the mental exam—they seemed good enough, just go—and picked up a fresh piece of chalk, rolling it slowly between his hands, the dust leaving blue trails in his fingerprints.
Fredek held his book high so that he could appear to be reading while actually watching the pretty girl from their ship. Her name was Macia, but he thought of her as Goldene because she’d told him that’s what the Jews called America, Goldene Medene.
She approached the first man along the pipe and he took her throat in his hands. He seemed to be massaging it, which Fredek thought a strange way to greet someone.
Fredek began to scratch his head, but the Old Loaf slapped his hand away before he could get any satisfaction. “How many times do I have to tell you? You want them to think you have lice? Hm?”
Fredek smiled and stuck his hand in his pocket. At least she was moving again. For weeks his grandmother had sat on her bunk aboard ship as if she were a baker’s sample, long gone stale in the window. Fredek couldn’t even remember seeing her get up to use the toilet. Now that they were on land, her body had begun to expand to its normal shape, which he thought of as a paczki, sweet and thick and soft.
If he had asked her, Wicktoria would have said she was more like a dinner roll—hard crust, good slash across the top for bursting. She’d have explained to him there was nothing to worry about, though. It was only natural after weeks of sitting in rail offices, waiting in ticket lines, riding on strange buggies, walking on unfamiliar roads and sleeping in common beds that she’d become flattened, like unleavened bread. Which was fine. Such bread lasted longer.
And last she would have to. The journey had taken an extra week due to rough waters, and then they’d been forced to sit on board, just off the coast, for three days waiting for the Island to clear. On day two the rumor started that they were not going to be let off at all, that the whole ship would be turned around and sent back. In the wavering darkness of steerage Wicktoria had listened to the mumblings in Magyar and Russian, Yiddish and German, and tried to remain flat. No hope. No fear. These were the opposite ends of useless.
She knew her grandson was only pretending to read. She followed his eyes to the redheaded Jewess in front of them in line. On the ship the girl had a berth just across from them and Wicktoria had warned Fredek to stay away from her. Everyone knew the Jews were infected with a disease of the eye which kept you from getting into America.
“She looks fine to me,” Fredek had said a hundred times over the past few weeks, but Wicktoria wasn’t taking any chances.
While the man examining the girl made notes, she dabbed at her eyes and Wicktoria nudged Fredek. “See, I told you.”
“She’s crying, Babcia, because of the bags.” When they’d come in on the first floor the men in blue made them leave their suitcases in a pile before they were allowed in line. It kept the lines moving more smoothly, with less congestion. The Old Loaf had heard rumors of this policy on the boat and had taken the precaution of concealing their valuables—cash money, her late-husband’s pocket watch, some dried biscuits, her Bible and her mother’s rosary—under her knitting in a small bag she could easily carry. While they waited in line, the knitting would also keep her occupied.
Goldene had argued with one of the men in blue and Fredek had tried to help, translating for her, until the Old Loaf had pulled him away. “You want us to go back on the ship? You want to go to prison for talking like your father?” It was the first time since they’d left home he had heard real fear in her voice.
Goldene dropped her handkerchief. Fredek grabbed it and handed it to her before the Old Loaf had time to interfere. “Cheer up,” he told her. “It’s just stuff.”
She grinned and reached to pat his cheek. Wicktoria slapped away her hand. “No touching!” She’d already told the girl why they preferred not to associate.
“It’s nice,” Goldene whispered in Polish, “to have a young man think of me.” She turned back to the man at the pipe, who pantomimed removing his shoes. She leaned down to unlace her own boots and Fredek enjoyed the view of her wide hips and her hair, like fired clay, falling across her face.
The Old Loaf whispered, “Mind your manners.”
Embarrassed—did she miss nothing?—Fredek turned his attention to his book, a small volume covered in blue, wrinkled leather. Gilded letters rubbed brown read, “An Emigrant’s Guide to the United States of America.” He read the book slowly, puzzling out each word from context and the English his father had taught him. He marked the passages that seemed most important with a light pencil dot.
Here he can do everything which is right, and no man can with impunity do anything to him that is wrong. If he is not in debt, an event necessary only from sickness or decrepitude, he is absolutely his own master, and the master of all his possessions.
Fredek didn’t know what “impunity” or “decrepitude” meant, but he knew what “his own master” meant—he would be free, just as his father had promised.
It is only the sober, the honest, and the industrious who succeed. Fredek marked the word “industrious” to look up when he bought an English/ Polish dictionary.
Despite her admonishment, Wicktoria did not judge the boy harshly for enjoying the pretty girl’s backside. She was proud of him, in fact, that amid all the loss he’d suffered—both parents gone, his home, his friends, everything left behind—he could still find joy in what God had made. Nonetheless, there were matters of respect to consider.
The last night on the ship, Fredek asleep and the lights all extinguished, Wicktoria had decided to put on her good dress. She knew she’d get better treatment on the Island if she looked more presentable. It still plagued her, whether she’d made the right decision to save the money on second class and take steerage. After she’d bought the tickets she’d heard second-class passengers were given a more cursory inspection.
When Wicktoria slipped her dress over her head and turned her head to free her long hair, she saw him—the man across and one bunk down from her. She’d thought he was asleep, but no—that was clearly a glint off his wet eyeball, open, staring at her. She paused, holding her dress in front of her. What interest could he have in an old woman like her?
She looked at him questioningly, then slipped her top off, letting her pendulous breasts sway out nearly bare, covered only in the thin fabric of her undergarment. He smiled and nodded in appreciation. She’d proceeded to pull off her old stockings—thick, black wool with tiny, random moth holes—then slid her fresh stockings—white with red poppies embroidered along the outer calf—up her dimpled, fine-veined thighs, and fastened them to her garter.
The man smiled at her, then closed his eye, the glint gone.
Finally, on the third morning, the doors opened and the darkness began to move, the long, wide skirts, leather bags tied shut with rope, pillowcases full of nothing worth having, only worth not losing.
On the ferry Wicktoria sat at the window, cheek against the cold glass, eyes closed while Fredek strained over her, looking out. She tried to imagine a moment of complete rest, complete aloneness, a moment when she could let go all her bags, take off her coat and dress, shed the papers with her fake name and pretend husband, crumple the damn tag they’d pinned to her collar, and return to a world in which she could lay down without another pair of eyes to see her drift away.
Now Wicktoria watched the second man further down the line at the elbow in the pipe. He handled each person like a mother who’d had enough—grabbing their faces and peering in their eyes as if they were peepholes, asking questions, writing directly on their clothes. Would this be the end of it? She doubted that. At least it was warm in here.
Wicktoria breathed in a great quantity of air. Her whole chest rose, the papers with her false name, her pretend husband waiting in America, pressing against her breasts. She turned her face toward the high windows above and felt an intense desire to fly, to be able to rise up far away, just her, not even Fredek, into the enormous open space above her, the towering arch of the ceiling, where she could touch the cool tiles on the upper wall, curl up in the immense chandeliers under the gentle warmth of their electric light.
The man waved Goldene down to the next station at the elbow in the pipe and consulted his clipboard again. Fredek glanced at the Old Loaf to ask if he should go on up, but she was staring at the ceiling, her gray head twisting in circles. Fredek followed her eyes to the arched windows, where a faint snow fell against the gray light. He, too, thought of flying— out the windows, out into the new world of rules, laws, languages, and the only thing he feared was leaving behind the Old Loaf. His parents were dead, but she had saved him. He looked at her wrinkled, spotted hand. The knuckles were especially wide and flat, like a man’s. She wore a gold band that had grown too tight some time ago and now sat in a permanent depression which made it seem that removing it would require amputation. Fredek took the hand in his and squeezed it.
Hauss, so miserably slow, seemed to have been manhandling the poor girl for hours. Finally he’d waved her down to Spencer.
“Your name?” Spencer asked, his voice almost a whisper. Her high-necked blouse made it impossible for him to see if she had a mole like Laura’s, a soft-brown spot, perfectly round, just above the clavicle.
She didn’t reply, so he asked loudly if she knew English. “No,” she shouted in Yiddish.
Another Jew. Spencer wondered if she was trying to escape the Pale of Settlement the Russians had set up.
He asked in his limited Yiddish where she was from. The girl looked at him with that expression, the way they all stared, defiant and vacant, resentful, assuming you had something against them, which you didn’t.
“Oh, for God’s sake, I don’t have time for this.” He snapped some papers out of her hands. Macia. He was fairly sure that was Miriam in English. “Miriam, where’s your husband?” It wasn’t his job to ask these questions, but really, what was a woman her age doing coming to America alone?
She said something he didn’t understand, this time in Polish. Why was she switching to that awful language? Did she think he was a bohunk? That he might understand it any better than Yiddish?
The old woman behind Miriam took several steps forward, then stopped under his glare and spoke in Polish to the girl.
“I’m not ready for you yet,” Spencer said sternly, hoping his tone, if not his words, would convey the message.
A boy took the old woman’s hand and pulled her away, mumbling “sorry” in English. Spencer frowned a warning, and went back to Miriam. He was going to just wave the girl through—she was clearly not insane—when he noticed her eyes. Red, puffy. He wiped his hands slowly, rubbing his chalk-laden fingers white again. Then he cupped her jaw. She looked frightened. “It’s all right,” he whispered. “I just have to check your eyes.” Instead of using the buttonhook, he took her fragile, blue-veined lid between his thumb and forefinger. The girl muttered something in Yiddish. He caught the word “don’t.”
“It’s okay,” he muttered, but she pulled away from him, shaking her head and blinking.
“Healthy!” she said in English.
And so she was. No granules, no weeping. At most, she had viral conjunctivitis. More likely, she’d just been crying. “I thought you didn’t speak English,” Spencer said flatly.
“A little,” the girl replied.
If he marked her with a CT and they held her over for examination, Spencer would have a chance to speak to her. He glanced behind him out the window—the gray swirling day, the Statue of Liberty in the distance. If it were sunny they could sit in the wooden folding chairs on the dock and watch ships come in. He would teach her English, then explain America, where to live, how to get a job, warn her against the charlatans on the trains and in the bus stations. She would grow to depend on him. At the board of inquiry he would defend her, explain that his diagnosis had been overly cautious. She’d be indebted.
Spencer waved the boy behind Miriam in line up to him. The old woman followed.
“Do you speak English?” “Some words,” the boy said. “Your name?”
Spencer nodded. “Frederick,” he immediately amended the name by adding a syllable, “you tell her what I say, all right? You can do that?”
“Ask her how old she is.”
“Twenty-three,” Frederick translated.
A year younger than Laura. Dr. Spencer smiled. “Ask her if she is alone.”
“Yes,” Frederick said. “So she’s not married?” “No, sir.”
“How is she going to make a living?” Frederick shook his head.
“Money,” Spencer said, “how will she make money, live, pay rent, buy food.”
Frederick nodded and asked Miriam. She said she was a seamstress and she was meeting her brother, who’d come over last year.
Spencer reached out slowly and touched her hair, winding a lock around his finger. It was just like Laura’s. Even dirty, it felt like hers, crackly autumn leaves in huge piles. Miriam pulled away, looking to Frederick for an explanation. Frederick shrugged. The old woman addressed the boy. He answered her in a word.
Spencer spoke sharply, “You are not up yet. Tell your mother to be quiet.” Hauss had gone through two more people. They waited respectfully several feet away.
The boy said something to the old woman. She replied and Frederick began to translate, but Spencer waved him off, nodding toward Miriam. “Tell her to unbutton her blouse.” He felt sure she had the mole, and he wanted to see it.
Frederick translated, but Miriam pulled her gray shawl more tightly around her shoulders and glanced at the old woman, who stepped forward and spoke. Frederick translated. “Sir, it is a problem, uh, young woman,” he nodded at Miriam, “she is…” He stumbled. “Not want to open blouse, not with men.”
“It’s a medical exam. You have to submit,” Spencer said. Frederick didn’t translate. Spencer slapped him on the arm. “Boy, tell her what I said. People are waiting!”
Frederick told the two women something. Spencer was beginning to doubt he could speak English all that well.
“I need to check her out,” he said. “I’ll take her down to the nurses.
Tell her to come with me.”
Frederick explained this to Miriam, who took a step back, next to the old woman. The woman put her arm around the girl and told the boy something. Frederick hesitated, whispering to the old woman.
Spencer reached out for Miriam’s arm. “Come with me.” She pulled away from him. “No,” she said in English.
The boy said, “She is my sister. Where are you taking her? She is with us.”
“You said she was alone. What do you mean she’s your sister?”
“I…” Frederick stumbled again, then listened for a moment to the old woman. It was clear to Spencer there was something fishy going on.
“She is my sister,” the boy repeated.
Spencer demanded their identification papers. “You don’t have the same last name. Now leave us be, step aside.” He shoved Frederick, who stumbled into the old woman. She spoke sharply to Spencer, clearly reprimanding him for pushing the boy.
Spencer tried to talk above her. “I need to get this girl to the infirmary. She needs to be examined.” He grabbed Miriam’s arm. She yanked it away. He grabbed again and tried to pull her down the line.
The girl’s face had gone blotchy. The old woman and the boy rushed forward. Spencer tried to dodge, but she hit him with her canvas bag while the boy grabbed the girl’s free arm and knitting needles clicked out onto the tile floor. The old woman was shouting. He thought it sounded like the universal language of profanities. Miriam’s shawl fell on the floor. People were staring. The boy hollered, “You hurt her!”
Spencer realized he could feel Miriam’s humerus. He let go. Hauss was staring. The bedraggled faces of those in line were staring. The damn old woman and her boy refused to look away.
Spencer walked back to his station and snatched a piece of chalk. He wrote CT on Miriam’s pleated blouse, then motioned for the old woman to step forward. On her right shoulder he drew a large blue X with a circle around it.
An inspector had come up to see what the ruckus was. “Mental defective?” he asked, watching the old woman move down the line with Miriam and the boy.
“Yes,” Spencer said. “I could see it in her eyes. She’s not all there.” He hadn’t bothered with the boy. He would go back with her automatically, and later, Spencer would find Miriam in the infirmary and comfort her.
The inspector walked off. Spencer rearranged his chalk into neat, clean lines. Hauss had returned to work, but seemed distracted, checking and rechecking his damn clipboard. God, they’d be here all night! Spencer smoothed his shirt and tie. Everything was fine. The old woman and her boy would be gone soon. He motioned with his finger for the next person. A man stepped forward, Spencer looked him over quick—catch up now or never, he figured—and waved him through. Then a woman and her daughter, a young couple.
Spencer waved them through quickly, then scanned the line for Miriam. She, the boy, and the old woman were still several people short of the next station, where inspectors checked for chalk marks and put the ones for return in one wired area, the ones for treatment in another. The three of them were deep in conversation. Then Miriam smiled and turned away, stepping forward in line as he knew she would. She had nothing to do with that annoying kid and his mother. Spencer was about to look away when he saw Frederick motion to the old woman’s shoulder. She slipped off her coat and looked at the mark, then said something to the boy.
“Put the damn coat on and get going,” Spencer muttered. He glanced down the line. Hauss was still flustered. He could see it in his hands, the way they fluttered the pages on the clipboard.
He looked back. The old woman and the boy were hunched together, talking. Then she began to roll up her coat. She removed a pile of yarn from her little bag, stuffed the coat in the bottom, then replaced the yarn on top.
Spencer began to step out from the iron pipes, the words almost in the air—“What do you think you’re doing?”—then stopped. The boy was tapping Miriam on the shoulder, saying something. After a moment, she rubbed at the mark on her blouse vigorously, then covered the smudged blue with her shawl.
In three years not one person had thought to do anything about the marks he chalked on them. Of all those he had diagnosed—which must add up to thousands—the old woman and her boy were the first to understand: it is not good when they mark you apart.
Spencer watched the three of them proceed past the wire compartments, down into the main inspection lines, where they would be asked for their papers, which he’d already seen were in good order. Afterward they’d retrieve whatever remained of their luggage, then step out into the cold and the strangeness of a land they had never seen, didn’t know, couldn’t speak to. For those who left here there was no language, only sound. There was no knowledge, only hope. Once you stepped off the Island the marks you carried could not be stuffed in a bag or washed off a garment. Spencer wanted to call after them, to tell them he was sorry. To holler out “Good luck!” but someone had walked up, another old woman, this one with two boys and an old man. Spencer laid down his chalk and slowly reached for their eyes.
*This story was taken from: You Should Pity Us Instead © 2016 by Amy Gustine, Sarabande Books.
And after all the weather was ideal. They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden-party if they had ordered it. Windless, warm, the sky without a cloud. Only the blue was veiled with a haze of light gold, as it is sometimes in early summer. The gardener had been up since dawn, mowing the lawns and sweeping them, until the grass and the dark flat rosettes where the daisy plants had been seemed to shine. As for the roses, you could not help feeling they understood that roses are the only flowers that impress people at garden-parties; the only flowers that everybody is certain of knowing. Hundreds, yes, literally hundreds, had come out in a single night; the green bushes bowed down as though they had been visited by archangels.
Breakfast was not yet over before the men came to put up the marquee.
“Where do you want the marquee put, mother?”
“My dear child, it’s no use asking me. I’m determined to leave everything to you children this year. Forget I am your mother. Treat me as an honoured guest.”
But Meg could not possibly go and supervise the men. She had washed her hair before breakfast, and she sat drinking her coffee in a green turban, with a dark wet curl stamped on each cheek. Jose, the butterfly, always came down in a silk petticoat and a kimono jacket.
“You’ll have to go, Laura; you’re the artistic one.”
Away Laura flew, still holding her piece of bread-and-butter. It’s so delicious to have an excuse for eating out of doors, and besides, she loved having to arrange things; she always felt she could do it so much better than anybody else.
Four men in their shirt-sleeves stood grouped together on the garden path. They carried staves covered with rolls of canvas, and they had big tool-bags slung on their backs. They looked impressive. Laura wished now that she had not got the bread-and-butter, but there was nowhere to put it, and she couldn’t possibly throw it away. She blushed and tried to look severe and even a little bit short-sighted as she came up to them.
“Good morning,” she said, copying her mother’s voice. But that sounded so fearfully affected that she was ashamed, and stammered like a little girl, “Oh—er—have you come—is it about the marquee?”
“That’s right, miss,” said the tallest of the men, a lanky, freckled fellow, and he shifted his tool-bag, knocked back his straw hat and smiled down at her. “That’s about it.”
His smile was so easy, so friendly that Laura recovered. What nice eyes he had, small, but such a dark blue! And now she looked at the others, they were smiling too. “Cheer up, we won’t bite,” their smile seemed to say. How very nice workmen were! And what a beautiful morning! She mustn’t mention the morning; she must be business-like. The marquee.
“Well, what about the lily-lawn? Would that do?”
And she pointed to the lily-lawn with the hand that didn’t hold the bread-and-butter. They turned, they stared in the direction. A little fat chap thrust out his under-lip, and the tall fellow frowned.
“I don’t fancy it,” said he. “Not conspicuous enough. You see, with a thing like a marquee,” and he turned to Laura in his easy way, “you want to put it somewhere where it’ll give you a bang slap in the eye, if you follow me.”
Laura’s upbringing made her wonder for a moment whether it was quite respectful of a workman to talk to her of bangs slap in the eye. But she did quite follow him.
“A corner of the tennis-court,” she suggested. “But the band’s going to be in one corner.”
“H’m, going to have a band, are you?” said another of the workmen. He was pale. He had a haggard look as his dark eyes scanned the tennis-court. What was he thinking?
“Only a very small band,” said Laura gently. Perhaps he wouldn’t mind so much if the band was quite small. But the tall fellow interrupted.
“Look here, miss, that’s the place. Against those trees. Over there. That’ll do fine.”
Against the karakas. Then the karaka-trees would be hidden. And they were so lovely, with their broad, gleaming leaves, and their clusters of yellow fruit. They were like trees you imagined growing on a desert island, proud, solitary, lifting their leaves and fruits to the sun in a kind of silent splendour. Must they be hidden by a marquee?
They must. Already the men had shouldered their staves and were making for the place. Only the tall fellow was left. He bent down, pinched a sprig of lavender, put his thumb and forefinger to his nose and snuffed up the smell. When Laura saw that gesture she forgot all about the karakas in her wonder at him caring for things like that—caring for the smell of lavender. How many men that she knew would have done such a thing? Oh, how extraordinarily nice workmen were, she thought. Why couldn’t she have workmen for her friends rather than the silly boys she danced with and who came to Sunday night supper? She would get on much better with men like these.
It’s all the fault, she decided, as the tall fellow drew something on the back of an envelope, something that was to be looped up or left to hang, of these absurd class distinctions. Well, for her part, she didn’t feel them. Not a bit, not an atom… And now there came the chock-chock of wooden hammers. Some one whistled, some one sang out, “Are you right there, matey?” “Matey!” The friendliness of it, the—the—Just to prove how happy she was, just to show the tall fellow how at home she felt, and how she despised stupid conventions, Laura took a big bite of her bread-and-butter as she stared at the little drawing. She felt just like a work-girl.
“Laura, Laura, where are you? Telephone, Laura!” a voice cried from the house.
“Coming!” Away she skimmed, over the lawn, up the path, up the steps, across the veranda, and into the porch. In the hall her father and Laurie were brushing their hats ready to go to the office.
“I say, Laura,” said Laurie very fast, “you might just give a squiz at my coat before this afternoon. See if it wants pressing.”
“I will,” said she. Suddenly she couldn’t stop herself. She ran at Laurie and gave him a small, quick squeeze. “Oh, I do love parties, don’t you?” gasped Laura.
“Ra-ther,” said Laurie’s warm, boyish voice, and he squeezed his sister too, and gave her a gentle push. “Dash off to the telephone, old girl.”
The telephone. “Yes, yes; oh yes. Kitty? Good morning, dear. Come to lunch? Do, dear. Delighted of course. It will only be a very scratch meal—just the sandwich crusts and broken meringue-shells and what’s left over. Yes, isn’t it a perfect morning? Your white? Oh, I certainly should. One moment—hold the line. Mother’s calling.” And Laura sat back. “What, mother? Can’t hear.”
Mrs. Sheridan’s voice floated down the stairs. “Tell her to wear that sweet hat she had on last Sunday.”
“Mother says you’re to wear that sweet hat you had on last Sunday. Good. One o’clock. Bye-bye.”
Laura put back the receiver, flung her arms over her head, took a deep breath, stretched and let them fall. “Huh,” she sighed, and the moment after the sigh she sat up quickly. She was still, listening. All the doors in the house seemed to be open. The house was alive with soft, quick steps and running voices. The green baize door that led to the kitchen regions swung open and shut with a muffled thud. And now there came a long, chuckling absurd sound. It was the heavy piano being moved on its stiff castors. But the air! If you stopped to notice, was the air always like this? Little faint winds were playing chase, in at the tops of the windows, out at the doors. And there were two tiny spots of sun, one on the inkpot, one on a silver photograph frame, playing too. Darling little spots. Especially the one on the inkpot lid. It was quite warm. A warm little silver star. She could have kissed it.
The front door bell pealed, and there sounded the rustle of Sadie’s print skirt on the stairs. A man’s voice murmured; Sadie answered, careless, “I’m sure I don’t know. Wait. I’ll ask Mrs Sheridan.”
“What is it, Sadie?” Laura came into the hall.
“It’s the florist, Miss Laura.”
It was, indeed. There, just inside the door, stood a wide, shallow tray full of pots of pink lilies. No other kind. Nothing but lilies—canna lilies, big pink flowers, wide open, radiant, almost frighteningly alive on bright crimson stems.
“O-oh, Sadie!” said Laura, and the sound was like a little moan. She crouched down as if to warm herself at that blaze of lilies; she felt they were in her fingers, on her lips, growing in her breast.
“It’s some mistake,” she said faintly. “Nobody ever ordered so many. Sadie, go and find mother.”
But at that moment Mrs. Sheridan joined them.
“It’s quite right,” she said calmly. “Yes, I ordered them. Aren’t they lovely?” She pressed Laura’s arm. “I was passing the shop yesterday, and I saw them in the window. And I suddenly thought for once in my life I shall have enough canna lilies. The garden-party will be a good excuse.”
“But I thought you said you didn’t mean to interfere,” said Laura. Sadie had gone. The florist’s man was still outside at his van. She put her arm round her mother’s neck and gently, very gently, she bit her mother’s ear.
“My darling child, you wouldn’t like a logical mother, would you? Don’t do that. Here’s the man.”
He carried more lilies still, another whole tray.
“Bank them up, just inside the door, on both sides of the porch, please,” said Mrs. Sheridan. “Don’t you agree, Laura?”
“Oh, I do, mother.”
In the drawing-room Meg, Jose and good little Hans had at last succeeded in moving the piano.
“Now, if we put this chesterfield against the wall and move everything out of the room except the chairs, don’t you think?”
“Hans, move these tables into the smoking-room, and bring a sweeper to take these marks off the carpet and—one moment, Hans—” Jose loved giving orders to the servants, and they loved obeying her. She always made them feel they were taking part in some drama. “Tell mother and Miss Laura to come here at once.
“Very good, Miss Jose.”
She turned to Meg. “I want to hear what the piano sounds like, just in case I’m asked to sing this afternoon. Let’s try over ‘This life is Weary.’”
Pom! Ta-ta-ta Tee-ta! The piano burst out so passionately that Jose’s face changed. She clasped her hands. She looked mournfully and enigmatically at her mother and Laura as they came in.
“This Life is Wee-ary,
A Tear—a Sigh.
A Love that Chan-ges,
This Life is Wee-ary,
A Tear—a Sigh.
A Love that Chan-ges,
And then… Good-bye!”
But at the word “Good-bye,” and although the piano sounded more desperate than ever, her face broke into a brilliant, dreadfully unsympathetic smile.
“Aren’t I in good voice, mummy?” she beamed.
“This Life is Wee-ary,
Hope comes to Die.
A Dream—a Wa-kening.”
But now Sadie interrupted them. “What is it, Sadie?”
