I can’t recall when I first started scribbling those little notes I later stashed in various hiding places around the apartment. It sure as hell could not have been a lot earlier, because at the time I was still a little girl and surely needed to have first learned how to read and write.
But I do remember quite clearly the day when the light tapping sounded on the door, in an attempt to reproduce the cadences of “I did it my way!” It was the last day of some school vacation, 10 AM. She was still in the shower, and rather chipper—a surprise in itself. “Open it, come on, get there fast, open the door already. Say I’ll be out in a jiffy,” she kept yelling.
I shuffled over to the door.
And there he was. Impatient to come in. Moishele, Regina’s husband, with his little white mustache. His potbelly threatening to burst through his shirt buttons. The man was shaped like a pistachio nut whose shell was fitted with a tiny sheaf of bristles. Likewise swaths of porcupine hair gleaming with Brylcreem pulled down towards his jaw on both sides of his head.
So there he was, eager as a beaver, arms outstretched to wrap themselves around me the way grownups sometimes do to have fun with kids.
I ducked nimbly. His scissoring hands failed to trap me and he almost fell on his nose. I could hear the whiplash produced by his near miss.
I flew down the hall leading to my room. From a safe distance I blurted out: “Mom’s still in the shower and dad took Davidi to get some shoes.”
Moishele must have managed to retrieve his balance, since in no time he was in the living room. There he settled to wait for her, whistling “I did it my way!” just slightly out of tune.
The next thing that happens is the bathroom door swinging open. She emerges wearing her red galabia, lavishly embroidered at the top on both sides of her exposed cleavage, gleefully humming back “I did it my way!” She strikes a ta-da! posture with the hip-swing to match, before rushing into the slithery arms of the visitor, who has risen to meet her. And now, using that phony falsetto of hers, she giggles herself silly: “Oy, Moishele, what a surprise! Where’s Regina and the kiddos??”
Moishele retorts with a question of his own: “What’s the matter, Tamara, can’t one hug this honeybee sweet little thing that ran away from me for dear life?” All the while fluttering his hands on her butt, which certainly is not about to run off anywhere. Not that I needed to actually see that to know it was happening.
Instantly her cheerful tone gives way to that loud, domineering, screeching voice. The familiar note announcing the onset of yet another tantrum.
“Doreet! You cheeky brat! Over here at once! And now, apologize! What’s wrong with you, running away from Moishele like this?! Right now!” And she’s back to giggling, trying to recoup her upbeat mood: “This child has no manners. Doesn’t appreciate being loved.” Then, turning to me, hissing: “You should be thankful anyone should ever feel like touching you, you scrawny, redheaded monkey…”
I was always capable of dodging Moishele’s embrace. Her violent outbursts of rage were harder to elude. Any attempt to do so would only fan her fury. And the violence that followed would get meaner. I knew she would still be there after he left.
I dragged my feet along the hallway to where I could glimpse the living room, then veered left into the kitchen. The large, serrated knife lay on the cutting board next to a loaf of bread. I deftly grabbed it and hid it behind my back. Her yelling resumed: “Come on, did I not tell you to get over here and apologize to Moishele?!” The mustachioed pistachio was marking time, one hand wrapped around her waist, the other flung forward to do the same for me. She speared me with the devastating look reserved for this very moment, the brief moment just before she’d totally lose control. She demanded: “What is it you’re hiding behind your back?” stomping one plump foot whose long toes were painted flaming bright crimson.
I returned her stare, this time without fear. I remember well the slow motion of my hand, making its way around my ribcage, then setting the handle against my stomach with the sharp business end pointed at the couple facing me.
“It’s the bread knife,” I told her.
The bread knife, to chop off Moishele’s hands, that always aim to hug little girls as well as their mothers.
This took place the day before. And the next day I gathered my notes from their various hiding places and bundled them into little piles: there were quite a few notes. I went out into the nearby sunflower patch, that was taller than my red head, and I burned them all. I no longer needed them.
And as she kept threatening and screaming like a crazy woman, all the while re-casting the sequence of events that had just transpired with lie upon lie against the background of Mr. Pistachio’s whitening face – I knew.
I knew that I no longer needed any notes to protect me. Knew that I could remember very well. That I could rely on my own memory. That she could no longer confound my with her lying. I knew that lies make me sick to my stomach, and only sticking to what I know can keep me sane. More precisely, can keep me from going crazy. Crazy like her.
SOV THADE TAGE EM EREB, OF RER IN KARHIDE, ON GETHEN
I live in the oldest city in the world. Long before there were kings in Karhide, Rer was a city, the marketplace and meeting ground for all the Northeast, the Plains, and Kerm Land. The Fastness of Rer was a center of learning, a refuge, a judgment seat fifteen thousand years ago. Karhide became a nation here, under the Geger kings, who ruled for a thousand years. In the thousandth year Sedern Geger, the Unking, cast the crown into the River Arre from the palace towers, proclaiming an end to dominion. The time they call the Flowering of Rer, the Summer Century, began then. It ended when the Hearth of Harge took power and moved their capital across the mountains to Erhenrang. The Old Palace has been empty for centuries. But it stands. Nothing in Rer falls down. The Arre floods through the street-tunnels every year in the Thaw, winter blizzards may bring thirty feet of snow, but the city stands. Nobody knows how old the houses are, because they have been rebuilt forever. Each one sits in its gardens without respect to the position of any of the others, as vast and random and ancient as hills. The roofed streets and canals angle about among them. Rer is all corners. We say that the Harges left because they were afraid of what might be around the corner.
Time is different here. I learned in school how the Orgota, the Ekumen, and most other people count years. They call the year of some portentous event Year One and number forward from it. Here it’s always Year One. On Getheny Thern, New Year’s Day, the Year One becomes one-ago, one-to-come becomes One, and so on. It’s like Rer, everything always changing but the city never changing.
When I was fourteen (in the Year One, or fifty-ago) I came of age. I have been thinking about that a good deal recently.
It was a different world. Most of us had never seen an Alien, as we called them then. We might have heard the Mobile talk on the radio, and at school we saw pictures of Aliens—the ones with hair around their mouths were the most pleasingly savage and repulsive. Most of the pictures were disappointing. They looked too much like us. You couldn’t even tell that they were always in kemmer. The female Aliens were supposed to have enormous breasts, but my Mothersib Dory had bigger breasts than the ones in the pictures.
When the Defenders of the Faith kicked them out of Orgoreyn, when King Emran got into the Border War and lost Erhenrang, even when their Mobiles were outlawed and forced into hiding at Estre in Kerm, the Ekumen did nothing much but wait. They had waited for two hundred years, as patient as Handdara. They did one thing: they took our young king off-world to foil a plot, and then brought the same king back sixty years later to end her wombchild’s disastrous reign. Argaven XVII is the only king who ever ruled four years before her heir and forty years after.
The year I was born (the Year One, or sixty-four-ago) was the year Argaven’s second reign began. By the time I was noticing anything beyond my own toes, the war was over, the West Fall was part of Karhide again, the capital was back in Erhenrang, and most of the damage done to Rer during the Overthrow of Emran had been repaired. The old houses had been rebuilt again. The Old Palace had been patched again. Argaven XVII was miraculously back on the throne again. Everything was the way it used to be, ought to be, back to normal, just like the old days—everybody said so.
Indeed those were quiet years, an interval of recovery before Argaven, the first Gethenian who ever left our planet, brought us at last fully into the Ekumen; before we, not they, became the Aliens; before we came of age. When I was a child we lived the way people had lived in Rer forever. It is that way, that timeless world, that world around the corner, I have been thinking about, and trying to describe for people who never knew it. Yet as I write I see how also nothing changes, that it is truly the Year One always, for each child that comes of age, each lover who falls in love.
There were a couple of thousand people in the Ereb Hearths, and a hundred and forty of them lived in my Hearth, Ereb Tage. My name is Sov Thade Tage em Ereb, after the old way of naming we still use in Rer. The first thing I remember is a huge dark place full of shouting and shadows, and I am falling upward through a golden light into the darkness. In thrilling terror, I scream. I am caught in my fall, held, held close; I weep; a voice so close to me that it seems to speak through my body says softly, “Sov, Sov, Sov.” And then I am given something wonderful to eat, something so sweet, so delicate that never again will I eat anything quite so good…
I imagine that some of my wild elder hearthsibs had been throwing me about, and that my mother comforted me with a bit of festival cake. Later on when I was a wild elder sib we used to play catch with babies for balls; they always screamed, with terror or with delight, or both. It’s the nearest to flying anyone of my generation knew. We had dozens of different words for the way snow falls, floats, descends, glides; blows, for the way clouds move, the way ice floats, the way boats sail; but not that word. Not yet. And so I don’t remember “flying.” I remember falling upward through the golden light.
Family houses in Rer are built around a big central hall. Each story has an inner balcony clear round that space, and we call the whole story, rooms and all, a balcony. My family occupied the whole second balcony of Ereb Tage. There were a lot of us. My grandmother had borne four children, and all of them had children, so I had a bunch of cousins as well as a younger and an older wombsib. “The Thades always kemmer as women and always get pregnant,” I heard neighbors say, variously envious, disapproving, admiring. “And they never keep kemmer,” somebody would add. The former was an exaggeration, but the latter was true. Not one of us kids had a father. I didn’t know for years who my getter was, and never gave it a thought. Clannish, the Thades preferred not to bring outsiders, even other members of our own Hearth, into the family. If young people fell in love and started talking about keeping kemmer or making vows, Grandmother and the mothers were ruthless. “Vowing kemmer, what do you think you are, some kind of noble? some kind of fancy person? The kemmerhouse was good enough for me and it’s good enough for you,” the mothers said to their lovelorn children, and sent them away, clear off to the old Ereb Domain in the country, to hoe braties till they got over being in love.
So as a child I was a member of a flock, a school; a swarm, in and out of our warren of rooms, tearing up and down the staircases, working together and learning together and looking after the babies—in our own fashion—and terrorizing quieter hearthmates by our numbers and our noise. As far as I know we did no real harm. Our escapades were well within the rules and limits of the sedate, ancient Hearth, which we felt not as constraints but as protection, the walls that kept us safe. The only time we got punished was when my cousin Sether decided it would be exciting if we tied a long rope we’d found to the second-floor balcony railing, tied a big knot in the rope, held onto the knot, and jumped. “I’ll go first,” Sether said. Another misguided attempt at flight. The railing and Sether’s broken leg were mended, and the rest of us had to clean the privies, all the privies of the Hearth, for a month. I think the rest of the Hearth had decided it was time the young Thades observed some discipline.
Although I really don’t know what I was like as a child, I think that if I’d had any choice I might have been less noisy than my playmates, though just as unruly. I used to love to listen to the radio, and while the rest of them were racketing around the balconies or the centerhall in winter, or out in the streets and gardens in summer, I would crouch for hours in my mother’s room behind the bed, playing her old serem-wood radio very softly so that my sibs wouldn’t know I was there. I listened to anything, Lays and plays and hearthtales, the Palace news, the analyses of grain harvests and the detailed weather reports; I listened every day all one winter to an ancient saga from the Pering Storm-Border about snowghouls, perfidious traitors, and bloody ax-murders, which haunted me at night so that I couldn’t sleep and would crawl into bed with my mother for comfort. Often my younger sib was already there in the warm, soft, breathing dark. We would sleep all entangled and curled up together like a nest of Pesthry.
My mother, Guyr Thade Tage em Ereb, was impatient, warm-hearted, and impartial, not exerting much control over us three wombchildren, buy keeping watch. The Thades were all tradespeople working in Ereb shops and masteries, with little or no cash to spend; but when I was ten, Guyr bought me a radio, a new one, and said where my sibs could hear, “You don’t have to share it.” I treasured it for years and finally shared it with my own wombchild.
So the years went along and I went along in the warmth and density and certainty of a family and a Hearth embedded in tradition, threads on the quick ever-repeating shuttle weaving the timeless web of custom and act and work and relationship, and at this distance I can hardly tell one year from the other or myself from the other children: until I turned fourteen.
The reason most people in my Hearth would remember that year is for the big party known as Dory’s Somer-Forever Celebration. My Mothersib Dory had stopped going into kemmer that winter. Some people didn’t do anything when they stopped going into kemmer; others went to the Fastness for a ritual; some stayed on at the Fastness for months after, or even moved there. Dory, who wasn’t spiritually inclined, said, “If I can’t have kids and can’t have sex anymore and have to get old and die, at least I can have a party.”
I have already had some trouble trying to tell this story in a language that has no somer pronouns, only gendered pronouns. In their last years of kemmer, as the hormone balance chances, many people tend to go into kemmer as men; Dory’s kemmers had been male for over a year, so I’ll call Dory “he,” although of course the point was that he would never be either he or she again.
In any event, his party was tremendous. He invited everyone in our Hearth and the two neighboring Ereb Hearths, and it went on for three days. It had been a long winter and the spring was late and cold; people were ready for something new, something hot to happen. We cooked for a week, and a whole storeroom was packed full of beer kegs. A lot of people who were in the middle of going out of kemmer, or had already and hadn’t done anything about it, came and joined in the ritual. That’s what I remember vividly: in the firelit three-story centerhall of our Hearth, a circle of thirty or forty people, all middle-aged or old, singing and dancing, stamping the drumbeats. There was a fierce energy in them, their gray hair was loose and wild, they stamped as if their feet would go through the floor, their voices were deep and strong, they were laughing. The younger people watching them seemed pallid and shadowy. I looked at the dancers and wondered, why are they happy? Aren’t they old? Why do they act like they’d got free? What’s it like, then, kemmer?
No, I hadn’t thought much about kemmer before. What would be the use? Until we come of age we have no gender and no sexuality, our hormones don’t give us any trouble at all. And in a city Hearth we never see adults in kemmer. They kiss and go. Where’s Maba? In the kemmerhouse, love, now eat your porridge. When’s Maba coming back? Soon, love. And in a couple of days Maba comes back, looking sleepy and shiny and refreshed and exhausted. Is it like having a bath, Maba? Yes, a bit, love, and what have you been up to while I was away?
Of course we played kemmer, when we were seven or eight. This here’s the kemmerhouse and I get to be the woman. No, I do. No, I do, I thought of it! And we rubbed our bodies together and rolled around laughing, and then maybe we stuffed a ball under our shirt and were pregnant, and then we gave birth, and then we played catch with the ball. Children will play whatever adults do; but the kemmer game wasn’t much of a game. It often ended in a tickling match. And most children aren’t even very ticklish; till they come of age.
After Dory’s party, I was on duty in the Hearth creche all through Tuwa, the last month of spring; come summer I began my fast apprenticeship, in a furniture workshop in the Third Ward. I loved getting up early and running across the city on the wayroofs and up on the curbs of the open ways; after the late Thaw some of the ways were still full of water, deep enough for kayaks and poleboats. The air would be still and cold and clear; the sun would come up behind the old towers of the Unpalace, red as blood, and all the waters and the windows of the city would flash scarlet and gold. In the workshop there was the piercing sweet smell of fresh-cut wood and the company of grown people, hard-working, patient, and demanding, taking me seriously. I wasn’t a child anymore, I said to myself. I was an adult, a working person.
But why did I want to cry all the time? Why did I want to sleep all the time? Why did I get angry at Sether? Why did Sether keep bumping into me and saying “Oh sorry” in that stupid husky voice? Why was I so clumsy with the big electric lathe that I ruined six chair-legs one after the other? “Get that kid off the lathe,” shouted old Marth, and I slunk away in a fury of humiliation. I would never be a carpenter, I would never be adult, who gave a shit for chair-legs anyway?
“I want to work in the gardens,” I told my mother and grandmother.
“Finish your training and you can work in the gardens next summer,” Grand said, and Mother nodded. This sensible counsel appeared to me as a heartless injustice, a failure of love, a condemnation to despair. I Sulked. I raged.
“What’s wrong with the furniture shop?” my elders asked after several days of sulk and rage.
“Why does stupid Sether have to be there!” I shouted. Dory, who was Sether’s mother, raised an eyebrow and smiled.
“Are you all right?” my mother asked me as I slouched into the balcony after work, and I snarled, “I’m fine,” and rushed to the privies and vomited.
I was sick. My back ached all the time. My head ached and got dizzy and heavy. Something I could not locate anywhere, some part of my soul, hurt with a keen, desolate, ceaseless pain. I was afraid of myself: of my tears, my rage, my sickness, my clumsy body. It did not feel like my body, like me. It felt like something else, an ill-fitting garment, a smelly, heavy overcoat that belonged to some old person, some dead person. It wasn’t mine, it wasn’t me. Tiny needles of agony shot through my nipples, hot as fire. When I winced and held my arms across my chest, I knew that everybody could see what was happening. Anybody could smell me. I smelled sour, strong, like blood, tike raw pelts of animals. My clitopenis was swollen hugely and stuck out from between my labia, and then shrank nearly to nothing, so that it hurt to piss. My labia itched and reddened as with loathsome insect-bites. Deep in my belly something moved, some monstrous growth. I was utterly ashamed. I was dying.
“Sov,” my mother said, sitting down beside me on my bed, with a curious, tender, complicitous smile, “shall we choose your kemmerday?”
“I’m not in kemmer,” I said passionately.
“No,” Guyr said. “But next month I think you will be.”
“I won’t! “
My mother stroked my hair and face and arm. We shape each other to be human, old people used to say as they stroked babies or children or one another with those long, slow, soft caresses.
After a while my mother said, “Sether’s coming in, too. But a month or so later than you, I think. Dory said let’s have a double kemmerday, but I think you should have your own day in your own time.”
I burst into tears and cried, “I don’t want one, I don’t want to, I just want, I just want to go away…”
“Sov,” my mother said, “if you want to, you can go to the kemmerhouse at Gerodda Ereb, where you won’t know anybody. But I think it would be better here, where people do know you. They’d like it. They’ll be so glad for you. Oh, your Grand’s so proud of you! ‘Have you seen that grandchild of mine, Sov, have you seen what a beauty, what amahad! ‘ Everybody’s bored to tears hearing about you…”
Mahad is a dialect word, a Rer word; it means a strong, handsome, generous, upright person, a reliable person. My mother’s stern mother, who commanded and thanked, but never praised, said I was a mahad? A terrifying idea, that dried my tears.
“All right,” I said desperately, “Here. But not next month! It isn’t. I’m not.”
“Let me see,” my mother said. Fiercely embarrassed yet relieved to obey, I stood up and undid my trousers.
My mother took a very brief and delicate look, hugged me, and said, “Next month, yes, I’m sure. You’ll feel much better in a day or two. And next month it’ll be different. It really will.”
Sure enough, the next day the headache and the hot itching were gone, and though I was still tired and sleepy a lot of the time, I wasn’t quite so stupid and clumsy at work. After a few more days I felt pretty much myself, light and easy in my limbs. Only if I thought about it there was still that queer feeling that wasn’t quite in any part of my body, and that was sometimes very painful and sometimes only strange, almost something I wanted to feel again.
My cousin Sether and I had been apprenticed together at the furniture shop. We didn’t go to work together because Sether was still slightly lame from that rope trick a couple of years earlier, and got a lift to work in a poleboat so long as there was water in the streets. When they closed the Arre Watergate and the ways went dry, Sether had to walk. So we walked together. The first couple of days we didn’t talk much. I still felt angry at Sether. Because I couldn’t run through the dawn anymore but had to walk at a lame-leg pace. And because Sether was always around. Always there. Taller than me, and quicker at the lathe, and with that long, heavy, shining hair. Why did anybody want to wear their hair so long, anyhow? I felt as if Sether’s hair was in front of my own eyes.
We were walking home, tired, on a hot evening of Ockre, the first month of summer. I could see that Sether was limping and trying to hide or ignore it, trying to swing right along at my quick pace, very straight-backed, scowling. A great wave of pity and admiration overwhelmed me, and that thing, that growth, that new being, whatever it was in my bowels and in the ground of my soul moved and turned again, turned towards Sether, aching, yearning.
Are you coming into kemmer?” I said in a hoarse, husky voice I had never heard come out of my mouth.
“In a couple of months,” Sether said in a mumble, not looking at me, still very stiff and frowning.
“I guess I have to have this, do this, you know, this stuff, pretty soon.”
“I wish I could,” Sether said. “Get it over with.”
We did not look at each other. Very gradually, unnoticeably, I was slowing my pace till we were going along side by side at an easy walk.
“Sometimes do you feel like your tits are on fire?” I asked without knowing that I was going to say anything.
After a while, Sether said, “Listen, does your pisser get…”
“It must be what the Aliens look like,” Sether said with revulsion. “This, this thing sticking out, it gets so big … it gets in the way.”
We exchanged and compared symptoms for a mile or so. It was a relief to talk about it, to find company in misery, but it was also frightening to hear our misery confirmed by the other. Sether burst out, “I’ll tell you what I hate, what I really hate about it—it’s dehumanizing. To get jerked around like that by your own body, to lose control, I can’t stand the idea. Of being just a sex machine. And everybody just turns into something to have sex with. You know that people in kemmer go crazy and die if there isn’t anybody else in kemmer? That they’ll even attack people in somer? Their own mothers?”
“They can’t,” I said, shocked.
“Yes they can. Tharry told me. This truck driver up in the High Kargav went into kemmer as a male while their caravan was stuck in the snow, and he was big and strong, and he went crazy and he, he did it to his cab-mate, and his cab-mate was in somer and got hurt, really hurt, trying to fight him off. And then the driver came out of kemmer and committed suicide.”
This horrible story brought the sickness back up from the pit of my stomach, and I could say nothing.
Sether went on, “People in kemmer aren’t even human anymore! And we have to do that—to be that way!
Now that awful, desolate fear was out in the open. But it was not a relief to speak it. It was even larger and more terrible, spoken.
“It’s stupid,” Sether said. “It’s a primitive device for continuing the species. There’s no need for civilized people to undergo it. People who want to get pregnant could do it with injections. It would be genetically sound. You could choose your child’s better. There wouldn’t be all this inbreeding, people fucking with their sibs, like animals. Why do we have to be animals?”
Sether’s rage stirred me. I shared it. I also felt shocked and excited by the word “fucking,” which I had never heard spoken. I looked again at my cousin, the thin, ruddy face, the heavy, long, shining hair. My age, Sether looked older. A half year in pain from a shattered leg had darkened and matured the adventurous, mischievous child, teaching anger, pride, endurance. “Sether,” I said, “listen, it doesn’t matter, you’re human, even if you have to do that stuff, that fucking. You’re a mahad.”
“Getheny Kus,” Grand said: the first day of the month of Kus, midsummer day.
“I won’t be ready,” I said.
“You’ll be ready.”
“I want to go into kemmer with Sether.”
“Sether’s got a month or two yet to go. Soon enough. It looks like you might be on the same moon-time, though. Dark-of-the-mooners, eh? That’s what I used to be. So, just stay on the same wavelength, you and Sether…” Grand had never grinned at me this way, an inclusive grin, as if I were an equal.
My mother’s mother was sixty years old, short, brawny, broad-hipped, with keen clear eyes, a stone-mason by trade, an unquestioned autocrat in the Hearth. I, equal to this formidable person? It was my first intimation that I might be becoming more, rather than less, human.
“I’d like it,” said Grand, “if you spent this half-month at the Fastness. But it’s up to you.”
“At the Fastness?” I said, taken by surprise. We Thades were all Handdara, but very inert Handdara, keeping only the great festivals, muttering the grace all in one garbled word, practicing none of the disciplines. None of my older hearthsibs had been sent off to the Fastness before their kemmerday. Was there something wrong with me?
“You’ve got a good brain,” said Grand. “You and Sether. I’d like to see some of you lot casting some shadows, some day. We Thades sit here in our Hearth and breed like pesthry. Is that enough? It’d be a good thing if some of you got your heads out of the bedding.”
“What do they do in the Fastness?” I asked, and Grand answered frankly, “I don’t know. Go find out.
They teach you. They can teach you how to control kemmer.”
“All right,” I said promptly. I would tell Sether that the Indwellers could control kemmer. Maybe I could learn how to do it and come home and teach it to Sether.
Grand looked at me with approval. I had taken up the challenge.
Of course I didn’t learn how to control kemmer, in a halfmonth in the Fastness. The first couple of days there, I thought I wouldn’t even be able to control my homesickness. From our warm, dark warren of rooms full of people talking, sleeping, eating, cooking, washing, playing remma, playing music, kids running around, noise, family, I went across the city to a huge, clean, cold, quiet house of strangers. They were courteous, they treated me with respect. I was terrified. Why should a person of forty, who knew magic disciplines of superhuman strength and fortitude, who could walk barefoot through blizzards, who could Foretell, whose eyes were the wisest and calmest I had ever seen, why should an Adept of the Handdara respect me?
“Because you are so ignorant,” Ranharrer the Adept said, smiling, with great tenderness.
Having me only for a halfmonth, they didn’t try to influence the nature of my ignorance very much. I practiced the Untrance several hours a day, and came to like it: that was quite enough for them, and they praised me. “At fourteen, most people go crazy moving slowly,” my teacher said.
During my last six or seven days in the Fastness certain symptoms began to show up again, the headache, the swellings and shooting pains, the irritability. One morning the sheet of my cot in my bare, peaceful little room was bloodstained. I looked at the smear with horror and loathing. I thought I had scratched my itching labia to bleeding in my sleep, but I knew also what the blood was. I began to cry. I had to wash the sheet somehow. I had fouled, defiled this place where everything was clean, austere, and beautiful.
An old Indweller, finding me scrubbing desperately at the sheet in the washrooms, said nothing, but brought me some soap that bleached away the stain. I went back to my room, which I had come to love with the passion of one who had never before known any actual privacy, and crouched on the sheetless bed, miserable, checking every few minutes to be sure I was not bleeding again. I missed my Untrance practice time. The immense house was very quiet. Its peace sank into me. Again I felt that strangeness in my soul, but it was not pain now; it was a desolation like the air at evening, like the peaks of the Kargav seen far in the west in the clarity of winter. It was an immense enlargement.
Ranharrer the Adept knocked and entered at my word, looked at me for a minute, and asked gently, “What is it?”
“Everything is strange,” I said.
The Adept smiled radiantly and said, “Yes.”
I know now how Ranharrer cherished and honored my ignorance, in the Handdara sense. Then I knew only that somehow or other I had said the right thing and so pleased a person I wanted very much to please.
“We’re doing some singing,” Ranharrer said, “you might like to hear it.”
They were in fact singing the Midsummer Chant, which goes on for the four days before Getheny Kus, night and day. Singers and drummers drop in and out at will, most of them singing on certain syllables in an endless group improvisation guided only by the drums and by melodic cues in the Chantbook, and failing into harmony with the soloist if one is present. At first I heard only a pleasantly thick-textured, droning sound over a quiet and subtle beat. I listened till I got bored and decided I could do it too. So I opened my mouth and sang “Aah” and heard all the other voices singing “Aah” above and with and below mine until I lost mine and heard only all the voices, and then only the music itself, and then suddenly the startling silvery rush of a single voice running across the weaving, against the current, and sinking into it and vanishing, and rising out of it again… Ranharrer touched my arm. It was time for dinner, I had been singing since Third Hour. I went back to the chantry after dinner, and after supper. I spent the next three days there. I would have spent the nights there if they had let me. I wasn’t sleepy at all anymore. I had sudden, endless energy, and couldn’t sleep. In my little room I sang to myself, or read the strange Handdara poetry which was the only book they had given me, and practiced the Untrance, trying to ignore the heat and cold, the fire and ice in my body, till dawn came and I could go sing again.
And then it was Ottormenbod, midsummer’s eve, and I must go home to my Hearth and the kemmerhouse.
To my surprise, my mother and grandmother and all the elders came to the Fastness to fetch me, wearing ceremonial hiebs and looking solemn. Ranharrer handed me over to them, saying to me only, “Come back to us.” My family paraded me through the streets in the hot summer morning; all the vines were in flower, perfuming the air, all the gardens were blooming, bearing, fruiting. “This is an excellent time,” Grand said judiciously, “to come into kemmer.”
The Hearth looked very dark to me after the Fastness, and somehow shrunken. I looked around for Sether, but it was a workday, Sether was at the shop. That gave me a sense of holiday, which was not unpleasant. And then up in the hearthroom of our balcony, Grand and the Hearth elders formally presented me with a whole set of new clothes, new everything, from the boots up, topped by a magnificently embroidered hieb. There was a spoken ritual that went with the clothes, not Handdara; I think, but a tradition of our Hearth; the words were all old and strange, the language of a thousand years ago. Grand rattled them out like somebody spitting rocks, and put the hieb on my shoulders. Everybody said, “Haya!”
All the elders, and a lot of younger kids, hung around helping me put on the new clothes as if I was a king or a baby, and some of the elders wanted to give me advice—”last advice,” they called it, since you gain shifgrethor when you go into kemmer, and once you have shifgrethor advice is insulting. “Now you just keep away from that old Ebbeche,” one of them told me shrilly. My mother took offense, snapping, “Keep your shadow to yourself, Tadsh!” And to me, “Don’t listen to the old fish. Flapmouth Tadsh! But now listen, Sov.”
I listened. Guyr had drawn me a little away from the others, and spoke gravely, with some embarrassment. “Remember, it will matter who you’re with first.”
I nodded. “I understand,” I said.
“No, you don’t,” my mother snapped, forgetting to be embarrassed. “Just keep it in mind!”
“What, ah,” I said. My mother waited. “If I, if I go into, as a, as female,” I said. “Don’t I, shouldn’t I—?”
“Ah,” Guyr said. “Don’t worry. It’ll be a year or more before you can conceive. Or get. Don’t worry, this time. The other people will see to it, just in case. They all know it’s your first kemmer. But do keep it in mind, who you’re with first! Around, oh, around Karrid, and Ebbeche, and some of them.”
“Come on!” Dory shouted, and we all got into a procession again to go downstairs and across the centerhall, where everybody cheered “Haya Sov! Haya Sov!” and the cooks beat on their saucepans. I wanted to die. But they all seemed so cheerful, so happy about me, wishing me well; I wanted also to live.
We went out the west door and across the sunny gardens and came to the kemmerhouse. Tage Ereb shares a kemmerhouse with two other Ereb Hearths; it’s a beautiful building, all carved with deep-figure friezes in the Old Dynasty style, terribly worn by the weather of a couple of thousand years. On the red stone steps my family all kissed me, murmuring, “Praise then Darkness,” or “In the act of creation praise,” and my mother gave me a hard push on my shoulders, what they call the sledge-push, for good luck, as I turned away from them and went in the door.
The doorkeeper was waiting for me; a queer-looking, rather stooped person, with coarse, pale skin.
Now I realized who this “Ebbeche” they’d been talking about was. I’d never met him, but I’d heard about him. He was the Doorkeeper of our kemmerhouse, a halfdead—that is, a person in permanent kemmer, like the Aliens.
There are always a few people born that way here. Some of them can be cured; those who can’t or choose not to be usually live in a Fastness and learn the disciplines, or they become Doorkeepers. It’s convenient for them, and for normal people too. After all, who else would want to live in a kemmerhouse? But there are drawbacks. If you come to the kemmerhouse in thorharmen, ready to gender, and the first person you meet is fully male, his pheromones are likely to gender you female right then, whether that’s what you had in mind this month or not. Responsible Doorkeepers, of course, keep well away from anybody who doesn’t invite them to come close. But permanent kemmer may not lead to responsibility of character; nor does being called halfdead and pervert all your life, I imagine. Obviously my family didn’t trust Ebbeche to keep his hands and his pheromones off me. But they were unjust. He honored a first kemmer as much as anyone else. He greeted me by name and showed me where to take off my new boots. Then he began to speak the ancient ritual welcome, backing down the hall before me; the first time I ever heard the words I would hear so many times again for so many years.
You cross earth now.
You cross water now.
You cross the Ice now….
And the exulting ending, as we came into the centerhall:
Together we have crossed the Ice.
Together we come into the Hearthplace,
Into life, bringing life!
In the act of creation, praise!
The solemnity of the words moved me and distracted me somewhat from my intense self-consciousness. As I had in the Fastness, I felt the familiar reassurance of being part of something immensely older and larger than myself, even if it was strange and new to me. I must entrust myself to it and be what it made me. At the same time I was intensely alert. All my senses were extraordinarily keen, as they had been all morning. I was aware of everything, the beautiful blue color of the walls, the lightness and vigor of my steps as I walked, the texture of the wood under my bare feet, the sound and meaning of the ritual words, the Doorkeeper himself. He fascinated me. Ebbeche was certainly not handsome, and yet I noticed how musical his rather deep voice was; and pale skin was more attractive than I had ever thought it. I felt that he had been maligned, that his life must be a strange one. I wanted to talk to him. But as he finished the welcome, standing aside for me at the doorway of the centerhall, a tall person strode forward eagerly to meet me.
I was glad to see a familiar face: it was the head cook of my Hearth, Karrid Arrage. Like many cooks a rather fierce and temperamental person, Karrid had often taken notice of me, singling me out in a joking, challenging way, tossing me some delicacy—”Here, youngun! get some meat on your bones!” As I saw Karrid now I went through the most extraordinary multiplicity of awarenesses: that Karrid was naked and that this nakedness was not like the nakedness of people in the Hearth, but a significant nakedness—that he was not the Karrid I had seen before but transfigured into great beauty—that he was he —that my mother had warned me about him—that I wanted to touch him—that I was afraid of him.
He picked me right up in his arms and pressed me against him. I felt his clitopenis like a fist between my legs. “Easy, now,” the Doorkeeper said to him, and some other people came forward from the room, which I could see only as large, dimly glowing, full of shadows and mist.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” Karrid said to me and them, with his hard laugh. “I won’t hurt my own get, will I? I just want to be the one that gives her kemmer. As a woman, like a proper Thade. I want to give you that joy, little Sov.” He was undressing me as he spoke, slipping off my hieb and shirt with big, hot, hasty hands. The Doorkeeper and the others kept close watch, but did not interfere. I felt totally defenseless, helpless, humiliated. I struggled to get free, broke loose, and tried to pick up and put on my shirt. I was shaking and felt terribly weak, I could hardly stand up. Karrid helped me clumsily; his big arm supported me. I leaned against him, feeling his hot, vibrant skin against mine, a wonderful feeling, like sunlight, like firelight. I leaned more heavily against him, raising my arms so that our sides slid together. “Hey, now,” he said. “Oh, you beauty, oh, you Sov, here, take her away, this won’t do!” And he backed right away from me, laughing and yet really alarmed, his clitopenis standing up amazingly. I stood there half-dressed, on my rubbery legs, bewildered. My eyes were full of mist, I could see nothing clearly.
“Come on,” somebody said, and took my hand, a soft, cool touch totally different from the fire of Karrid’s skin. It was a person from one of the other Hearths, I didn’t know her name. She seemed to me to shine like gold in the dim, misty place. “Oh, you’re going so fast,” she said, laughing and admiring and consoling. “Come on, come into the pool, take it easy for a while. Karrid shouldn’t have come on to you like that! But you’re lucky, first kemmer as a woman, there’s nothing like it. I kemmered as a man three times before I got to kemmer as a woman, it made me so mad, every time I got into thorharmen all my damn friends would all be women already. Don’t worry about me—I’d say Karrid’s influence was decisive,” and she laughed again. “Oh, you are so pretty!” and she bent her head and licked my nipples before I knew what she was doing.