“If you please, m’m, cook says have you got the flags for the sandwiches?”
“The flags for the sandwiches, Sadie?” echoed Mrs. Sheridan dreamily. And the children knew by her face that she hadn’t got them. “Let me see.” And she said to Sadie firmly, “Tell cook I’ll let her have them in ten minutes.”
“Now, Laura,” said her mother quickly, “come with me into the smoking-room. I’ve got the names somewhere on the back of an envelope. You’ll have to write them out for me. Meg, go upstairs this minute and take that wet thing off your head. Jose, run and finish dressing this instant. Do you hear me, children, or shall I have to tell your father when he comes home to-night? And—and, Jose, pacify cook if you do go into the kitchen, will you? I’m terrified of her this morning.”
The envelope was found at last behind the dining-room clock, though how it had got there Mrs. Sheridan could not imagine.
“One of you children must have stolen it out of my bag, because I remember vividly—cream cheese and lemon-curd. Have you done that?”
“Egg and—” Mrs. Sheridan held the envelope away from her. “It looks like mice. It can’t be mice, can it?”
“Olive, pet,” said Laura, looking over her shoulder.
“Yes, of course, olive. What a horrible combination it sounds. Egg and olive.”
They were finished at last, and Laura took them off to the kitchen. She found Jose there pacifying the cook, who did not look at all terrifying.
“I have never seen such exquisite sandwiches,” said Jose’s rapturous voice. “How many kinds did you say there were, cook? Fifteen?”
“Fifteen, Miss Jose.”
“Well, cook, I congratulate you.”
Cook swept up crusts with the long sandwich knife, and smiled broadly.
“Godber’s has come,” announced Sadie, issuing out of the pantry. She had seen the man pass the window.
That meant the cream puffs had come. Godber’s were famous for their cream puffs. Nobody ever thought of making them at home.
“Bring them in and put them on the table, my girl,” ordered cook.
Sadie brought them in and went back to the door. Of course Laura and Jose were far too grown-up to really care about such things. All the same, they couldn’t help agreeing that the puffs looked very attractive. Very. Cook began arranging them, shaking off the extra icing sugar.
“Don’t they carry one back to all one’s parties?” said Laura.
“I suppose they do,” said practical Jose, who never liked to be carried back. “They look beautifully light and feathery, I must say.”
“Have one each, my dears,” said cook in her comfortable voice. “Yer ma won’t know.”
Oh, impossible. Fancy cream puffs so soon after breakfast. The very idea made one shudder. All the same, two minutes later Jose and Laura were licking their fingers with that absorbed inward look that only comes from whipped cream.
“Let’s go into the garden, out by the back way,” suggested Laura. “I want to see how the men are getting on with the marquee. They’re such awfully nice men.”
But the back door was blocked by cook, Sadie, Godber’s man and Hans.
Something had happened.
“Tuk-tuk-tuk,” clucked cook like an agitated hen. Sadie had her hand clapped to her cheek as though she had toothache. Hans’s face was screwed up in the effort to understand. Only Godber’s man seemed to be enjoying himself; it was his story.
“What’s the matter? What’s happened?”
“There’s been a horrible accident,” said Cook. “A man killed.”
“A man killed! Where? How? When?”
But Godber’s man wasn’t going to have his story snatched from under his very nose.
“Know those little cottages just below here, miss?” Know them? Of course, she knew them. “Well, there’s a young chap living there, name of Scott, a carter. His horse shied at a traction-engine, corner of Hawke Street this morning, and he was thrown out on the back of his head. Killed.”
“Dead!” Laura stared at Godber’s man.
“Dead when they picked him up,” said Godber’s man with relish. “They were taking the body home as I come up here.” And he said to the cook, “He’s left a wife and five little ones.”
“Jose, come here.” Laura caught hold of her sister’s sleeve and dragged her through the kitchen to the other side of the green baize door. There she paused and leaned against it. “Jose!” she said, horrified, “however are we going to stop everything?”
“Stop everything, Laura!” cried Jose in astonishment. “What do you mean?”
“Stop the garden-party, of course.” Why did Jose pretend?
But Jose was still more amazed. “Stop the garden-party? My dear Laura, don’t be so absurd. Of course we can’t do anything of the kind. Nobody expects us to. Don’t be so extravagant.”
“But we can’t possibly have a garden-party with a man dead just outside the front gate.”
That really was extravagant, for the little cottages were in a lane to themselves at the very bottom of a steep rise that led up to the house. A broad road ran between. True, they were far too near. They were the greatest possible eyesore, and they had no right to be in that neighbourhood at all. They were little mean dwellings painted a chocolate brown. In the garden patches there was nothing but cabbage stalks, sick hens and tomato cans. The very smoke coming out of their chimneys was poverty-stricken. Little rags and shreds of smoke, so unlike the great silvery plumes that uncurled from the Sheridans’ chimneys. Washerwomen lived in the lane and sweeps and a cobbler, and a man whose house-front was studded all over with minute bird-cages. Children swarmed. When the Sheridans were little they were forbidden to set foot there because of the revolting language and of what they might catch. But since they were grown up, Laura and Laurie on their prowls sometimes walked through. It was disgusting and sordid. They came out with a shudder. But still one must go everywhere; one must see everything. So through they went.
“And just think of what the band would sound like to that poor woman,” said Laura.
“Oh, Laura!” Jose began to be seriously annoyed. “If you’re going to stop a band playing every time some one has an accident, you’ll lead a very strenuous life. I’m every bit as sorry about it as you. I feel just as sympathetic.” Her eyes hardened. She looked at her sister just as she used to when they were little and fighting together. “You won’t bring a drunken workman back to life by being sentimental,” she said softly.
“Drunk! Who said he was drunk?” Laura turned furiously on Jose. She said, just as they had used to say on those occasions, “I’m going straight up to tell mother.”
“Do, dear,” cooed Jose.
“Mother, can I come into your room?” Laura turned the big glass door-knob.
“Of course, child. Why, what’s the matter? What’s given you such a colour?” And Mrs. Sheridan turned round from her dressing-table. She was trying on a new hat.
“Mother, a man’s been killed,” began Laura.
“Not in the garden?” interrupted her mother.
“Oh, what a fright you gave me!” Mrs. Sheridan sighed with relief, and took off the big hat and held it on her knees.
“But listen, mother,” said Laura. Breathless, half-choking, she told the dreadful story. “Of course, we can’t have our party, can we?” she pleaded. “The band and everybody arriving. They’d hear us, mother; they’re nearly neighbours!”
To Laura’s astonishment her mother behaved just like Jose; it was harder to bear because she seemed amused. She refused to take Laura seriously.
“But, my dear child, use your common sense. It’s only by accident we’ve heard of it. If some one had died there normally—and I can’t understand how they keep alive in those poky little holes—we should still be having our party, shouldn’t we?”
Laura had to say “yes” to that, but she felt it was all wrong. She sat down on her mother’s sofa and pinched the cushion frill.
“Mother, isn’t it terribly heartless of us?” she asked.
“Darling!” Mrs. Sheridan got up and came over to her, carrying the hat. Before Laura could stop her she had popped it on. “My child!” said her mother, “the hat is yours. It’s made for you. It’s much too young for me. I have never seen you look such a picture. Look at yourself!” And she held up her hand-mirror.
“But, mother,” Laura began again. She couldn’t look at herself; she turned aside.
This time Mrs. Sheridan lost patience just as Jose had done.
“You are being very absurd, Laura,” she said coldly. “People like that don’t expect sacrifices from us. And it’s not very sympathetic to spoil everybody’s enjoyment as you’re doing now.”
“I don’t understand,” said Laura, and she walked quickly out of the room into her own bedroom. There, quite by chance, the first thing she saw was this charming girl in the mirror, in her black hat trimmed with gold daisies, and a long black velvet ribbon. Never had she imagined she could look like that. Is mother right? she thought. And now she hoped her mother was right. Am I being extravagant? Perhaps it was extravagant. Just for a moment she had another glimpse of that poor woman and those little children, and the body being carried into the house. But it all seemed blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper. I’ll remember it again after the party’s over, she decided. And somehow that seemed quite the best plan…
Lunch was over by half-past one. By half-past two they were all ready for the fray. The green-coated band had arrived and was established in a corner of the tennis-court.
“My dear!” trilled Kitty Maitland, “aren’t they too like frogs for words? You ought to have arranged them round the pond with the conductor in the middle on a leaf.”
Laurie arrived and hailed them on his way to dress. At the sight of him Laura remembered the accident again. She wanted to tell him. If Laurie agreed with the others, then it was bound to be all right. And she followed him into the hall.
“Hallo!” He was half-way upstairs, but when he turned round and saw Laura he suddenly puffed out his cheeks and goggled his eyes at her. “My word, Laura! You do look stunning,” said Laurie. “What an absolutely topping hat!”
Laura said faintly “Is it?” and smiled up at Laurie, and didn’t tell him after all.
Soon after that people began coming in streams. The band struck up; the hired waiters ran from the house to the marquee. Wherever you looked there were couples strolling, bending to the flowers, greeting, moving on over the lawn. They were like bright birds that had alighted in the Sheridans’ garden for this one afternoon, on their way to—where? Ah, what happiness it is to be with people who all are happy, to press hands, press cheeks, smile into eyes.
“Darling Laura, how well you look!”
“What a becoming hat, child!”
“Laura, you look quite Spanish. I’ve never seen you look so striking.”
And Laura, glowing, answered softly, “Have you had tea? Won’t you have an ice? The passion-fruit ices really are rather special.” She ran to her father and begged him. “Daddy darling, can’t the band have something to drink?”
And the perfect afternoon slowly ripened, slowly faded, slowly its petals closed.
“Never a more delightful garden-party… “ “The greatest success… ” “Quite the most… ”
Laura helped her mother with the good-byes. They stood side by side in the porch till it was all over.
“All over, all over, thank heaven,” said Mrs. Sheridan. “Round up the others, Laura. Let’s go and have some fresh coffee. I’m exhausted. Yes, it’s been very successful. But oh, these parties, these parties! Why will you children insist on giving parties!” And they all of them sat down in the deserted marquee.
“Have a sandwich, daddy dear. I wrote the flag.”
“Thanks.” Mr. Sheridan took a bite and the sandwich was gone. He took another. “I suppose you didn’t hear of a beastly accident that happened to-day?” he said.
“My dear,” said Mrs. Sheridan, holding up her hand, “we did. It nearly ruined the party. Laura insisted we should put it off.”
“Oh, mother!” Laura didn’t want to be teased about it.
“It was a horrible affair all the same,” said Mr. Sheridan. “The chap was married too. Lived just below in the lane, and leaves a wife and half a dozen kiddies, so they say.”
An awkward little silence fell. Mrs. Sheridan fidgeted with her cup. Really, it was very tactless of father…
Suddenly she looked up. There on the table were all those sandwiches, cakes, puffs, all uneaten, all going to be wasted. She had one of her brilliant ideas.
“I know,” she said. “Let’s make up a basket. Let’s send that poor creature some of this perfectly good food. At any rate, it will be the greatest treat for the children. Don’t you agree? And she’s sure to have neighbours calling in and so on. What a point to have it all ready prepared. Laura!” She jumped up. “Get me the big basket out of the stairs cupboard.”
“But, mother, do you really think it’s a good idea?” said Laura.
Again, how curious, she seemed to be different from them all. To take scraps from their party. Would the poor woman really like that?
“Of course! What’s the matter with you to-day? An hour or two ago you were insisting on us being sympathetic, and now—”
Oh well! Laura ran for the basket. It was filled, it was heaped by her mother.
“Take it yourself, darling,” said she. “Run down just as you are. No, wait, take the arum lilies too. People of that class are so impressed by arum lilies.”
“The stems will ruin her lace frock,” said practical Jose.
So they would. Just in time. “Only the basket, then. And, Laura!”—her mother followed her out of the marquee—“don’t on any account—”
No, better not put such ideas into the child’s head! “Nothing! Run along.”
It was just growing dusky as Laura shut their garden gates. A big dog ran by like a shadow. The road gleamed white, and down below in the hollow the little cottages were in deep shade. How quiet it seemed after the afternoon. Here she was going down the hill to somewhere where a man lay dead, and she couldn’t realize it. Why couldn’t she? She stopped a minute. And it seemed to her that kisses, voices, tinkling spoons, laughter, the smell of crushed grass were somehow inside her. She had no room for anything else. How strange! She looked up at the pale sky, and all she thought was, “Yes, it was the most successful party.”
Now the broad road was crossed. The lane began, smoky and dark. Women in shawls and men’s tweed caps hurried by. Men hung over the palings; the children played in the doorways. A low hum came from the mean little cottages. In some of them there was a flicker of light, and a shadow, crab-like, moved across the window. Laura bent her head and hurried on. She wished now she had put on a coat. How her frock shone! And the big hat with the velvet streamer—if only it was another hat! Were the people looking at her? They must be. It was a mistake to have come; she knew all along it was a mistake. Should she go back even now?
No, too late. This was the house. It must be. A dark knot of people stood outside. Beside the gate an old, old woman with a crutch sat in a chair, watching. She had her feet on a newspaper. The voices stopped as Laura drew near. The group parted. It was as though she was expected, as though they had known she was coming here.
Laura was terribly nervous. Tossing the velvet ribbon over her shoulder, she said to a woman standing by, “Is this Mrs. Scott’s house?” and the woman, smiling queerly, said, “It is, my lass.”
Oh, to be away from this! She actually said, “Help me, God,” as she walked up the tiny path and knocked. To be away from those staring eyes, or to be covered up in anything, one of those women’s shawls even. I’ll just leave the basket and go, she decided. I shan’t even wait for it to be emptied.
Then the door opened. A little woman in black showed in the gloom.
Laura said, “Are you Mrs. Scott?” But to her horror the woman answered, “Walk in please, miss,” and she was shut in the passage.
“No,” said Laura, “I don’t want to come in. I only want to leave this basket. Mother sent—”
The little woman in the gloomy passage seemed not to have heard her. “Step this way, please, miss,” she said in an oily voice, and Laura followed her.
She found herself in a wretched little low kitchen, lighted by a smoky lamp. There was a woman sitting before the fire.
“Em,” said the little creature who had let her in. “Em! It’s a young lady.” She turned to Laura. She said meaningly, “I’m ‘er sister, miss. You’ll excuse ‘er, won’t you?”
“Oh, but of course!” said Laura. “Please, please don’t disturb her. I—I only want to leave—”
But at that moment the woman at the fire turned round. Her face, puffed up, red, with swollen eyes and swollen lips, looked terrible. She seemed as though she couldn’t understand why Laura was there. What did it mean? Why was this stranger standing in the kitchen with a basket? What was it all about? And the poor face puckered up again.
“All right, my dear,” said the other. “I’ll thenk the young lady.”
And again she began, “You’ll excuse her, miss, I’m sure,” and her face, swollen too, tried an oily smile.
Laura only wanted to get out, to get away. She was back in the passage. The door opened. She walked straight through into the bedroom, where the dead man was lying.
“You’d like a look at ‘im, wouldn’t you?” said Em’s sister, and she brushed past Laura over to the bed. “Don’t be afraid, my lass,”—and now her voice sounded fond and sly, and fondly she drew down the sheet—“‘e looks a picture. There’s nothing to show. Come along, my dear.”
There lay a young man, fast asleep—sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane. Happy… happy… All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.
But all the same you had to cry, and she couldn’t go out of the room without saying something to him. Laura gave a loud childish sob.
“Forgive my hat,” she said.
And this time she didn’t wait for Em’s sister. She found her way out of the door, down the path, past all those dark people. At the corner of the lane she met Laurie.
He stepped out of the shadow. “Is that you, Laura?”
“Mother was getting anxious. Was it all right?”
“Yes, quite. Oh, Laurie!” She took his arm, she pressed up against him.
“I say, you’re not crying, are you?” asked her brother.
Laura shook her head. She was.
Laurie put his arm round her shoulder. “Don’t cry,” he said in his warm, loving voice. “Was it awful?”
“No,” sobbed Laura. “It was simply marvellous. But Laurie—” She stopped, she looked at her brother. “Isn’t life,” she stammered, “isn’t life—” But what life was she couldn’t explain. No matter. He quite understood.
“Isn’t it, darling?” said Laurie.
That night we were having guests for dinner, and Ines had been in a frenzy all week. She hunted down innovative recipes on the internet and buried my desk in sheets of paper as she printed them out. I’m a psychiatrist, so I like order, and I can’t stand it if my space is invaded for no good reason. However, I was reasonable and tried to get Ines to see things from my patients’ perspective. How would you feel if you arrived at a session and found piles of paper all over the office? I knew my persuasive tactics lost their effectiveness the day she stopped being my patient and became my wife, but in the end I managed to get her to pick it all up before the session with my Friday patient, a workaholic beyond repair.
In recent years we’d stopped inviting our friends over as much, so our friends, in turn, had stopped extending invitations or accepting our evermore sporadic ones. Since the twins were born there had been so little time for social interaction. But recently, after the girls turned seven magical years old, we decided it was time to get back in touch with the friends we’d neglected as we focused on the little ones. We started going out more regularly. But we were responsible parents, you could say.
That night we’d invited a couple over; they were a little older than us, but the age difference was hardly noticeable. They didn’t have kids. We’d known them forever. In fact, Ines was some sort of cousin to Eduardo, who’d met his wife Adela at our wedding. Adela had been a classmate of mine at university, and there’d been one episode after a night of partying that we never spoke of again.
Two weeks prior, Adela had called me from the hospital to invite me to dinner with them at their new town house. When I told her, Ines went crazy and thought of nothing other than returning the invitation. I remember that night at Adela and Eduardo’s house, she wouldn’t stop praising the food and the décor. She did it in an exaggerated and awkward way, insisting repeatedly that the colonial-style furniture our friends had picked out looked exactly like the authentic pieces she and I had seen on our honeymoon in Thailand.
During dinner at their house we jumped from topic to topic. At some points Eduardo and I conversed on our own; at another I asked Adela about her cases, and she wanted to know about mine. We liked to exchange funny stories in which our patients came out looking terrible. Then we ended up arguing over what Adela called the feudal privileges of private psychiatry over public. Adela had a sharp and sparkling way of speaking that still strongly attracted me despite all the time that had passed. At points, Eduardo was clearly bored. He looked at the clock on the wall, and you could tell that deep down he wanted us to finish our wine. Ines took the opportunity to get up and go into the kitchen alone, carrying away the dirty plates as if it were her own home. Adela let her do it; she wasn’t even paying attention. Ines seemed more like the maid than my wife.
We didn’t leave until late. Eduardo had perked up, he was excited about showing me his collection of fountain pens. He explained that the new house finally gave him enough space to display them in their custom-built case. His collections didn’t interest me in the slightest. Collecting is something I’d classify as obsessive behavior. I looked at the floor as he showed off a mother-of-pearl inlay, and I noticed one of his shoelaces had come untied, but I didn’t tell him.
At the door, the women kissed goodbye loudly and Eduardo and I exchanged a firm handshake that turned into a half-hearted hug. I thought it had been the final goodbye; however, at the last minute Ines noticed some geraniums, the color of which could barely be made out in the darkness, and I had to turn around and walk back. Adela insisted that Ines should take a cutting, and Ines insisted even more fervently that she shouldn’t trouble herself, but she ended up accepting a branch after making something of a song and dance out of the whole matter. As this was going on I feared that Eduardo would start back up with the pens, but his gaze held only a desire to put his pajamas on and get into his big colonial-style bed.
Ever since that night, Ines has thought of nothing other than Adela and Eduardo’s visit to our house. When we got into the car and started the engine, thinking about the best route home, I saw her sitting there beside me, how she smiled with her eyes wide open but without seeing anything. She looked like a martyr facing the firing squad. With her right hand tightly gripping the geranium. I noticed she’d caught her skirt in the car door without realizing it. We didn’t say a word the whole way home. Ines was in a daze, even though she hadn’t drunk much wine, and I was just driving, trying to think about my patients, whom I’d been increasingly neglecting.
When I parked in front of our house, Ines rested her face on my shoulder, burst into tears, and thanked me several times. At first I was frightened, mentally running through the kinds of psychiatric disorders that could cause such behavior. Then she calmed down, stopped crying, and asked me for permission to invite Eduardo and Adela over for dinner. I agreed, more because I wanted to end the scene than because I liked the idea. She looked at me with her red and excited eyes for a minute then fixed her gaze on the night sky, as before. I sat looking at her profile. I’d forgotten how her curls fell over her forehead. I didn’t want to get out of the car or go anywhere.
The days that followed were smooth as silk. My patients seemed willing to give sanity another try and stopped moaning about their tragedies. Maybe it was because the nights were shorter and they had less time to contemplate suicide. I thought about what would happen if they all got well. I wouldn’t make any money, and I’d be forced to look for new, even more degenerate patients. Or maybe my fame would grow to an international level, and I’d have to start studying English to treat Hollywood celebrities with their delusions of grandeur and depression. As I imagined these things, my appointments flew by.
At the same time, the twins were less annoying because summer was coming and they were playing outside more. Ines assured me that she’d take care of all the dinner preparations, that I wouldn’t have to lift a finger. For my part, I hadn’t asked any questions or offered to do anything, but she wouldn’t stop insisting all the same. When the office was empty, Ines spent hours with her elbows on the desk, studying websites about serving protocol or how to fold napkins to look like birds. Later she tried to put this into practice with the table linen we kept in the living-room cabinets, but the napkins wouldn’t stand up. Some nights I’d turn off my bedside light, and she’d still be sitting on the other side of the bed typing terms into Google, ten tabs open at the same time. I started to worry she might be going into chat rooms and talking to strangers who were anxious to give her their phone numbers and ask what color panties she had on. She reminded me of a patient who, two years after she thought she’d gotten over her addiction to chat rooms, still believed that the man of her dreams was in there, waiting for her inside her laptop.
The day of the dinner party started off badly. The geranium cutting that Adela had given Ines fell twisted and dead from the vase. When she saw it, Ines had an attack of hysterics, and I had to make her lie down for a few minutes on the couch my patients used. The armrests were worn out. It seemed sad and undignified for a practice of my standing. Ines was convinced that the flower’s death was a bad omen, and I repeated that it wasn’t, but I still couldn’t get her out of there. She insisted on getting a geranium to give to Adela at all costs. I found geraniums absolutely repulsive. Somehow I ended up offering to help, to lend a hand with the cooking as if it were a joint effort, and she started to calm down. I would have preferred to just give her a tranquilizer, but I took the risk and opened Pandora’s box.
My idea of helping was to go downtown, leave the car double parked with the hazards on, and buy something in a deli, but Ines had knives, cutting boards, and gadgets in the kitchen that I knew nothing about, let alone how to use, and she slipped an apron over my head like someone putting a collar on a dog. My suggestion of ready-made food was a disgusting abomination and an insult to our friends. It all embarrassed me a little, the apron and my dirty hands. It reminded me of one of those cooking shows where a housewife with misplaced maternal instincts tries unsuccessfully to teach a bachelor how to peel a potato. Luckily, with all those stupendous gadgets, I didn’t have to do much, and Ines took care of the more difficult or sticky tasks.
In the middle of the ordeal the twins came into the kitchen and asked for a snack. They looked at me and laughed. Their laughter was loud. It sounded like dry leaves that crackle when you step on them. I don’t know if they were laughing at me in the apron or if they were just happy because they were going to spend the night at their aunt’s house.
Ines made some sandwiches, and the girls ate as I lectured them about the importance of getting along. It’s crucial that the girls begin to become aware of their moods and emotions, and I talk to them a lot about it in the hope that it will help them later on. Also, I was tired of making melon balls. The twins listened politely then bit into their sandwiches, looked at each other and laughed, and it sounded like crackling. Ines wasn’t paying any attention to me. She was too busy. She was scrubbing things that immediately got dirty again.
Even though they hadn’t finished their snack, Ines was in a hurry to drop them off at my sister’s house. I took off the apron and went to get dressed. I had to do their hair myself. One of their ponytails leaned to the left, the other one’s ponytail leaned to the right, and since they looked so much alike, my lack of skill was all the more evident. I looked at them in the mirror and patted their ponytails. They ran off. I looked at myself in the mirror and then closed my eyes. I imagined myself somewhere else, somewhere far away, but when I opened my eyes again I was still there. I pulled down the medicine chest and counted to check there wasn’t too much of anything missing. Then I left the house.
I wrangled the twins into the car. At the last minute they’d decided they weren’t going to go, that they wanted to stay with Mom and Dad and that they didn’t want the old people (Eduardo and Adela, they meant) to come over. I thought it was funny, and I felt proud to have shaped such strong personalities with such an ability to assert themselves. I thought of going back in and telling Ines, with a straight face, that, given how the girls were behaving, the best thing to do would be to cancel the dinner. Then I worried she might react too violently and murder her own children. I smiled mischievously.
I drove fast down the highway. The girls didn’t talk. They stared symmetrically at the cars that we passed or that passed us. When we got there, my sister was surprised; she was expecting us an hour later based on what Ines had told her on the phone. She seemed annoyed.
“It’s fine,” she said finally.
She invited me to come in.
“It’s been a long time since we talked,” said my sister. “And I have a fresh pot of coffee in the kitchen.”
I wondered if she wanted to talk to her brother or to a psychiatrist. I could recommend a few good ones.
“I have to go,” I said. “Ines is waiting for me, and there’s a lot left to do.”
I didn’t apologize. We didn’t agree on a time to pick the twins up the next day either. I wanted to say goodbye to the girls, but before I knew it they’d disappeared, and I supposed they were in some other room antagonizing the cat.
On my way home I took some streets I didn’t know. In fact, I didn’t remember my sister’s neighborhood very well at all, and it was starting to get dark. I thought I was going to get lost and that if I got lost I’d be late for dinner and that if I was late for dinner Ines might cry in front of the guests. Still in motion, I grabbed the steering wheel with my left hand and opened the glove box with my right. The GPS wasn’t there. Just packs of Kleenex that no one ever used and several CDs of kids’ music. As I closed the glove box I lost balance and gave the wheel a sharp jerk. It was a miracle I didn’t go up onto the central reservation.