It was wonderful, it cooled that stinging fire in them that nothing else could cool. She helped me finish undressing, and we stepped together into the warm water of the big, shallow pool that filled the whole center of this room. That was why it was so misty, why the echoes were so strange. The water lapped on my thighs, on my sex, on my belly. I turned to my friend and leaned forward to kiss her. It was a perfectly natural thing to do, it was what she wanted and I wanted, and I wanted her to lick and suck my nipples again, and she did. For a long time we lay in the shallow water playing, and I could have played forever. But then somebody else joined us, taking hold of my friend from behind, and she arched her body in the water like a golden fish leaping, threw her back, and began to play with him.
I got out of the water and dried myself, feeling sad and shy and forsaken, and yet extremely interested in what had happened to my body. It felt wonderfully alive and electric, so that the roughness of the towel made me shiver with pleasure. Somebody had come closer to me, somebody that had been watching me play with my friend in the water. He sat down by me now.
It was a hearthmate a few years older than I, Arrad Tehemmy. I had worked in the gardens with Arrad all last summer, and liked him. He looked like Sether, I now thought, with heavy black hair and a long, thin face, but in him was that shining, that glory they all had here—all the kemmerers, the women , the men —such vivid beauty as I had never seen in any human beings. “Sov,” he said, “I’d like—Your first—Will you—” His hands were already on me, and mine on him. “Come,” he said, and I went with him. He took me into a beautiful little room, in which there was nothing but a fire burning in a fireplace, and a wide bed. There Arrad took me into his arms and I took Arrad into my arms, and then between my legs, and fell upward, upward through the golden light.
Arrad and I were together all that first night, and besides fucking a great deal, we ate a great deal. It had not occurred to me that there would be food at a kemmerhouse, I had thought you weren’t allowed to do anything but fuck. There was a lot of food, very good, too, set out so that you could eat whenever you wanted. Drink was more limited; the person in charge, an old woman-halfdead, kept her canny eye on you, and wouldn’t give you any more beer if you showed signs of getting wild or stupid. I didn’t need any more beer. I didn’t need any more fucking. I was complete. I was in love forever for all time all my life to eternity with Arrad. But Arrad (who was a day farther into kemmer than I) fell asleep and wouldn’t wake up, and an extraordinary person named Hama sat down by me and began talking and also running his hand up and down my back in the most delicious way, so that before long we got further entangled, and began fucking, and it was entirely different with Hama than it had been with Arrad, so that I realized that I must be in love with Hama, until Gehardar joined us. After that I think I began to understand that I loved them all and they all loved me and that that was the secret of the kemmerhouse.
It’s been nearly fifty years, and I have to admit I do not recall everyone from my first kemmer; only Karrid and Arrad, Hama and Gehardar, old Tubanny, the most exquisitely skillful lover as a male that I ever knew—I met him often in later kemmers—and Berre, my golden fish, with whom I ended up in drowsy, peaceful, blissful lovemaking in front of the great hearth till we both fell asleep. And when we woke we were not women. We were not men. We were not in kemmer. We were very tired young adults.
“You’re still beautiful,” I said to Berre.
“So are you,” Berre said. “Where do you work?”
“Furniture shop, Third Ward.”
I tried licking Berre’s nipple, but it didn’t work; Berre flinched a little, and I said “Sorry,” and we both laughed.
“I’m in the radio trade,” Berre said. “Did you ever think of trying that?”
“No. Broadcasting. I do the Fourth Hour news and weather.”
“That’s you?” I said, awed.
“Come over to the tower some time, I’ll show you around,” said Berre.
Which is how I found my lifelong trade and a life-long friend. As I tried to tell Sether when I came back to the Hearth, kemmer isn’t exactly what we thought it was; it’s much more complicated.
Sether’s first kemmer was on Getheny Gor, the first day of the first month of autumn, at the dark of the moon. One of the family brought Sether into kemmer as a woman, and then Sether brought me in. That was the first time I kemmered as a man. And we stayed on the same wavelength, as Grand put it. We never conceived together, being cousins and having some modern scruples, but we made love in every combination, every dark of the moon, for years. And Sether brought my child, Tamor, into first kemmer—as a woman, like a proper Thade.
Later on Sether went into the Handdara, and became an Indweller in the old Fastness, and now is an Adept. I go over there often to join in one of the Chants or practice the Untrance or just to visit, and every few days Sether comes back to the Hearth. And we talk. The old days or the new times, somer or kemmer, love is love.
*Copyright © 1995 by Ursula K. Le Guin . The story first appeared NEW LEGENDS in 1995, and then in THE BIRTHDAY OF THE WORLD, published by HarperCollins in 2002 Reprinted by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd.
*Image: Dancing the Dance of Life by Andrea Wan.
Well, as I was saying, the Emperor got into bed.
“Chevalier,” says he to his valet, “let down those window-curtains, and shut the casement before you leave the room.”
Chevalier did as he was told, and then, taking up his candlestick, departed.
In a few minutes the Emperor felt his pillow becoming rather hard, and he got up to shake it. As he did so a slight rustling noise was heard near the bed-head. His Majesty listened, but all was silent as he lay down again.
Scarcely had he settled into a peaceful attitude of repose, when he was disturbed by a sensation of thirst. Lifting himself on his elbow, he took a glass of lemonade from the small stand which was placed beside him. He refreshed himself by a deep draught. As he returned the goblet to its station a deep groan burst from a kind of closet in one corner of the apartment.
“Who’s there?” cried the Emperor, seizing his pistols. “Speak, or I’ll blow your brains out.”
This threat produced no other effect than a short, sharp laugh, and a dead silence followed.
The Emperor started from his couch, and, hastily throwing on a robe-de-chambre which hung over the back of a chair, stepped courageously to the haunted closet. As he opened the door something rustled. He sprang forward sword in hand. No soul or even substance appeared, and the rustling, it was evident, proceeded from the falling of a cloak, which had been suspended by a peg from the door.
Half ashamed of himself he returned to bed.
Just as he was about once more to close his eyes, the light of the three wax tapers, which burned in a silver branch over the mantlepiece, was suddenly darkened. He looked up. A black, opaque shadow obscured it. Sweating with terror, the Emperor put out his hand to seize the bell- rope, but some invisible being snatched it rudely from his grasp, and at the same instant the ominous shade vanished.
“Pooh!” exclaimed Napoleon, “it was but an ocular delusion.”
“Was it?” whispered a hollow voice, in deep mysterious tones, close to his ear. “Was it a delusion, Emperor of France? No! all thou hast heard and seen is sad forewarning reality. Rise, lifter of the Eagle Standard! Awake, swayer of the Lily Sceptre! Follow me, Napoleon, and thou shalt see more.”
As the voice ceased, a form dawned on his astonished sight. It was that of a tall, thin man, dressed in a blue surtout edged with gold lace. It wore a black cravat very tightly round its neck, and confined by two little sticks placed behind each ear. The countenance was livid; the tongue protruded from between the teeth, and the eyes all glazed and bloodshot started with frightful prominence from their sockets.
“Mon Dieu!” exclaimed the Emperor, “what do I see? Spectre, whence cometh thou?”
The apparition spoke not, but gliding forward beckoned Napoleon with uplifted finger to follow.
Controlled by a mysterious influence, which deprived him of the capability of either thinking or acting for himself, he obeyed in silence.
The solid wall of the apartment fell open as they approached, and, when both had passed through, it closed behind them with a noise like thunder.
They would now have been in total darkness had it not been for a dim light which shone round the ghost and revealed the damp walls of a long, vaulted passage. Down this they proceeded with mute rapidity. Ere long a cool, refreshing breeze, which rushed wailing up the vault and caused the Emperor to wrap his loose nightdress closer round, announced their approach to the open air.
This they soon reached, and Nap found himself in one of the principal streets of Paris.
“Worthy Spirit,” said he, shivering in the chill night air, “permit me to return and put on some additional clothing. I will be with you again presently.”
“Forward,” replied his companion sternly.
He felt compelled, in spite of the rising indignation which almost choked him, to obey.
On they went through the deserted streets till they arrived at a lofty house built on the banks of the Seine. Here the Spectre stopped, the gates rolled back to receive them, and they entered a large marble hall which was partly concealed by a curtain drawn across, through the half transparent folds of which a bright light might be seen burning with dazzling lustre. A row of fine female figures, richly attired, stood before this screen. They wore on their heads garlands of the most beautiful flowers, but their faces were concealed by ghastly masks representing death’s-heads.
“What is all this mummery?” cried the Emperor, making an effort to shake off the mental shackles by which he was so unwillingly restrained, “Where am I, and why have I been brought here?”
“Silence,” said the guide, lolling out still further his black and bloody tongue. “Silence, if thou wouldst escape instant death.”
The Emperor would have replied, his natural courage overcoming the temporary awe to which he had at first been subjected, but just then a strain of wild, supernatural music swelled behind the huge curtain, which waved to and fro, and bellied slowly out as if agitated by some internal commotion or battle of waving winds. At the same moment an overpowering mixture of the scents of mortal corruption, blent with the richest Eastern odours, stole through the haunted hall.
A murmur of many voices was now heard at a distance, and something grasped his arm eagerly from behind.
He turned hastily round. His eyes met the well-known countenance of Marie Louise.
“What! are you in this infernal place, too?” said he. “What has brought you here?”
“Will your Majesty permit me to ask the same question of yourself?” said the Empress, smiling.
He made no reply; astonishment prevented him.
No curtain now intervened between him and the light. It had been removed as if by magic, and a splendid chandelier appeared suspended over his head. Throngs of ladies, richly dressed, but without death’s-head masks, stood round, and a due proportion of gay cavaliers was mingled with them. Music was still sounding, but it was seen to proceed from a band of mortal musicians stationed in an orchestra near at hand. The air was yet redolent of incense, but it was incense unblended with stench.
“Mon dieu!” cried the Emperor, “how is all this come about? Where in the world is Piche?”
“Piche?” replied the Empress. “What does your Majesty mean? Had you not better leave the apartment and retire to rest?”
“Leave the apartment? Why, where am I?”
“In my private drawing-room, surrounded by a few particular persons of the Court whom I had invited this evening to a ball. You entered a few minutes since in your nightdress with your eyes fixed and wide open. I suppose from the astonishment you now testify that you were walking in your sleep.”
The Emperor immediately fell into a fit of catalepsy, in which he continued during the whole of that night and the greater part of the next day.
* Taken from the manuscript of the “Green Dwarf” dated July 10, 1833 – September 2, 1833, and republished in The Twelve Adventurers and other stories, London, 1925.
The restaurant is crazy busy and my entire head is engulfed in the heat and steam and smell of all the dishes being cooked and readied on the line. I am tired. I am always tired but this is where I like to be. Where I belong. Everything seems to be as it always is but when I look up from the trout I am just about done sautéing and see someone I don’t recognize standing where the servers stand while waiting to pick up their orders, I think I am hallucinating.
He is young, maybe thirty, slight, not smiling. But his lips are parted and his teeth—very white—are clenched down in a hard bite. He is too handsome. There is menace in the way he is looking at me.
“You need some help,” he says.
I am thinking the same thing. I need some help, I should call out for some help, because despite the kitchen heat my skin is cold and I know the hairs standing up on the back of my neck have nothing to do with the kind of fear I normally have when I am feeling threatened. This is something else.
But maybe I am dreaming. God knows I am exhausted and no one notices anything is amiss. Waiters use their hips to back him out of the way as they reach for plates and he disappears but then like a wave, he rolls back up after they’ve gone. I close my eyes, open them fast and there he is. I want to swallow but my breath is in the way.
“You need help,” he repeats, morphing through the steam this time into a lost boy, his forehead the kind you want to brush hair off of.
I hear myself say, “I don’t know, do I need help?” and when it comes out it sounds like flirting. Someone is flirting with this stranger-boy on my line in the middle of my dinner rush. The trout is overcooked, beyond saving.
His face relaxes then. “You look like you do,” he says.
There have been some things I wish I’d had the prescience to understand before acting on and when I remember them, I want to set myself on fire. But right now time is moving too fast for memory to intrude. When I don’t answer, he says, “I put in an application for a cook. Your ad said you needed some help.” That is true. Then he looks around the madhouse that is my kitchen and says, again, “You look like you need help.”
What do I look like? It has been so long since I have thought about it, since I was pretty. I have been sweating behind the line for two hours, for too many years, and sweat makes my small face wet and a bright red. At the end of every dinner shift, when I go into the employee bathroom at midnight to splash cold water on my face, I find my morning mascara, that small homage to vanity, has left my lashes and settled into the deep cups of skin beneath my eyes. I am forty-five years old, always bone-tired yet plagued with nervousness all the time, even when I sleep. I am married to my South Beach restaurant, entering it in the dark mornings and leaving it in the darker nights so I never see what I am supposed to look like, the public I might be compared to were I ever to put myself among them. I hardly see the daylight. I wear chef whites every day, stained with grease and sauce. I know exactly what I look like and feel surprised, and then ashamed, that I am so sorry about it right now.
“Why did you do that?” I ask him. It is the next morning and he is here to fill out the paperwork.
“Do what?” he asks. He is wearing the same jeans and black t-shirt he’d had on last night but now, somehow, they are miraculously clean.
“Just show up,” I say. “Come into the kitchen like that, at the height of the dinner rush.” I sound like a punishing mother, someone trying to teach someone a lesson.
“Because I knew you’d be here then.”
I have to admit that makes some sense. I look at his application. He has left the space for his address blank.
“Where do you live?” I ask.
“And it’s true,” he says. “You need me.”
I am not afraid anymore. Last night, when I finally got a hold of myself and told him “Fine, go back to the prep kitchen and help,” it felt like I was doing something that absolutely needed to be done. It felt like we both needed help. Now he tells me that when the restaurant closed, he had gone to an all-night Laundromat and convinced two drunk girls to let him throw his clothes in with theirs. While his jeans and shirt washed and dried, he sat in his boxers reading the newspaper. They had given him two beers. I can imagine the whole scene, him charming them with his good looks and serious stare, their wanting to help him.
I hire him for a two week probationary period. I don’t know him, don’t know who he is or who he’s been so I try to watch him when I can. I can tell he has worked in a restaurant like mine before, can tell by the way he handles the equipment in the prep kitchen, by his movements and his focus, by the fact that he never asks anyone any questions. But there is so much to do when you own a restaurant and today I am all over the place—in my office planning menus, then working on the books, in the stock room taking inventory, then the walk-in cooler doing the orders and much of the time I don’t know what he’s doing. I don’t forget about him but I’m not always sure where he is.
In the late afternoon, I find him on the line. He has made a shimmering pea mousse to serve under my house salmon. I am surprised but then I am angry. I ask him who he thinks he is. I ask him how he made the mousse and he won’t tell me and that is how I discover he is a trained chef. I am a trained chef and never share the recipes I’ve invented with anyone. I know all about the relationship between privacy, thievery and pride. Still, I find the secrecy insulting until he gives me a bite and I am whisked away on the pleasure of peas.
After the two weeks, I let him keep the job because there were mashed potato cups filled with foie gras, the pineapple-jalapeno salsa and Serrano Ham panini, the roasted marrow toasts, a peach bombe, old customer raves, new customers—younger and so hip—forming a line outside at night, willing to wait however long it took to be seated. In my restaurant.
He is quiet, never late. I don’t know where he lives. Or what he does when he is not at work and sometimes I forget about him but then when I realize that he is at the restaurant during every shift, even the ones I don’t pay him for, I start thinking about him all the time. This is my restaurant, I am the boss, so I ask him questions, try to figure him out.
He answers everything too vaguely. I think he thinks his life is none of my business. Maybe he is right. He is a good worker, that’s all I need to know. Or maybe he is shy. I am shy, I get that. Then one day, out of the blue, he says he thinks we should close between 4 and 6, that that would give the kitchen time to regroup, the staff a chance to have a meal together. He’s already prepared it—lentil soup, spinach salad, grilled ham and manchego cheese with roasted tomatoes and pesto. The food is so good, comfort food but with an indefinable touch. He tells me to sit down, next to him at the table with the staff, and I do. We eat.
I start to like him, and then I discover I like having him there. Everyone else likes him, too. He does his job in the back kitchen but then when I’m not looking, he helps everyone else with their jobs. He shows the waiters a new, more sophisticated way of laying the napkins on the tables. He teaches the bartenders to make a drink with vodka, shaved ice and shards of fresh ginger; they start to offer it as a house specialty and we can’t keep up with the demand. He asks me if we can serve our scallop appetizer on the ceramic spoons I only use for private tastings. He cooks the staff meal, the family meal, every night.
One night he sees me struggling over the books in the office and he tells me he can help. He was right from the start, I need help. I let him install a program in my aging computer that transforms my bookkeeping into some-thing I actually like to do. He smiles. He works the day shift but is still here for the whole night shift and the hostesses tell me the customers love him. At night he greets them, sometimes walks them to their tables. I can’t explain why I didn’t know he was doing this, how he managed to do so many things without my knowing even though I knew he was there. I am not sure why I am letting it happen except that I am so much less tired than I ever was before he came. And business is booming.
Last night I found a stack of our linen napkins layered and folded into the shape of a pillow in the basement storage room. It was on top of an oversized garbage bag he was obviously using for a blanket. When I confronted him, he said I saved his life.
And when I wake up one morning some weeks after to the sound of the water running in my shower, I wonder what has happened to my own life. For the first time in ten years, I am sleeping in my bed. We drink our coffee there. He shampoos my hair, reads comic books out loud, makes love to me as if I am something precious, rare and fragile, something he must take care not to break, as if he knows me. After, he rubs his white teeth barely over my skin and I am afraid that he will bite me but he never does and because he never does, I relax. I know I should be at least a little frightened but I’m not.
When we are not at my apartment, we are both at my restaurant working. All I know for sure about his past is that something he won’t talk about happened and when he came to me, he was jobless. Homeless. But instead of wondering how on earth I’d let a stranger, practically a boy, infiltrate my small life, I fall headfirst into the supreme relief of not having to do everything myself in order to keep everything going. I fall into having someone to sleep with at night. Now I never look for him, wonder where he is. Like magic, he appears without warning beside me wherever I am—the line, the prep kitchen, the salad station—puts his arm around my waist and presses into me. Kisses me on the mouth. I do not know who I am. I think I am falling in love.
I discover he is a wizard with numbers so I let him oversee the purchasing. He is a whirlwind of energy and sometimes everywhere at once—the bar, the walk-in, the prep kitchen, the front of the house. I start to forget that he has not always been here, that we did not build this restaurant together. That I used to be alone.
Before he came, once in a while a guest would request to see the chef, and I’d tuck the wet sweaty hairs back into my headband, wipe my hands on my apron, and go out into the dining room to accept the compliments. But I had forgotten how to be social, comfortable only with people who worked for me and slipping in and out among the strangers in places I needed to go—the pharmacy, the grocery store, the dry cleaners. But he is so different, as easy and happy in his chef whites in the prep kitchen as he is in a suit in the dining room. Every restaurant needs someone like that.
He has even made some friends. A group of guys who eat dinner in the restaurant every Saturday night. He joins them. They are all unemployed chefs. I ask him if he thinks we should hire any of them but he says they are looking to start their own restaurant. At first, I like the stories he tells me about them. They are easy to listen to and I remember what it’s like to have pals and I am happy for him. I never expected to be enough for him. But then one morning, over coffee before work, it hits me.
“Are these people you are going into business with?” I ask.
“Honey,” he says, “I’m with you, aren’t I?” He frowns, as if I am hurting him. “You’re acting crazy.”
Because I am crazy. I am living with someone fifteen years younger than I am, someone who appeared in my restaurant and knew exactly what was going to happen, assumed things I didn’t know myself and was right. I went from working 15 hours a day without a break to spending an hour in the ocean every day at 3:00. I went from sleeping alone on my couch to spending nearly every waking and sleeping minute with a stranger who I thought was an illusion. I feel like he has always been here, that he is solid and I am safe. I didn’t know I needed that kind of safety until it was there everyday.
I have a right to be crazy. I am middle-aged, bony. My face is thin, drawn. There are a lot of wrinkles. But this man touches it. He wipes it when it sweats, he moves the stray hairs from it, he looks right into it. He kisses it all the time.
“Maybe you are crazy,” I say because when I think about this life, I know I don’t understand. And then I don’t want to think anymore so I say, “Maybe they are crazy. You don’t really know these guys. They could be thieves.”
I know an assortment of psychotics and thieves. They go anywhere they want with the extraordinary self confidence of the desperate who have nothing to lose or the stupidity to believe they will lose nothing. If they want money or liquor or sex, if they want to scare someone for real or just for kicks, if they merely want something to eat for free, they walk into places they don’t belong and demand to be seen and to be served. In South Beach, where bums and drunks share the streets and beaches with celebrities and wealthy tourists, it is often hard to distinguish between the real threats and the mere expressions and that’s what makes it so dangerous. Once I barred a mogul from entering my restaurant because he looked like a thug. Once I let a pair of thugs stay late in the bar because they looked like moguls; after we closed, they robbed two of my waitresses on the street. Some killers look only like thieves. Some thieves are a special kind of killer. I know these people, and I watch out for them.
So it makes me nervous to hear about these guys he eats dinner with every Saturday night, makes me wonder who they really are. I become afraid for him, start to think that he is being conned. I know he picks up the tab for their dinners. I don’t care about the money. I tell him to be careful because I want to protect him. He says, “don’t worry. I think people are basically good. You gave me a chance, didn’t you? And I know them better than you knew me.”
This is true. He’d come from a mystery I still know nothing about to the places—my restaurant and my home—that I know best. And he knew I would take him, and then trust him. His instincts are good.
I don’t have any friends. I tell myself it is by choice though, truly, I have morphed into this solitary person without realizing it. After my husband left, I didn’t know how to turn myself back into someone who could trust anyone again. I threw myself into culinary school and then into work. I like the people who work for me and I am glad to have them near me but before he came, I thought I only needed myself. I thought I knew myself, which is why I didn’t sense my own loneliness creeping up on me. I never saw it coming and then, abracadabra, it disappeared.
Just like a thief, while I wasn’t looking, he took away all of the things I had been afraid of. And he replaced them with the things I had forgotten ever wanting, like coming home and having a brandy and listening to music with my aching feet in someone’s lap instead of falling asleep on the couch in my chef clothes, having sworn off my bed years ago. Like having someone to walk home with after work, to scramble late night eggs for, someone to touch, who wanted to touch me. Slowly, subtly, bit by bit, he took me and left me fearless.
I think I am lucky, blessed. That somehow someone or something divine decided that I deserve this life I am living, really living, now. But then the spell is broken because the one morning, I wake up alone. I want it to be a dream. It isn’t the first time I close my eyes to conjure back what I think I can’t live without but before him, I had sworn it would be the last time. Back then, before the restaurant, before the work, when I learned that I was the kind of woman it was easy to leave, I had crumbled. Then I had begged and pleaded and promised to do anything to fix myself, to make myself right. Even though I did not know what was wrong.
This time, I am ready for a fight. By the time I get to the restaurant, my teeth are rattling. It is a steamy summer morning but I am shivering. I go back into the kitchen and he comes out from behind the line; it is clear he has been there for hours. He’s reorganized the walk-in cooler and now everything we need is in clear view. He’s dusted all the bottles in the bar. He’s taken the crate of lemons that had begun to spoil and made forty individually-sized citrus cakes for the dinner service. It is seven in the morning and the rest of the staff won’t be in until ten. In the dining room, he’s set a table for two with a bottle of champagne chilling. He pulls lobster burritos from the oven and feeds me mine while he explains that sometimes when he can’t sleep, he just needs to work. I understand this because it is true for me too but it doesn’t take away the ache and panic. I am so angry. After the first bite, I say, “Feeding me is hokey,” because I am so unsettled by the way I love it. But he is undaunted. He says, “You think this is hokey?” and leads me downstairs to the office where he has blown up an air mattress and lit candles.
The last time I had felt this way was the first time and I knew nothing. I was so young, thought it would last forever, didn’t understand how love can be consumed by fear and instead of stomping it out like a fire, I stoked it, tended it, fed its restlessness bite by bite so that it could never be satisfied and never be finished. I was so frantic trying to keep the fire alive that I didn’t see it growing out of control.
He says, “Look, I know I scared you. I’m sorry. But everyone comes to everyone with a history. We’re learning how we are together, but we’re still who we were before.”
I don’t know who he was before. And I had left who I was before a long time ago. I replaced her with someone who saved her heart for taste and texture and smell. Who used her head for everything else. Who made things make sense. Making sense is what saved me, sustained me. It’s what pulled me out of the ashes and wed me to a career that relies on all the properties of fire. It’s what recreated me into a person surrounded by people, by cooks and waiters and bartenders and dishwashers and vendors and customers, so I didn’t know I was alone. What I learned, in addition to how to cook, was that every time something went wrong, if I could make sense of it I could make it right. I didn’t take chances until I let a stranger into my kitchen, into my bed.
I made sense of him. He was young but already too tired. He wanted stability. He wanted to make a life with someone in an industry he loved and understood. He knew how to operate every piece of equipment, how to increase profits, how to train cooks and servers. He was a fabulous, inspiring, inventive cook. He could butcher meat, he could skin a Dover sole in one move, he could suspend caviar in sabayon as easily as he could make grilled cheese. These things made him happy and they made sense to me. He knew that by just giving me a bite of something I hadn’t had before, I would cave. That my heart would take over. He knew how to get there.
So when I get to the restaurant this morning, after having been with him for over a year and a half, and my key won’t turn in the lock, I know I am dreaming. About banana pancakes. I was not surprised that he left me in the middle of the night because since the first time, it has become a ritual and one I celebrate like a teenager. This morning I showered and shaved, put on lotion, per-fume. I hope he is making banana pancakes because that’s what I have a taste for. Banana pancakes with pecans and caramel syrup. I will let him feed them to me, bite by sweet bite, because I always do. Because I am certifiably hokey in love.
I try the key again and again and then so hard it actually snaps off in the lock. I look like a thief, trying to break into my own restaurant. It is only seven in the morning and no one is out on the street yet. I cup my hands to either side of my face like blinders and peer inside. The lights are all out and so it gives the illusion that nothing is there, that my restaurant is an empty room. Like when I first started, when I had been emptied out and bought a space I could fill. The tables and chairs seem to have vanished. Maybe he moved them. Maybe he is redecorating the dining room or washing the carpet. I knock. And wait. I knock again, and call out his name. No one comes. So I knock again and again and again, each time harder and then harder than that so that he will hear me, emerge from wherever he is and make the fear starting to smoke and smolder inside me curl back into ash.
A police car cruises by and the officer gets out and asks to see some ID but I have nothing that says this space belongs to me. My key is broken in a lock where it didn’t fit. My face is wet so I know I am crying and my teeth are clenched and they hurt—everything hurts—and then without seeing it coming, I start screaming, appear crazy, delusional, all the kinds of crazy I know, like someone to fear. Me. Someone to fear.
The cop pats my shoulder and asks me to calm down. When I do, he looks through the window and then asks me to tell him what is inside my restaurant. My description does not match what he sees. “There’s no stained glass hanging there, maam.”
“What about the coffee station?” I say. “In the back corner? The espresso machine, regular coffee maker, two pots, one for decaf…” I rattle off my inventory like an auctioneer.
“Nothing back there, maam. Nothing at all. Is there someone we can call?” Of course, there is! I think. Call him. We’ve been robbed! He is probably tied up somewhere in the restaurant, waiting to be saved. Why didn’t I think of this before? How much time have I wasted? He trusts everyone. He would have let anyone in. He could be dead in there!
I recite his cell phone number and while the officer dials, I wipe my eyes and gather my strength and stand up straight. I’m coming, don’t worry. I’m here. I’m coming, but a message on his cell phone says it’s been disconnected. I paid the bill last week.
“Is there anyone else?” he asks me.
Anyone else? No, no one. There is no one else.
“Uh, ma’am?” he says, because I have not answered him and am staring into the black window, my place. “An employee maybe? A manager?”
Yes, there are employees. Waiters and dishwashers. There are hostesses, line cooks, two sous chefs, busboys, a sommelier on the weekends. There are day managers and night managers. Sometimes there is a harpist in the dining room, a quartet in the bar lounge. There are lots of people, really nice people, who come here every day and night to eat. An entire world of wonderful people.
I want to tell him this but don’t know how when I look up and see Adele, the night manager, standing there. I hear her identifying herself, asking what’s wrong. I hear her identifying me. I hear her saying she is here early because she left her cell phone in the hostess stand last night and needs it now to call her mother. I wonder why she didn’t just call her mother from her home. I wonder what would have happened if we had been naked on the air mattress in my office, eating banana pancakes with our fingers, hearing someone upstairs rummaging around the hostess stand. We would have thought we were being robbed. We have been robbed.
Another policeman comes and together the two men bust open the door and Adele and I walk in. Adele says “oh my God oh my God” over and over again. I do not speak. Adele starts walking around the dining room, touching the walls, moving one hand over the other as if the missing tables, chairs, linens, vases, flatware will miraculously reappear from behind the dusky pink wallpaper I put up myself. In my lonely days. When I thought I was safe. Poof. Everything has disappeared. There is nothing in the dining room, the bar, the lounge. All the plates and glassware, the water pitchers, the creamers and sugar bowls, the cream and sugar. Gone. The kitchen is an empty stainless steel vault. The huge Hobart to the tiny paring knives, the pots and pans, the tongs and spatulas and slotted spoons, and strainers, everything has vanished. The food is gone, the steaks and chops and fish and ribs, potatoes and onions and garlic, all the oils and vinegars, the spices and herbs, the truffles, pates, flour, butter, yeast, milks, the extracts. The walk-in cooler is cleaned out, except for a crate of rotting lemons.
I pull one out and my fingers fall through the soft blue and white mold to the decomposing flesh with its rancid sorry smell. How did he ever use these to make cakes? He was a magician. I sit down on the cooler floor, the terrible lemon in my palm, and try to turn magic into sense. Sleight of hand.
The police are asking me questions, but their words are jumbled and meaningless so I can’t answer. They turn to Adele, who is crying. I hear her say his name, describe him, but the description doesn’t sound like anyone I know.
The bigger of the two policemen very gently slides his hands under my arms and lifts me up. He walks me into the dining room, forgetting there is nowhere to sit, and just as gently settles me onto the carpet that apparently could not be pried up in time.
“Is there anything I can get you?”
But what can you pull out of thin air?
“Can we call someone else?” the officer asks. I try to conjure up the image of his Saturday night friends, men I never met. He could not have done this alone. I hear Adele rattling off names and numbers.
“Ok. Good,” I hear the officer say. “We’ll call them. In the meantime, do you want to go get your boss something? A cup of coffee? She needs something.”
What do you need when everything is gone?
Something small. Just one small thing, something that I could make disappear, something irreplaceable that would be gone for good. The tip of a finger. The bottom pearl of an ear. A toe, something I could run my teeth across and then bite off, clean and fast. a real thing, a real loss, that by being gone would say over and over again, forever, that I had been there.
*This story is taken from: Party Girls by Diane Goodman, Autumn House Press, 2011.
*Copyright © 2011 by Diane Goodman.
The first time I ever met Mr. Tallent was in the late summer of 1906, in a small, lonely inn on the top of a mountain. For natives, rainy days in these places are not very different from other days, since work fills them all, wet or fine. But for the tourist, rainy days are boring. I had been bored for nearly a week, and was thinking of returning to London, when Mr. Tallent came. And because I could not “place” Mr. Tallent, nor elucidate him to my satisfaction, he intrigued me. For a barrister should be able to sum up men in a few minutes.
I did not see Mr. Tallent arrive, nor did I observe him entering the room. I looked up, and he was there, in the small firelit parlour with its Bible, wool mats and copper preserving pan. He was reading a manuscript, slightly moving his lips as he read. He was a gentle, moth-like man, very lean and about six foot three or more. He had neutral-coloured hair and eyes, a nondescript suit, limp-looking hands and slightly turned-up toes. The most noticeable thing about him was an expression of passive and enduring obstinacy.
I wished him good evening, and asked if he had a paper, as he seemed to have come from civilization.
“No,” he said softly, “no. Only a little manuscript of my own.”
Now, as a rule I am as wary of manuscripts as a hare is of greyhounds. Having once been a critic, I am always liable to receive parcels of these for advice. So I might have saved myself and a dozen or so of other people from what turned out to be a terrible, an appalling, incubus. But the day had been so dull, and having exhausted Old Moore and sampled the Imprecatory Psalms, I had nothing else to read. So I said, “Your own?”
“Even so,” replied Mr. Tallent modestly.
“May I have the privilege?” I queried, knowing he intended me to have it.
“How kind!” he exclaimed. “A stranger, knowing nothing of my hopes and aims, yet willing to undertake so onerous a task.”
“Not at all!” I replied, with a nervous chuckle.
“I think,” he murmured, drawing near and, as it were, taking possession of me, looming above me with his great height, “it might be best for me to read it to you. I am considered to have rather a fine reading voice.”
I said I should be delighted, reflecting that supper could not very well be later than nine. I knew I should not like the reading.
He stood before the cloth-draped mantelpiece.
“This,” he said, “shall be my rostrum.” Then he read.
I wish I could describe to you that slow, expressionless, unstoppable voice. It was a voice for which at the time I could find no comparison. Now I know that it was like the voice of the loud speaker in a dull subject. At first one listened, taking in even the sense of the words. I took in all the first six chapters, which were unbelievably dull. I got all the scenery, characters, undramatic events clearly marshalled. I imagined that something would, in time, happen. I thought the characters were going to develop, do fearful things or great and holy deeds. But they did nothing. Nothing happened. The book was flat, formless, yet not vital enough to be inchoate. It was just a meandering expression of a negative personality, with a plethora of muted, borrowed, stale ideas. He always said what one expected him to say. One knew what all his people would do. One waited for the culminating platitude as for an expected twinge of toothache. I thought he would pause after a time, for even the most arrogant usually do that, apologising and at the same time obviously waiting for one to say, “Do go on, please.’’
This was not necessary in his case. In fact, it was impossible. The slow, monotonous voice went on without a pause, with the terrible tirelessness of a gramophone. I longed for him to whisper or shout— anything to relieve the tedium. I tried to think of other things, but he read too distinctly for that. I could neither listen to him nor ignore him. I have never spent such an evening. As luck would have it the little maidservant did not achieve our meal till nearly ten o’clock. The hours dragged on.
At last I said: “Could we have a pause, just for a few minutes?”
“Why?” he enquired.
“For… for discussion,” I weakly murmured.
“Not,” he replied, “at the most exciting moment. Don’t you realise that now, at last, I have worked up my plot to the most dramatic, moment? All the characters are waiting, attent, for the culminating tragedy.”
He went on reading. I went on awaiting the culminating tragedy. But there was no tragedy. My head ached abominably. The voice flowed on, over my senses, the room, the world. I felt as if it would wash me away into eternity. I found myself thinking, quite solemnly:
“If she doesn’t bring supper soon, I shall kill him.”
I thought it in the instinctive way in which one thinks it of an earwig or a midge. I took refuge in the consideration how to do it? This was absorbing. It enabled me to detach myself completely from the sense of what he read. I considered all the ways open to me. Strangling. The bread knife on the sideboard. Hanging. I gloated over them, I was beginning to be almost happy, when suddenly the reading stopped.
“She is bringing supper,” he said. “Now we can have a little discussion. Afterwards I will finish the manuscript.”
He did. And after that, he told me all about his will. He said he was leaving all his money for the posthumous publication of his manuscripts. He also said that he would like me to draw up this for him, and to be trustee of the manuscripts.
I said I was too busy. He replied that I could draw up the will to-morrow.