There was no one on the street I could ask for directions. I turned the corner and saw a bar, so I parked and got out of the car. I went in with every intention of asking someone how to get out of the neighborhood, but instead I ordered a glass of wine and sat on a stool at the bar. I looked at my watch and confirmed that I had plenty of time for another glass.
The waiter served me the first of the two glasses I planned on having. His face looked familiar. As I drank, I realized he reminded me of the top student in my class at school, a boy named Ignacio Alcalde, very intelligent and hardworking but marred by an unfortunate tic. With that uncontrollable movement of his mouth, no one could see a future for him in this profession where patients never take their eyes off you and you’re obliged to worry about your appearance. I hadn’t thought about Ignacio for many years, until I arrived, not really knowing how, at that bar and came across that waiter. It could easily be him, the best doctor in the class of ’78, lost and forgotten.
I left my wine half drunk and asked for directions. It scared me to think that Ignacio had ended up there, and I wanted to leave immediately. I asked for the check like I was in a restaurant, and the waiter gave me a strange look, unsure whether I wanted to know how much or if I also wanted a receipt. I paid, and the waiter—or Ignacio—gave me the directions I needed. His voice was deep and gravelly, completely different from the voice I remembered, and I felt relieved. Then I thought about how cigarettes, among other factors, could change the tone of a person’s voice.
I started the car and quickly found my way. I tried to picture the name of the bar in case I ever drove by again in the light of day. I’d sat for a few seconds looking at the lit sign before I went in, but now I was unable to remember it. A gust of wind blew a spiky leaf onto the windshield, and it gleamed with a bluish reflection. My cell phone rang. I moved into fifth and then felt around for my phone in the pocket of my blazer. The spiky leaf disappeared like a butterfly scared off by a puppy. It was a message from Ines. It said where are you, hurry up or we’re going to start without you.
As if unconsciously, I lifted my foot off the accelerator and stopped trying to pass the car in front of me.
Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting. From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure—a ghostly couple.
“Here we left it,” she said. And he added, “Oh, but here too!” “It’s upstairs,” she murmured. “And in the garden,” he whispered. “Quietly,” they said, “or we shall wake them.”
But it wasn’t that you woke us. Oh, no. “They’re looking for it; they’re drawing the curtain,” one might say, and so read on a page or two. “Now they’ve found it,” one would be certain, stopping the pencil on the margin. And then, tired of reading, one might rise and see for oneself, the house all empty, the doors standing open, only the wood pigeons bubbling with content and the hum of the threshing machine sounding from the farm. “What did I come in here for? What did I want to find?” My hands were empty. “Perhaps it’s upstairs then?” The apples were in the loft. And so down again, the garden still as ever, only the book had slipped into the grass.
But they had found it in the drawing room. Not that one could ever see them. The window panes reflected apples, reflected roses; all the leaves were green in the glass. If they moved in the drawing room, the apple only turned its yellow side. Yet, the moment after, if the door was opened, spread about the floor, hung upon the walls, pendant from the ceiling—what? My hands were empty. The shadow of a thrush crossed the carpet; from the deepest wells of silence the wood pigeon drew its bubble of sound. “Safe, safe, safe,” the pulse of the house beat softly. “The treasure buried; the room…” the pulse stopped short. Oh, was that the buried treasure?
A moment later the light had faded. Out in the garden then? But the trees spun darkness for a wandering beam of sun. So fine, so rare, coolly sunk beneath the surface the beam I sought always burnt behind the glass. Death was the glass; death was between us; coming to the woman first, hundreds of years ago, leaving the house, sealing all the windows; the rooms were darkened. He left it, left her, went North, went East, saw the stars turned in the Southern sky; sought the house, found it dropped beneath the Downs. “Safe, safe, safe,” the pulse of the house beat gladly. “The Treasure yours.”
The wind roars up the avenue. Trees stoop and bend this way and that. Moonbeams splash and spill wildly in the rain. But the beam of the lamp falls straight from the window. The candle burns stiff and still. Wandering through the house, opening the windows, whispering not to wake us, the ghostly couple seek their joy.
“Here we slept,” she says. And he adds, “Kisses without number.” “Waking in the morning—” “Silver between the trees—” “Upstairs—” “In the garden—” “When summer came—” “In winter snowtime—” The doors go shutting far in the distance, gently knocking like the pulse of a heart.
Nearer they come; cease at the doorway. The wind falls, the rain slides silver down the glass. Our eyes darken; we hear no steps beside us; we see no lady spread her ghostly cloak. His hands shield the lantern. “Look,” he breathes. “Sound asleep. Love upon their lips.”
Stooping, holding their silver lamp above us, long they look and deeply. Long they pause. The wind drives straightly; the flame stoops slightly. Wild beams of moonlight cross both floor and wall, and, meeting, stain the faces bent; the faces pondering; the faces that search the sleepers and seek their hidden joy.
“Safe, safe, safe,” the heart of the house beats proudly. “Long years—” he sighs. “Again you found me.” “Here,” she murmurs, “sleeping; in the garden reading; laughing, rolling apples in the loft. Here we left our treasure—” Stooping, their light lifts the lids upon my eyes. “Safe! safe! safe!” the pulse of the house beats wildly. Waking, I cry “Oh, is this your buried treasure? The light in the heart.”
There was always, in the square, a curious and ancient rentable stagecoach that no one ever rented. The dozing coachman would shake himself awake at the striking of the hours from the bell tower, then his chin would fall back onto his chest. In the corner, by the faded yellow City Hall building, there was a fountain spurting a trickle of water from a bizarre marble face. Thick, cylindrical hair coiled liked snakes around it, and the bulging eyes, devoid of pupils, returned a dead, blank stare.
For at least the past three centuries, another building stood facing City Hall. It was an old aristocracy mansion once grandiose, now in ruins, undone and run-down. The façade saturated with decorations, turned grey with time, showed the merciless signs of passing time. The flying putti guarding the threshold were corroded and filthy, the marble festoons were losing their flowers and leaves, and the closed portal displayed a selection of mould stains. Yet, the house was lived in; the owners, however, heirs to an illustrious and fallen name, rarely showed themselves. On few occasions, they received the priest or doctor, and once in a few years, family from faraway cities, who always left swiftly.
The inside of the mansion offered a succession of empty rooms into which, during storm-ridden days, rain and dust whirled through the broken windows. There were strips of wallpaper, worn remnants of tapestries peeling off the walls, and on the ceilings sailed, among shining, plump clouds, swans and naked angels, and beautiful women leaning out of flower and fruit garlands. Some of the rooms were frescoed with adventures and tales, inhabited by regal characters riding camels or playing in luxurious gardens among monkeys and falcons.
The house’s two sides overlooked narrow and bare streets, while the third spilled onto a closed garden, a prison with high walls in which laurel and orange trees withered. With no gardener to look after it, nettles had invaded that tight space, and sad, blueish flowered weeds grew out of the walls.
The Marquis’ family, the owners of the building, left most of the rooms uninhabited, and had retreated into a small flat on the second floor, complete with outdated furniture that resounded, in the quiet darkness, with the feeble lament of woodworms. The marquess and marquis, both small and wretched people, showed in their features that sad resemblance that sometimes mimetically takes over after endless years of coexistence. Thin and withered, with pale lips and drooping cheeks, their movements were not too dissimilar from those of puppets. Maybe instead of blood, their veins ran with a lazy, yellowish fluid, and only one thing held up their strings: for her, it was authority, for him, fear. For, you see, the marquis had once been a small-town aristocrat, cheerful and without too many thoughts, his only concern being to find ways to finish up the rest of the family wealth. But the marquess had educated him. Ideal humanity, in her mind, should refrain from laughing and speaking out loud, and above all should hide secret weaknesses from the rest of the world. According to her teachings, it was a crime for one to smirk, fret, forcefully blow one’s nose; so the marquis, afraid to err in his gestures and forbidden noises, had avoided all noises and gestures entirely for some time now, lowering his head and reducing himself to a mummified human with docile eyes. It still did not shield him from scoldings and reproaches. Extremely high-mannered and sharp, she would often strike him with direct reprimands, or allude to certain unspeakable figures, only worthy of their contempt. They, she’d say, ignorant of their own will and unable to educate their own children, would drag the house into ruin, if the Holy Grace had not found them a Wife. So the man meekly endured her tortures, until the times when he left, with the little change the austere Administrator allowed him in his pockets, for his walks. Maybe, in the solitude of the tiny countryside roads, he let himself go to excesses, to singing cavatinas, and thunderous nose blowings; sure, when he’d return home, he had a strange light in his eyes and this involuntary reveal of his possible fun and impolite interior dimension would always raise the marquess’ suspicions. She’d press him with questions all evening, which would get more and more humiliating and sharp in order to extort compromising admissions. And the poor man, through coughing fits, stuttering, and blushing, would keep putting himself in a corner, to the point that the marquess started a scrupulous and austere control over her husband, and decided to often escort him on his walks. He resigned to the facts; the flame in his eyes, however, became obsessive, and fixed, and no longer sparked by joy.
From such parents, three children had come to the world; for them, in their first years, the world was made in their image and likeness. The town’s other characters were but vague presences, nasty, unlikeable brats, women in thick, black tights with long, oily hair, sad old religious men. All of these badly-dressed presences wandered along the short bridges, small streets, and the square. The three children hated the town; whenever they walked outside, in a row with the single servant, following the walls, their gazes were dark and disdainful. The local kids took their revenge by mocking and terrorizing them.
The servant was a tall, vulgar man, with hairy wrists, flaring red nostrils, and small mercurial eyes. He took out the subjection to the marquess on the children, treating them as a master would; when he accompanied them, swaying his hips slightly and looking down on them, or bluntly reprimanded them, they trembled with hatred. But outside as well as inside, their mother’s curt admonishments followed them; they walked in an orderly fashion, in grim silence.
The walk almost always ended at the church’s entrance, the two columns held up by a pair of sizeable lions with a tame expression. Higher up, a wide rose window let into the nave a cleansed, fresh light, in which the light of the candles fluttered. The apse housed a tall body of Christ, with purple blood flowing from his wounds, and figures around him gesturing and despairing with heavy movements.
The three children would kneel contritely and bring their hands together.
Antonietta, the eldest, despite her seventeen years of age, still had the body and the clothing of a child. She was thin and uncoordinated, and her straight hair, as it wasn’t customary to wash frequently in the mansion, always smelled faintly of mouse droppings. They were parted at the middle, and the parting was more clearly obvious on the back of her head, as the hair grew shorter and thinner, inspiring feelings of pity and protection. The girl’s nose was long, curved and sensitive, and her thin lips pulsated when she spoke. In the frame of her pale, emaciated face, her eyes moved with nervous passion, except when in the presence of the marquess, when she kept them low and dull.
She wore tresses onto her shoulders, and a black smock so short as to reveal – if she moved too much too quickly – her underwear, tight and almost reaching her knees, with its red ribbon; the smock opened at the back, onto her laced petticoat. Her black tights were held up with simple elastic, twisted and consumed.
Pietro, the middle child of sixteen, was docile. He moved both his small, stocky body and his eyes, discretely lit under the thick eyebrows, very slowly. He had a sweet, tame smile and his dependence from the other two was obvious by just looking at them.
Giovanni, the youngest, was the ugliest in the family. His meager body, almost as if he were born old, was too withered to grow any further; but his quick and burning eyes resembled those of his sister. After short bursts of frantic activity, he’d immediately fall into prostration, followed by fevers. The doctor would say of him: I do not believe he will survive puberty.
Whenever his fevers would strike, sudden and for no apparent reason, his body was shook as if by electric shocks. He knew this to be the sign, and he’d wait for the incumbent illness, his lips stretched and eyes wide. Nightmares would dance and buzz around his bed for long stretches of days, and a shapeless tedium would weigh down on him, inside of a dense, gloomy mood. Then his recovery would come, and too weak to move, he’d curl up on an armchair and drum his fingers rhythmically on the armrests. And he’d think. Or read.
The marquess, busy as she was in her administrative duties, didn’t really supervise the children’s education and learning. She was content with them not speaking or moving. And so, Giovanni was able to read strange and wonderful books, in which characters wore clothes never seen before: wide-brimmed hats, velvet waistcoats, swords and wigs, and dames in fantastic dresses, rich with gems and nets woven out of gold.
These beings spoke a winged language, which knew how to reach peaks and chasms, sweet in love, fierce in anger, and they lived dreams and adventures of which the young boy daydreamed for hours on end. He shared his discovery with his siblings and the three of them all believed they could identify the characters in those books with the painted figures on the walls and ceilings of the mansion and that, long alive in them but hidden in the cellars of their childhood, were now resurfacing once more. Soon there was an unspoken understanding between the siblings. When no one could hear them, they spoke of their creatures, unmaking and remaking them, talking about them until they were alive and breathing among them. Deep hatred and love tied them to this and that character, and it often happened that they’d spend their nights awake talking to each other with those words. Antonietta slept alone is a small room connected to that of her brothers’; their parents’ room was separated from their by a large room, parlour or dinette. So no one could hear them if, each from their own bed, they talked as if they were the beloved characters.
They were new, wonderful conversations.
‘Leblanc, sir Leblanc,’ whispered Giovanni’s raspy voice from the bed on the right, ‘have you sharpened the shining blades for the duel? The blood dawn will rise soon, and you know, dear sir, that proud lord Arturo knows no human mercy nor fear before death’.
‘Alas, my brother,’ whimpered Antonietta’s voice, ‘the white dressings and perfumed balms have already been prepared. May the Heavens grant you their use on your enemy’s corpse.’
‘The blood dawn, the blood dawn,’ mumbled Pietro, not as imaginative and always a little asleep. But Giovanni always intervened, suggesting his lines:
‘You,’ he’d say, ‘have to reply that you will face the danger devoid of fear, and that no Count Arturo will be the one to stop you, no man has been born who can.’
That was how the three children discovered theatre.
Their characters appeared fully-formed from the mists of invention, arms clamouring and clothes swishing. They acquired flesh and voice, and the children started living a second life. As soon as the marquess retired to her rooms, the servant to the kitchen, the marquis out on his walk, each of them turned into their counterpart. Her heart beating, Antonietta closed the front shutters, and became princesמs Isabella; Roberto, in love with Isabella, was played by Giovanni. Pietro never had a definite part, but played a rotation of the rival, the servant, the captain of a ship. The force of the fiction was so strong that they each forgot about their own real person; often, during the long, boring sessions supervised by the marquess, that marvellous, compressed secret almost bounced off them in secretive and sparkling glances: ‘later – they meant – we’ll play the game’. At night, in the dark, the game’s creatures populated their loneliness under the sheets, and the events of tomorrow would start taking shape; they smiled among themselves, or in the case of violence or tragedy, clench their fists.
In spring, the prison-garden also gained a fictional life. In the sun-bathed corner, the orange striped cat would quiver as it closed its green eyes. Strange, sudden smells would seem to burst from this or that corner, that pile of soil or this hedge. Flowers sickened by shadows would bloom and fall in silence, their petals reduced to pulp between the stones; the smells would draw lazy butterflies who’d let their pollen slip.
In the evening, dull, warm rain would often fall, barely making the ground damp. It’d be followed by a low wind, also carrying smells wandering across the night. The marquis and marquess, after breakfast, would fall asleep in their chairs; the townsfolk’s conversations, at sunset, sounded like conspiracies.
The secret game had become a kind of plot, taking place on a wonderful and distant planet, known only to the three siblings. Taken by the enchantment, they’d be unable to sleep at night for their thinking about it. One night, the wake was even longer; Isabella and Roberto, the hindered lovers, were to plan an escape, and the children were fretting in their beds to come up with a solution for that dire situation. Eventually, the two boys fell asleep, and the faces of their invented companions danced a little before their eyes, between light and dark, until they vanished.
Antonietta couldn’t sleep. Sometimes she thought she could hear a dark, long cry in the night, and she stayed awake to hear better. Sometimes it was strange noises in the attic breaking the comedy she still inhabited, as she made it up under the sheet. Eventually, she stepped out of bed; she quietly walked into her brothers’ room and whispered their names.
Giovanni, a light sleeper, sat upright. His sister had worn on her nightgown, which barely reached her knees, a worn-down black wool coat. Her straight hair, neither thick nor long, was undone, her eyes shone in the slanted shadows of the candlelight she held between her hands.
‘Wake up, Pietro,’ she said, leaning over his bed with feverish impatience. At that moment, Pietro stirred and slowly opened his tired eyes. ‘It’s about the game,’ she explained.
Lazily, fairly unwilling, Pietro lifted himself onto his elbow: both boys were looking at their sister, the eldest, distractedly and with glazed eyes, the other, already curious, leaning his young-but-old face towards the candle.
‘It came to pass,’ started Antonietta in a rush, as if talking about some sudden, dramatic event, ‘that during the hunt, Roberto wrote a note and hid it in a tree trunk. Isabella’s greyhound by chance runs towards that same tree and returns with the note in his mouth. ‘Pretend you’re lost,’ it says, ‘and meet me as darkness falls in the woods that surrounds Challant castle. We’ll escape from there.’ And so, as they all chase the fox, I run away and meet Roberto. And the wind blows, and he makes me get on his horse, and we flee in the night. But the knights notice our absence and they follow us blowing the horns.’
‘Shall we make it that they’re found?’ Giovanni asked, his eyes flitting and curious in the reddish light.
His sister was unable to stay still, she kept making gestures with both hands, so the flame swung between feeble flashes and giant shadows.
‘We don’t know yet,’ she replied. ‘Because,’ she added, with a mysteriously triumphant laugh, ‘we’re going to go to the hunting room to play the game.’
‘The hunting room! That’s impossible!’ Pietro said, shaking his head. ‘You’re joking! At night! They’ll hear us and find out. And everything will be over.’ But the others attacked him, insulted.
‘How dare you!’ they said. ‘You’re afraid!’
In a defiant attempt to rebel, Pietro lay down on his bed again.
‘No, I’m not coming,’ he said. Antonietta changed her tone.
‘Don’t ruin everything,’ she begged him, ‘you’re the hunters and the horns.’ And so she won the last of Pietro’s reticence, and he got up. He was wearing, like his brother, a worn-down flannel shirt, over which he slipped a pair of shorts. Antonietta cautiously opened the door leading to the stairs. ‘Bring your candle too,’ she told them, ‘there are no lamps up there’.
So the three set off, single file, up the narrow marble staircase, filthy and dull from use. The ‘hunting room’ was on the first floor, right after the stairs. It was one of the biggest rooms in the mansion, and the squalor of the other abandoned rooms was here animated instead by the vast frescoes on the walls and ceiling. They showed hunting scenes against a rocky landscape, with dark, straight trees. Several greyhounds, their muzzles pointed and their hind legs taut, ran everywhere in a frenzy, as the horses jumped or proceeded with dignity, in their red and gold caparisons. The hunters, in their bizarre, fish-skinned silks, tall hats with long feathers and green tricorns, walked or marched blowing their horns. Long ribbons hung from the latter, yellow and red standards flapped against the terse skies, and out of the cliff grew sharp-leaved bushes, and open, rigid flowers, almost like rocks. All of this was now buried in darkness. The candles, with their light too feeble for the sheer size of the room, revealed here and there the vivid colours of the saddles or the white backs of the horses. The children’s shadows swayed on the walls in magnified movements and ghostly footsteps.
They closed the doors. The piece began.
The silence of the night was vast; the wind had ceased for the trees to not rustle. Antonietta was stood by a painted tree which suddenly started flowing with sap. Birds came to life and slept in the foliage. And on her appeared, like a miracle, a long gown of floral and regal make, and a golden satchel. Her hair parted into two blonde tresses, and her pupils enlarged from fear and rapture.
‘Courage, my love, I am here, here, by you,’ murmured the other, turning into brave knight. His sweet and faunish face peered out of the darkness. ‘Roberto!’ she exclaimed quietly. ‘Roberto! Hold me, my love!’
A sudden grace bloomed in her. Her teeth and eyes shone with grace, her curved neck and her lips housed grace. She kneeled, her bare knees touching the ground. ‘What are you doing, my beloved?’ he asked. ‘Stand.’
She shuddered. ‘You came,’ she murmured almost in pain, ‘and it is night no longer, I have no more fear. I am finally close to you! I am like within the walls of a fortress, within a nest. If only you knew the sadness, how I cried these lonely nights! And you, my heart, what have you done these nights?’
‘I wandered,’ he said, ‘on my horse, thinking of ways to liberate you. But do not dwell, my darling, on the times of solitude. That has passed. No force can separate us now. We are together for eternity.’
‘For eternity!’ she repeated, bewildered. She smiled with her eyes closed, and sighed and trembled. Shuddering, she moved closer to him. ‘Do you not hear,’ she said, ‘a sound of horns in the distance?’
Roberto listened. ‘Do I have to blow the horns now?’ asked Pietro, coming closer. It was his specialty. He could mimic the sound of wind instruments and animal noises, and in doing so his cheeks engorged in grotesque ways.
‘Yes,’ the other two whispered.
The sound of a horn, low and growling, slowly moving closer and shriller, could be heard in the background. The wind picked up in the forest; a gust shook the leaves on the trees like banners. The horses leapt, the knights shook on their backs, falcons circled in the whistling air. The greyhounds leapt into the darkness, and the knights blew their horns.
‘Hark! Hark!’ they shouted, running through the torches that marked the air with lines and circles of smoke.
Isabella let out a cry, and threw her head back, clinging to Roberto.
‘My Queen!’ he shouted. ‘No one will take you from these arms! I swear. And with this kiss I seal my oath. Now, come forth! Come forth, if you dare!’
The two children kissed on the lips, Giovanni grew in size. His cheekbones reddened and temples beating, he came closer to his sister. And she, hair in disarray, mouth burning, danced in a frenzy. ‘Come, knights and steeds!’ they shouted. And Pietro bounced from here to there, swaying on his stocky body and blowing out his cheeks, like a large zuffolo.
At that moment, tragedy and triumph ceased. Trees and knights stopped, losing their dimensions, and a dusty silence entered the room. The light of the candles only showed three ugly children.
The door was opening. The marquess, inspired, had suddenly decided to check upon the children in their rooms, and her search had eventually brought her to the hunting room. ‘What is this farce?’ she shrieked with her silly voice. And stepped inside, holding a tall chandelier, followed by the marquis.
Their grotesque shadows crept along the opposite wall. The marquess’ sharp nose and chin, her bony fingers, her swaying tresses pinned to the top of her head, slightly fluttered in that now marginally more lit room, and the small, demure figure of the marquis stayed behind, still. He was wearing a worn bedrobe, with red and yellow stripes that made him look like a beetle, and the few grey hairs left on his head, usually smoothed down with an ointment of his making, were standing straight up, making him look terrified. He stood there cautiously, as if afraid of tripping up, and sheltered the flame of the candle with his open palm.
The marquess turned a sharp gaze onto her children, who froze; then she turned to her daughter, with raised eyebrows and a wry, scornful smile.
‘Look at her!’ she cried. ‘Pretty! Oh dear, dear!’ and suddenly becoming irate and combative, raised her voice. ‘You should be ashamed, Antonia! Explain…’
The children were quiet. But while the two boys were stunned, their eyes to the ground, Antonietta, curled up by her tree, now dead, stared at her mother with open, lost eyes, similar to a young quail surprised by a sparrow hawk. Then her incredibly pale face, her drained lips, was covered by a disordered and violent redness, covering her skin in dark stains. Her lips trembled, and she shuddered, lost, overwhelmed by painful and uncontrollable shame. She kept curling further into her nook, as if afraid that someone might touch and search her.
The two brothers were shocked by the scene that followed. Their sister suddenly fell to her knees, and they thought she might beg for forgiveness: instead, she covered her blazing face with her hands, and started shaking in a bizarre, raspy, and feverish laughter, which soon turned into angry crying. She uncovered her strained face and, lying on the ground with her legs stiff, she started ripping out, in a childish and continuous gesture, her untied hair.
‘Antonietta! What happens?’ exclaimed the marquis, aghast. ‘Silence, you!’ ordered the marquess, and because her daughter had uncovered her frail, white legs in her thrashing, she twisted her face in disgust.
‘On your feet, Antonietta,’ she barked. But her voice exasperated her daughter, who seemed possessed by the Furies; the jealousy of her secret had shattered her. In silence, her brothers shifted away, and she was left alone in the middle, shaking her head as if trying to remove it off her neck, moaning with agitated and improper gestures. ‘Help me to lift her up,’ the marquess finally said, and as soon as her parents touched her, Antonietta ceased all movement, exhausted. Holding her under her arms, she moved without realising up the dimly lit staircase; her eyes were dry and fixed, her lips showed the spittle of ire, and her cries had been replaced by a muffled and inconstant moan, but still filled with anger. She kept moaning in the same manner even once they reached her bed, where she was made to lie, and left alone.
From the nearby room, the brothers couldn’t help but listen to that lament that distracted them even from the thought of the violated secret. Then Pietro was taken over by a dreamless sleep, and Giovanni was left alone in the darkness. He kept tossing and turning without peace, until he decided to leave his bed, and headed barefoot to his sister’s bedroom. It was small, misshapen, in which the smell of childhood lingered, but one oppressed by boarding school. The ceiling sported a faded image: a slender woman, draped in orange veils, dancing with her arms reaching for a painted vase. The walls were stained and miserable, a pair of old red slippers were placed to one side of the wooden bed, and on the wall opposite an angel spread its wings and held a stoup. The night lamp was lit and let onto the bed a feeble bluish aura.
‘Antonietta!’ called Giovanni. ‘It’s me…’
His sister seemed to not notice him, despite her eyes being open and filled with tears; she lay immersed in her childish crying, her lips taut and trembling, and unmoving; slowly, her eyes started to close, and her wet lashes seemed long and displayed. Suddenly, she jolted awake again.