“I’m going to-morrow,” I interpolated passionately.
“You cannot go until the carrier goes in the afternoon,” he triumphed. “Meanwhile, you can draw up the will. After that you need do no more. You can pay a critic to read the manuscripts. You can pay a publisher to publish them. And I in them shall be remembered.”
He added that if I still had doubts as to their literary worth, he would read me another.
I gave in. Would anyone else have done differently? I drew up the will, left an address where he could send his stuff, and left the inn.
“Thank God!” I breathed devoutly, as the turn of the lane hid him from view. He was standing on the doorstep, beginning to read what he called a pastoral to a big cattle-dealer who had called for a pint of bitter. I smiled to think how much more he would get than he had bargained for.
After that, I forgot Mr. Tallent. I heard nothing more of him for some years. Occasionally I glanced down the lists of books to see if anybody else had relieved me of my task by publishing Mr. Tallent. But nobody had.
It was about ten years later, when I was in hospital with a “Blighty” wound, that I met Mr. Tallent again. I was convalescent, sitting in the sun with some other chaps, when the door opened softly, and Mr. Tallent stole in. He read to us for two hours. He remembered me, and had a good deal to say about coincidence. When he had gone, I said to the nurse, ‘’If you let that fellow in again while I’m here. I’ll kill him.”
She laughed a good deal, but the other chaps all agreed with me, and as a matter of fact, he never did come again.
Not long after this I saw the notice of his death in the paper.
“Poor chap!” I thought, “he’s been reading too much. Somebody’s patience has given out. Well, he won’t ever be able to read to me again.”
Then I remembered the manuscripts, realising that, if he had been as good as his word, my troubles had only just begun.
And it was so.
First came the usual kind of letter from a solicitor in the town where he had lived. Next I had a call from the said solicitor’s clerk, who brought a large tin box.
“The relations,” he said, “of the deceased are extremely angry. Nothing has been left to them. They say that the manuscripts are worthless, and that the living have rights.”
I asked how they knew that the manuscripts were worthless.
“It appears, sir, that Mr. Tallent has, from time to time, read these aloud –”
I managed to conceal a grin.
“And they claim, sir, to share equally with the—er – manuscripts. They threaten to take proceedings, and have been getting legal opinions as to the advisability of demanding an investigation of the material you have.”
I looked at the box. There was an air of Joanna Southcott about it.
I asked if it were full.
“Quite, sir. Typed MSS. Very neatly done.”
He produced the key, a copy of the will, and a sealed letter.
I took the box home with me that evening. Fortified by dinner, a cigar and a glass of port, I considered it. There is an extraordinary air of fatality about a box. For bane or for blessing, it has a perpetual fascination for mankind. A wizard’s coffer, a casket of jewels, the alabaster box of precious nard, a chest of bridal linen, a stone sarcophagus – what a strange mystery is about them all! So when I opened Mr. Tallent’s box, I felt like somebody letting loose a genie. And indeed I was. I had already perused the will and the letter, and discovered that the fortune was moderately large. The letter merely repeated what Mr. Tallent had told me. I glanced at some of the manuscripts. Immediately the room seemed full of Mr. Tallent’s presence and his voice. I looked towards the now dusky corners of the room as if he might be looming there. As I ran through more of the papers, I realised that what Mr. Tallent had chosen to read to me had been the best of them. I looked up Johnson’s telephone number and asked him to come round. He is the kind of chap who never makes any money. He is a freelance journalist with a conscience. I knew he would be glad of the job.
He came round at once. He eyed the manuscripts with rapture. For at heart he is a critic, and has the eternal hope of unearthing a masterpiece.
“You had better take a dozen at a time, and keep a record,” I said. “Verdict at the end.”
“Will it depend on me whether they are published?”
“Which are published,” I said. “Some will have to be. The will says so.”
“But if I found them all worthless, the poor beggars would get more of the cash? Damnable to be without cash.”
“I shall have to look into that. I am not sure if it is legally possible. What, for instance, is the standard?”
“I shall create the standard,” said Johnson rather haughtily. “Of course, if I find a masterpiece –”
“If you find a masterpiece, my dear chap,’’ I said, “I’ll give you a hundred pounds.”
He asked if I had thought of a publisher. I said I had decided on Jukes, since no book, however bad, could make his reputation worse than it was, and the money might save his credit.
“Is that quite fair to poor Tallent?” he asked. Mr. Tallent had already got hold of him.
“If,” I said as a parting benediction, “you wish you had never gone into it (as, when yon have put your hand to the plough, you will), remember that at least they were never read aloud to you, and be thankful.”
Nothing occurred for a week. Then letters began to come from Mr. Tallent’s relations. They were a prolific family. They were all very poor, very angry and intensely uninterested in literature. They wrote from all kinds of view-points, in all kinds of styles. They were, however, all alike in two things—the complete absence of literary excellence and legal exactitude.
It took an increasing time daily to read and answer these. If I gave them any hope, I at once felt Mr. Tallent’s hovering presence, mute, anxious, hurt. If I gave no hope, I got a solicitor’s letter by return of post. Nobody but myself seemed to feel the pathos of Mr. Tallent’s ambitions and dreams. I was notified that proceedings were going to be taken by firms all over England. Money was being recklessly spent to rob Mr. Tallent of his immortality, but it appeared, later, that Mr. Tallent could take care of himself.
When Johnson came for more of the contents of the box, he said that there was no sign of a masterpiece yet, and that they were as bad as they well could be.
“A pathetic chap, Tallent,” he said.
“Don’t, for God’s sake, my dear chap, let him get at you,” I implored him. “Don’t give way. He’ll haunt you, as he’s haunting me, with that abominable pathos of his. I think of him and his box continually just as one does of a life and death plea. If I sit by my own fireside, I can hear him reading. When I am just going to sleep, I dream that he is looming over me like an immense, wan moth. If I forget him for a little while, a letter comes from one of his unutterable relations and recalls me. Be wary of Tallent.”
Needless to tell you that he did not take my advice. By the time he had finished the box, he was as much under Tallent’s thumb as I was. Bitterly disappointed that there was no masterpiece, he was still loyal to the writer, yet he was emotionally harrowed by the pitiful letters that the relations were now sending to all the papers.
“I dreamed,” he said to me one day (Johnson always says “dreamed”, because he is a critic and considers it the elegant form of expression), “I dreamed that poor Tallent appeared to me in the watches of the night and told me exactly how each of his things came to him. He said they came like ‘Kubla Khan’.”
I said it must have taken all night.
“It did,” he replied. “And it has made me dislike a masterpiece.”
I asked him if he intended to be present at the general meeting.
“Yes. Things have got to such a pitch that we have had to call one. There will be about a hundred people. I shall have to entertain them to a meal afterwards. I can’t very well charge it up to the account of the deceased.”
“Gosh! It’ll cost a pretty penny.”
“It will. But perhaps we shall settle something. I shall be thankful.”
“You’re not looking well, old chap,” he said, “Worn, you seem.”
“I am,” I said. “Tallent is ever with me. Will you come?”
“Rather. But I don’t know what to say.”
“The truth, the Whole truth—”
“But it’s so awful to think of that poor soul spending his whole life on those damned… and then that they should never see the light of day.”
“Worse that they should. Much worse.”
“My dear chap, what a confounded position!”
“If I had foreseen how confounded,” I said, “I’d have strangled the fellow on the top of that mountain. I have had to get to clerks to deal with the correspondence. I get no rest. All night I dream of Tallent. And now I hear that a consumptive relation of his has died of disappointment at not getting any of the money, and his wife has written me a wild letter threatening to accuse me of manslaughter. Of course that’s all stuff, but it shows what a hysterical state everybody’s in. I feel pretty well done for.”
“You’d feel worse if you’d read the boxful.”
We had a stormy meeting. It was obvious that the people did need the money. They were the sort of struggling, under-vitalised folk who always do need it. Children were waiting for a chance in life, old people were waiting to be saved from death a little longer, middle-aged people were waiting to set themselves up in business or buy snug little houses. And there was Tallent, out of it all, in a spiritual existence, not needing beef and bread any more, deliberately keeping it from them.
As I thought this, I distinctly saw Tallent pass the window of the room I had hired for the occasion. I stood up; I pointed; I cried out to them to follow him. The very man himself.
Johnson came to me.
“Steady, old man,” he said. “You’re overstrained.”
“But I did see him,” I said. “The very man. The cause of all the mischief. If I could only get my hands on him!”
A medical man who had married one of Tallent’s sisters said that these hallucinations were very common, and that I was evidently not a fit person to have charge of the money. This brought me a ray of hope, till that ass Johnson contradicted him, saying foolish things about my career. And a diversion was caused by a tremulous old lady calling out, ‘’The Church! The Church! Consult the Church! There’s something in the Bible about it, only I can’t call it to mind at the moment. Has anybody got a Bible?”
A clerical nephew produced a pocket New Testament, and it transpired that what she had meant was, “Take ten talents.”
“If I could take one, madam,” I said, “it would be enough.’’
“It speaks of that too,” she replied triumphantly. “Listen! ‘If any man have one talent…’ Oh, there’s everything in the Bible!’’
“Let us,” remarked one of the thirteen solicitors, ‘’get to business. Whether it’s in the Bible or not, whether Mr. Tallent went past the window or not, the legality or illegality, of what we propose is not affected. Facts are facts. The deceased is dead. You’ve got the money. We want it.”
“I devoutly wish you’d got it,” I said, “and that Tallent was haunting you instead of me.”
The meeting lasted four hours. The wildest ideas were put forward. One or two sporting cousins of the deceased suggested a decision by games-representatives of the would-be beneficiaries and representatives of the manuscript. They were unable to see that this could not affect the legal aspect. Johnson was asked for his opinion. He said that from a critic’s point of view the MSS. were balderdash. Everybody looked kindly upon him. But just as he was sunning himself in this atmosphere, and trying to forget Tallent, an immense lady, like Boadicea, advanced upon him, towering over him in a hostile manner.
“I haven’t read the books, and I’m not going to,” she said, “but I take exception to that word balderdash, sir, and I consider it libellous. Let me tell you, I brought Mr. Tallent into the world!” I looked at her with awesome wonder. She had brought that portent into the world! But how… whom had she persuaded?… I pulled myself up. And as I turned away from the contemplation of Boadicea, I saw Tallent pass the window again.
I rushed forward and tried to push up the sash. But the place was built for meetings, not for humanity, and it would not open. I seized the poker, intending to smash the glass. I suppose I must have looked rather mad, and as everybody else had been too intent on business to look out of the window, nobody believed that I had seen anything.
“You might just go round to the nearest chemist’s and get some bromide,” said the doctor to Johnson. “He’s over-wrought.”
Johnson, who was thankful to escape Boadicea, went with alacrity.
The meeting was, however, over at last. A resolution was passed that we should try to arrange things out of court. We were to take the opinions of six eminent lawyers-judges preferably. We were also to submit what Johnson thought the best story to a distinguished critic. According to what they said we were to divide the money up or leave things as they were.
I felt very much discouraged as I walked home. All these opinions would entail much work and expense. There seemed no end to it.
“Damn the man!” I muttered, as I turned the corner into the square in which I live. And there, just the width of the square away from me, was the man himself. I could almost have wept. What had I done that the gods should play with me thus?
I hurried forward, but he was walking fast, and in a moment he turned down a side-street. When I got to the corner, the street was empty. After this, hardly a day passed without my seeing Tallent. It made me horribly jumpy and nervous, and the fear of madness began to prey on my mind. Meanwhile, the business went on. It was finally decided that half the money should be divided among the relations. Now I thought there would be peace, and for a time there was—comparatively.
But it was only about a month from this date that I heard from one of the solicitors to say that a strange and disquieting thing had happened – two of the beneficiaries were haunted by Mr. Tallent to such an extent that their reason was in danger. I wrote to ask what form the haunting took. He said they continually heard Mr. Tallent reading aloud from his works. Wherever they were in the house, they still heard him. I wondered if he would begin reading to me soon. So far it had only been visions. If he began to read…
In a few months I heard that both the relations who were haunted had been taken to an asylum. ־While they were in the asylum they heard nothing. But, some time after, on being certified as cured and released, they heard the reading again, and had to go back. Gradually the same thing happened to others, but only to one or two at a time.
During the long winter, two years after his death, it began to happen to me.
I immediately went to a specialist, who said there was acute nervous prostration, and recommended a “home־’. But I refused. I would fight Tallent to the last. Six of the beneficiaries were now in “homes”, and every penny of the money they had had was used up.
I considered things. “Bell, book and candle” seemed to be what was required. But how, when, where to find him? I consulted a spiritualist, a priest and a woman who has more intuitive perception than anyone I know. From their advice I made my plans. But it was Lesbia who saved me.
“Get a man who can run to go about with you,” she said. “The moment He appeal’s, let your companion rush round by a side-street and cut him off.”
“But how will that – ?”
“Never mind. I know what I think.”
She gave me a wise little smile.
I did what she advised, but it was not till my patience was nearly exhausted that I saw Tallent again. The reading went on, but only in the evenings when I was alone, and at night. I asked people in evening after evening. But when I got into bed, it began.
Johnson suggested that I should get married.
“What?” I said, ‘’offer a woman a ruined nervous system, a threatened home, and a possible end in an asylum?”
“There’s one woman who would jump at it. I love my love with an L.”
“Don’t be an ass,” I said. I felt in no mood for jokes. All I wanted was to get things cleared up.
About three years after Tallent’s death, my companion and I, going out rather earlier than usual, saw him hastening down a long road which had no side-streets leading out of it. As luck would have it, an empty taxi passed US. I shouted. We got in. Just in front of Tallent’s ghost we stopped, leapt out, and flung ourselves upon him.
“My God!” I cried. “He’s solid’:
He was perfectly solid, and not a little alarmed.
We put him into the taxi and took him to my house.
“Now, Tallent!’’ I said, “you will answer for what you have done.”
He looked scared, but dreamy.
“Why aren’t you dead?” was my next question.
He seemed hurt.
“I never died,” he replied softly.
”It was in the papers.”
“I put it in. I was in America. It was quite easy.”
“And that continual haunting of me, and the wicked driving of your unfortunate relations into asylums?” I was working myself into a rage. “Do you know how many of them are there now?”
“Yes. I know. Very interesting.”
“It was in a great cause,” he said. “Possibly you didn’t grasp that I was a progressive psycho-analyst, and that I did not take those novels of mine seriously. In fact, they were just part of the experiment.”
“In heaven’s name, what experiment?”
“The plural would be better, really,” he said, “for there were many experiments.”
“But what for, you damned old blackguard?” I shouted.
“For my magnum opus he said modestly.
“And what is your abominable magnum opus, you wicked old man?”
“It will be famous all over the world,” he said complacently. “All this has given me exceptional opportunities. It was so easy to get into my relations’ houses and experiment with them. It was regrettable, though, that I could not follow them to the asylum.”
This evidently worried him far more than the trouble he had caused. So it was you reading, every time?”
“And it was you who went past the window of that horrible room when we discussed your will?”
“Yes. A most gratifying spectacle!”
“And now, you old scoundrel, before I decide what to do with you,” I said, “what is the magnum opus?”
“It is a treatise,” he said, with the pleased expression that made me so wild. “A treatise that will eclipse all former work in that field, and its title is – ‘An Exhaustive Enquiry, with numerous Experiments, into the Power of Human Endurance’.”
Margaret Mahuntleth, in the corner of the big settle, basked in the hearth-glow like one newly come to heaven. Warm light reddened her knitted shawl, her white apron, and her face, worn and frail. It was as if the mortal part of it had been beaten thin by the rains and snows of long roads, baked, like fine enamel, by many suns, so that it had a concave look – as though hollowed out of mother o’ pearl. Some faces gather wrinkles with the years, like seamed rocks on mountains, others only become, like stones in a brook, smoother, though frailer, in the conflicting currents. Margaret’s was one of these. And though she was a bit of a has-been, yet her face, as it shone from the dark settle-back, seemed young and almost angelic in its irrefragable happiness. For Marg’ret had never dreamed (no, not for an instant!) as she fought her way to Thresholds Farm through weather that made her whole being seem a hollow shell, that she would be invited into the kitchen. Usually she did her work in the barn. For Marg’ret was a chair-mender.
She travelled, on her small birdlike feet, all over the county, carrying her long bundle of rushes. With these she mended chairs at farms and cottages and even in the kitchens of rectories and in parish rooms and at the backs of churches where the people from the almshouses sat. She mended chairs mostly for other people to draw up to glowing fires and well-spread tables. She made them very flawless for weddings. For funerals she made them strong, because the people who attend funerals are generally older than those who attend weddings, and the weight of years is on them, and they have gathered to themselves, like the caddis worm, a mass of extraneous substance.
For dances Marg’ret also made them strong, knowing that in the intervals young women of some twelve stone would subside upon the knees of stalwarts rising fifteen stone.
Marg’ret knew all about it. She had been to some of the dances years ago, but people forgot to ask her to dance. Her faint tints, her soft, sad, downcast eye, her sober dress, all combined with her personality to make her fade into any background. She was always conscious, too, of the disgrace of being only a chair-mender; of not being the gardener’s daughter at the Hall, or Rectory-Lucy. So people forgot she was there, and she even forgot she was there herself.
She worked hard. She could make butter-baskets and poultry-baskets through which not the most centrifugal half-dozen fowls could do more than insinuate anxious heads. She could make children’s ornamental basket-chairs, and she could do the close wicker-work of rocking-chairs for nursing-mothers. Winter and summer she tramped from place to place, over frozen roads and dusty roads and all the other kinds of roads, calling at farms with her timid knock and her faint, cry, plaintive and musical, soon lost on the wind – ‘Chairs to mend!’