‘Roberto!’ she called, and the name and the sharp sweetness in the voice filled with regret shocked her brother.
‘Antonietta!’ he called again. ‘It’s me, Giovanni, your brother!’
‘Roberto,’ she said, her voice lower. Calming down now, she seemed more absorbed and attentive, as someone carefully following the tracks of a dream. In silence, her brother also felt Roberto’s presence in the room; tall, a little arrogant, with his black velvet waistcoat, the arabesque weapon and silver buckles, Roberto was standing between them.
Antonietta seemed calm and asleep by now; Giovanni stepped out into the corridor. Here the house’s silence enveloped him, contained yet infinite, like the one found in burials. He felt suffocated and nauseated, so he moved to the wide window on the stairs and opened it. He could hear, in the darkness outside, light thuds, as of soft bodies falling onto the sand in the garden; the space beyond the garden seemed alive and sensible to him, and the urge to escape, an old urge despite its vague, chimeric nature, took hold of him now, sudden and irresistible.
Without thinking, almost out inertia, he went back to his room and put on his clothes in the dark. Shoes in hand, he walked down the stairs, and the creaking of the front door behind him both horrified him and, in its song, filled him with delight.
‘Goodbye, Antonietta,’ he murmured. He thought he would never see Antonietta again, never again the house and the square; all he had to do was walk straight ahead for none of it to exist any longer.
Only the gurgling of the fountain could be heard in the empty square, and he turned, facing away from that cold and sad marble visage. He walked along known streets, until he reached the countryside paths and finally the open fields. The already tall and green wheat grew to both his left and right, the mountains in the background were more of a cloudy mass, and the night dragged on, exhausted, breathing damp and still beneath the sharp light of the stars. ‘I’ll reach that mountain range,’ he thought, ‘then the sea.’ He had never seen the sea, and the illusion of thunderous rumbling of a shell came back to him, from when he used to bring it up to his ear to play. But the sound was now alive and resounding, so that instead of the fields around him, he felt as though he was surrounded by two calm bodies of water on either side. After some time, he was sure of having walked far, though really he had only left the town. Exhausted, he decided to rest by a smooth tree, with wide foliage, split in two long branches similar to the arms of a cross.
He had only just rested his head on the bark when he felt a shiver: ‘The illness,’ he thought, both calm and horrified. The fever was indeed taking him, burrowing with burning, restless roots through his already drained body, too tired to stand up. His eyesight suddenly sharpened, so that he could now see the crawling of the night’s creatures surrounding him, and he could see the beating and flickering of their eyes, like hazy fires.
They were winking, he recognised them all, and he might have been able to call them one by one and ask them the infinite series of questions he had been harbouring since his early childhood.
But out of a strange urgency, the night turned towards dawn. The sunrise that came was bright, turning the landscape into a vast city of clay, dusty and empty, scattered with huts that looked more like mounds of soil, and short pillars. In this city, on the side of the rising sun, Isabella appeared, as big as a cloud against the sky, her dress like the chalice of a red flower. She approached him, despite her feet not moving. Her bare shoulders dropped from exhaustion, and her closed lips seemed to be smiling, her shining, still eyes stared at him to help him sleep.
He did, meekly. With daybreak, it was the hated servant who found him and took him home in his rough arms. As many times before, Giovanni stayed in his bed for days he never knew had passed, and his sister Antonietta looked over him. She sat there, calm and lazy, sometimes knitting, often just idling. She watched her brother deliriously imagining his red, burning worlds, offering him water every now and then. She sat there, in her apron and smooth hair, like a servant in a monastery.
Her lips looked burned.
Lena was patient, gentle, sweet and german. She had been a servant for four years and had liked it very well.
Lena had been brought from Germany to Bridgepoint by a cousin and had been in the same place there for four years.
This place Lena had found very good. There was a pleasant, unexacting mistress and her children, and they all liked Lena very well.
There was a cook there who scolded Lena a great deal but Lena’s german patience held no suffering and the good incessant woman really only scolded so for Lena’s good.
Lena’s german voice when she knocked and called the family in the morning was as awakening, as soothing, and as appealing, as a delicate soft breeze in midday, summer. She stood in the hallway every morning a long time in her unexpectant and unsuffering german patience calling to the young ones to get up. She would call and wait a long time and then call again, always even, gentle, patient, while the young ones fell back often into that precious, tense, last bit of sleeping that gives a strength of joyous vigor in the young, over them that have come to the readiness of middle age, in their awakening.
Lena had good hard work all morning, and on the pleasant, sunny afternoons she was sent out into the park to sit and watch the little two year old girl baby of the family.
The other girls, all them that make the pleasant, lazy crowd, that watch the children in the sunny afternoons out in the park, all liked the simple, gentle, german Lena very well. They all, too, liked very well to tease her, for it was so easy to make her mixed and troubled, and all helpless, for she could never learn to know just what the other quicker girls meant by the queer things they said.
The two or three of these girls, the ones that Lena always sat with, always worked together to confuse her. Still it was pleasant, all this life for Lena.
The little girl fell down sometimes and cried, and then Lena had to soothe her. When the little girl would drop her hat, Lena had to pick it up and hold it. When the little girl was bad and threw away her playthings, Lena told her she could not have them and took them from her to hold until the little girl should need them.
It was all a peaceful life for Lena, almost as peaceful as a pleasant leisure. The other girls, of course, did tease her, but then that only made a gentle stir within her.
Lena was a brown and pleasant creature, brown as blonde races often have them brown, brown, not with the yellow or the red or the chocolate brown of sun burned countries, but brown with the clear color laid flat on the light toned skin beneath, the plain, spare brown that makes it right to have been made with hazel eyes, and not too abundant straight, brown hair, hair that only later deepens itself into brown from the straw yellow of a german childhood.
Lena had the flat chest, straight back and forward falling shoulders of the patient and enduring working woman, though her body was now still in its milder girlhood and work had not yet made these lines too clear.
The rarer feeling that there was with Lena, showed in all the even quiet of her body movements, but in all it was the strongest in the patient, old-world ignorance, and earth made pureness of her brown, flat, soft featured face. Lena had eyebrows that were a wondrous thickness. They were black, and spread, and very cool, with their dark color and their beauty, and beneath them were her hazel eyes, simple and human, with the earth patience of the working, gentle, german woman.
Yes it was all a peaceful life for Lena. The other girls, of course, did tease her, but then that only made a gentle stir within her.
“What you got on your finger Lena,” Mary, one of the girls she always sat with, one day asked her. Mary was good natured, quick, intelligent and Irish.
Lena had just picked up the fancy paper made accordion that the little girl had dropped beside her, and was making it squeak sadly as she pulled it with her brown, strong, awkward finger.
“Why, what is it, Mary, paint?” said Lena, putting her finger to her mouth to taste the dirt spot.
“That’s awful poison Lena, don’t you know?” said Mary, “that green paint that you just tasted.”
Lena had sucked a good deal of the green paint from her finger. She stopped and looked hard at the finger. She did not know just how much Mary meant by what she said.
“Ain’t it poison, Nellie, that green paint, that Lena sucked just now,” said Mary. “Sure it is Lena, its real poison, I ain’t foolin’ this time anyhow.”
Lena was a little troubled. She looked hard at her finger where the paint was, and she wondered if she had really sucked it.
It was still a little wet on the edges and she rubbed it off a long time on the inside of her dress, and in between she wondered and looked at the finger and thought, was it really poison that she had just tasted.
“Ain’t it too bad, Nellie, Lena should have sucked that,” Mary said.
Nellie smiled and did not answer. Nellie was dark and thin, and looked Italian. She had a big mass of black hair that she wore high up on her head, and that made her face look very fine.
Nellie always smiled and did not say much, and then she would look at Lena to perplex her.
And so they all three sat with their little charges in the pleasant sunshine a long time. And Lena would often look at her finger and wonder if it was really poison that she had just tasted and then she would rub her finger on her dress a little harder.
Mary laughed at her and teased her and Nellie smiled a little and looked queerly at her.
Then it came time, for it was growing cooler, for them to drag together the little ones, who had begun to wander, and to take each one back to its own mother. And Lena never knew for certain whether it was really poison, that green stuff that she had tasted.
During these four years of service, Lena always spent her Sundays out at the house of her aunt, who had brought her four years before to Bridgepoint.
This aunt, who had brought Lena, four years before, to Bridgepoint, was a hard, ambitious, well meaning, german woman. Her husband was a grocer in the town, and they were very well to do. Mrs. Haydon, Lena’s aunt, had two daughters who were just beginning as young ladies, and she had a little boy who was not honest and who was very hard to manage.
Mrs. Haydon was a short, stout, hard built, german woman. She always hit the ground very firmly and compactly as she walked. Mrs. Haydon was all a compact and well hardened mass, even to her face, reddish and darkened from its early blonde, with its hearty, shiny cheeks, and doubled chin well covered over with the up roll from her short, square neck.
The two daughters, who were fourteen and fifteen, looked like unkneaded, unformed mounds of flesh beside her.
The elder girl, Mathilda, was blonde, and slow, and simple, and quite fat. The younger, Bertha, who was almost as tall as her sister, was dark, and quicker, and she was heavy, too, but not really fat.
These two girls the mother had brought up very firmly. They were well taught for their position. They were always both well dressed, in the same kinds of hats and dresses, as is becoming in two german sisters. The mother liked to have them dressed in red. Their best clothes were red dresses, made of good heavy cloth, and strongly trimmed with braid of a glistening black. They had stiff, red felt hats, trimmed with black velvet ribbon, and a bird. The mother dressed matronly, in a bonnet and in black, always sat between her two big daughters, firm, directing, and repressed.
The only weak spot in this good german woman’s conduct was the way she spoiled her boy, who was not honest and who was very hard to manage.
The father of this family was a decent, quiet, heavy, and uninterfering german man. He tried to cure the boy of his bad ways, and make him honest, but the mother could not make herself let the father manage, and so the boy was brought up very badly.
Mrs. Haydon’s girls were now only just beginning as young ladies, and so to get her niece, Lena, married, was just then the most important thing that Mrs. Haydon had to do.
Mrs. Haydon had four years before gone to Germany to see her parents, and had taken the girls with her. This visit had been for Mrs. Haydon most successful, though her children had not liked it very well.
Mrs. Haydon was a good and generous woman, and she patronized her parents grandly, and all the cousins who came from all about to see her. Mrs. Haydon’s people were of the middling class of farmers. They were not peasants, and they lived in a town of some pretension, but it all seemed very poor and smelly to Mrs. Haydon’s american born daughters.
Mrs. Haydon liked it all. It was familiar, and then here she was so wealthy and important. She listened and decided, and advised all of her relations how to do things better. She arranged their present and their future for them, and showed them how in the past they had been wrong in all their methods.
Mrs. Haydon’s only trouble was with her two daughters, whom she could not make behave well to her parents. The two girls were very nasty to all their numerous relations. Their mother could hardly make them kiss their grandparents, and every day the girls would get a scolding. But then Mrs. Haydon was so very busy that she did not have time to really manage her stubborn daughters.
These hard working, earth-rough german cousins were to these american born children, ugly and dirty, and as far below them as were italian or negro workmen, and they could not see how their mother could ever bear to touch them, and then all the women dressed so funny, and were worked all rough and different.
The two girls stuck up their noses at them all, and always talked in English to each other about how they hated all these people and how they wished their mother would not do so. The girls could talk some German, but they never chose to use it.
It was her eldest brother’s family that most interested Mrs. Haydon. Here there were eight children, and out of the eight, five of them were girls.
Mrs. Haydon thought it would be a fine thing to take one of these girls back with her to Bridgepoint and get her well started. Everybody liked that she should do so and they were all willing that it should be Lena.
Lena was the second girl in her large family. She was at this time just seventeen years old. Lena was not an important daughter in the family. She was always sort of dreamy and not there. She worked hard and went very regularly at it, but even good work never seemed to bring her near.
Lena’s age just suited Mrs. Haydon’s purpose. Lena could first go out to service, and learn how to do things, and then, when she was a little older, Mrs. Haydon could get her a good husband. And then Lena was so still and docile, she would never want to do things her own way. And then, too, Mrs. Haydon, with all her hardness had wisdom, and she could feel the rarer strain there was in Lena.
Lena was willing to go with Mrs. Haydon. Lena did not like her german life very well. It was not the hard work but the roughness that disturbed her. The people were not gentle, and the men when they were glad were very boisterous, and would lay hold of her and roughly tease her. They were good people enough around her, but it was all harsh and dreary for her.
Lena did not really know that she did not like it. She did not know that she was always dreamy and not there. She did not think whether it would be different for her away off there in Bridgepoint. Mrs. Haydon took her and got her different kinds of dresses, and then took her with them to the steamer. Lena did not really know what it was that had happened to her.
Mrs. Haydon, and her daughters, and Lena traveled second class on the steamer. Mrs. Haydon’s daughters hated that their mother should take Lena. They hated to have a cousin, who was to them, little better than a nigger, and then everybody on the steamer there would see her. Mrs. Haydon’s daughters said things like this to their mother, but she never stopped to hear them, and the girls did not dare to make their meaning very clear. And so they could only go on hating Lena hard, together. They could not stop her from going back with them to Bridgepoint.
Lena was very sick on the voyage. She thought, surely before it was over that she would die. She was so sick she could not even wish that she had not started. She could not eat, she could not moan, she was just blank and scared, and sure that every minute she would die. She could not hold herself in, nor help herself in her trouble. She just staid where she had been put, pale, and scared, and weak, and sick, and sure that she was going to die.
Mathilda and Bertha Haydon had no trouble from having Lena for a cousin on the voyage, until the last day that they were on the ship, and by that time they had made their friends and could explain.
Mrs. Haydon went down every day to Lena, gave her things to make her better, held her head when it was needful, and generally was good and did her duty by her.
Poor Lena had no power to be strong in such trouble. She did not know how to yield to her sickness nor endure. She lost all her little sense of being in her suffering. She was so scared, and then at her best, Lena, who was patient, sweet and quiet, had not self-control, nor any active courage.
Poor Lena was so scared and weak, and every minute she was sure that she would die.
After Lena was on land again a little while, she forgot all her bad suffering. Mrs. Haydon got her the good place, with the pleasant unexacting mistress, and her children, and Lena began to learn some English and soon was very happy and content.
All her Sundays out Lena spent at Mrs. Haydon’s house. Lena would have liked much better to spend her Sundays with the girls she always sat with, and who often asked her, and who teased her and made a gentle stir within her, but it never came to Lena’s unexpectant and unsuffering german nature to do something different from what was expected of her, just because she would like it that way better. Mrs. Haydon had said that Lena was to come to her house every other Sunday, and so Lena always went there.
Mrs. Haydon was the only one of her family who took any interest in Lena. Mr. Haydon did not think much of her. She was his wife’s cousin and he was good to her, but she was for him stupid, and a little simple, and very dull, and sure some day to need help and to be in trouble. All young poor relations, who were brought from Germany to Bridgepoint were sure, before long, to need help and to be in trouble.
The little Haydon boy was always very nasty to her. He was a hard child for any one to manage, and his mother spoiled him very badly. Mrs. Haydon’s daughters as they grew older did not learn to like Lena any better. Lena never knew that she did not like them either. She did not know that she was only happy with the other quicker girls, she always sat with in the park, and who laughed at her and always teased her.
Mathilda Haydon, the simple, fat, blonde, older daughter felt very badly that she had to say that this was her cousin Lena, this Lena who was little better for her than a nigger. Mathilda was an overgrown, slow, flabby, blonde, stupid, fat girl, just beginning as a woman; thick in her speech and dull and simple in her mind, and very jealous of all her family and of other girls, and proud that she could have good dresses and new hats and learn music, and hating very badly to have a cousin who was a common servant. And then Mathilda remembered very strongly that dirty nasty place that Lena came from and that Mathilda had so turned up her nose at, and where she had been made so angry because her mother scolded her and liked all those rough cow-smelly people.
Then, too, Mathilda would get very mad when her mother had Lena at their parties, and when she talked about how good Lena was, to certain german mothers in whose sons, perhaps, Mrs. Haydon might find Lena a good husband. All this would make the dull, blonde, fat Mathilda very angry: Sometimes she would get so angry that she would, in her thick, slow way, and with jealous anger blazing in her light blue eyes, tell her mother that she did not see how she could like that nasty Lena; and then her mother would scold Mathilda, and tell her that she knew her cousin Lena was poor and Mathilda must be good to poor people.
Mathilda Haydon did not like relations to be poor. She told all her girl friends what she thought of Lena, and so the girls would never talk to Lena at Mrs. Haydon’s parties. But Lena in her unsuffering and unexpectant patience never really knew that she was slighted. When Mathilda was with her girls in the street or in the park and would see Lena, she always turned up her nose and barely nodded to her, and then she would tell her friends how funny her mother was to take care of people like that Lena, and how, back in Germany, all Lena’s people lived just like pigs.
The younger daughter, the dark, large, but not fat, Bertha Haydon, who was very quick in her mind, and in her ways, and who was the favorite with her father, did not like Lena, either. She did not like her because for her Lena was a fool and so stupid, and she would let those Irish and Italian girls laugh at her and tease her, and everybody always made fun of Lena, and Lena never got mad, or even had sense enough to know that they were all making an awful fool of her.
Bertha Haydon hated people to be fools. Her father, too, thought Lena was a fool, and so neither the father nor the daughter ever paid any attention to Lena, although she came to their house every other Sunday.
Lena did not know how all the Haydons felt. She came to her aunt’s house all her Sunday afternoons that she had out, because Mrs. Haydon had told her she must do so. In the same way Lena always saved all of her wages. She never thought of any way to spend it. The german cook, the good woman who always scolded Lena, helped her to put it in the bank each month, as soon as she got it. Sometimes before it got into the bank to be taken care of, somebody would ask Lena for it. The little Haydon boy sometimes asked and would get it, and sometimes some of the girls, the ones Lena always sat with, needed some more money; but the german cook, who always scolded Lena, saw to it that this did not happen very often. When it did happen she would scold Lena very sharply, and for the next few months she would not let Lena touch her wages, but put it in the bank for her on the same day that Lena got it.
So Lena always saved her wages, for she never thought to spend them, and she always went to her aunt’s house for her Sundays because she did not know that she could do anything different.
Mrs. Haydon felt more and more every year that she had done right to bring Lena back with her, for it was all coming out just as she had expected. Lena was good and never wanted her own way, she was learning English, and saving all her wages, and soon Mrs. Haydon would get her a good husband.
All these four years Mrs. Haydon was busy looking around among all the german people that she knew for the right man to be Lena’s husband, and now at last she was quite decided.
The man Mrs. Haydon wanted for Lena was a young german-american tailor, who worked with his father. He was good and all the family were very saving, and Mrs. Haydon was sure that this would be just right for Lena, and then too, this young tailor always did whatever his father and his mother wanted.
This old german tailor and his wife, the father and the mother of Herman Kreder, who was to marry Lena Mainz, were very thrifty, careful people. Herman was the only child they had left with them, and he always did everything they wanted. Herman was now twenty-eight years old, but he had never stopped being scolded and directed by his father and his mother. And now they wanted to see him married.
Herman Kreder did not care much to get married. He was a gentle soul and a little fearful. He had a sullen temper, too. He was obedient to his father and his mother. He always did his work well. He often went out on Saturday nights and on Sundays, with other men. He liked it with them but he never became really joyous. He liked to be with men and he hated to have women with them. He was obedient to his mother, but he did not care much to get married.
Mrs. Haydon and the elder Kreders had often talked the marriage over. They all three liked it very well. Lena would do anything that Mrs. Haydon wanted, and Herman was always obedient in everything to his father and his mother. Both Lena and Herman were saving and good workers and neither of them ever wanted their own way.
The elder Kreders, everybody knew, had saved up all their money, and they were hard, good german people, and Mrs. Haydon was sure that with these people Lena would never be in any trouble. Mr. Haydon would not say anything about it. He knew old Kreder had a lot of money and owned some good houses, and he did not care what his wife did with that simple, stupid Lena, so long as she would be sure never to need help or to be in trouble.
Lena did not care much to get married. She liked her life very well where she was working. She did not think much about Herman Kreder. She thought he was a good man and she always found him very quiet. Neither of them ever spoke much to the other. Lena did not care much just then about getting married.
Mrs. Haydon spoke to Lena about it very often. Lena never answered anything at all. Mrs. Haydon thought, perhaps Lena did not like Herman Kreder. Mrs. Haydon could not believe that any girl not even Lena, really had no feeling about getting married.
Mrs. Haydon spoke to Lena very often about Herman. Mrs. Haydon sometimes got very angry with Lena. She was afraid that Lena, for once, was going to be stubborn, now when it was all fixed right for her to be married.
“Why you stand there so stupid, why don’t you answer, Lena,” said Mrs. Haydon one Sunday, at the end of a long talking that she was giving Lena about Herman Kreder, and about Lena’s getting married to him.
“Yes ma’am,” said Lena, and then Mrs. Haydon was furious with this stupid Lena. “Why don’t you answer with some sense, Lena, when I ask you if you don’t like Herman Kreder. You stand there so stupid and don’t answer just like you ain’t heard a word what I been saying to you. I never see anybody like you, Lena. If you going to burst out at all, why don’t you burst out sudden instead of standing there so silly and don’t answer. And here I am so good to you, and find you a good husband so you can have a place to live in all your own. Answer me, Lena, don’t you like Herman Kreder? He is a fine young fellow, almost too good for you, Lena, when you stand there so stupid and don’t make no answer. There ain’t many poor girls that get the chance you got now to get married.”
“Why, I do anything you say, Aunt Mathilda. Yes, I like him. He don’t say much to me, but I guess he is a good man, and I do anything you say for me to do.”
“Well then Lena, why you stand there so silly all the time and not answer when I asked you.”
“I didn’t hear you say you wanted I should say anything to you. I didn’t know you wanted me to say nothing. I do whatever you tell me it’s right for me to do. I marry Herman Kreder, if you want me.”
And so for Lena Mainz the match was made.
Old Mrs. Kreder did not discuss the matter with her Herman. She never thought that she needed to talk such things over with him. She just told him about getting married to Lena Mainz who was a good worker and very saving and never wanted her own way, and Herman made his usual little grunt in answer to her.
Mrs. Kreder and Mrs. Haydon fixed the day and made all the arrangements for the wedding and invited everybody who ought to be there to see them married.
In three months Lena Mainz and Herman Kreder were to be married.
Mrs. Haydon attended to Lena’s getting all the things that she needed. Lena had to help a good deal with the sewing. Lena did not sew very well. Mrs. Haydon scolded because Lena did not do it better, but then she was very good to Lena, and she hired a girl to come and help her. Lena still stayed on with her pleasant mistress, but she spent all her evenings and her Sundays with her aunt and all the sewing.
Mrs. Haydon got Lena some nice dresses. Lena liked that very well. Lena liked having new hats even better, and Mrs. Haydon had some made for her by a real milliner who made them very pretty.
Lena was nervous these days, but she did not think much about getting married. She did not know really what it was, that, which was always coming nearer.
Lena liked the place where she was with the pleasant mistress and the good cook, who always scolded, and she liked the girls she always sat with. She did not ask if she would like being married any better. She always did whatever her aunt said and expected, but she was always nervous when she saw the Kreders with their Herman. She was excited and she liked her new hats, and everybody teased her and every day her marrying was coming nearer, and yet she did not really know what it was, this that was about to happen to her.
Herman Kreder knew more what it meant to be married and he did not like it very well. He did not like to see girls and he did not want to have to have one always near him. Herman always did everything that his father and his mother wanted and now they wanted that he should be married.
Herman had a sullen temper; he was gentle and he never said much. He liked to go out with other men, but he never wanted that there should be any women with them. The men all teased him about getting married. Herman did not mind the teasing but he did not like very well the getting married and having a girl always with him.
Three days before the wedding day, Herman went away to the country to be gone over Sunday. He and Lena were to be married Tuesday afternoon. When the day came Herman had not been seen or heard from.
The old Kreder couple had not worried much about it. Herman always did everything they wanted and he would surely come back in time to get married. But when Monday night came, and there was no Herman, they went to Mrs. Haydon to tell her what had happened.
Mrs. Haydon got very much excited. It was hard enough to work so as to get everything all ready, and then to have that silly Herman go off that way, so no one could tell what was going to happen. Here was Lena and everything all ready, and now they would have to make the wedding later so that they would know that Herman would be sure to be there.
Mrs. Haydon was very much excited, and then she could not say much to the old Kreder couple. She did not want to make them angry, for she wanted very badly now that Lena should be married to their Herman.
At last it was decided that the wedding should be put off a week longer. Old Mr. Kreder would go to New York to find Herman, for it was very likely that Herman had gone there to his married sister.
Mrs. Haydon sent word around, about waiting until a week from that Tuesday, to everybody that had been invited, and then Tuesday morning she sent for Lena to come down to see her.
Mrs. Haydon was very angry with poor Lena when she saw her. She scolded her hard because she was so foolish, and now Herman had gone off and nobody could tell where he had gone to, and all because Lena always was so dumb and silly. And Mrs. Haydon was just like a mother to her, and Lena always stood there so stupid and did not answer what anybody asked her, and Herman was so silly too, and now his father had to go and find him. Mrs. Haydon did not think that any old people should be good to their children. Their children always were so thankless, and never paid any attention, and older people were always doing things for their good. Did Lena think it gave Mrs. Haydon any pleasure, to work so hard to make Lena happy, and get her a good husband, and then Lena was so thankless and never did anything that anybody wanted. It was a lesson to poor Mrs. Haydon not to do things any more for anybody. Let everybody take care of themselves and never come to her with any troubles; she knew better now than to meddle to make other people happy. It just made trouble for her and her husband did not like it. He always said she was too good, and nobody ever thanked her for it, and there Lena was always standing stupid and not answering anything anybody wanted. Lena could always talk enough to those silly girls she liked so much, and always sat with, but who never did anything for her except to take away her money, and here was her aunt who tried so hard and was so good to her and treated her just like one of her own children and Lena stood there, and never made any answer and never tried to please her aunt, or to do anything that her aunt wanted. “No, it ain’t no use your standin’ there and cryin’, now, Lena. Its too late now to care about that Herman. You should have cared some before, and then you wouldn’t have to stand and cry now, and be a disappointment to me, and then I get scolded by my husband for taking care of everybody, and nobody ever thankful. I am glad you got the sense to feel sorry now, Lena, anyway, and I try to do what I can to help you out in your trouble, only you don’t deserve to have anybody take any trouble for you. But perhaps you know better next time. You go home now and take care you don’t spoil your clothes and that new hat, you had no business to be wearin’ that this morning, but you ain’t got no sense at all, Lena. I never in my life see anybody be so stupid.”
Mrs. Haydon stopped and poor Lena stood there in her hat, all trimmed with pretty flowers, and the tears coming out of her eyes, and Lena did not know what it was that she had done, only she was not going to be married and it was a disgrace for a girl to be left by a man on the very day she was to be married.
Lena went home all alone, and cried in the street car.
Poor Lena cried very hard all alone in the street car. She almost spoiled her new hat with her hitting it against the window in her crying. Then she remembered that she must not do so.
The conductor was a kind man and he was very sorry when he saw her crying. “Don’t feel so bad, you get another feller, you are such a nice girl,” he said to make her cheerful. “But Aunt Mathilda said now, I never get married,” poor Lena sobbed out for her answer. “Why you really got trouble like that,” said the conductor, “I just said that now to josh you. I didn’t ever think you really was left by a feller. He must be a stupid feller. But don’t you worry, he wasn’t much good if he could go away and leave you, lookin’ to be such a nice girl. You just tell all your trouble to me, and I help you.” The car was empty and the conductor sat down beside her to put his arm around her, and to be a comfort to her. Lena suddenly remembered where she was, and if she did things like that her aunt would scold her. She moved away from the man into the corner. He laughed, “Don’t be scared,” he said, “I wasn’t going to hurt you. But you just keep up your spirit. You are a real nice girl, and you’ll be sure to get a real good husband. Don’t you let nobody fool you. You’re all right and I don’t want to scare you.”
The conductor went back to his platform to help a passenger get on the car. All the time Lena stayed in the street car, he would come in every little while and reassure her, about her not to feel so bad about a man who hadn’t no more sense than to go away and leave her. She’d be sure yet to get a good man, she needn’t be so worried, he frequently assured her.
He chatted with the other passenger who had just come in, a very well dressed old man, and then with another who came in later, a good sort of a working man, and then another who came in, a nice lady, and he told them all about Lena’s having trouble, and it was too bad there were men who treated a poor girl so badly. And everybody in the car was sorry for poor Lena and the workman tried to cheer her, and the old man looked sharply at her, and said she looked like a good girl, but she ought to be more careful and not to be so careless, and things like that would not happen to her, and the nice lady went and sat beside her and Lena liked it, though she shrank away from being near her.
So Lena was feeling a little better when she got off the car, and the conductor helped her, and he called out to her, “You be sure you keep up a good heart now. He wasn’t no good that feller and you were lucky for to lose him. You’ll get a real man yet, one that will be better for you. Don’t you be worried, you’re a real nice girl as I ever see in such trouble,” and the conductor shook his head and went back into his car to talk it over with the other passengers he had there.
The german cook, who always scolded Lena, was very angry when she heard the story. She never did think Mrs. Haydon would do so much for Lena, though she was always talking so grand about what she could do for everybody. The good german cook always had been a little distrustful of her. People who always thought they were so much never did really do things right for anybody. Not that Mrs. Haydon wasn’t a good woman. Mrs. Haydon was a real, good, german woman, and she did really mean to do well by her niece Lena. The cook knew that very well, and she had always said so, and she always had liked and respected Mrs. Haydon, who always acted very proper to her, and Lena was so backward, when there was a man to talk to, Mrs. Haydon did have hard work when she tried to marry Lena. Mrs. Haydon was a good woman, only she did talk sometimes too grand. Perhaps this trouble would make her see it wasn’t always so easy to do, to make everybody do everything just like she wanted. The cook was very sorry now for Mrs. Haydon. All this must be such a disappointment, and such a worry to her, and she really had always been very good to Lena. But Lena had better go and put on her other clothes and stop all that crying. That wouldn’t do nothing now to help her, and if Lena would be a good girl, and just be real patient, her aunt would make it all come out right yet for her. “I just tell Mrs. Aldrich, Lena, you stay here yet a little longer. You know she is always so good to you, Lena, and I know she let you, and I tell her all about that stupid Herman Kreder. I got no patience, Lena, with anybody who can be so stupid. You just stop now with your crying, Lena, and take off them good clothes and put them away so you don’t spoil them when you need them, and you can help me with the dishes and everything will come off better for you. You see if I ain’t right by what I tell you. You just stop crying now Lena quick, or else I scold you.”
Lena still choked a little and was very miserable inside her but she did everything just as the cook told her.
The girls Lena always sat with were very sorry to see her look so sad with her trouble. Mary the Irish girl sometimes got very angry with her. Mary was always very hot when she talked to Lena’s aunt Mathilda, who thought she was so grand, and had such stupid, stuck up daughters. Mary wouldn’t be a fat fool like that ugly tempered Mathilda Haydon, not for anything anybody could ever give her. How Lena could keep on going there so much when they all always acted as if she was just dirt to them, Mary never could see. But Lena never had any sense of how she should make people stand round for her, and that was always all the trouble with her. And poor Lena, she was so stupid to be sorry for losing that gawky fool who didn’t ever know what he wanted and just said “ja” to his mamma and his papa, like a baby, and was scared to look at a girl straight, and then sneaked away the last day like as if somebody was going to do something to him. Disgrace, Lena talking about disgrace! It was a disgrace for a girl to be seen with the likes of him, let alone to be married to him. But that poor Lena, she never did know how to show herself off for what she was really. Disgrace to have him go away and leave her. Mary would just like to get a chance to show him. If Lena wasn’t worth fifteen like Herman Kreder, Mary would just eat her own head all up. It was a good riddance Lena had of that Herman Kreder and his stingy, dirty parents, and if Lena didn’t stop crying about it — Mary would just naturally despise her.
Poor Lena, she knew very well how Mary meant it all, this she was always saying to her. But Lena was very miserable inside her. She felt the disgrace it was for a decent german girl that a man should go away and leave her. Lena knew very well that her aunt was right when she said the way Herman had acted to her was a disgrace to everyone that knew her. Mary and Nellie and the other girls she always sat with were always very good to Lena but that did not make her trouble any better. It was a disgrace the way Lena had been left, to any decent family, and that could never be made any different to her.
And so the slow days wore on, and Lena never saw her Aunt Mathilda. At last on Sunday she got word by a boy to go and see her aunt Mathilda. Lena’s heart beat quick for she was very nervous now with all this that had happened to her. She went just as quickly as she could to see her Aunt Mathilda.
Mrs. Haydon quick, as soon as she saw Lena, began to scold her for keeping her aunt waiting so long for her, and for not coming in all the week to see her, to see if her aunt should need her, and so her aunt had to send a boy to tell her. But it was easy, even for Lena, to see that her aunt was not really angry with her. It wasn’t Lena’s fault, went on Mrs. Haydon, that everything was going to happen all right for her. Mrs. Haydon was very tired taking all this trouble for her, and when Lena couldn’t even take trouble to come and see her aunt, to see if she needed anything to tell her. But Mrs. Haydon really never minded things like that when she could do things for anybody. She was tired now, all the trouble she had been taking to make things right for Lena, but perhaps now Lena heard it she would learn a little to be thankful to her. “You get all ready to be married Tuesday, Lena, you hear me,” said Mrs. Haydon to her. “You come here Tuesday morning and I have everything all ready for you. You wear your new dress I got you, and your hat with all them flowers on it, and you be very careful coming you don’t get your things all dirty, you so careless all the time, Lena, and not thinking, and you act sometimes you never got no head at all on you. You go home now, and you tell your Mrs. Aldrich that you leave her Tuesday. Don’t you go forgetting now, Lena, anything I ever told you what you should do to be careful. You be a good girl, now Lena. You get married Tuesday to Herman Kreder.” And that was all Lena ever knew of what had happened all this week to Herman Kreder. Lena forgot there was anything to know about it. She was really to be married Tuesday, and her Aunt Mathilda said she was a good girl, and now there was no disgrace left upon her.
Lena now fell back into the way she always had of being always dreamy and not there, the way she always had been, except for the few days she was so excited, because she had been left by a man the very day she was to have been married. Lena was a little nervous all these last days, but she did not think much about what it meant for her to be married.
Herman Kreder was not so content about it. He was quiet and was sullen and he knew he could not help it. He knew now he just had to let himself get married. It was not that Herman did not like Lena Mainz. She was as good as any other girl could be for him. She was a little better perhaps than other girls he saw, she was so very quiet, but Herman did not like to always have to have a girl around him. Herman had always done everything that his mother and his father wanted. His father had found him in New York, where Herman had gone to be with his married sister.
Herman’s father when he had found him coaxed Herman a long time and went on whole days with his complaining to him, always troubled but gentle and quite patient with him, and always he was worrying to Herman about what was the right way his boy Herman should always do, always whatever it was his mother ever wanted from him, and always Herman never made him any answer.
Old Mr. Kreder kept on saying to him, he did not see how Herman could think now, it could be any different. When you make a bargain you just got to stick right to it, that was the only way old Mr. Kreder could ever see it, and saying you would get married to a girl and she got everything all ready, that was a bargain just like one you make in business and Herman he had made it, and now Herman he would just have to do it, old Mr. Kreder didn’t see there was any other way a good boy like his Herman had, to do it. And then too that Lena Mainz was such a nice girl and Herman hadn’t ought to really give his father so much trouble and make him pay out all that money, to come all the way to New York just to find him, and they both lose all that time from their working, when all Herman had to do was just to stand up, for an hour, and then he would be all right married, and it would be all over for him, and then everything at home would never be any different to him.
And his father went on; there was his poor mother saying always how her Herman always did everything before she ever wanted, and now just because he got notions in him, and wanted to show people how he could be stubborn, he was making all this trouble for her, and making them pay all that money just to run around and find him. “You got no idea Herman, how bad mama is feeling about the way you been acting Herman,” said old Mr. Kreder to him. “She says she never can understand how you can be so thankless Herman. It hurts her very much you been so stubborn, and she find you such a nice girl for you, like Lena Mainz who is always just so quiet and always saves up all her wages, and she never wanting her own way at all like some girls are always all the time to have it, and you mama trying so hard, just so you could be comfortable Herman to be married, and then you act so stubborn Herman. You like all young people Herman, you think only about yourself, and what you are just wanting, and your mama she is thinking only what is good for you to have, for you in the future. Do you think your mama wants to have a girl around to be a bother, for herself, Herman. Its just for you Herman she is always thinking, and she talks always about how happy she will be, when she sees her Herman married to a nice girl, and then when she fixed it all up so good for you, so it never would be any bother to you, just the way she wanted you should like it, and you say yes all right, I do it, and then you go away like this and act stubborn, and make all this trouble everybody to take for you, and we spend money, and I got to travel all round to find you. You come home now with me Herman and get married, and I tell your mama she better not say anything to you about how much it cost me to come all the way to look for you — Hey Herman,” said his father coaxing, “Hey, you come home now and get married. All you got to do Herman is just to stand up for an hour Herman, and then you don’t never to have any more bother to it — Hey Herman! — you come home with me to-morrow and get married. Hey Herman.”
Herman’s married sister liked her brother Herman, and she had always tried to help him, when there was anything she knew he wanted. She liked it that he was so good and always did everything that their father and their mother wanted, but still she wished it could be that he could have more his own way, if there was anything he ever wanted.
But now she thought Herman with his girl was very funny. She wanted that Herman should be married. She thought it would do him lots of good to get married. She laughed at Herman when she heard the story. Until his father came to find him, she did not know why it was Herman had come just then to New York to see her. When she heard the story she laughed a good deal at her brother Herman and teased him a good deal about his running away, because he didn’t want to have a girl to be all the time around him.
Herman’s married sister liked her brother Herman, and she did not want him not to like to be with women. He was good, her brother Herman, and it would surely do him good to get married. It would make him stand up for himself stronger. Herman’s sister always laughed at him and always she would try to reassure him. “Such a nice man as my brother Herman acting like as if he was afraid of women. Why the girls all like a man like you Herman, if you didn’t always run away when you saw them. It do you good really Herman to get married, and then you got somebody you can boss around when you want to. It do you good Herman to get married, you see if you don’t like it, when you really done it. You go along home now with papa, Herman and get married to that Lena. You don’t know how nice you like it Herman when you try once how you can do it. You just don’t be afraid of nothing, Herman. You good enough for any girl to marry, Herman. Any girl be glad to have a man like you to be always with them Herman. You just go along home with papa and try it what I say, Herman. Oh you so funny Herman, when you sit there, and then run away and leave your girl behind you. I know she is crying like anything Herman for to lose you. Don’t be bad to her Herman. You go along home with papa now and get married Herman. I’d be awful ashamed Herman, to really have a brother didn’t have spirit enough to get married, when a girl is just dying for to have him. You always like me to be with you Herman. I don’t see why you say you don’t want a girl to be all the time around you. You always been good to me Herman, and I know you always be good to that Lena, and you soon feel just like as if she had always been there with you. Don’t act like as if you wasn’t a nice strong man, Herman. Really I laugh at you Herman, but you know I like awful well to see you real happy. You go home and get married to that Lena, Herman. She is a real pretty girl and real nice and good and quiet and she make my brother Herman very happy. You just stop your fussing now with Herman, papa. He go with you to-morrow papa, and you see he like it so much to be married, he make everybody laugh just to see him be so happy. Really truly, that’s the way it will be with you Herman. You just listen to me what I tell you Herman.” And so his sister laughed at him and reassured him, and his father kept on telling what the mother always said about her Herman, and he coaxed him and Herman never said anything in answer, and his sister packed his things up and was very cheerful with him, and she kissed him, and then she laughed and then she kissed him, and his father went and bought the tickets for the train, and at last late on Sunday he brought Herman back to Bridgepoint with him.
It was always very hard to keep Mrs. Kreder from saying what she thought, to her Herman, but her daughter had written her a letter, so as to warn her not to say anything about what he had been doing, to him, and her husband came in with Herman and said, “Here we are come home mama, Herman and me, and we are very tired it was so crowded coming,” and then he whispered to her. “You be good to Herman, mama, he didn’t mean to make us so much trouble,” and so old Mrs. Kreder, held in what she felt was so strong in her to say to her Herman. She just said very stiffly to him, “I’m glad to see you come home to-day, Herman.” Then she went to arrange it all with Mrs. Haydon.
Herman was now again just like he always had been, sullen and very good, and very quiet, and always ready to do whatever his mother and his father wanted. Tuesday morning came, Herman got his new clothes on and went with his father and his mother to stand up for an hour and get married. Lena was there in her new dress, and her hat with all the pretty flowers, and she was very nervous for now she knew she was really very soon to be married. Mrs. Haydon had everything all ready. Everybody was there just as they should be and very soon Herman Kreder and Lena Mainz were married.
When everything was really over, they went back to the Kreder house together. They were all now to live together, Lena and Herman and the old father and the old mother, in the house where Mr. Kreder had worked so many years as a tailor, with his son Herman always there to help him.
Irish Mary had often said to Lena she never did see how Lena could ever want to have anything to do with Herman Kreder and his dirty stingy parents. The old Kreders were to an Irish nature, a stingy, dirty couple. They had not the free-hearted, thoughtless, fighting, mud bespattered, ragged, peat-smoked cabin dirt that irish Mary knew and could forgive and love. Theirs was the german dirt of saving, of being dowdy and loose and foul in your clothes so as to save them and yourself in washing, having your hair greasy to save it in the soap and drying, having your clothes dirty, not in freedom, but because so it was cheaper, keeping the house close and smelly because so it cost less to get it heated, living so poorly not only so as to save money but so they should never even know themselves that they had it, working all the time not only because from their nature they just had to and because it made them money but also that they never could be put in any way to make them spend their money.
This was the place Lena now had for her home and to her it was very different than it could be for an irish Mary. She too was german and was thrifty, though she was always so dreamy and not there. Lena was always careful with things and she always saved her money, for that was the only way she knew how to do it. She never had taken care of her own money and she never had thought how to use it.
Lena Mainz had been, before she was Mrs. Herman Kreder, always clean and decent in her clothes and in her person, but it was not because she ever thought about it or really needed so to have it, it was the way her people did in the german country where she came from, and her Aunt Mathilda and the good german cook who always scolded, had kept her on and made her, with their scoldings, always more careful to keep clean and to wash real often. But there was no deep need in all this for Lena and so, though Lena did not like the old Kreders, though she really did not know that, she did not think about their being stingy dirty people.
Herman Kreder was cleaner than the old people, just because it was his nature to keep cleaner, but he was used to his mother and his father, and he never thought that they should keep things cleaner. And Herman too always saved all his money, except for that little beer he drank when he went out with other men of an evening the way he always liked to do it, and he never thought of any other way to spend it. His father had always kept all the money for them and he always was doing business with it. And then too Herman really had no money, for he always had worked for his father, and his father had never thought to pay him.
And so they began all four to live in the Kreder house together, and Lena began soon with it to look careless and a little dirty, and to be more lifeless with it, and nobody ever noticed much what Lena wanted, and she never really knew herself what she needed.
The only real trouble that came to Lena with their living all four there together, was the way old Mrs. Kreder scolded. Lena had always been used to being scolded, but this scolding of old Mrs. Kreder was very different from the way she ever before had had to endure it.
Herman, now he was married to her, really liked Lena very well. He did not care very much about her but she never was a bother to him being there around him, only when his mother worried and was nasty to them because Lena was so careless, and did not know how to save things right for them with their eating, and all the other ways with money, that the old woman had to save it.
Herman Kreder had always done everything his mother and his father wanted but he did not really love his parents very deeply. With Herman it was always only that he hated to have any struggle. It was all always all right with him when he could just go along and do the same thing over every day with his working, and not to hear things, and not to have people make him listen to their anger. And now his marriage, and he just knew it would, was making trouble for him. It made him hear more what his mother was always saying, with her scolding. He had to really hear it now because Lena was there, and she was so scared and dull always when she heard it. Herman knew very well with his mother, it was all right if one ate very little and worked hard all day and did not hear her when she scolded, the way Herman always had done before they were so foolish about his getting married and having a girl there to be all the time around him, and now he had to help her so the girl could learn too, not to hear it when his mother scolded, and not to look so scared, and not to eat much, and always to be sure to save it.
Herman really did not know very well what he could do to help Lena to understand it. He could never answer his mother back to help Lena, that never would make things any better for her, and he never could feel in himself any way to comfort Lena, to make her strong not to hear his mother, in all the awful ways she always scolded. It just worried Herman to have it like that all the time around him. Herman did not know much about how a man could make a struggle with a mother, to do much to keep her quiet, and indeed Herman never knew much how to make a struggle against anyone who really wanted to have anything very badly. Herman all his life never wanted anything so badly, that he would really make a struggle against any one to get it. Herman all his life only wanted to live regular and quiet, and not talk much and to do the same way every day like every other with his working. And now his mother had made him get married to this Lena and now with his mother making all that scolding, he had all this trouble and this worry always on him.
Mrs. Haydon did not see Lena now very often. She had not lost her interest in her niece Lena, but Lena could not come much to her house to see her, it would not be right, now Lena was a married woman. And then too Mrs. Haydon had her hands full just then with her two daughters, for she was getting them ready to find them good husbands, and then too her own husband now worried her very often about her always spoiling that boy of hers, so he would be sure to turn out no good and be a disgrace to a german family, and all because his mother always spoiled him. All these things were very worrying now to Mrs. Haydon, but still she wanted to be good to Lena, though she could not see her very often. She only saw her when Mrs. Haydon went to call on Mrs. Kreder or when Mrs. Kreder came to see Mrs. Haydon, and that never could be very often. Then too these days Mrs. Haydon could not scold Lena, Mrs. Kreder was always there with her, and it would not be right to scold Lena, when Mrs. Kreder was there, who had now the real right to do it. And so her aunt always said nice things now to Lena, and though Mrs. Haydon sometimes was a little worried when she saw Lena looking sad and not careful, she did not have time just then to really worry much about it.
Lena now never any more saw the girls she always used to sit with. She had no way now to see them and it was not in Lena’s nature to search out ways to see them, nor did she now ever think much of the days when she had been used to see them. They never any of them had come to the Kreder house to see her. Not even Irish Mary had ever thought to come to see her. Lena had been soon forgotten by them. They had soon passed away from Lena and now Lena never thought any more that she had ever known them.
The only one of her old friends who tried to know what Lena liked and what she needed, and who always made Lena come to see her, was the good german cook who had always scolded. She now scolded Lena hard for letting herself go so, and going out when she was looking so untidy. “I know you going to have a baby Lena, but that’s no way for you to be looking. I am ashamed most to see you come and sit here in my kitchen, looking so sloppy and like you never used to Lena. I never see anybody like you Lena. Herman is very good to you, you always say so, and he don’t treat you bad even though you don’t deserve to have anybody good to you, you so careless all the time, Lena, letting yourself go like you never had anybody tell you what was the right way you should know how to be looking. No, Lena, I don’t see no reason you should let yourself go so and look so untidy Lena, so I am ashamed to see you sit there looking so ugly, Lena. No Lena that ain’t no way ever I see a woman make things come out better, letting herself go so every way and crying all the time like as if you had real trouble. I never wanted to see you marry Herman Kreder, Lena, I knew what you got to stand with that old woman always, and that old man, he is so stingy too and he don’t say things out but he ain’t any better in his heart than his wife with her bad ways, I know that Lena, I know they don’t hardly give you enough to eat, Lena, I am real sorry for you Lena, you know that Lena, but that ain’t any way to be going round so untidy Lena, even if you have got all that trouble. You never see me do like that Lena, though sometimes I got a headache so I can’t see to stand to be working hardly, and nothing comes right with all my cooking, but I always see Lena, I look decent. That’s the only way a german girl can make things come out right Lena. You hear me what I am saying to you Lena. Now you eat something nice Lena, I got it all ready for you, and you wash up and be careful Lena and the baby will come all right to you, and then I make your Aunt Mathilda see that you live in a house soon all alone with Herman and your baby, and then everything go better for you. You hear me what I say to you Lena. Now don’t let me ever see you come looking like this any more Lena, and you just stop with that always crying. You ain’t got no reason to be sitting there now with all that crying, I never see anybody have trouble it did them any good to do the way you are doing, Lena. You hear me Lena. You go home now and you be good the way I tell you Lena, and I see what I can do. I make your Aunt Mathilda make old Mrs. Kreder let you be till you get your baby all right. Now don’t you be scared and so silly Lena. I don’t like to see you act so Lena when really you got a nice man and so many things really any girl should be grateful to be having. Now you go home Lena to-day and you do the way I say, to you, and I see what I can do to help you.”
“Yes Mrs. Aldrich” said the good german woman to her mistress later, “Yes Mrs. Aldrich that’s the way it is with them girls when they want so to get married. They don’t know when they got it good Mrs. Aldrich. They never know what it is they’re really wanting when they got it, Mrs. Aldrich. There’s that poor Lena, she just been here crying and looking so careless so I scold her, but that was no good that marrying for that poor Lena, Mrs. Aldrich. She do look so pale and sad now Mrs. Aldrich, it just break my heart to see her. She was a good girl was Lena, Mrs. Aldrich, and I never had no trouble with her like I got with so many young girls nowadays, Mrs. Aldrich, and I never see any girl any better to work right than our Lena, and now she got to stand it all the time with that old woman Mrs. Kreder. My! Mrs. Aldrich, she is a bad old woman to her. I never see Mrs. Aldrich how old people can be so bad to young girls and not have no kind of patience with them. If Lena could only live with her Herman, he ain’t so bad the way men are, Mrs. Aldrich, but he is just the way always his mother wants him, he ain’t got no spirit in him, and so I don’t really see no help for that poor Lena. I know her aunt, Mrs. Haydon, meant it all right for her Mrs. Aldrich, but poor Lena, it would be better for her if her Herman had stayed there in New York that time he went away to leave her. I don’t like it the way Lena is looking now, Mrs. Aldrich. She looks like as if she don’t have no life left in her hardly, Mrs. Aldrich, she just drags around and looks so dirty and after all the pains I always took to teach her and to keep her nice in her ways and looking. It don’t do no good to them, for them girls to get married Mrs. Aldrich, they are much better when they only know it, to stay in a good place when they got it, and keep on regular with their working. I don’t like it the way Lena looks now Mrs. Aldrich. I wish I knew some way to help that poor Lena, Mrs. Aldrich, but she she is a bad old woman, that old Mrs. Kreder, Herman’s mother. I speak to Mrs. Haydon real soon, Mrs. Aldrich, I see what we can do now to help that poor Lena.”
These were really bad days for poor Lena. Herman always was real good to her and now he even sometimes tried to stop his mother from scolding Lena. “She ain’t well now mama, you let her be now you hear me. You tell me what it is you want she should be doing, I tell her. I see she does it right just the way you want it mama. You let be, I say now mama, with that always scolding Lena. You let be, I say now, you wait till she is feeling better.” Herman was getting really strong to struggle, for he could see that Lena with that baby working hard inside her, really could not stand it any longer with his mother and the awful ways she always scolded.