Then she would take the chair or basket or mat into the orchard or the barn, and sit at her work through the long green day or the short grey day, plaiting with her pale, hollow hands. Within doors she never thought of going. She would have been the first to deprecate sheeding rushes all o’er. The warm kitchen was a Paradise to which she, a Peri, did not pretend. Its furnishings she knew intimately, but she knew them as a church-cleaner might know the altar and its chalices, being, if such a thing were possible, excommunicated. Under the bowl of the sky, across the valleys she came, did her work featly as an elf, and was gone, as if the swift airs had blown her away with the curled may-petals of spring, the curved leaves of autumn.
If night drew on before she had done her work, she would sleep in the hayloft. Nobody inquired where she usually slept, any more than they concerned themselves about the squirrel that ran along the fence and was away, or the thistledown that floated along the blue sky.
So Marg’ret had never dreamed of being invited to the hearth-place. It was the most wonderful thing. Outside, the wan snowflakes battered themselves upon the panes like birds, dying. The night had come, black, inevitable, long. And to those who have no house the night is a wild beast. In every chimney a hollow wind spoke its uncontent. There were many chimneys at Thresholds Farm. It was a great place, and the master was a man well-thought-of, rich.
Marg’ret trembled to think she was here in the same room with him. He might even speak to her. He sat on the other side of the hearth while the servant-girl laid tea – the knife-and-fork tea of farms, with beef and bacon and potatoes. A tea to remember.
He sat leaning forward, his broad, knotted hands on his knees, staring into the fire. The girl slammed the teapot down on the table and said–
‘Yer tea, master.’
Marg’ret got up. She supposed it was time now for her to creep to bed in the hospitable loft, after a kindly cup of tea in the back kitchen. It had been wonderful, sitting here – just sitting quietly enjoying the rest and the dignity of the solid furniture and the bright fingers of the firelight touching here a willow-pattern plate and there a piece of copper. It was one of those marvellous half-hours of a life-time, which blossom on even to the grave, and maybe afterwards. She had never dreamed–
She softly crept toward the door, but as she went the master lifted his gloomy, chestnut-coloured eyes under their thatch of grizzled hair, and so transfixed her. She could not move with that brown fire upon her, engulfing her. So he always looked when he was deeply stirred. So he had looked down at his father’s coffin long ago, at his mother’s last year. So he had looked into the eyes of his favourite dog, dying in his arms. The look was the realization of the infinite within the finite, altering all values. Never once in all fifteen years during which she had been calling here had he seemed to look at Marg’ret at all.
In the almost ferocious intensity of the look she felt faint. Her face seemed like a fragile cup made to hold an unexpressed passion which was within his soul, which must find room for itself somewhere, as the great bore of water that rushes up a river must find room, some valley, some dimple where it may rest, where it may spread its strangled magnificence. She stood. Firelight filled her hollow palms; her apron, gathered in nervous fingers, so that it looked like a gleaner’s ready to carry grain; the pale shell of her face.
The servant-girl, perturbed by some gathering emotion that had come upon the kitchen, remained with a hand on the teapot-handle, transfixed. Marg’ret trembled, saying no word. How shall a conch-shell make music unless one lends it a voice? She was of the many human beings that wait on the shores of life for the voice which so often never comes.
Suddenly the master of the house said loudly, with his eyes still hard upon her–
It was as if the word burst a dam within him.
Her being received it.
‘Bide the night over,’ he added, in the same strange thunderous voice.
She took that also into her soul.
‘And all the nights,’ he finished, and a great calm fell upon him. It had taken all the years of his life till now for the flood to find its valley.
Then seeing that she stood as mute and still as ever, he said–
‘Coom then, take bite and sup.’
And when she was seated, like a half-thawed winter dormouse at its first feast, he said to the servant-girl, who still remained holding the Britannia-metal teapot (which seemed to mock Marg’ret with its inordinate convexity)–
‘Make a bed for the Missus!’
He was determined that no misunderstanding should vex his new-found peace, and when the girl had gone, breathing hard like an exhausted swimmer, he remained staring at Marg’ret in a kind of hunger for giving. And she, perfectly receptive, empty-handed as a Peri, let his flaming eyes dwell on her face, let his fire and his food hearten her, and so gave him her charity. And this was how Marg’ret Mahuntleth, the poor chair-mender, without will of her own or desert of her own, as far as she could see, came to be the mistress of the house and lawful wife of the master of Thresholds.
For hours she had lain in a kind of gentle torpor, not unlike that sweet lassitude which masters one in the hush of a midsummer noon, when the heat seems to have silenced the very birds and insects, and, lying sunk in the tasselled meadow-grasses, one looks up through a level roofing of maple-leaves at the vast shadowless, and unsuggestive blue. Now and then, at ever-lengthening intervals, a flash of pain darted through her, like the ripple of sheet-lightning across such a midsummer sky; but it was too transitory to shake her stupor, that calm, delicious, bottomless stupor into which she felt herself sinking more and more deeply, without a disturbing impulse of resistance, an effort of reattachment to the vanishing edges of consciousness.
The resistance, the effort, had known their hour of violence; but now they were at an end. Through her mind, long harried by grotesque visions, fragmentary images of the life that she was leaving, tormenting lines of verse, obstinate presentments of pictures once beheld, indistinct impressions of rivers, towers, and cupolas, gathered in the length of journeys half forgotten-through her mind there now only moved a few primal sensations of colorless well-being; a vague satisfaction in the thought that she had swallowed her noxious last draught of medicine… and that she should never again hear the creaking of her husband’s boots – those horrible boots – and that no one would come to bother her about the next day’s dinner… or the butcher’s book…
At last even these dim sensations spent themselves in the thickening obscurity which enveloped her; a dusk now filled with pale geometric roses, circling softly, interminably before her, now darkened to a uniform blue-blackness, the hue of a summer night without stars. And into this darkness she felt herself sinking, sinking, with the gentle sense of security of one upheld from beneath. Like a tepid tide it rose around her, gliding ever higher and higher, folding in its velvety embrace her relaxed and tired body, now submerging her breast and shoulders, now creeping gradually, with soft inexorableness, over her throat to her chin, to her ears, to her mouth… Ah, now it was rising too high; the impulse to struggle was renewed;… her mouth was full;… she was choking… Help!
“It is all over,” said the nurse, drawing down the eyelids with official composure.
The clock struck three. They remembered it afterward. Someone opened the window and let in a blast of that strange, neutral air which walks the earth between darkness and dawn; someone else led the husband into another room. He walked vaguely, like a blind man, on his creaking boots.
She stood, as it seemed, on a threshold, yet no tangible gateway was in front of her. Only a wide vista of light, mild yet penetrating as the gathered glimmer of innumerable stars, expanded gradually before her eyes, in blissful contrast to the cavernous darkness from which she had of late emerged.
She stepped forward, not frightened, but hesitating, and as her eyes began to grow more familiar with the melting depths of light about her, she distinguished the outlines of a landscape, at first swimming in the opaline uncertainty of Shelley’s vaporous creations, then gradually resolved into distincter shape – the vast unrolling of a sunlit plain, aerial forms of mountains, and presently the silver crescent of a river in the valley, and a blue stencilling of trees along its curve – something suggestive in its ineffable hue of an azure background of Leonardo’s, strange, enchanting, mysterious, leading on the eye and the imagination into regions of fabulous delight. As she gazed, her heart beat with a soft and rapturous surprise; so exquisite a promise she read in the summons of that hyaline distance.
“And so death is not the end after all,” in sheer gladness she heard herself exclaiming aloud. “I always knew that it couldn’t be. I believed in Darwin, of course. I do still; but then Darwin himself said that he wasn’t sure about the soul – at least, I think he did – and Wallace was a spiritualist; and then there was St. George Mivart –”
Her gaze lost itself in the ethereal remoteness of the mountains.
“How beautiful! How satisfying!” she murmured. “Perhaps now I shall really know what it is to live.”
As she spoke she felt a sudden thickening of her heart-beats, and looking up she was aware that before her stood the Spirit of Life.
“Have you never really known what it is to live?” the Spirit of Life asked her.
“I have never known,” she replied, “that fulness of life which we all feel ourselves capable of knowing; though my life has not been without scattered hints of it, like the scent of earth which comes to one sometimes far out at sea.”
“And what do you call the fulness of life?” the Spirit asked again.
“Oh, I can’t tell you, if you don’t know,” she said, almost reproachfully. “Many words are supposed to define it – love and sympathy are those in commonest use, but I am not even sure that they are the right ones, and so few people really know what they mean.”
“You were married,” said the Spirit, “yet you did not find the fulness of life in your marriage?”
“Oh, dear, no,” she replied, with an indulgent scorn, “my marriage was a very incomplete affair.”
“And yet you were fond of your husband?”
“You have hit upon the exact word; I was fond of him, yes, just as I was fond of my grandmother, and the house that I was born in, and my old nurse. Oh, I was fond of him, and we were counted a very happy couple. But I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms: there is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawingroom, where one receives formal visits; the sitting-room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.”
“And your husband,” asked the Spirit, after a pause, “never got beyond the family sitting-room?”
“Never,” she returned, impatiently; “and the worst of it was that he was quite content to remain there. He thought it perfectly beautiful, and sometimes, when he was admiring its commonplace furniture, insignificant as the chairs and tables of a hotel parlor, I felt like crying out to him: ‘Fool, will you never guess that close at hand are rooms full of treasures and wonders, such as the eye of man hath not seen, rooms that no step has crossed, but that might be yours to live in, could you but find the handle of the door?'”
“Then,” the Spirit continued, “those moments of which you lately spoke, which seemed to come to you like scattered hints of the fulness of life, were not shared with your husband?”
“Oh, no – never. He was different. His boots creaked, and he always slammed the door when he went out, and he never read anything but railway novels and the sporting advertisements in the papers — and — and, in short, we never understood each other in the least.”
“To what influence, then, did you owe those exquisite sensations?”
“I can hardly tell. Sometimes to the perfume of a flower; sometimes to a verse of Dante or of Shakespeare; sometimes to a picture or a sunset, or to one of those calm days at sea, when one seems to be lying in the hollow of a blue pearl; sometimes, but rarely, to a word spoken by someone who chanced to give utterance, at the right moment, to what I felt but could not express.”
“Someone whom you loved?” asked the Spirit.
“I never loved anyone, in that way,” she said, rather sadly, “nor was I thinking of any one person when I spoke, but of two or three who, by touching for an instant upon a certain chord of my being, had called forth a single note of that strange melody which seemed sleeping in my soul. It has seldom happened, however, that I have owed such feelings to people; and no one ever gave me a moment of such happiness as it was my lot to feel one evening in the Church of Or San Michele, in Florence.”
“Tell me about it,” said the Spirit.
“It was near sunset on a rainy spring afternoon in Easter week. The clouds had vanished, dispersed by a sudden wind, and as we entered the church the fiery panes of the high windows shone out like lamps through the dusk. A priest was at the high altar, his white cope a livid spot in the incense-laden obscurity, the light of the candles flickering up and down like fireflies about his head; a few people knelt near by. We stole behind them and sat down on a bench close to the tabernacle of Orcagna.
“Strange to say, though Florence was not new to me, I had never been in the church before; and in that magical light I saw for the first time the inlaid steps, the fluted columns, the sculptured bas-reliefs and canopy of the marvellous shrine. The marble, worn and mellowed by the subtle hand of time, took on an unspeakable rosy hue, suggestive in some remote way of the honeycolored columns of the Parthenon, but more mystic, more complex, a color not born of the sun’s inveterate kiss, but made up of cryptal twilight, and the flame of candles upon martyrs’ tombs, and gleams of sunset through symbolic panes of chrysoprase and ruby; such a light as illumines the missals in the library of Siena, or burns like a hidden fire through the Madonna of Gian Bellini in the Church of the Redeemer, at Venice; the light of the Middle Ages, richer, more solemn, more significant than the limpid sunshine of Greece.
“The church was silent, but for the wail of the priest and the occasional scraping of a chair against the floor, and as I sat there, bathed in that light, absorbed in rapt contemplation of the marble miracle which rose before me, cunningly wrought as a casket of ivory and enriched with jewel-like incrustations and tarnished gleams of gold, I felt myself borne onward along a mighty current, whose source seemed to be in the very beginning of things, and whose tremendous waters gathered as they went all the mingled streams of human passion and endeavor. Life in all its varied manifestations of beauty and strangeness seemed weaving a rhythmical dance around me as I moved, and wherever the spirit of man had passed I knew that my foot had once been familiar.
“As I gazed the mediaeval bosses of the tabernacle of Orcagna seemed to melt and flow into their primal forms so that the folded lotus of the Nile and the Greek acanthus were braided with the runic knots and fish-tailed monsters of the North, and all the plastic terror and beauty born of man’s hand from the Ganges to the Baltic quivered and mingled in Orcagna’s apotheosis of Mary. And so the river bore me on, past the alien face of antique civilizations and the familiar wonders of Greece, till I swam upon the fiercely rushing tide of the Middle Ages, with its swirling eddies of passion, its heaven-reflecting pools of poetry and art; I heard the rhythmic blow of the craftsmen’s hammers in the goldsmiths’ workshops and on the walls of churches, the party-cries of armed factions in the narrow streets, the organroll of Dante’s verse, the crackle of the fagots around Arnold of Brescia, the twitter of the swallows to which St. Francis preached, the laughter of the ladies listening on the hillside to the quips of the Decameron, while plague-struck Florence howled beneath them — all this and much more I heard, joined in strange unison with voices earlier and more remote, fierce, passionate, or tender, yet subdued to such awful harmony that I thought of the song that the morning stars sang together and felt as though it were sounding in my ears. My heart beat to suffocation, the tears burned my lids, the joy, the mystery of it seemed too intolerable to be borne. I could not understand even then the words of the song; but I knew that if there had been someone at my side who could have heard it with me, we might have found the key to it together.
“I turned to my husband, who was sitting beside me in an attitude of patient dejection, gazing into the bottom of his hat; but at that moment he rose, and stretching his stiffened legs, said, mildly: ‘Hadn’t we better be going? There doesn’t seem to be much to see here, and you know the table d’hote dinner is at half-past six o’clock.”
Her recital ended, there was an interval of silence; then the Spirit of Life said: “There is a compensation in store for such needs as you have expressed.”
“Oh, then you do understand?” she exclaimed. “Tell me what compensation, I entreat you!”
“It is ordained,” the Spirit answered, “that every soul which seeks in vain on earth for a kindred soul to whom it can lay bare its inmost being shall find that soul here and be united to it for eternity.”
A glad cry broke from her lips. “Ah, shall I find him at last?” she cried, exultant.
“He is here,” said the Spirit of Life.
She looked up and saw that a man stood near whose soul (for in that unwonted light she seemed to see his soul more clearly than his face) drew her toward him with an invincible force.
“Are you really he?” she murmured.
“I am he,” he answered.
She laid her hand in his and drew him toward the parapet which overhung the valley.
“Shall we go down together,” she asked him, “into that marvellous country; shall we see it together, as if with the self-same eyes, and tell each other in the same words all that we think and feel?”
“So,” he replied, “have I hoped and dreamed.”
“What?” she asked, with rising joy. “Then you, too, have looked for me?”
“All my life.”
“How wonderful! And did you never, never find anyone in the other world who understood you?”
“Not wholly – not as you and I understand each other.”
“Then you feel it, too? Oh, I am happy,” she sighed.
They stood, hand in hand, looking down over the parapet upon the shimmering landscape which stretched forth beneath them into sapphirine space, and the Spirit of Life, who kept watch near the threshold, heard now and then a floating fragment of their talk blown backward like the stray swallows which the wind sometimes separates from their migratory tribe.
“Did you never feel at sunset –”
“Ah, yes; but I never heard anyone else say so. Did you?”
“Do you remember that line in the third canto of the ‘Inferno?'”
“Ah, that line – my favorite always. Is it possible –”
“You know the stooping Victory in the frieze of the Nike Apteros?”
“You mean the one who is tying her sandal? Then you have noticed, too, that all Botticelli and Mantegna are dormant in those flying folds of her drapery?”
“After a storm in autumn have you never seen –”
“Yes, it is curious how certain flowers suggest certain painters-the perfume of the incarnation, Leonardo; that of the rose, Titian; the tuberose, Crivelli –”
“I never supposed that anyone else had noticed it.”
“Have you never thought –”
“Oh, yes, often and often; but I never dreamed that anyone else had.”
“But surely you must have felt –”
“Oh, yes, yes; and you, too –”
“How beautiful! How strange –”
Their voices rose and fell, like the murmur of two fountains answering each other across a garden full of flowers. At length, with a certain tender impatience, he turned to her and said: “Love, why should we linger here? All eternity lies before us. Let us go down into that beautiful country together and make a home for ourselves on some blue hill above the shining river.”
As he spoke, the hand she had forgotten in his was suddenly withdrawn, and he felt that a cloud was passing over the radiance of her soul.
“A home,” she repeated, slowly, “a home for you and me to live in for all eternity?”
“Why not, love? Am I not the soul that yours has sought?”
“Y-yes – yes, I know – but, don’t you see, home would not be like home to me, unless –”
“Unless?” he wonderingly repeated.
She did not answer, but she thought to herself, with an impulse of whimsical inconsistency, “Unless you slammed the door and wore creaking boots.”
But he had recovered his hold upon her hand, and by imperceptible degrees was leading her toward the shining steps which descended to the valley.
“Come, O my soul’s soul,” he passionately implored; “why delay a moment? Surely you feel, as I do, that eternity itself is too short to hold such bliss as ours. It seems to me that I can see our home already. Have I not always seem it in my dreams? It is white, love, is it not, with polished columns, and a sculptured cornice against the blue? Groves of laurel and oleander and thickets of roses surround it; but from the terrace where we walk at sunset, the eye looks out over woodlands and cool meadows where, deep-bowered under ancient boughs, a stream goes delicately toward the river. Indoors our favorite pictures hang upon the walls and the rooms are lined with books. Think, dear, at last we shall have time to read them all. With which shall we begin? Come, help me to choose. Shall it be ‘Faust’ or the ‘Vita Nuova,’ the ‘Tempest’ or ‘Les Caprices de Marianne,’ or the thirty-first canto of the ‘Paradise,’ or ‘Epipsychidion’ or “Lycidas’? Tell me, dear, which one?”