It was a new feeling Herman now had inside him that made him feel he was strong to make a struggle. It was new for Herman Kreder really to be wanting something, but Herman wanted strongly now to be a father, and he wanted badly that his baby should be a boy and healthy, Herman never had cared really very much about his father and his mother, though always, all his life, he had done everything just as they wanted, and he had never really cared much about his wife, Lena, though he always had been very good to her, and had always tried to keep his mother off her, with the awful way she always scolded, but to be really a father of a little baby, that feeling took hold of Herman very deeply. He was almost ready, so as to save his baby from all trouble, to really make a strong struggle with his mother and with his father, too, if he would not help him to control his mother.
Sometimes Herman even went to Mrs. Haydon to talk all this trouble over. They decided then together, it was better to wait there all four together for the baby, and Herman could make Mrs. Kreder stop a little with her scolding, and then when Lena was a little stronger, Herman should have his own house for her, next door to his father, so he could always be there to help him in his working, but so they could eat and sleep in a house where the old woman could not control them and they could not hear her awful scolding.
And so things went on, the same way, a little longer. Poor Lena was not feeling any joy to have a baby. She was scared the way she had been when she was so sick on the water. She was scared now every time when anything would hurt her. She was scared and still and lifeless, and sure that every minute she would die. Lena had no power to be strong in this kind of trouble, she could only sit still and be scared, and dull, and lifeless, and sure that every minute she would die.
Before very long, Lena had her baby. He was a good, healthy little boy, the baby. Herman cared very much to have the baby. When Lena was a little stronger he took a house next door to the old couple, so he and his own family could eat and sleep and do the way they wanted. This did not seem to make much change now for Lena. She was just the same as when she was waiting with her baby. She just dragged around and was careless with her clothes and all lifeless, and she acted always and lived on just as if she had no feeling. She always did everything regular with the work, the way she always had had to do it, but she never got back any spirit in her. Herman was always good and kind, and always helped her with her working. He did everything he knew to help her. He always did all the active new things in the house and for the baby. Lena did what she had to do the way she always had been taught it. She always just kept going now with her working, and she was always careless, and dirty, and a little dazed, and lifeless. Lena never got any better in herself of this way of being that she had had ever since she had been married.
Mrs. Haydon never saw any more of her niece, Lena. Mrs. Haydon had now so much trouble with her own house, and her daughters getting married, and her boy, who was growing up, and who always was getting so much worse to manage. She knew she had done right by Lena. Herman Kreder was a good man, she would be glad to get one so good, sometimes, for her own daughters, and now they had a home to live in together, separate from the old people, who had made their trouble for them. Mrs. Haydon felt she had done very well by her niece, Lena, and she never thought now she needed any more to go and see her. Lena would do very well now without her aunt to trouble herself any more about her.
The good german cook who had always scolded, still tried to do her duty like a mother to poor Lena. It was very hard now to do right by Lena. Lena never seemed to hear now what anyone was saying to her. Herman was always doing everything he could to help her. Herman always, when he was home, took good care of the baby. Herman loved to take care of his baby. Lena never thought to take him out or to do anything she didn’t have to.
The good cook sometimes made Lena come to see her. Lena would come with her baby and sit there in the kitchen, and watch the good woman cooking, and listen to her sometimes a little, the way she used to, while the good german woman scolded her for going around looking so careless when now she had no trouble, and sitting there so dull, and always being just so thankless. Sometimes Lena would wake up a little and get back into her face her old, gentle, patient, and unsuffering sweetness, but mostly Lena did not seem to hear much when the good german woman scolded. Lena always liked it when Mrs. Aldrich her good mistress spoke to her kindly, and then Lena would seem to go back and feel herself to be like she was when she had been in service. But mostly Lena just lived along and was careless in her clothes, and dull, and lifeless.
By and by Lena had two more little babies. Lena was not so much scared now when she had the babies. She did not seem to notice very much when they hurt her, and she never seemed to feel very much now about anything that happened to her.
They were very nice babies, all these three that Lena had, and Herman took good care of them always. Herman never really cared much about his wife, Lena. The only things Herman ever really cared for were his babies. Herman always was very good to his children. He always had a gentle, tender way when he held them. He learned to be very handy with them. He spent all the time he was not working, with them. By and by he began to work all day in his own home so that he could have his children always in the same room with him.
Lena always was more and more lifeless and Herman now mostly never thought about her. He more and more took all the care of their three children. He saw to their eating right and their washing, and he dressed them every morning, and he taught them the right way to do things, and he put them to their sleeping, and he was now always every minute with them. Then there was to come to them, a fourth baby. Lena went to the hospital near by to have the baby. Lena seemed to be going to have much trouble with it. When the baby was come out at last, it was like its mother lifeless. While it was coming, Lena had grown very pale and sicker. When it was all over Lena had died, too, and nobody knew just how it had happened to her.
The good german cook who had always scolded Lena, and had always to the last day tried to help her, was the only one who ever missed her. She remembered how nice Lena had looked all the time she was in service with her, and how her voice had been so gentle and sweet-sounding, and how she always was a good girl, and how she never had to have any trouble with her, the way she always had with all the other girls who had been taken into the house to help her. The good cook sometimes spoke so of Lena when she had time to have a talk with Mrs. Aldrich, and this was all the remembering there now ever was of Lena.
Herman Kreder now always lived very happy, very gentle, very quiet, very well content alone with his three children. He never had a woman any more to be all the time around him. He always did all his own work in his house, when he was through every day with the work he was always doing for his father. Herman always was alone, and he always worked alone, until his little ones were big enough to help him. Herman Kreder was very well content now and he always lived very regular and peaceful, and with every day just like the next one, always alone now with his three good, gentle children.
*Image: Gari Melchers, “The Bride”.
Yasha Hein woke up while it was still dark – long before the alarm clock rang – because of a strange quietness that was filling him up from within.
During the evening of the previous day he had already felt a little unwell: a sort of pre-flu state. All of his joints and muscles had ached, he had had a headache, he had kept coming over dreadfully weak. The thermometer had showed 37.2 – not exactly a high temperature, of course, but subfebrile, which is even worse. At bedtime Yasha had taken two effervescent soluble aspirins, put some nasal drops in his nose to be on the safe side, even though it wasn’t blocked for the time being, and asked his wife to draw iodine grids on his chest and back – so that he didn’t develop a cough, because there was no way he could rest up in bed the next day, he had to get to work without fail, no matter what.
And so now Yasha was sitting in bed, wrapped up in a blanket, feeling appalling. It was as if his chest and stomach – but not just his chest and stomach, his whole body – were filled with congealed, sticky cotton wool. Or cold apple jelly. But the main thing was – this quietness… This strange quietness. Something inside him was clearly out of order, and out of order in a serious way. Now Yasha had to find the broken cogwheel that was preventing the whole complicated mechanism of his thirty-five-year-old body, faulty at times, but nonetheless relatively orderly, from working normally – find and eliminate the fault. By medicinal means. Perhaps even with antibiotics – he had to get to work at all costs.
Yasha stretched out on the bed and lay motionless for five minutes or so, listening closely to himself, feeling himself over, as it were, from within, carefully studying every organ to see if it was healthy.
His throat wasn’t sore. There was no cough or blocked nose, and his eyes weren’t hurting at all. Even the headache of the previous day had completely gone – in short, it wasn’t like a cold at all, not like flu really either. More likely there was something wrong with his blood pressure – ups or downs of some kind… Yasha’s health was dependent on the weather. Or his heart – he had had tachycardia since he was a child, after all.
Yasha reached out for his watch. He waited until the second hand was on the twelve, and took his left wrist in his right hand to check his pulse. Then he put his hand to the artery on his neck. Then to his chest.
Then he touched the bony shoulder of his wife, who was breathing heavily beside him, and said quietly:
‘Ira, I think I’m ill.’
‘A-hm,’ came a mumble of suffering in reply, and she rolled over onto her other side.
‘I’m ill,’ he said more loudly.
‘You’re always ill. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Let me sleep,’ but she did open her eyes. ‘What is it this time?’
‘There’s something wrong with my…’ Yasha said haltingly, and licked his cold lips with the tip of his tongue. ‘My heart doesn’t seem to be beating.’
‘Good Lord, what sort of nonsense is that?’ with an effort Ira forced the words out through a heavy yawn, and closed her eyes once more.
* * *
Yasha got up and went into the kitchen. He pressed his hand to his chest once again. Quietness, absolute quietness from within. He switched on the electric kettle – it began hissing malevolently, demanding water. Yasha filled it and switched it on again. And it was then that he was seized by genuine panic. ‘If my heart really has stopped,’ thought Yasha, ‘that means I’m about to die. In a second. Well, in two seconds. I won’t have time to drink my tea. I probably won’t even have time to take the cup off the shelf.’
Yasha pattered across to the kitchen cupboard and grabbed a cup. Well then, I did have time. But what does that tell you? Absolutely nothing. It could happen any time all the same, at any moment. If the heart isn’t beating, that means the blood isn’t moving through the veins, and that means… what? Some problem with oxygen. A shortage of oxygen must develop, and so a man can no longer breathe and soon dies. Yes, a man stops breathing… Yasha held his breath. And suddenly realised that he didn’t actually have to breathe at all. That is, he was capable of breathing, but solely out of habit, and if he wanted, he could even manage quite happily without doing so – as long as he liked.
‘An ambulance! Call an ambulance!’ He ran back into the bedroom where his wife was asleep.
‘What are you yelling for?’ She finally woke up fully and looked weary and bad-tempered.
‘I need an ambulance! I’m not breathing!’
‘You need to go to the madhouse, Yasha. What’s all this nonsense you’re talking? Don’t addle my brains.’
Yasha leant against the chest of drawers and covered his face with his hands. She climbed out from under the blanket, stuck her bony feet into slippers with plush pompons and gave him a look that was almost sympathetic.
‘If you really need one, call it yourself. Ring them and say exactly that: “Hello, I want to call an ambulance, because I’ve stopped breathing, and my heart’s not beating either.” Maybe someone will come, too. They may even give you sick leave, on account of your disability. When you’re sick in the head, that’s serious too, after all. How can a man like that work? A man like that…’
At this point Yasha switched off as usual, stopped listening. The loud, steady drone, moving around with his wife (back and forth across the bedroom, then into the bathroom, the kitchen, and back again into the bedroom), sounded almost reassuring – meaningless words like husks, devoid of any sense, devoid of any core.
Coming up for fifteen years before, Yasha had married this woman, not really for love exactly, but for something of the sort. Or maybe not for love, but simply because of being young. Or being stupid. Or because that was the way everything was heading, and she was ten years older than him, and her mother was thirty years older than him, and both of them knew very well how to deal with a twenty-year-old, long-nosed boy. In short, the motives by which Yasha had then been guided weren’t very clear to him now. However, if he had wanted to clear the question up, he would, of course, have done so with no difficulty – and if he still hadn’t done so, it was solely because he didn’t feel any such need. And whatever there had been there, at the beginning, there was now a lot that bound them – the years they had lived together, the things they had bought together, the rows during which they had sucked one another dry – day and night, like demented vampires – their shared tiresomeness, shared irritation, and very much more besides.
Just a year after the wedding, swiftly and inexorably – the way Cinderella loses her expensive accessories at midnight, the way a werewolf grows a coat of hair at full moon – she had turned into her mother. And her mother was a highly strung and touchy individual, and unbelievably garrulous.
Take flight? Yes, in his time Yasha had cherished a dream of liberation. Yet not one real attempt at escape had he actually undertaken. Instead, he had developed a simple means of psychological defence, a sort of know-how; whenever she spoke for longer than a few seconds, he would press an invisible little button in his head that was responsible for the perception of human speech. The sound of her voice remained – but in such a form that it meant no more than, say, the noise of surf or the squeal of car tyres when someone put the brakes on sharply.
Upon mature consideration, Yasha decided not to call an ambulance after all: by the time they’d arrived, by the time this and that had been done… he could be late for work. Apart from that, who said competent doctors worked in ambulances? Those gloomy fellows, tired and short of sleep after the night shift? The best thing now, thought Yasha, is to calm down a bit, have some tea and go to work. And then in the evening go to a private health centre and see a good specialist.
The indignant buzzing that filled the entire room and was insistently trying to filter through to him, finally swept away all the obstacles in its path and at last invaded the zone of Yasha’s perception: ‘… what, can’t you hear… as if… cook some eggs… can’t you hear… like a statue… some eggs… as I’ve got up anyway… get cold… as I’ve had to anyway… go…’
* * *
The magazine called Fun Magazine would first open, then close, then open, then close, like a faulty lift stuck between floors. And this had been going on for about three years.
Nonetheless, people continued to work on FM. The instability of the situation got on the staff’s nerves only to begin with – they gradually got used to it and settled down. ‘Do you know, has he already found it?’ colleagues would ask one another quietly. ‘Apparently, yes.’
Their financial director was something of a magician. At least, he certainly possessed one magical quality: he always found finance.
Yasha arrived in good time for the emergency meeting. To do so, he ran all the way from the Metro, and then ran down the long, boring corridor of the editorial offices too. In actual fact, it wasn’t so much punctuality that made him resolve upon this heroic race, as the secret hope that such a warm-up might have a stimulating effect on his heart, but… In his chest there was still that same cotton-wool quietness.
The editor-in-chief, Vladimir Vladimirovich Stayomov, conducted the meeting very briskly, finishing in five minutes. It was only a couple of weeks before that FM had enjoyed its latest resurrection, for which reason Stayomov (or, to friends, simply Stay-home) was clearly in a good mood: his shiny button-eyes looked at his subordinates in a friendly way, and with what a dashing movement did he toss back onto the crown of his head the unruly forelocks which dangled down to the left in long, black strands, reluctant to cover the moist editorial bald patch.
After the meeting, a lot of people headed for the canteen, as usual, for a bite to eat. Yasha dragged along after them at first, but changed his mind halfway there. The memory of his recent breakfast was still too fresh… the tea pours into his throat in a warm, unbroken stream, washing down the last slippery bits of fried egg… it doesn’t have to be swallowed at all… the liquid flows freely down the oesophagus… with a slight gurgling sound – like a spring stream through the bars of a drain-hole…
Yasha stood there for a while, then moved off slowly down the empty, yellow-walled corridor. Clambered clumsily into the little plywood box of his workspace. Turned on the computer. Something inside the case gave a painful bleep, and then a disenchanted squeak, and the room was filled with a loud, oppressive buzzing. Yasha opened Word. Stared miserably at the flickering screen, lay his hands on the grey, beslobbered keyboard with repugnance. Felt with his index fingers in the customary way for the little ridges on the ‘f’ and ‘j’ keys – the celebrated ‘touch’ method. Today he had to write a big to-order exposé (commissioned, actually, by FM’s new investor). It would run under the rubric ‘Topic of the Week’. And then he would be given a bonus.
‘The main thing is not to think about your breathing,’ Yasha said to himself, ‘not to think about your heart. Think about taxes. And about corruption. I’m writing about taxes, using the ten-finger method, writing ever so quickly, writing – and not breathing… but it’s all right, I’m simply over-excited. I’m writing very quickly – and not… writing quickly, and going to see a doctor straight away.’
The white screen chirped irritably and was plunged into darkness. Jolly green seaweed appeared against a black background. Little yellow fish swam up from out of a distant, otherworldly ocean and stared at Yasha senselessly from the monitor.
* * *
The working day was already almost over, but Dr Zuckerbaum was in a bad mood. His impending liberation from the cramped white office where he had been conducting his surgery promised nothing pleasant: frozen vegetables or ravioli for dinner, an empty evening, an empty home, an empty bed. Dr Zuckerbaum had recently lost his wife.
Dr Zuckerbaum may not have been the best cardiologist. But on the other hand he did have a big heart. By virtue of this latter fact, he often married his patients, weary Balzacian ladies with heart defects. And by virtue of the former, he often lost them, and was greatly upset every time. However, it is worth noting that the unfortunate former fact was a hindrance to the doctor only in his personal life, and told on his work not one bit. His attitude to his work was a serious one. Zuckerbaum sympathised sincerely with all his patients, and the utterly human warmth of his manner compensated in full for his professional incompetence in some matters. The patients liked him, and in the commercial medical centre ‘Heartmed’ he was considered the top specialist.
Yasha Hein liked and respected Dr Zuckerbaum too, and, although Zuckerbaum’s consultations weren’t cheap, he went to see him from time to time about his tachycardia.
Tachycardia would have seemed a pleasure to him now – better a hundred and fifty beats a minute than none.
In the registry, Yasha was informed that Zuckerbaum had already finished his surgery.
‘Mine is a very very serious case Miss a question of life and death,’ Yasha began jabbering in alarm, ‘Miss you don’t understand Miss I really do very much need…’
The withered, fifty-year-old Miss raised her wise eyes to Yasha, examined his distrustfully and said:
‘Wait, I’ll just give it a try – if he’s still in the office… Hello! Lev Samuilovich? It’s the registry here… There’s a patient here bursting to see you… And I’ve already told him it’s finished… He says it’s very urgent – although, to be honest, it seems to me… Just a minute… What’s the name? His name’s Hein. What? Very well, he’ll be up right away…’
Yasha grabbed the ticket from her hands and rushed to the office.
Dr Zuckerbaum was a responsive man, and that day he had no desire whatsoever to go home either, so he had decided to stay a little late. Particularly as Yasha’s was such a simple case – banal sinusoidal tachycardia. Listening to the complaints, taking the pulse, prescribing Isoptin and walks in the fresh air – it would all take about ten minutes, no more.
But Dr Zuckerbaum was mistaken.
An hour later he tried for the last time to take Yasha’s cardio-gram – on a different, newer machine; without any particular hope of success he fingered Yasha’s wrist, then decisively detached the sticky suckers from his legs and chest. He stared sadly at Yasha and said:
‘I’m very sorry, young man…’
‘What’s the matter with me?’
‘Yakov Markovich! You and I are grown-ups, are we not?’
‘What’s the matter with me?’
‘Unfortunately, it comes to all of us sooner or later…’
‘But what’s the matter with me, Doctor?’ Yasha asked again, and for some reason giggled.
‘I’m very sorry. I’ve done all that I could.’
* * *
‘What is there to think about? First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office,’ Klavdia Mikhailovna declared, plunging Yasha into a state of agonising déjà vu.
The last time his mother-in-law had pronounced those same words was fifteen years before. She hadn’t very much liked the youthful, useless Yasha with the traces of recent adolescent zits on his forehead. More than that, she hadn’t liked him at all, and had even found him repellent – like all the rest of Irina’s admirers who had ever had the misfortune to drop in for half an hour to have some tea, and to squeeze into the narrow space between the table, the fridge, the windowsill and the wall.
However, it was the very time when Yasha had been invited to tea that maternal instinct and common sense had unexpectedly united in Klavdia Mikhailovna in the most unhappy way for Yasha, and won certain victory over her personal sympathies and antipathies. In other words, Klavdia Mikhailovna had finally come to the conclusion that it was high time her daughter set herself up with, firstly, a family, and secondly, an apartment.
Yasha had an apartment.
Squashed into the stuffy corner of the five and a bit square metres of his beloved’s kitchen, Yasha had felt like a luckless little insect, stuck fast in the middle of a small, but sound and very professionally spun spider’s web. The wall of the kitchen beside which the guest had been made to sit was furnished with a gigantic radiator (a peculiar bonus for the residents of five-storey apartment blocks of the Khrushchev era), and the heat rising from his back to his head had deadened his consciousness and plunged Yasha into a state close to fainting. The spider-mother had looked into his eyes with a fixed and angry stare. Under the table, through a hole in his slipper, the spider-daughter had been stroking the big toe of his right foot with her elegant, hairy little one. He hadn’t had the strength to resist.
‘…First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office,’ Klavdia Mikhailovna had said then.
‘Very well,’ Yasha had submitted.
Over the following fifteen years, her attitude to her son-in-law hadn’t undergone any particular changes – as before, she didn’t like him. Maternal concern and common sense had remained with her too, and so at the family conference, urgently convened by Ira in connection with ‘the unpleasantness Yasha was having’, Klavdia Mikhailovna declared:
‘…First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office. And draw up a death certificate – so that you can register your entitlement to inherit the apartment.’
‘What, go with him?’ wondered Ira.
‘You can do…’ Klavdia Mikhailovna began, with doubt in her voice. Yet after some reflection she added, ‘But actually you’d do better to go by yourself. After all, the case isn’t very… sort of… typical. And all they ever want to do is find fault. And in general, what use is he? He’s an intellectual, isn’t he, can’t even stake a place in a queue: he’s too shy to ask whose turn it is before him,’ his mother-in-law glanced quickly at Yasha, who was sitting in an armchair and pretending to watch the game show The Weakest Link, ‘that is, he used to be too shy, I meant…’
Yasha coughed nervously.
‘Well, all right, you mustn’t speak ill of the dead,’ again she gave her son-in-law a sidelong glance, ‘may he rest in peace… although… that’s not clear either…’ Klavdia Mikhailovna fell into an embarrassed silence. But, as ever, not for long. ‘Incidentally, about rest. Do forgive me, Yasha, for indelicacy, but we ought to give some thought to the funeral too. Because this isn’t the way these things are normally done somehow.’
‘But how can you give him a funeral?’ exclaimed Ira in annoyance. ‘I mean, he’s sort of… it’s not as if he’s actually deceased.’
‘What, want to bury me alive, do you?’ Yasha interjected. Klavdia Mikhailovna ignored her son-in-law’s comment. She gave her plump mouth a scornful twist. Then she started jabbering in a falsetto, mimicking her daughter:
‘Oh dear, really, how can we, it’s not as if he’s, I mean, he’s sort of… What is he then, in your opinion?’ she asked, in a normal voice now.
‘I don’t know.’
‘“I don’t know” what?’ Klavdia Mikhailovna grew angry.
‘It’s a moot point.’
‘Aha, a moot point…’
‘Why do you keep on repeating things after me, Mama?’ Ira grew angry in her turn.
‘Who’s dragging the whole team down?’ the television presenter enquired.
‘Because I’m lost for words, that’s why I’m repeating them,’ the mother-in-law snapped. ‘And so what are you going to do with him?’
‘Well… let him live here for the time being. And later on maybe everything will sort itself out… well, later on, that is, we’ll see.’
‘Well, thank you,’ Yasha butted in once more, ‘I’ll never forget it.’
‘Who gets frightened by elementary questions? Who’ll have to leave with nothing?’
‘Why are you acting the goat?’ his wife pulled him up. ‘Now why are you acting the goat? This is no joke, you know! It really is a serious problem! It really isn’t clear what’s to be done with you! What do you yourself suggest?’
The telephone rang in the kitchen.
‘Well, what are you standing there like a statue for? Go and pick it up,’ his wife commanded.
Yasha left the room.
‘Statistically, the weakest link in that round was Mikhail,’ a pleasant male voice filled the silence that had arisen, ‘he answered only one question. The strongest link was Arkady. He gave the greatest number of correct answers and banked money. However, we shall see…’
‘He has no business being here,’ whispered Klavdia Mikhailovna, nodding in the direction of the kitchen, ‘this isn’t the way these things are done at all – letting the deceased stay at home.’
‘Olga, why do you think it’s Mikhail that ought to go?’
‘Well, I don’t know, Mama…’
‘Well, Mikhail seems kind of overtired to me. I don’t kind of sense any potential in him somehow. With some of his answers to some of the questions he’s kind of bringing the good name of the team into disrepute, and he’s got no sense of its spirit…’
Yasha returned to the room, his face grey with worry.
‘Who was it?’ inquired his wife.
‘You are the weakest link. Goodbye!’
‘Turn that bitch off!’ said his mother-in-law in exasperation.
‘From work,’ Yasha replied quietly.
‘… but all the same, Olga really upset me, because I don’t know why she had to get personal and be so rude about me bringing the team’s name into disrepute and…’
Ira turned the volume down.
‘In any event, it’s no use our thinking about a funeral for at least a month now,’ said Yasha, not without malicious glee.
‘And why’s that?’ his mother-in-law narrowed her eyes.
‘Because I’ve been…
* * *
That ill-starred day when Yasha was hurrying to the doctor’s, he had submitted his article without reading it through. And so he had failed to notice a dreadful blunder he had committed in his haste. The section editor had failed to notice it as well; perhaps he had been late getting away somewhere too, or had been thinking of some matter of his own, or, most likely, had simply trusted Yasha and read his text inattentively. The publishing editor had failed to notice it too, because he trusted the section editor implicitly. To be fair, it should be added that Yasha’s blunder was noticed by the proofreader, yet he considered quite reasonably that it was nothing to do with him, because his business was spelling and punctuation marks. And Yasha had put all the punctuation marks in correctly. In short, the article went out quite happily in its original form. And the name of the investor (Spichkin was his name – but does that really matter very much?) who had recently undertaken to fund the magazine, and who had actually commissioned this very article, accidentally migrated from a list of oligarchs who meticulously paid their taxes into a list of inveterate tax-dodgers.
The denial that was published a day later looked pathetic and unconvincing.
Spichkin was upset. He called the financial director an idiot, the editor-in-chief a two-faced bastard, and Yasha a bloody Yid, and he left for Tibet to take his mind off it. But for some reason he became even more upset in Tibet, got depressed, came back a day later and stopped his funding. Fun Magazine closed down.
Not entirely, however. Once again the financial director briskly set about searching. At an emergency meeting of the editorial board it was decided to continue publishing FM for the time being in a heavily cut-down electronic version.
And after the meeting, Stay-home rang Yasha Hein at home and inquired irritably why he wasn’t at work. Yasha briefly explained the situation, apologised, and promised to bring his death certificate in to the personnel department in the very near future. Stay-home’s bewilderment was palpable. He paused for a while, breathing hard into the receiver, and was already on the point of saying goodbye, but then changed his mind and decided to say what he had phoned for after all. Clearing his throat well, he informed Yasha that, because of ‘the business with Spichkin’, he, Yasha, was, firstly, dismissed at his own request, and secondly, before leaving, had to work out a month’s notice in the office in accordance with his contractual obligations.
Yasha was silent. Stay-home waited, breathing hard, for a little longer, then sighed heavily and finally forced out of himself, half-questioningly:
‘But… in the light of your circumstances… your sad circumstances… you probably won’t be able…’
‘No, no, everything’s in order. I’ll work out my notice. Of course.’