As he spoke he saw the answer trembling joyously upon her lips; but it died in the ensuing silence, and she stood motionless, resisting the persuasion of his hand.
“What is it?” he entreated.
“Wait a moment,” she said, with a strange hesitation in her voice. “Tell me first, are you quite sure of yourself? Is there no one on earth whom you sometimes remember?”
“Not since I have seen you,” he replied; for, being a man, he had indeed forgotten.
Still she stood motionless, and he saw that the shadow deepened on her soul.
“Surely, love,” he rebuked her, “it was not that which troubled you? For my part I have walked through Lethe. The past has melted like a cloud before the moon. I never lived until I saw you.”
She made no answer to his pleadings, but at length, rousing herself with a visible effort, she turned away from him and moved toward the Spirit of Life, who still stood near the threshold.
“I want to ask you a question,” she said, in a troubled voice.
“Ask,” said the Spirit.
“A little while ago,” she began, slowly, “you told me that every soul which has not found a kindred soul on earth is destined to find one here.”
“And have you not found one?” asked the Spirit.
“Yes; but will it be so with my husband’s soul also?”
“No,” answered the Spirit of Life, “for your husband imagined that he had found his soul’s mate on earth in you; and for such delusions eternity itself contains no cure.”
She gave a little cry. Was it of disappointment or triumph?
“Then – then what will happen to him when he comes here?”
“That I cannot tell you. Some field of activity and happiness he will doubtless find, in due measure to his capacity for being active and happy.”
She interrupted, almost angrily: “He will never be happy without me.”
“Do not be too sure of that,” said the Spirit.
She took no notice of this, and the Spirit continued: “He will not understand you here any better than he did on earth.”
“No matter,” she said; “I shall be the only sufferer, for he always thought that he understood me.”
“His boots will creak just as much as ever –”
“And he will slam the door –”
“And continue to read railway novels –”
She interposed, impatiently: “Many men do worse than that.”
“But you said just now,” said the Spirit, “that you did not love him.”
“True,” she answered, simply; “but don’t you understand that I shouldn’t feel at home without him? It is all very well for a week or two – but for eternity! After all, I never minded the creaking of his boots, except when my head ached, and I don’t suppose it will ache here; and he was always so sorry when he had slammed the door, only he never could remember not to. Besides, no one else would know how to look after him, he is so helpless. His inkstand would never be filled, and he would always be out of stamps and visiting-cards. He would never remember to have his umbrella re-covered, or to ask the price of anything before he bought it. Why, he wouldn’t even know what novels to read. I always had to choose the kind he liked, with a murder or a forgery and a successful detective.”
She turned abruptly to her kindred soul, who stood listening with a mien of wonder and dismay.
“Don’t you see,” she said, “that I can’t possibly go with you?”
“But what do you intend to do?” asked the Spirit of Life.
“What do I intend to do?” she returned, indignantly. “Why, I mean to wait for my husband, of course. If he had come here first he would have waited for me for years and years; and it would break his heart not to find me here when he comes.” She pointed with a contemptuous gesture to the magic vision of hill and vale sloping away to the translucent mountains. “He wouldn’t give a fig for all that,” she said, “if he didn’t find me here.”
“But consider,” warned the Spirit, “that you are now choosing for eternity. It is a solemn moment.”
“Choosing!” she said, with a half-sad smile. “Do you still keep up here that old fiction about choosing? I should have thought that you knew better than that. How can I help myself? He will expect to find me here when he comes, and he would never believe you if you told him that I had gone away with someone else-never, never.”
“So be it,” said the Spirit. “Here, as on earth, each one must decide for himself.”
She turned to her kindred soul and looked at him gently, almost wistfully. “I am sorry,” she said. “I should have liked to talk with you again; but you will understand, I know, and I dare say you will find someone else a great deal cleverer –”
And without pausing to hear his answer she waved him a swift farewell and turned back toward the threshold.
“Will my husband come soon?” she asked the Spirit of Life.
“That you are not destined to know,” the Spirit replied.
“No matter,” she said, cheerfully; “I have all eternity to wait in.”
And still seated alone on the threshold, she listens for the creaking of his boots.
BY A PARTIAL, PREJUDICED, AND IGNORANT HISTORIAN.
To Miss Austen, eldest daughter of the Rev. George Austen, this work is inscribed with all due respect by THE AUTHOR.
N.B. There will be very few Dates in this History.
HENRY the 4th
Henry the 4th ascended the throne of England much to his own satisfaction in the year 1399, after having prevailed on his cousin and predecessor Richard the 2nd, to resign it to him, and to retire for the rest of his life to Pomfret Castle, where he happened to be murdered. It is to be supposed that Henry was married, since he had certainly four sons, but it is not in my power to inform the Reader who was his wife. Be this as it may, he did not live for ever, but falling ill, his son the Prince of Wales came and took away the crown; whereupon the King made a long speech, for which I must refer the Reader to Shakespear’s Plays, and the Prince made a still longer. Things being thus settled between them the King died, and was succeeded by his son Henry who had previously beat Sir William Gascoigne.
HENRY the 5th
This Prince after he succeeded to the throne grew quite reformed and amiable, forsaking all his dissipated companions, and never thrashing Sir William again. During his reign, Lord Cobham was burnt alive, but I forget what for. His Majesty then turned his thoughts to France, where he went and fought the famous Battle of Agincourt. He afterwards married the King’s daughter Catherine, a very agreable woman by Shakespear’s account. In spite of all this however he died, and was succeeded by his son Henry.
HENRY the 6th
I cannot say much for this Monarch’s sense. Nor would I if I could, for he was a Lancastrian. I suppose you know all about the Wars between him and the Duke of York who was of the right side; if you do not, you had better read some other History, for I shall not be very diffuse in this, meaning by it only to vent my spleen AGAINST, and shew my Hatred TO all those people whose parties or principles do not suit with mine, and not to give information. This King married Margaret of Anjou, a Woman whose distresses and misfortunes were so great as almost to make me who hate her, pity her. It was in this reign that Joan of Arc lived and made such a ROW among the English. They should not have burnt her—but they did. There were several Battles between the Yorkists and Lancastrians, in which the former (as they ought) usually conquered. At length they were entirely overcome; The King was murdered—The Queen was sent home—and Edward the 4th ascended the Throne.
EDWARD the 4th
This Monarch was famous only for his Beauty and his Courage, of which the Picture we have here given of him, and his undaunted Behaviour in marrying one Woman while he was engaged to another, are sufficient proofs. His Wife was Elizabeth Woodville, a Widow who, poor Woman! was afterwards confined in a Convent by that Monster of Iniquity and Avarice Henry the 7th. One of Edward’s Mistresses was Jane Shore, who has had a play written about her, but it is a tragedy and therefore not worth reading. Having performed all these noble actions, his Majesty died, and was succeeded by his son.
EDWARD the 5th
This unfortunate Prince lived so little a while that nobody had him to draw his picture. He was murdered by his Uncle’s Contrivance, whose name was Richard the 3rd.
RICHARD the 3rd
The Character of this Prince has been in general very severely treated by Historians, but as he was a YORK, I am rather inclined to suppose him a very respectable Man. It has indeed been confidently asserted that he killed his two Nephews and his Wife, but it has also been declared that he did not kill his two Nephews, which I am inclined to beleive true; and if this is the case, it may also be affirmed that he did not kill his Wife, for if Perkin Warbeck was really the Duke of York, why might not Lambert Simnel be the Widow of Richard. Whether innocent or guilty, he did not reign long in peace, for Henry Tudor E. of Richmond as great a villain as ever lived, made a great fuss about getting the Crown and having killed the King at the battle of Bosworth, he succeeded to it.
HENRY the 7th
This Monarch soon after his accession married the Princess Elizabeth of York, by which alliance he plainly proved that he thought his own right inferior to hers, tho’ he pretended to the contrary. By this Marriage he had two sons and two daughters, the elder of which Daughters was married to the King of Scotland and had the happiness of being grandmother to one of the first Characters in the World. But of HER, I shall have occasion to speak more at large in future. The youngest, Mary, married first the King of France and secondly the D. of Suffolk, by whom she had one daughter, afterwards the Mother of Lady Jane Grey, who tho’ inferior to her lovely Cousin the Queen of Scots, was yet an amiable young woman and famous for reading Greek while other people were hunting. It was in the reign of Henry the 7th that Perkin Warbeck and Lambert Simnel before mentioned made their appearance, the former of whom was set in the stocks, took shelter in Beaulieu Abbey, and was beheaded with the Earl of Warwick, and the latter was taken into the Kings kitchen. His Majesty died and was succeeded by his son Henry whose only merit was his not being quite so bad as his daughter Elizabeth.
HENRY the 8th
It would be an affront to my Readers were I to suppose that they were not as well acquainted with the particulars of this King’s reign as I am myself. It will therefore be saving THEM the task of reading again what they have read before, and MYSELF the trouble of writing what I do not perfectly recollect, by giving only a slight sketch of the principal Events which marked his reign. Among these may be ranked Cardinal Wolsey’s telling the father Abbott of Leicester Abbey that “he was come to lay his bones among them,” the reformation in Religion and the King’s riding through the streets of London with Anna Bullen. It is however but Justice, and my Duty to declare that this amiable Woman was entirely innocent of the Crimes with which she was accused, and of which her Beauty, her Elegance, and her Sprightliness were sufficient proofs, not to mention her solemn Protestations of Innocence, the weakness of the Charges against her, and the King’s Character; all of which add some confirmation, tho’ perhaps but slight ones when in comparison with those before alledged in her favour. Tho’ I do not profess giving many dates, yet as I think it proper to give some and shall of course make choice of those which it is most necessary for the Reader to know, I think it right to inform him that her letter to the King was dated on the 6th of May. The Crimes and Cruelties of this Prince, were too numerous to be mentioned, (as this history I trust has fully shown;) and nothing can be said in his vindication, but that his abolishing Religious Houses and leaving them to the ruinous depredations of time has been of infinite use to the landscape of England in general, which probably was a principal motive for his doing it, since otherwise why should a Man who was of no Religion himself be at so much trouble to abolish one which had for ages been established in the Kingdom. His Majesty’s 5th Wife was the Duke of Norfolk’s Neice who, tho’ universally acquitted of the crimes for which she was beheaded, has been by many people supposed to have led an abandoned life before her Marriage—of this however I have many doubts, since she was a relation of that noble Duke of Norfolk who was so warm in the Queen of Scotland’s cause, and who at last fell a victim to it. The Kings last wife contrived to survive him, but with difficulty effected it. He was succeeded by his only son Edward.
EDWARD the 6th
As this prince was only nine years old at the time of his Father’s death, he was considered by many people as too young to govern, and the late King happening to be of the same opinion, his mother’s Brother the Duke of Somerset was chosen Protector of the realm during his minority. This Man was on the whole of a very amiable Character, and is somewhat of a favourite with me, tho’ I would by no means pretend to affirm that he was equal to those first of Men Robert Earl of Essex, Delamere, or Gilpin. He was beheaded, of which he might with reason have been proud, had he known that such was the death of Mary Queen of Scotland; but as it was impossible that he should be conscious of what had never happened, it does not appear that he felt particularly delighted with the manner of it. After his decease the Duke of Northumberland had the care of the King and the Kingdom, and performed his trust of both so well that the King died and the Kingdom was left to his daughter in law the Lady Jane Grey, who has been already mentioned as reading Greek. Whether she really understood that language or whether such a study proceeded only from an excess of vanity for which I beleive she was always rather remarkable, is uncertain. Whatever might be the cause, she preserved the same appearance of knowledge, and contempt of what was generally esteemed pleasure, during the whole of her life, for she declared herself displeased with being appointed Queen, and while conducting to the scaffold, she wrote a sentence in Latin and another in Greek on seeing the dead Body of her Husband accidentally passing that way.
This woman had the good luck of being advanced to the throne of England, in spite of the superior pretensions, Merit, and Beauty of her Cousins Mary Queen of Scotland and Jane Grey. Nor can I pity the Kingdom for the misfortunes they experienced during her Reign, since they fully deserved them, for having allowed her to succeed her Brother—which was a double peice of folly, since they might have foreseen that as she died without children, she would be succeeded by that disgrace to humanity, that pest of society, Elizabeth. Many were the people who fell martyrs to the protestant Religion during her reign; I suppose not fewer than a dozen. She married Philip King of Spain who in her sister’s reign was famous for building Armadas. She died without issue, and then the dreadful moment came in which the destroyer of all comfort, the deceitful Betrayer of trust reposed in her, and the Murderess of her Cousin succeeded to the Throne.——
It was the peculiar misfortune of this Woman to have bad Ministers—-Since wicked as she herself was, she could not have committed such extensive mischeif, had not these vile and abandoned Men connived at, and encouraged her in her Crimes. I know that it has by many people been asserted and beleived that Lord Burleigh, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the rest of those who filled the cheif offices of State were deserving, experienced, and able Ministers. But oh! how blinded such writers and such Readers must be to true Merit, to Merit despised, neglected and defamed, if they can persist in such opinions when they reflect that these men, these boasted men were such scandals to their Country and their sex as to allow and assist their Queen in confining for the space of nineteen years, a WOMAN who if the claims of Relationship and Merit were of no avail, yet as a Queen and as one who condescended to place confidence in her, had every reason to expect assistance and protection; and at length in allowing Elizabeth to bring this amiable Woman to an untimely, unmerited, and scandalous Death. Can any one if he reflects but for a moment on this blot, this everlasting blot upon their understanding and their Character, allow any praise to Lord Burleigh or Sir Francis Walsingham? Oh! what must this bewitching Princess whose only freind was then the Duke of Norfolk, and whose only ones now Mr Whitaker, Mrs Lefroy, Mrs Knight and myself, who was abandoned by her son, confined by her Cousin, abused, reproached and vilified by all, what must not her most noble mind have suffered when informed that Elizabeth had given orders for her Death! Yet she bore it with a most unshaken fortitude, firm in her mind; constant in her Religion; and prepared herself to meet the cruel fate to which she was doomed, with a magnanimity that would alone proceed from conscious Innocence. And yet could you Reader have beleived it possible that some hardened and zealous Protestants have even abused her for that steadfastness in the Catholic Religion which reflected on her so much credit? But this is a striking proof of THEIR narrow souls and prejudiced Judgements who accuse her. She was executed in the Great Hall at Fortheringay Castle (sacred Place!) on Wednesday the 8th of February 1586—to the everlasting Reproach of Elizabeth, her Ministers, and of England in general. It may not be unnecessary before I entirely conclude my account of this ill-fated Queen, to observe that she had been accused of several crimes during the time of her reigning in Scotland, of which I now most seriously do assure my Reader that she was entirely innocent; having never been guilty of anything more than Imprudencies into which she was betrayed by the openness of her Heart, her Youth, and her Education. Having I trust by this assurance entirely done away every Suspicion and every doubt which might have arisen in the Reader’s mind, from what other Historians have written of her, I shall proceed to mention the remaining Events that marked Elizabeth’s reign. It was about this time that Sir Francis Drake the first English Navigator who sailed round the World, lived, to be the ornament of his Country and his profession. Yet great as he was, and justly celebrated as a sailor, I cannot help foreseeing that he will be equalled in this or the next Century by one who tho’ now but young, already promises to answer all the ardent and sanguine expectations of his Relations and Freinds, amongst whom I may class the amiable Lady to whom this work is dedicated, and my no less amiable self.
Though of a different profession, and shining in a different sphere of Life, yet equally conspicuous in the Character of an Earl, as Drake was in that of a Sailor, was Robert Devereux Lord Essex. This unfortunate young Man was not unlike in character to that equally unfortunate one FREDERIC DELAMERE. The simile may be carried still farther, and Elizabeth the torment of Essex may be compared to the Emmeline of Delamere. It would be endless to recount the misfortunes of this noble and gallant Earl. It is sufficient to say that he was beheaded on the 25th of Feb, after having been Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, after having clapped his hand on his sword, and after performing many other services to his Country. Elizabeth did not long survive his loss, and died so miserable that were it not an injury to the memory of Mary I should pity her.
JAMES the 1st
Though this King had some faults, among which and as the most principal, was his allowing his Mother’s death, yet considered on the whole I cannot help liking him. He married Anne of Denmark, and had several Children; fortunately for him his eldest son Prince Henry died before his father or he might have experienced the evils which befell his unfortunate Brother.
As I am myself partial to the roman catholic religion, it is with infinite regret that I am obliged to blame the Behaviour of any Member of it: yet Truth being I think very excusable in an Historian, I am necessitated to say that in this reign the roman Catholics of England did not behave like Gentlemen to the protestants. Their Behaviour indeed to the Royal Family and both Houses of Parliament might justly be considered by them as very uncivil, and even Sir Henry Percy tho’ certainly the best bred man of the party, had none of that general politeness which is so universally pleasing, as his attentions were entirely confined to Lord Mounteagle.
Sir Walter Raleigh flourished in this and the preceeding reign, and is by many people held in great veneration and respect—But as he was an enemy of the noble Essex, I have nothing to say in praise of him, and must refer all those who may wish to be acquainted with the particulars of his life, to Mr Sheridan’s play of the Critic, where they will find many interesting anecdotes as well of him as of his friend Sir Christopher Hatton.—His Majesty was of that amiable disposition which inclines to Freindship, and in such points was possessed of a keener penetration in discovering Merit than many other people. I once heard an excellent Sharade on a Carpet, of which the subject I am now on reminds me, and as I think it may afford my Readers some amusement to FIND IT OUT, I shall here take the liberty of presenting it to them.