Yasha was a responsible person and considered the fulfilment of contractual obligations to be his sacred duty.
‘Well then,’ Stay-home became perceptibly more animated, ‘if you really can?…’
‘Yes, I really can…’
‘All right. See you soon, then… er, er, er… and… please accept my condolences.’
* * *
The gaze is intelligent and stern. And a little tired as well – because of the dark rings under the eyes. The long, uncut, wavy hair is in some disorder, but the hairstyle doesn’t spoil the face at all, on the contrary, it lends it a certain charm, a sort of mysterious quality, perhaps. Or maybe it’s just that black-and-white photographs are always a little mysterious. It’s a good photograph. Big, glossy. But the wreath, on the other hand, is a cheap little one. Some revolting plastic daisies and bluebells…
Yasha was standing in the vestibule of the editorial offices and examining his own photograph, framed in black, with sorrow and pride. This must be the way an elderly father feasts his eyes on the photo of a son who has recently left for the front.
Since the previous day, an astonishing calm had set in in Yasha’s soul. Yes, in the evening, after his mother-in-law had gone home, after that awful discussion of the impending funeral, he had had another panic attack: and what if this isn’t a dream after all? But the attack was shorter than the previous ones, and this time Yasha didn’t even think of pinching his nose, biting his fingers, and banging his head against the wall in order to wake up. Instead he took some valerian drops, walked to and fro around the apartment, sat in front of the television and fell asleep.
Yasha was received well at work and he was very touched. Firstly, a fine obituary was put on the Fun Magazine website. Secondly, his colleagues greeted him cordially, despite the fact that, thanks to him, they found themselves once more ‘in a state of suspension’. They all expressed their sympathy – regarding both his dismissal and his sudden demise. The men shook Yasha’s cold hand warily, and with particular solicitude somehow, while the women offered him some handmade chocolates. Then everybody went off to the canteen (for some reason he wasn’t invited), and Yasha remained alone in the room. He turned the air-conditioning off. He used his mouse to prod at a small black rectangle with the inscription: ‘A special correspondent of the magazine dies [read more].’ He read it through once again.
Then he opened the news feed: it had been decided not to give him any more responsible tasks, and his duties in the coming month included the regular posting of fresh news on the FM website.
* * *
‘In Kamchatka the All-Russian Alpine Skiing competition “The Volcanoes of Kamchatka” is starting…’
‘In the Koryak Autonomous Area fifteen reindeer-herders are missing. The search for them goes on for a sixth day…’
‘In the capital of Indonesia an international forum on questions of infrastructure opens…’
‘In France a coach carrying Belgians has crashed…’
‘Federal benefit receivers want to receive benefits…’
‘In Novgorod the Great a memorial athletics meeting has taken place in memory of Marshal Meretskov…’
‘In Saransk the Russian Greco-Roman wrestling championships have come to an end…’
‘Madonna and Roger Waters have sung for victims of the tsunami…’
‘In Hong Kong there have been races for solar-powered cars…’
‘The corpses of the fighters in the ruined building may have been destroyed by fire…’
It had been for two weeks now that Yasha had been obediently appearing day after day in the offices of the closed Fun Magazine, delving into the news feeds, posting things on the website – but utterly mechanically, without any pleasure, ‘without zest’, as the editor-in-chief would sometimes say.
The news of this transient world no longer engaged him.
Over the past two weeks, an invisible slender crack between him and all other people had grown menacingly, it had turned into an insurmountable obstacle. Yasha had become absent-minded, and, coming in to work, he had forgotten to ask colleagues how things were, then had stopped offering his hand, and then completely stopped greeting people at all. His colleagues, in their turn, had been looking at him strangely somehow. Yasha remembered how, a year before, everyone had looked in exactly the same way at the secretary Olya, whose time had come to take maternity leave, but who had just kept on coming in with her huge belly, and it had already looked even indecent somehow… And every day, when meeting her, the staff had been more and more surprised, and had enquired ever more persistently after her health, and had looked almost censorious. She had been an irritation. You couldn’t smoke when she was there, she mustn’t be upset, but the main thing was, her time had come.
People stopped smoking in Yasha’s presence too, although he didn’t ask them to at all. And they spoke in muffled voices. And looked at him as if… as if his time had come too. His time had come.
Everything had changed at home as well. Without waiting for the conclusion of the red tape over the inheritance, his wife had organised refurbishment of the apartment so as, in her expression, ‘to freshen everything up’. There were newspapers spread out on the floor now, soiled with lime, glue, and God knows what else, there was the stench of dust and paint, and standing proudly in the middle of the living room was a battered stepladder. There too, next to the stepladder, stood the folding bed on which Yasha, banished from the conjugal bedroom, now slept. (‘You can go to prison in Russia for necrophilia, you know,’ Ira explained calmly, putting an old, striped mattress that bulged in places on the folding bed, ‘and apart from that, you’ve been snoring too loudly of late. At least I’ll get a good night’s sleep this way.’)
Running into one another in the kitchen in the mornings, Yasha and his widow experienced a certain awkwardness – and every time it seemed to Yasha that he was something along the lines of a house-sprite.
Then the gloomy, hung-over hulks of the decorating team would arrive. They felt no awkwardness, and simply paid Yasha no attention. They unceremoniously caught him with their elbows in passing. They drank vodka in front of him without embarrassment (when his wife was out, of course), and gloomily stole salami from the fridge. And didn’t speak to him as a matter of principle. With the exception of the one instance when the red-faced foreman Lyokha, breaking into a disarmingly genial smile – from which, in the course of the previous night, the two front teeth had disappeared – asked Yasha for ‘a loan’ of twenty roubles. But Lyokha the foreman had been in such a drunken state at that moment that he could quite easily have addressed the same request to a cupboard or, say, a light fitting.
‘They probably reckon my time’s come as well,’ Yasha thought in anguish, and didn’t give him the twenty roubles.
* * *
There was an interesting programme made by the BBC on the ‘Culture’ channel – American astronauts were talking about how they felt in a vacuum – and Yasha settled down to watch, although really it was time to go to work.
‘For the first two days you feel awful nauseous,’ a round, ruddy physiognomy, seemingly specially destined to be put into a spacesuit, reported joyfully, ‘because all the fluid in your organism is freed from the effects of the law of gravity and comes up; so we always have bags with us… But sometimes they don’t help,’ the physiognomy gave a vile smirk, ‘and then everything flies all over the place. And then it floats around the ship until the end of the flight, and you get to feel real awkward, well, you understand…’
‘An exercise room’s essential on the ship,’ declared a shaven-headed beanpole with unnaturally thin lips, ‘it’s real important in space to maintain your physical shape. Doing sport in conditions of weightlessness is much easier than on earth. There’s only one problem – sweat. Water behaves completely differently in space. It doesn’t flow down, but turns into these little balls, you know? And you’re sitting there, pedalling away on the exercise bike, and these little balls are crawling over your back, and at every abrupt movement they fly off in different directions…’
‘The closet.’ The first physiognomy occupied the entire screen once again. ‘I’d say the main problem for any astronaut is specifically the closet. In conditions of weightlessness it’s real hard…’
Yasha switched off the television, went into the corridor, put on his boots and started to cry.
Something had suddenly torn inside him. The continual hassle, the stress, the humiliation, the craziness of recent weeks, this awful inescapable dream (or was it a dream? – yes, of course it was), this refurbishment – up until now he had somehow endured it, with difficulty, and yet he had, but space… Beautiful, radiant space, without beginning or end, which had attracted him since childhood and was his most beautiful dream… Now he had been deprived of it. It’s nice rocking about in weightlessness with a book in your hand, floating here and there in the ship’s cabin and, finally, clinging to a porthole and spending a long time gazing at the distant Earth, at the fiery tails of comets rushing by… But no, of course not! Gripping a smelly paper bag in a trembling hand, dodging the little balls of sweat flying past, nausea, headache, a toilet with straps and a ventilator – that’s what there was there, in infinity!
It wasn’t that Yasha was intending to go into space – it’s obvious that he wasn’t intending to go there at all. Nevertheless, until now space had seemed to him something like a final opportunity, like an emergency exit in the very last resort. When there was nowhere else to go.
‘What a life,’ Yasha thought out loud, and went into the living room with his boots still on. He leant his head against the steamed-up window. ‘It’s time to go to work… What a life… What a stupid dream… But I suppose I can probably do the same as the one in that film, Groundhog Day, now,’ Yasha opened the window and clambered up onto the ledge, ‘what’s his name… it starts with an M…’
Yasha closed his eyes and jumped from the eleventh floor.
The morning street greeted him with its customary, deafening, grating sound. How many days was it now that there had been some mysterious work going on around the apartment block, either building work or repairs, and the whole building proved to be surrounded by a deep, man-made ditch, across which, here and there, rotten little wooden bridges had been thrown. A short distance away, the lightly frozen autumnal earth was bulging with formless brown heaps.
Yasha got to his feet and brushed off the yellow leaves that had stuck to his trousers. Balancing with his arms and looking straight ahead, he carefully crossed over a bridge. And only when he found himself on the other side did he look down squeamishly. In the bottom of the pit, some little Tadzhiks in orange uniforms were swarming about. In a cloud of steam and dazzling sparks, one was drilling into some rusty pipes that poked out of the ground like a fragment of the charred skeleton of some gigantic prehistoric animal. The others were unhurriedly digging.
Digging, digging the earth.
When he was already at the entrance to the Metro, Yasha suddenly decided that he wouldn’t go to work. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.
He stood for a while.
Two frozen girls were frenziedly thrusting some bits of yellow paper into the hands of passers-by. A fat woman in a green beret was cheerfully selling sausage rolls. But for some reason there was the smell of rotten fish and seaweed, like after a storm at sea – even though there was no sea anywhere near the Metro. Perhaps it was from the upturned autumnal earth, from the holey sewage pipes that this distant smell came…
‘It’s time I went,’ Yasha thought, and drew the air in through his nose, ‘to the sea somewhere… travelling.’
* * *
And for long years he wandered over the earth. He lived in various countries and various cities, and hundreds of women shared their beds with him. With some he remained for a long time, and they aged and died beside him; while from others he parted, leaving it to them to age and die in solitude.
And different peoples gave him different names. Many, very many names did he change. And for so long did he wander that he could remember no more who he had been first, and who he had been afterwards, or whether he was alive or dead, or what held him so firmly on this tedious earth.
And so long did he wander that all the peoples aged and vanished from the face of the earth, and the cities turned into sand and stones. He saw the earth settled by astonishing new animals. And he himself remained the only human amongst them.
*This story is taken from: An Awkward Age by Anna Starobinets, Hesperus Press Limited, 2010. First published in Russian as Perekhodnyj vozrast © Limbus Press, St. Petersburg (Russia), 2005.
Many years ago, before the days of highways-speed internet and underground tunnels, before natural gas drilling sites ever existed, human beings lived here side-by-side with jinn. Today it may sound strange, but back then it was well understood that just like there are human beings, each with his or her own personality, wishes and dreams, so too there are jinn.
The jinn were good and bad and temperamental, just like human beings. But an angry jinni, as you probably can imagine, is much worse than an angry person. For that reason, it was important to know how not to make a jinni angry, unless, that is, you were looking for trouble.
The primary jinn experts back then were the grandmothers (and a few grandfathers too), who knew exactly how to act around jinn. They would make a point of reminding everyone about those rules at bedtime and in the morning, and sometimes after a siesta too.
So before I begin to tell you my story, you have to know a few of those grandmothers’ important rules:
1. Jinn have names.
2. Many jinn share their name with an animal. For example, you could meet a girl jinni whose first name is Goat, just like a girl in your class could be Noa.
3. So if you ever talk about an animal – let’s say a goat grazing on some grass in the yard, it is very important to point at the goat while you are talking about her. Otherwise, the jinni whose name is Goat might think that you are talking about her and see this as an invitation to come and cause some serious trouble.
That’s about it. Now you know everything you need to know to read this story.
A long time ago but right here, in this exact spot, lived a peasant woman who had only one wish – to give birth to a daughter. But, as fate would have it, or as Allah (or no one in particular) decided, she did not give birth to a daughter, or a son, or anything at all. Day after day, she would sit at her doorstep to watch the sun set and pray for a daughter. One evening, as she sat and watched the round glowing sun sink behind the mountains, she noticed a tiny black beetle crawling by her foot. “Oh Allah,” thought the woman sadly. “I want a little girl so badly! I would be happy even if my little girl was a black beetle. I would love her as if she was a regular girl.” That is what the woman thought as she cried out, “Oh, dear Allah! Bless me with a Kunfoosa!”
But as you may have already guessed, the woman was so overcome with emotion, she forgot what her grandmother had taught her, and did not point at the beetle, whose name too was “Kunfoosa.” And so, instead of reaching the heavens, her prayer actually landed on the ears of a horrible jinni who was hiding nearby. The jinni (You’re right: Her name was Kunfoosa…) smiled an evil smile: “This woman really wants me to come stay with her. Little does she know how much trouble I’ll bring with me,” thought the jinni and immediately turned herself into a cute black beetle and hurried off to hide inside the woman’s abaya.
Night fell, and the woman got ready for bed. Suddenly, she felt a tickle going up and down underneath her abaya. She broke into a fit of laughter. “What’s wrong with you, woman?” asked her husband. “You’re acting as if you’re being possessed by a jinni!” But the woman couldn’t answer. She felt tickled all over, and could only twist and jump until a little beetle popped out of her cloak and gave her a big smile. The woman couldn’t believe her eyes. A smiling beetle! “Praised be Allah,” said the woman in amazement. “This is my Kunfoosa, the daughter I’ve been praying for every night has finally come to me.”
Time passed and with each day the beetle grew bigger, looking more and more like a little girl and less and less like a beetle, till by her tenth birthday, she looked almost exactly like a little girl. The woman was overjoyed.
One day, Kunfoosa decided that she’d been a good girl long enough and it was time to turn back into a jinni. “Mama,” she said in a sweet voice. “What’s this dough you’re kneading for?” “Pita for your father’s breakfast,” her mother answered. “Soon you can eat one and take the rest to him, out in the field, with a jar of labaneh. “I don’t feel like waiting,” the jinni whined. “I want to eat the pitas right now!” The woman looked at her with a smile and said, “Sweetie, you can be patient and wait, or you can eat me up in the meantime. It’s your choice.” “An excellent idea!” cried the jinni and before the woman realized what was happening, the jinni swallowed her up in one big gulp without thinking twice, and then gobbled up the dough, the rolling pin, and the table.
“Now that’s much better,” thought the horrible jinni, feeling content. But ten years of hunger is not something to be dismissed so quickly and so she left the house and walked out to the field. “Kunfoosa, what are you doing here? Where is my breakfast?” asked her step-father, who had been plowing the field all morning. “I ate it,” answered the jinni with a smile. “And now I am going to eat you, too!” The man assumed she was joking and answered with a smile, “Okay, my dear. You can eat me up right now if that’s what you want. “ And in a blink of an eye, without thinking twice, the jinni gobbled up the man and also swallowed his plow on its two oxen.
“Now I will go and check on Grandma,” she thought as she burped.
At that moment, Kunfoosa’s step-grandmother was home, weaving a carpet. She was very happy to see Kunfoosa, who never came to visit just by herself. “Kunfoosa, honey, did you come to visit your grandmamma? “No. I came to eat you!” But her grandmother did not hear very well and so she asked, “What did you say, sweetie? That you want to eat me?” Instead of responding, the horrible jinni opened up her mouth and moved closer. “Kunfoosa!” exclaimed Grandmamma. “What a big mouth you have!” but she did not have time to ask anything else because the jinni swallowed her up in a blink of an eye, without thinking twice, in one big gulp, and then ran away.
With a full stomach, Kunfoosa roamed around the stalls of the marketplace, trying to decide what she wanted for dessert. The scents that floated in the air were all so tempting. She debated between baklava dripping with honey, tart pomegranate juice, or white, anise flavored ice cream. Suddenly a delicious scent reached her nose and she hurried to follow it to its source. “How are you today, sweetheart?” asked the old merchant when he saw Kunfoosa approaching his kanafeh stall. “I am hungry,” answered the horrible jinni, her eyes automatically drawn to the flaky orange pastry. The old merchant, who had already met a jinni or two in his lifetime, easily recognized that this was not a little girl but rather, a horrible jinni in disguise. “Can I offer you some kanafeh?” he asked slowly, silently pulling out the sharp dagger hidden in the tarbush he wore on his head. But Kunfoosa did not notice the curved blade moving towards her and staring at the kanafeh she only chanted with an eerie voice, “First I will eat you and then I will eat all your kanafeh.”
“You want to eat me?” asked the old man. “Come over here and eat me, if you dare.” Kunfoosa opened up her enormous mouth, but one second before she could close it on his head, the old man thrust the dagger into her throat and sliced her body in two.
And then, something wonderful happened: Out of the little stomach of the girl-beetle-horrible jinni popped, healthy and in one piece, as if they had never been eaten up in the first place, the woman and her husband, the table and the rolling pin, the pita dough and jar of labaneh, Grandmamma and the green carpet, the two oxen and the plow. The entire marketplace filled with joy and everyone around lifted the old wise man up high, and cheered and held a big Hafla celebration among the merchants’ stalls.
And the woman? She gave birth to many children and they gave birth to many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, thank God. And every time they see a little black beetle crawl by, they immediately call out, “There is Grandma’s Kunfoosa! There is Grandma’s Kunfoosa!” But of course, they don’t forget to point.
The week after was one off the busiest weeks of their lives. Even when they went to bed it was only their bodies that lay down and rested; their minds went on, thinking things out, talking things over, wondering, deciding, trying to remember where…
Constantia lay like a statue, her hands by her sides, her feet just overlapping each other, the sheet up to her chin. She stared at the ceiling.
“Do you think father would mind if we gave his top-hat to the porter?”
“The porter?” snapped Josephine. “Why ever the porter? What a very extraordinary idea!”
“Because,” said Constantia slowly, “he must often have to go to funerals. And I noticed at—at the cemetery that he only had a bowler.” She paused. “I thought then how very much he’d appreciate a top-hat. We ought to give him a present, too. He was always very nice to father.”
“But,” cried Josephine, flouncing on her pillow and staring across the dark at Constantia, “father’s head!” And suddenly, for one awful moment, she nearly giggled. Not, of course, that she felt in the least like giggling. It must have been habit. Years ago, when they had stayed awake at night talking, their beds had simply heaved. And now the porter’s head, disappearing, popped out, like a candle, under father’s hat… The giggle mounted, mounted; she clenched her hands; she fought it down; she frowned fiercely at the dark and said “Remember” terribly sternly.
“We can decide to-morrow,” she said.
Constantia had noticed nothing; she sighed.
“Do you think we ought to have our dressing-gowns dyed as well?”
“Black?” almost shrieked Josephine.
“Well, what else?” said Constantia. “I was thinking—it doesn’t seem quite sincere, in a way, to wear black out off doors and when we’re fully dressed, and then when we’re at home—”
“But nobody sees us,” said Josephine. She gave the bedclothes such a twitch that both her feet became uncovered, and she had to creep up the pillows to get them well under again.
“Kate does,” said Constantia. “And the postman very well might.”
Josephine thought of her dark-red slippers, which matched her dressing-gown, and of Constantia’s favourite indefinite green ones which went with hers. Black! Two black dressing-gowns and two pairs of black woolly slippers, creeping off to the bathroom like black cats.
“I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary,” said she.
Silence. Then Constantia said, “We shall have to post the papers with the notice in them to-morrow to catch the Ceylon mail… How many letters have we had up till now?”
Josephine had replied to them all, and twenty-three times when she came to “We miss our dear father so much” she had broken down and had to use her handkerchief, and on some of them even to soak up a very light-blue tear with an edge of blotting-paper. Strange! She couldn’t have put it on—but twenty-three times. Even now, though, when she said over to herself sadly “We miss our dear father so much,” she could have cried if she’d wanted to.
“Have you got enough stamps?” came from Constantia.
“Oh, how can I tell?” said Josephine crossly. “What’s the good of asking me that now?”
“I was just wondering,” said Constantia mildly.
Silence again. There came e a little rustle, a scurry, a hop.
“A mouse,” said Constantia.
“It can’t be a mouse because there aren’t any crumbs,” said Josephine.
“But it doesn’t know there aren’t,” said Constantia.
A spasm of pity squeezed her heart. Poor little thing! She wished she’d left a tiny piece of biscuit on the dressing-table. It was awful to think of it not finding anything. What would it do?
“I can’t think how they manage to live at all,” she said slowly.
“Who?” demanded Josephine.
And Constantia said more loudly than she meant to, “Mice.”
Josephine was furious. “Oh, what nonsense, Con!” she said. “What have mice got to do with it? You’re asleep.”
“I don’t think I am,” said C Constantia. She shut her eyes to make sure. She was.
Josephine arched her spine, pulled up her knees, folded her arms so that her fists came under her ears, and pressed her cheek hard against the pillow.
Another thing which complicated matters was they had Nurse Andrews staying on with them that week. It was their own fault; they had asked her. It was Josephine’s idea. On the morning—well, on the last morning, when the doctor had gone, Josephine had said to Constantia, “Don’t you think it would be rather nice if we asked Nurse Andrews to stay on for a week as our guest?”
“Very nice,” said Constantia.
“I thought,” went on Josephine quickly, “I should just say this afternoon, after I’ve paid her, ‘My sister and I would be very pleased, after all you’ve done for us, Nurse Andrews, if you would stay on for a week as our guest.’ I’d have to put that in about being our guest in case—”
“Oh, but she could hardly expect to be paid!” cried Constantia.
“One never knows,” said Josephine sagely.
Nurse Andrews had, of course, jumped at the idea. But it was a bother. It meant they had to have regular sit-down meals at the proper times, whereas if they’d been alone they could just have asked Kate if she wouldn’t have minded bringing them a tray wherever they were. And meal-times now that the strain was over were rather a trial.
Nurse Andrews was simply fearful about butter. Really they couldn’t help feeling that about butter, at least, she took advantage of their kindness. And she had that maddening habit of asking for just an inch more of bread to finish what she had on her plate, and then, at the last mouthful, absent-mindedly—of course it wasn’t absent-mindedly—taking another helping. Josephine got very red when this happened, and she fastened her small, bead-like eyes on the tablecloth as if she saw a minute strange insect creeping through the web of it. But Constantia’s long, pale face lengthened and set, and she gazed away— away— far over the desert, to where that line of camels unwound like a thread of wool…
“When I was with Lady Tukes,” said Nurse Andrews, “she had such a dainty little contrayvance for the buttah. It was a silvah Cupid balanced on the—on the bordah of a glass dish, holding a tayny fork. And when you wanted some buttah you simply pressed his foot and he bent down and speared you a piece. It was quite a gayme.”
Josephine could hardly bear that. But “I think those things are very extravagant” was all she said.
“But whey?” asked Nurse Andrews, beaming through her eyeglasses. “No one, surely, would take more buttah than one wanted—would one?”
“Ring, Con,” cried Josephine. She couldn’t trust herself to reply.
And proud young Kate, the enchanted princess, came in to see what the old tabbies wanted now. She snatched away their plates of mock something or other and slapped down a white, terrified blancmange.
“Jam, please, Kate,” said Josephine kindly.
Kate knelt and burst open the sideboard, lifted the lid of the jam-pot, saw it was empty, put it on the table, and stalked off.
“I’m afraid,” said Nurse Andrews a moment later, “there isn’t any.”
“Oh, what a bother!” said Josephine. She bit her lip. “What had we better do?”
Constantia looked dubious. “We can’t disturb Kate again,” she said softly.
Nurse Andrews waited, smiling at them both. Her eyes wandered, spying at everything behind her eyeglasses. Constantia in despair went back to her camels. Josephine frowned heavily—concentrated. If it hadn’t been for this idiotic woman she and Con would, of course, have eaten their blancmange without. Suddenly the idea came.
“I know,” she said. “Marmalade. There’s some marmalade in the sideboard. Get it, Con.”
“I hope,” laughed Nurse Andrews—and her laugh was like a spoon tinkling against a medicine-glass—”I hope it’s not very bittah marmalayde.”
But, after all, it was not long now, and then she’d be gone for good. And there was no getting over the fact that she had been very kind to father. She had nursed him day and night at the end. Indeed, both Constantia and Josephine felt privately she had rather overdone the not leaving him at the very last. For when they had gone in to say good-bye Nurse Andrews had sat beside his bed the whole time, holding his wrist and pretending to look at her watch. It couldn’t have been necessary. It was so tactless, too. Supposing father had wanted to say something—something private to them. Not that he had. Oh, far from it! He lay there, purple, a dark, angry purple in the face, and never even looked at them when they came in. Then, as they were standing there, wondering what to do, he had suddenly opened one eye. Oh, what a difference it would have made, what a difference to their memory of him, how much easier to tell people about it, if he had only opened both! But no—one eye only. It glared at them a moment and then… went out.
It had made it very awkward for them when Mr. Farolles, of St. John’s, called the same afternoon.
“The end was quite peaceful, I trust?” were the first words he said as he glided towards them through the dark drawing-room.
“Quite,” said Josephine faintly. They both hung their heads. Both of them felt certain that eye wasn’t at all a peaceful eye.
“Won’t you sit down?” said Josephine.
“Thank you, Miss Pinner,” said Mr. Farolles gratefully. He folded his coat-tails and began to lower himself into father’s arm-chair, but just as he touched it he almost sprang up and slid into the next chair instead.
He coughed. Josephine clasped her hands; Constantia looked vague.
“I want you to feel, Miss Pinner,” said Mr. Farolles, “and you, Miss Constantia, that I’m trying to be helpful. I want to be helpful to you both, if you will let me. These are the times,” said Mr. Farolles, very simply and earnestly, “when God means us to be helpful to one another.”
“Thank you very much, Mr. Farolles,” said Josephine and Constantia.
“Not at all,” said Mr. Farolles gently. He drew his kid gloves through his fingers and leaned forward. “And if either of you would like a little Communion, either or both of you, here and now, you have only to tell me. A little Communion is often very help—a great comfort,” he added tenderly.
But the idea of a little Communion terrified them. What! In the drawing-room by themselves—with no—no altar or anything! The piano would be much too high, thought Constantia, and Mr. Farolles could not possibly lean over it with the chalice. And Kate would be sure to come bursting in and interrupt them, thought Josephine. And supposing the bell rang in the middle? It might be somebody important—about their mourning. Would they get up reverently and go out, or would they have to wait… in torture?
“Perhaps you will send round a note by your good Kate if you would care for it later,” said Mr. Farolles.
“Oh yes, thank you very m much!” they both said.
Mr. Farolles got up and took his black straw hat from the round table.
“And about the funeral,” he said softly. “I may arrange that—as your dear father’s old friend and yours, Miss Pinner—and Miss Constantia?”
Josephine and Constantia got up too.
“I should like it to be quite simple,” said Josephine firmly, “and not too expensive. At the same time, I should like—”
“A good one that will last,” thought dreamy Constantia, as if Josephine were buying a nightgown. But, of course, Josephine didn’t say that. “One suitable to our father’s position.” She was very nervous.
“I’ll run round to our good friend Mr. Knight,” said Mr. Farolles soothingly. “I will ask him to come and see you. I am sure you will find him very helpful indeed.”
Well, at any rate, all that part of it was over, though neither of them could possibly believe that father was never coming back. Josephine had had a moment of absolute terror at the cemetery, while the coffin was lowered, to think that she and Constantia had done this thing without asking his permission. What would father say when he found out? For he was bound to find out sooner or later. He always did. “Buried. You two girls had me buried!” She had his stick thumping. Oh, what would they say? What possible excuse could they make? It sounded such an appallingly heartless thing to do. Such a wicked advantage to take of a person because he happened to be helpless at the moment. The other people seemed to treat it all as a matter of course. They were strangers; they couldn’t be expected to understand that father was the very last person for such a thing to happen to. No, the entire blame for it all would fall on her and Constantia. And the expense, she thought, stepping into the tight-buttoned cab. When she had to show him the bills. What would he say then?
She heard him absolutely roaring. “And do you expect me to pay for this gimcrack excursion of yours?”
“Oh,” groaned poor Josephine aloud, “we shouldn’t have done it, Con!”
And Constantia, pale as a lemon in all that blackness, said in a frightened whisper, “Done what, Jug?”
“Let them bu-bury father like that,” said Josephine, breaking down and crying into her new, queer-smelling mourning handkerchief.
“But what else could we have done?” asked Constantia wonderingly. “We couldn’t have kept him, Jug—we couldn’t have kept him unburied. At any rate, not in a flat that size.”
Josephine blew her nose; the cab was dreadfully stuffy.
“I don’t know,” she said forlornly. “It is all so dreadful. I feel we ought to have tried to, just for a time at least. To make perfectly sure. One thing’s certain”—and her tears sprang out again—”father will never forgive us for this—never!”
Father would never forgive them. That was what they felt more than ever when, two mornings later, they went into his room to go through his things. They had discussed it quite calmly. It was even down on Josephine’s list of things to be done. “Go through father’s things and settle about them.” But that was a very different matter from saying after breakfast:
“Well, are you ready, Con?”
“Yes, Jug—when you are.”
“Then I think we’d better get it over.”
It was dark in the hall. It had been a rule for years never to disturb father in the morning, whatever happened. And now they were going to open the door without knocking even… Constantia’s eyes were enormous at the idea; Josephine felt weak in the knees.
“You—you go first,” she g gasped, pushing Constantia.
But Constantia said, as she always had said on those occasions, “No, Jug, that’s not fair. You’re the eldest.”
Josephine was just going to say—what at other times she wouldn’t have owned to for the world—what she kept for her very last weapon, “But you’re the tallest,” when they noticed that the kitchen door was open, and there stood Kate…
“Very stiff,” said Josephine, grasping the door handle and doing her best to turn it. As if anything ever deceived Kate!
It couldn’t be helped. That girl was… Then the door was shut behind them, but—but they weren’t in father’s room at all. They might have suddenly walked through the wall by mistake into a different flat altogether. Was the door just behind them? They were too frightened to look. Josephine knew that if it was it was holding itself tight shut; Constantia felt that, like the doors in dreams, it hadn’t any handle at all. It was the coldness which made it so awful. Or the whiteness—which? Everything was covered. The blinds were down, a cloth hung over the mirror, a sheet hid the bed; a huge fan of white paper filled the fireplace. Constantia timidly put out her hand; she almost expected a snowflake to fall. Josephine felt a queer tingling in her nose, as if her nose was freezing. Then a cab klop-klopped over the cobbles below, and the quiet seemed to shake into little pieces.
“I had better pull up a blind,” said Josephine bravely.
“Yes, it might be a good idea,” whispered Constantia.
They only gave the blind a touch, but it flew up and the cord flew after, rolling round the blind-stick, and the little tassel tapped as if trying to get free. That was too much for Constantia.
“Don’t you think—don’t you think we might put it off for another day?” she whispered.
“Why?” snapped Josephine, feeling, as usual, much better now that she knew for certain that Constantia was terrified. “It’s got to be done. But I do wish you wouldn’t whisper, Con.”
“I didn’t know I was whispering,” whispered Constantia.
“And why do you keep staring at the bed?” said Josephine, raising her voice almost defiantly. “There’s nothing on the bed.”
“Oh, Jug, don’t say so!” said poor Connie. “At any rate, not so loudly.”
Josephine felt herself that she had gone too far. She took a wide swerve over to the chest of drawers, put out her hand, but quickly drew it back again.
“Connie!” she gasped, and she wheeled round and leaned with her back against the chest of drawers.
Josephine could only glare. She had the most extraordinary feeling that she had just escaped something simply awful. But how could she explain to Constantia that father was in the chest of drawers? He was in the top drawer with his handkerchiefs and neckties, or in the next with his shirts and pyjamas, or in the lowest of all with his suits. He was watching there, hidden away—just behind the door-handle—ready to spring.
She pulled a funny old-fashioned face at Constantia, just as she used to in the old days when she was going to cry.
“I can’t open,” she nearly wailed.
“No, don’t, Jug,” whispered Constantia earnestly. “It’s much better not to. Don’t let’s open anything. At any rate, not for a long time.”
“But—but it seems so weak,” said Josephine, breaking down.
“But why not be weak for once, Jug?” argued Constantia, whispering quite fiercely. “If it is weak.” And her pale stare flew from the locked writing-table—so safe—to the huge glittering wardrobe, and she began to breathe in a queer, panting away. “Why shouldn’t we be weak for once in our lives, Jug? It’s quite excusable. Let’s be weak—be weak, Jug. It’s much nicer to be weak than to be strong.”
And then she did one of those amazingly bold things that she’d done bout twice before in their lives: she marched over to the wardrobe, turned the key, and took it out of the lock. Took it out of the lock and held it up to Josephine, showing Josephine by her extraordinary smile that she knew what she’d done—she’d risked deliberately father being in there among his overcoats.
If the huge wardrobe had lurched forward, had crashed down on Constantia, Josephine wouldn’t have been surprised. On the contrary, she would have thought it the only suitable thing to happen. But nothing happened. Only the room seemed quieter than ever, and the bigger flakes of cold air fell on Josephine’s shoulders and knees. She began to shiver.
“Come, Jug,” said Constantia, still with that awful callous smile, and Josephine followed just as she had that last time, when Constantia had pushed Benny into t the round pond.
But the strain told on them when they were back in the dining-room. They sat down, very shaky, and looked at each other.
“I don’t feel I can settle to anything,” said Josephine, “until I’ve had something. Do you think we could ask Kate for two cups of hot water?”
“I really don’t see why we shouldn’t,” said Constantia carefully. She was quite normal again. “I won’t ring. I’ll go to the kitchen door and ask her.”
“Yes, do,” said Josephine, sinking down into a chair. “Tell her, just two cups, Con, nothing else—on a tray.”
“She needn’t even put the jug on, need she?” said Constantia, as though Kate might very well complain if the jug had been there.
“Oh no, certainly not! The jug’s not at all necessary. She can pour it direct out of the kettle,” cried Josephine, feeling that would be a labour-saving indeed.
Their cold lips quivered at the greenish brims. Josephine curved her small red hands round the cup; Constantia sat up and blew on the wavy steam, making it flutter from one side to the other.
“Speaking of Benny,” said Josephine.
And though Benny hadn’t been mentioned Constantia immediately looked as though he had.
“He’ll expect us to send him something of father’s, of course. But it’s so difficult to know what to send to Ceylon.”
“You mean things get unstuck so on the voyage,” murmured Constantia.
“No, lost,” said Josephine sharply. “You know there’s no post. Only runners.”
Both paused to watch a black man in white linen drawers running through the pale fields for dear life, with a large brown-paper parcel in his hands. Josephine’s black man was tiny; he scurried along glistening like an ant. But there was something blind and tireless about Constantia’s tall, thin fellow, which made him, she decided, a very unpleasant person indeed… On the veranda, dressed all in white and wearing a cork helmet, stood Benny. His right hand shook up and down, as father’s did when he was impatient. And behind him, not in the least interested, sat Hilda, the unknown sister-in-law. She swung in a cane rocker and flicked over the leaves of the “Tatler.”
“I think his watch would be the most suitable present,” said Josephine.
Constantia looked up; she seemed surprised.
“Oh, would you trust a gold watch to a native?”
“But of course, I’d disguise it,” said Josephine. “No one would know it was a watch.” She liked the idea of having to make a parcel such a curious shape that no one could possibly guess what it was. She even thought for a moment of hiding the watch in a narrow cardboard corset-box that she’d kept by her for a long time, waiting for it to come in for something. It was such beautiful, firm cardboard. But, no, it wouldn’t be appropriate for this occasion. It had letter ring on it: “Medium Women’s 28. Extra Firm Busks.” It would be almost too much of a surprise for Benny to open that and find father’s watch inside.
“And of course it isn’t as though it would be going—ticking, I mean,” said Constantia, who was still thinking of the native love of jewellery. “At least,” she added, “it would be very strange if after all that time it was.”
Josephine made no reply. She had flown off on one of her tangents. She had suddenly thought of Cyril. Wasn’t it more usual for the only grandson to have the watch? And then dear Cyril was so appreciative, and a gold watch meant so much to a young man. Benny, in all probability, had quite got out of the habit of watches; men so seldom wore waistcoats in those hot climates. Whereas Cyril in London wore them from year’s end to year’s end. And it would be so nice for her and Constantia, when he came to tea, to know it was there. “I see you’ve got on grandfather’s watch, Cyril.” It would be somehow so satisfactory.
Dear boy! What a blow his sweet, sympathetic little note had been! Of course they quite understood; but it was most unfortunate. “It would have been such a point, having him,” said Josephine.
“And he would have enjoyed it so,” said Constantia, not thinking what she was saying. However, as soon as he got back he was coming to tea with his aunties. Cyril to tea was one of their rare treats.
“Now, Cyril, you mustn’t be frightened of our cakes. Your Auntie Con and I bought them at Buszard’s this morning. We know what a man’s appetite is. So don’t be ashamed of making a good tea.”
Josephine cut recklessly into the rich dark cake that stood for her winter gloves or the soling and heeling of Constantia’s only respectable shoes. But Cyril was most unmanlike in appetite.
“I say, Aunt Josephine, I simply can’t. I’ve only just had lunch, you know.”
“Oh, Cyril, that can’t be true! It’s after four,” cried Josephine. Constantia sat with her knife poised over the chocolate-roll.
“It is, all the same,” said Cyril. “I had to meet a man at Victoria, and he kept me hanging about till… there was only time to get lunch and to come on here. And he gave me— phew”—Cyril put his hand to his forehead—”a terrific blow-out,” he said.
It was disappointing—to-day of all days. But still he couldn’t be expected to know. “But you’ll have a meringue, won’t you, Cyril?” said Aunt Josephine. “These meringues were bought specially for you.
Your dear father was so fond of them. We were sure you are, too.”
“I am, Aunt Josephine,” cried Cyril ardently. “Do you mind if I take half to begin with?” “Not at all, dear boy; but we mustn’t let you off with that.”
“Is your dear father still so fond of meringues?” asked Auntie Con gently. She winced faintly as she broke through the shell of hers. “Well, I don’t quite know, Auntie Con,” said Cyril breezily.
At that they both looked up.
“Don’t know?” almost snapped Josephine. “Don’t know a thing like that about your own father, Cyril?”
“Surely,” said Auntie Con softly.
Cyril tried to laugh it off. “Oh, well,” he said, “it’s such a long time since—” He faltered. He stopped. Their faces were too much for him.
“Even so,” said Josephine.
And Auntie Con looked.
Cyril put down his teacup. “Wait a bit,” he cried. “Wait a bit, Aunt Josephine. What am I thinking of?”
He looked up. They were beginning to brighten. Cyril slapped his knee.
“Of course,” he said, “it was meringues. How could I have forgotten? Yes, Aunt Josephine, you’re perfectly right. Father’s most frightfully keen on meringues.”
They didn’t only beam. Aunt Josephine went scarlet with pleasure; Auntie Con gave a deep, deep sigh.
“And now, Cyril, you must come and see father,” said Josephine. “He knows you were coming to-day.”
“Right,” said Cyril, very firmly and heartily. He got up from his chair; suddenly he glanced at the clock.
“I say, Auntie Con, isn’t y your clock a bit slow? I’ve got to meet a man at—at Paddington just after five. I’m afraid I shan’t be able to stay very long with grandfather.”
“Oh, he won’t expect you to stay very long!” said Aunt Josephine.
Constantia was still gazing at the clock. She couldn’t make up her mind if it was fast or slow. It was one or the other, she felt almost certain of that. At any rate, it had been.
Cyril still lingered. “Aren’t you coming along, Auntie Con?”
“Of course,” said Josephine, “we shall all go. Come on, Con.”
They knocked at the door, and Cyril followed his aunts into grandfather’s hot, sweetish room.
“Come on,” said Grandfather Pinner. “Don’t hang about. What is it? What’ve you been up to?”
He was sitting in front of a roaring fire, clasping his stick. He had a thick rug over his knees. On his lap there lay a beautiful pale yellow silk handkerchief.
“It’s Cyril, father,” said Josephine shyly. And she took Cyril’s hand and led him forward.
“Good afternoon, grandfather,” said Cyril, trying to take his hand out of Aunt Josephine’s. Grandfather Pinner shot his eyes at Cyril in the way he was famous for. Where was Auntie Con? She stood on the other side of Aunt Josephine; her long arms hung down in front of her; her hands were clasped. She never took her eyes off grandfather.
“Well,” said Grandfather Pinner, beginning to thump, “what have you got to tell me?”
What had he, what had he got to tell him? Cyril felt himself smiling like a perfect imbecile. The room was stifling, too.
But Aunt Josephine came to his rescue. She cried brightly, “Cyril says his father is still very fond of meringues, father dear.”
“Eh?” said Grandfather Pinner, curving his hand like a purple meringue-shell over one ear.
Josephine repeated, “Cyril says his father is still very fond of meringues.”
“Can’t hear,” said old Colonel Pinner. And he waved Josephine away with his stick, then pointed with his stick to Cyril. “Tell me what she’s trying to say,” he said.
(My God!) “Must I?” said Cyril, blushing and staring at Aunt Josephine.
“Do, dear,” she smiled. “It will please him so much.”
“Come on, out with it!” cried Colonel Pinner testily, beginning to thump again.
And Cyril leaned forward and yelled, “Father’s still very fond of meringues.”
At that Grandfather Pinner jumped as though he had been shot.
“Don’t shout!” he cried. “What’s the matter with the boy? Meringues! What about ’em?”
“Oh, Aunt Josephine, must we go on?” groaned Cyril desperately.
“It’s quite all right, dear boy,” said Aunt Josephine, as though he and she were at the dentist’s together. “He’ll understand in a minute.” And she whispered to Cyril, “He’s getting a bit deaf, you know.” Then she leaned forward and really bawled at Grandfather Pinner, “Cyril only wanted to tell you, father dear, that his father is still very fond of meringues.”
Colonel Pinner heard that time, heard and brooded, looking Cyril up and down.
“What an esstrordinary thing!” said old Grandfather Pinner. “What an esstrordinary thing to come all this way here to tell me!”
And Cyril felt it was.
“Yes, I shall send Cyril the watch,” said Josephine.
“That would be very nice,” said Constantia. “I seem to remember last time he came there was some little trouble about the time.”
They were interrupted by Kate bursting through the door in her usual fashion, as though she had discovered some secret panel in the wall.
“Fried or boiled?” asked the bold voice.
Fried or boiled? Josephine and Constantia were quite bewildered for the moment. They could hardly take it in.
“Fried or boiled what, Kate?” asked Josephine, trying to begin to concentrate.
Kate gave a loud sniff. “Fish.”
“Well, why didn’t you say so immediately?” Josephine reproached her gently. “How could you expect us to understand, Kate? There are a great many things in this world you know, which are fried or boiled.” And after such a display of courage she said quite brightly to Constantia, “Which do you prefer, Con?”
“I think it might be nice to have it fried,” said Constantia. “On the other hand, of course, boiled fish is very nice. I think I prefer both equally well… Unless you… In that case—”
“I shall fry it,” said Kate, and she bounced back, leaving their door open and slamming the door of her kitchen.
Josephine gazed at Constantia; she raised her pale eyebrows until they rippled away into her pale hair. She got up. She said in a very lofty, imposing way, “Do you mind following me into the drawing-room, Constantia? I’ve got something of great importance to discuss with you.”
For it was always to the drawing-room they retired when they wanted to talk over Kate.
Josephine closed the door meaningly. “Sit down, Constantia,” she said, still very grand. She might have been receiving Constantia for the first time. And Con looked round vaguely for a chair, as though she felt indeed quite a stranger.
“Now the question is,” said Josephine, bending forward, “whether we shall keep her or not.”
“That is the question,” agreed Constantia.
“And this time,” said Josephine firmly, “we must come to a definite decision.”
Constantia looked for a moment as though she might begin going over all the other times, but she pulled herself together and said, “Yes, Jug.”
“You see, Con,” explained d Josephine, “everything is so changed now.” Constantia looked up quickly. “I mean,” went on Josephine, “we’re not dependent on Kate as we were.” And she blushed faintly. “There’s not father to cook for.”
“That is perfectly true,” agreed Constantia. “Father certainly doesn’t want any cooking now, whatever else—”
Josephine broke in sharply, “You’re not sleepy, are you, Con?”
“Sleepy, Jug?” Constantia was wide-eyed.
“Well, concentrate more,” said Josephine sharply, and she returned to the subject. “What it comes to is, if we did”—and this she barely breathed, glancing at the door—”give Kate notice”—she raised her voice again—”we could manage our own food.”
“Why not?” cried Constantia. She couldn’t help smiling. The idea was so exciting. She clasped her hands. “What should we live on, Jug?”
“Oh, eggs in various forms!” said Jug, lofty again. “And, besides, there are all the cooked foods.”
“But I’ve always heard,” said Constantia, “they are considered so very expensive.”
“Not if one buys them in moderation,” said Josephine. But she tore herself away from this fascinating bypath and dragged Constantia after her.
“What we’ve got to decide now, however, is whether we really do trust Kate or not.”
Constantia leaned back. Her flat little laugh flew from her lips.
“Isn’t it curious, Jug,” said she, “that just on this one subject I’ve never been able to quite make up my mind?”
She never had. The whole difficulty was to prove anything. How did one prove things, how could one? Suppose Kate had stood in front of her and deliberately made a face. Mightn’t she very well have been in pain? Wasn’t it impossible, at any rate, to ask Kate if she was making a face at her? If Kate answered “No”—and, of course, she would say “No”—what a position! How undignified! Then again Constantia suspected, she was almost certain that Kate went to her chest of drawers when she and Josephine were out, not to take things but to spy. Many times she had come back to find her amethyst cross in the most unlikely places, under her lace ties or on top of her evening Bertha. More than once she had laid a trap for Kate. She had arranged things in a special order and then called Josephine to witness.
“You see, Jug?”
“Now we shall be able to tell.”
But, oh dear, when she did go to look, she was as far off from a proof as ever! If anything was displaced, it might so very well have happened as she closed the drawer; a jolt might have done it so easily.
“You come, Jug, and decide. I really can’t. It’s too difficult.”
But after a pause and a long glare Josephine would sigh, “Now you’ve put the doubt into my mind, Con, I’m sure I can’t tell myself.”
“Well, we can’t postpone it again,” said Josephine. “If we postpone it this time—”
But at that moment in the street below a barrel-organ struck up. Josephine and Constantia sprang to their feet together.
“Run, Con,” said Josephine. “Run quickly. There’s sixpence on the—”
Then they remembered. It didn’t matter. They would never have to stop the organ-grinder again. Never again would she and Constantia be told to make that monkey take his noise somewhere else. Never would sound that loud, strange bellow when father thought they were not hurrying enough. The organ-grinder might play there all day and the stick would not thump.
“It never will thump ag gain,
It never will thump again,
played the barrel-organ.
What was Constantia thinking? She had such a strange smile; she looked different. She couldn’t be going to cry.
“Jug, Jug,” said Constantia softly, pressing her hands together. “Do you know what day it is? It’s Saturday. It’s a week to-day, a whole week.”
“A week since father died,
A week since father dieed,”
cried the barrel-organ. And Josephine, too, forgot to be practical and sensible; she smiled faintly, strangely. On the Indian carpet there fell a square of sunlight, pale red; it came and went and came—and stayed, deepened—until it shone almost golden.
“The sun’s out,” said Josephine, as though it really mattered.
A perfect fountain of bubbling notes shook from the barrel-organ, round, bright notes, carelessly scattered.
Constantia lifted her big, cold hands as if to catch them, and then her hands fell again. She walked over to the mantelpiece to her favourite Buddha. And the stone and gilt image, whose smile always gave her such a queer feeling, almost a pain and yet a pleasant pain, seemed to-day to be more than smiling. He knew something; he had a secret. “I know something that you don’t know,” said her Buddha. Oh, what was it, what could it be? And yet she had always felt there was… something.
The sunlight pressed through the windows, thieved its way in, flashed its light over the furniture and the photographs. Josephine watched it. When it came to mother’s photograph, the enlargement over the piano, it lingered as though puzzled to find so little remained of mother, except the earrings shaped like tiny pagodas and a black feather boa. Why did the photographs of dead people always fade so? wondered Josephine. As soon as a person was dead their photograph died too. But, of course, this one of mother was very old. It was thirty-five years old. Josephine remembered standing on a chair and pointing out that feather boa to Constantia and telling her that it was a snake that had killed their mother in Ceylon… Would everything have been different if mother hadn’t died? She didn’t see why. Aunt Florence had lived with them until they had left school, and they had moved three times and had their yearly holiday and… and there’d been changes of servants, of course.
Some little sparrows, young sparrows they sounded, chirped on the window-ledge. “Yeep—eyeep—yeep.” But Josephine felt they were not sparrows, not on the window-ledge. It was inside her, that queer little crying noise. “Yeep—eyeep—yeep.” Ah, what was it crying, so weak and forlorn?
If mother had lived, might they have married? But there had been nobody for them to marry. There had been father’s Anglo-Indian friends before he quarrelled with them. But after that she and Constantia never met a single man except clergymen. How did one meet men? Or even if they’d met them, how could they have got to know men well enough to be more than strangers? One read of people having adventures, being followed, and so on. But nobody had ever followed Constantia and her. Oh yes, there had been one year at Eastbourne a mysterious man at their boarding-house who had put a note on the jug of hot water outside their bedroom door! But by the time Connie had found it the steam had made the writing too faint to read; they couldn’t even make out to which of them it was addressed. And he had left next day. And that was all. The rest had been looking after father, and at the same time keeping out of father’s way. But now? But now? The thieving sun touched Josephine gently. She lifted her face. She was drawn over to the window by gentle beams…
Until the barrel-organ stopped playing Constantia stayed before the Buddha, wondering, but not as usual, not vaguely. This time her wonder was like longing. She remembered the times she had come in here, crept out of bed in her nightgown when the moon was full, and lain on the floor with her arms outstretched, as though she was crucified. Why? The big, pale moon had made her do it. The horrible dancing figures on the carved screen had leered at her and she hadn’t minded. She remembered too how, whenever they were at the seaside, she had gone off by herself and got as close to the sea as she could, and sung something, something she had made up, while she gazed all over that restless water. There had been this other life, running out, bringing things home in bags, getting things on approval, discussing them with Jug, and taking them back to get more things on approval, and arranging father’s trays and trying not to annoy father. But it all seemed to have happened in a kind of tunnel. It wasn’t real. It was only when she came out of the tunnel into the moonlight or by the sea or into a thunderstorm that she really felt herself. What did it mean? What was it she was always wanting? What did it all lead to? Now? Now?
She turned away from the Buddha with one of her vague gestures. She went over to where Josephine was standing. She wanted to say something to Josephine, something frightfully important, about—about the future and what…
“Don’t you think perhaps—” she began.
But Josephine interrupted her. “I was wondering if now—” she murmured. They stopped; they waited for each other.
“Go on, Con,” said Josephine.
“No, no, Jug; after you,” said Constantia.
“No, say what you were going to say. You began,” said Josephine.
“I… I’d rather hear what you were going to say first,” said Constantia.
“Don’t be absurd, Con.”
A pause. Then Constantia said faintly, “I can’t say what I was going to say, Jug, because I’ve forgotten what it was… that I was going to say.”
Josephine was silent for a moment. She stared at a big cloud where the sun had been. Then she replied shortly, “I’ve forgotten too.”
The Short Story Project C | The Short Story Project INC2018
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