SHARADE My first is what my second was to King James the 1st, and you tread on my whole.
The principal favourites of his Majesty were Car, who was afterwards created Earl of Somerset and whose name perhaps may have some share in the above mentioned Sharade, and George Villiers afterwards Duke of Buckingham. On his Majesty’s death he was succeeded by his son Charles.
CHARLES the 1st
This amiable Monarch seems born to have suffered misfortunes equal to those of his lovely Grandmother; misfortunes which he could not deserve since he was her descendant. Never certainly were there before so many detestable Characters at one time in England as in this Period of its History; never were amiable men so scarce. The number of them throughout the whole Kingdom amounting only to FIVE, besides the inhabitants of Oxford who were always loyal to their King and faithful to his interests. The names of this noble five who never forgot the duty of the subject, or swerved from their attachment to his Majesty, were as follows—The King himself, ever stedfast in his own support—Archbishop Laud, Earl of Strafford, Viscount Faulkland and Duke of Ormond, who were scarcely less strenuous or zealous in the cause. While the VILLIANS of the time would make too long a list to be written or read; I shall therefore content myself with mentioning the leaders of the Gang. Cromwell, Fairfax, Hampden, and Pym may be considered as the original Causers of all the disturbances, Distresses, and Civil Wars in which England for many years was embroiled. In this reign as well as in that of Elizabeth, I am obliged in spite of my attachment to the Scotch, to consider them as equally guilty with the generality of the English, since they dared to think differently from their Sovereign, to forget the Adoration which as STUARTS it was their Duty to pay them, to rebel against, dethrone and imprison the unfortunate Mary; to oppose, to deceive, and to sell the no less unfortunate Charles. The Events of this Monarch’s reign are too numerous for my pen, and indeed the recital of any Events (except what I make myself) is uninteresting to me; my principal reason for undertaking the History of England being to Prove the innocence of the Queen of Scotland, which I flatter myself with having effectually done, and to abuse Elizabeth, tho’ I am rather fearful of having fallen short in the latter part of my scheme.—As therefore it is not my intention to give any particular account of the distresses into which this King was involved through the misconduct and Cruelty of his Parliament, I shall satisfy myself with vindicating him from the Reproach of Arbitrary and tyrannical Government with which he has often been charged. This, I feel, is not difficult to be done, for with one argument I am certain of satisfying every sensible and well disposed person whose opinions have been properly guided by a good Education—and this Argument is that he was a STUART.
Finis Saturday Nov: 26th 1791.
This slender narrative has no pretensions to the regularity of a story, or the development of situations and feelings; it is but a slight sketch, delivered nearly as it was narrated to me by one of the humblest of the actors concerned: nor will I spin out a circumstance interesting principally from its singularity and truth, but narrate, as concisely as I can, how I was surprised on visiting what seemed a ruined tower, crowning a bleak promontory overhanging the sea, that flows between Wales and Ireland, to find that though the exterior preserved all the savage rudeness that betokened many a war with the elements, the interior was fitted up somewhat in the guise of a summer-house, for it was too small to deserve any other name. It consisted but of the ground-floor, which served as an entrance, and one room above, which was reached by a staircase made out of the thickness of the wall. This chamber was floored and carpeted, decorated with elegant furniture; and, above all, to attract the attention and excite curiosity, there hung over the chimney-piece – for to preserve the apartment from damp a fire-place had been built evidently since it had assumed a guise so dissimilar to the object of its construction – a picture simply painted in water-colours, which seemed more than any part of the adornments of the room to be at war with the rudeness of the building, the solitude in which it was placed, and the desolation of the surrounding scenery. This drawing represented a lovely girl in the very pride and bloom of youth; her dress was simple, in the fashion of the day – (remember, reader, I write at the beginning of the eighteenth century), her countenance was embellished by a look of mingled innocence and intelligence, to which was added the imprint of serenity of soul and natural cheerfulness. She was reading one of those folio romances which have so long been the delight of the enthusiastic and young; her mandoline was at her feet – her parroquet perched on a huge mirror near her; the arrangement of furniture and hangings gave token of a luxurious dwelling, and her attire also evidently that of home and privacy, yet bore with it an appearance of ease and girlish ornament, as if she wished to please. Beneath this picture was inscribed in golden letters, “The Invisible Girl.”
Rambling about a country nearly uninhabited, having lost my way, and being overtaken by a shower, I had lighted on this dreary looking tenement, which seemed to rock in the blast, and to be hung up there as the very symbol of desolation. I was gazing wistfully and cursing inwardly my stars which led me to a ruin that could afford no shelter, though the storm began to pelt more seriously than before, when I saw an old woman’s head popped out from a kind of loophole, and as suddenly withdrawn:–a minute after a feminine voice called to me from within, and penetrating a little brambly maze that skreened a door, which I had not before observed, so skilfully had the planter succeeded in concealing art with nature I found the good dame standing on the threshold and inviting me to take refuge within. “I had just come up from our cot hard by,” she said, “to look after the things, as I do every day, when the rain came on–will ye walk up till it is over?” I was about to observe that the cot hard by, at the venture of a few rain drops, was better than a ruined tower, and to ask my kind hostess whether “the things” were pigeons or crows that she was come to look after, when the matting of the floor and the carpeting of the staircase struck my eye. I was still more surprised when I saw the room above; and beyond all, the picture and its singular inscription, naming her invisible, whom the painter had coloured forth into very agreeable visibility, awakened my most lively curiosity: the result of this, of my exceeding politeness towards the old woman, and her own natural garrulity, was a kind of garbled narrative which my imagination eked out, and future inquiries rectified, till it assumed the following form.
Some years before in the afternoon of a September day, which, though tolerably fair, gave many tokens of a tempestuous evening, a gentleman arrived at a little coast town about ten miles from this place; he expressed his desire to hire a boat to carry him to the town of about fifteen miles further on the coast. The menaces which the sky held forth made the fishermen loathe to venture, till at length two, one the father of a numerous family, bribed by the bountiful reward the stranger promised–the other, the son of my hostess, induced by youthful daring, agreed to undertake the voyage. The wind was fair, and they hoped to make good way before nightfall, and to get into port ere the rising of the storm. They pushed off with good cheer, at least the fishermen did; as for the stranger, the deep mourning which he wore was not half so black as the melancholy that wrapt his mind. He looked as if he had never smiled–as if some unutterable thought, dark as night and bitter as death, had built its nest within his bosom, and brooded therein eternally; he did not mention his name; but one of the villagers recognised him as Henry Vernon, the son of a baronet who possessed a mansion about three miles distant from the town for which he was bound. This mansion was almost abandoned by the family; but Henry had, in a romantic fit, visited it about three years before, and Sir Peter had been down there during the previous spring for about a couple of months.
The boat did not make so much way as was expected; the breeze failed them as they got out to sea, and they were fain with oar as well as sail, to try to weather the promontory that jutted out between them and the spot they desired to reach. They were yet far distant when the shifting wind began to exert its strength, and to blow with violent though unequal puffs. Night came on pitchy dark, and the howling waves rose and broke with frightful violence, menacing to overwhelm the tiny bark that dared resist their fury. They were forced to lower every sail, and take to their oars; one man was obliged to bale out the water, and Vernon himself took an oar, and rowing with desperate energy, equalled the force of the more practised boatmen. There had been much talk between the sailors before the tempest came on; now, except a brief command, all were silent. One thought of his wife and children, and silently cursed the caprice of the stranger that endangered in its effects, not only his life, but their welfare; the other feared less, for he was a daring lad, but he worked hard, and had no time for speech; while Vernon bitterly regretting the thoughtlessness which had made him cause others to share a peril, unimportant as far as he himself was concerned, now tried to cheer them with a voice full of animation and courage, and now pulled yet more strongly at the oar he held. The only person who did not seem wholly intent on the work he was about, was the man who baled; every now and then he gazed intently round, as if the sea held afar off, on its tumultuous waste, some object that he strained his eyes to discern. But all was blank, except as the crests of the high waves showed themselves, or far out on the verge of the horizon, a kind of lifting of the clouds betokened greater violence for the blast. At length he exclaimed–”Yes, I see it!–the larboard oar!–now! if we can make yonder light, we are saved!” Both the rowers instinctively turned their heads,–but cheerless darkness answered their gaze.
“You cannot see it,” cried their companion, “but we are nearing it; and, please God, we shall outlive this night.” Soon he took the oar from Vernon’s hand, who, quite exhausted, was failing in his strokes. He rose and looked for the beacon which promised them safety;–it glimmered with so faint a ray, that now he said, “I see it;” and again, “it is nothing:” still, as they made way, it dawned upon his sight, growing more steady and distinct as it beamed across the lurid waters, which themselves be came smoother, so that safety seemed to arise from the bosom of the ocean under the influence of that flickering gleam.
“What beacon is it that helps us at our need?” asked Vernon, as the men, now able to manage their oars with greater ease, found breath to answer his question.
“A fairy one, I believe,” replied the elder sailor, “yet no less a true: it burns in an old tumble-down tower, built on the top of a rock which looks over the sea. We never saw it before this summer; and now each night it is to be seen, at least when it is looked for, for we cannot see it from our village; and it is such an out of the way place that no one has need to go near it, except through a chance like this. Some say it is burnt by witches, some say by smugglers; but this I know, two parties have been to search, and found nothing but the bare walls of the tower.
All is deserted by day, and dark by night; for no light was to be seen while we were there, though it burned sprightly enough when we were out at sea.
“I have heard say,” observed the younger sailor, “it is burnt by the ghost of a maiden who lost her sweetheart in these parts; he being wrecked, and his body found at the foot of the tower: she goes by the name among us of the ‘Invisible Girl.'”
The voyagers had now reached the landing-place at the foot of the tower. Vernon cast a glance upward, the light was still burning. With some difficulty, struggling with the breakers, and blinded by night, they contrived to get their little bark to shore, and to draw her up on the beach: they then scrambled up the precipitous pathway, overgrown by weeds and underwood, and, guided by the more experienced fishermen, they found the entrance to the tower, door or gate there was none, and all was dark as the tomb, and silent and almost as cold as death.
“This will never do,” said Vernon; “surely our hostess will show her light, if not herself, and guide our darkling steps by some sign of life and comfort.”
“We will get to the upper chamber,” said the sailor, “if I can but hit upon the broken down steps: but you will find no trace of the Invisible Girl nor her light either, I warrant.”
“Truly a romantic adventure of the most disagreeable kind,” muttered Vernon, as he stumbled over the unequal ground: “she of the beacon-light must be both ugly and old, or she would not be so peevish and inhospitable.”
With considerable difficulty, and, after divers knocks and bruises, the adventurers at length succeeded in reaching the upper story; but all was blank and bare, and they were fain to stretch themselves on the hard floor, when weariness, both of mind and body, conduced to steep their senses in sleep.
Long and sound were the slumbers of the mariners. Vernon but forgot himself for an hour; then, throwing off drowsiness, and finding his roughcouch uncongenial to repose, he got up and placed himself at the hole that served for a window, for glass there was none, and there being not even a rough bench, he leant his back against the embrasure, as the only rest he could find. He had forgotten his danger, the mysterious beacon, and its invisible guardian: his thoughts were occupied on the horrors of his own fate, and the unspeakable wretchedness that sat like a night-mare on his heart.
It would require a good-sized volume to relate the causes which had changed the once happy Vernon into the most woeful mourner that ever clung to the outer trappings of grief, as slight though cherished symbols of the wretchedness within. Henry was the only child of Sir Peter Vernon, and as much spoiled by his father’s idolatry as the old baronet’s violent and tyrannical temper would permit. A young orphan was educated in his father’s house, who in the same way was treated with generosity and kindness, and yet who lived in deep awe of Sir Peter’s authority, who was a widower; and these two children were all he had to exert his power over, or to whom to extend his affection. Rosina was a cheerful-tempered girl, a little timid, and careful to avoid displeasing her protector; but so docile, so kind-hearted, and so affectionate, that she felt even less than Henry the discordant spirit of his parent. It is a tale often told; they were playmates and companions in childhood, and lovers in after days. Rosina was frightened to imagine that this secret affection, and the vows they pledged, might be disapproved of by Sir Peter. But sometimes she consoled herself by thinking that perhaps she was in reality her Henry’s destined bride, brought up with him under the design of their future union; and Henry, while he felt that this was not the case, resolved to wait only until he was of age to declare and accomplish his wishes in making the sweet Rosina his wife. Meanwhile he was careful to avoid premature discovery of his intentions, so to secure his beloved girl from persecution and insult. The old gentleman was very conveniently blind; he lived always in the country, and the lovers spent their lives together, unrebuked and uncontrolled. It was enough that Rosina played on her mandoline, and sang Sir Peter to sleep every day after dinner; she was the sole female in the house above the rank of a servant, and had her own way in the disposal of her time. Even when Sir Peter frowned, her innocent caresses and sweet voice were powerful to smooth the rough current of his temper. If ever human spirit lived in an earthly paradise, Rosina did at this time: her pure love was made happy by Henry’s constant presence; and the confidence they felt in each other, and the security with which they looked forward to the future, rendered their path one of roses under a cloudless sky. Sir Peter was the slight drawback that only rendered their tete-a-tete more delightful, and gave value to the sympathy they each bestowed on the other. All at once an ominous personage made its appearance in Vernon-Place, in the shape of a widow sister of Sir Peter, who, having succeeded in killing her husband and children with the effects of her vile temper, came, like a harpy, greedy for new prey, under her brother’s roof. She too soon detected the attachment of the unsuspicious pair. She made all speed to impart her discovery to her brother, and at once to restrain and inflame his rage. Through her contrivance Henry was suddenly despatched on his travels abroad, that the coast might be clear for the persecution of Rosina; and then the richest of the lovely girl’s many admirers, whom, under Sir Peter’s single reign, she was allowed, nay, almost commanded, to dismiss, so desirous was he of keeping her for his own comfort, was selected, and she was ordered to marry him. The scenes of violence to which she was now exposed, the bitter taunts of the odious Mrs. Bainbridge, and the reckless fury of Sir Peter, were the more frightful and overwhelming from their novelty. To all she could only oppose a silent, tearful, but immutable steadiness of purpose: no threats, no rage could extort from her more than a touching prayer that they would not hate her, because she could not obey.
“There must he something we don’t see under all this,” said Mrs. Bainbridge, “take my word for it, brother,” she corresponds secretly with Henry. “Let us take her down to your seat in Wales, where she will have no pensioned beggars to assist her; and we shall see if her spirit be not bent to our purpose.”
Sir Peter consented, and they all three posted down, to shire, and took up their abode in the solitary and dreary looking house before alluded to as belonging to the family. Here poor Rosina’s sufferings grew intolerable: before, surrounded by well-known scenes, and in perpetual intercourse with kind and familiar faces, she had not despaired in the end of conquering by her patience the cruelty of her persecutors; nor had she written to Henry, for his name had not been mentioned by his relatives, nor their attachment alluded to, and she felt an instinctive wish to escape the dangers about her without his being annoyed, or the sacred secret of her love being laid bare, and wronged by the vulgar abuse of his aunt or the bitter curses of his father. But when she was taken to Wales, and made a prisoner in her apartment, when the flinty mountains about her seemed feebly to imitate the stony hearts she had to deal with, her courage began to fail. The only attendant permitted to approach her was Mrs. Bainbridge’s maid; and under the tutelage of her fiend-like mistress, this woman was used as a decoy to entice the poor prisoner into confidence, and then to be betrayed. The simple, kind-hearted Rosina was a facile dupe, and at last, in the excess of her despair, wrote to Henry, and gave the letter to this woman to be forwarded. The letter in itself would have softened marble; it did not speak of their mutual vows, it but asked him to intercede with his father, that he would restore her to the kind place she had formerly held in his affections, and cease from a cruelty that would destroy her. “For I may die,” wrote the hapless girl, “but marry another – never!” That single word, indeed, had sufficed to betray her secret, had it not been already discovered; as it was, it gave increased fury to Sir Peter, as his sister triumphantly pointed it out to him, for it need hardly be said that while the ink of the address was yet wet, and the seal still warm, Rosina’s letter was carried to this lady. The culprit was summoned before them; what ensued none could tell; for their own sakes the cruel pair tried to palliate their part. Voices were high, and the soft murmur of Rosina’s tone was lost in the howling of Sir Peter and the snarling of his sister. “Out of doors you shall go,” roared the old man; “under my roof you shall not spend another night.” And the words “infamous seductress,” and worse, such as had never met the poor girl’s ear before, were caught by listening servants; and to each angry speech of the baronet, Mrs. Bainbridge added an envenomed point worse than all.
More dead than alive, Rosina was at last dismissed. Whether guided by despair, whether she took Sir Peter’s threats literally, or whether his sister’s orders were more decisive, none knew, but Rosina left the house; a servant saw her cross the park, weeping, and wringing her hands as she went. What became of her none could tell; her disappearance was not disclosed to Sir Peter till the following day, and then he showed by his anxiety to trace her steps and to find her, that his words had been but idle threats. The truth was, that though Sir Peter went to frightful lengths to prevent the marriage of the heir of his house with the portionless orphan, the object of his charity, yet in his heart he loved Rosina, and half his violence to her rose from anger at himself for treating her so ill. Now remorse began to sting him, as messenger after messenger came back without tidings of his victim; he dared not confess his worst fears to himself; and when his inhuman sister, trying to harden her conscience by angry words, cried, “The vile hussy has too surely made away with herself out of revenge to us;” an oath, the most tremendous, and a look sufficient to make even her tremble, commanded her silence. Her conjecture, however, appeared too true: a dark and rushing stream that flowed at the extremity of the park had doubtless received the lovely form, and quenched the life of this unfortunate girl. Sir Peter, when his endeavours to find her proved fruitless, returned to town, haunted by the image of his victim, and forced to acknowledge in his own heart that he would willingly lay down his life, could he see her again, even though it were as the bride of his son – his son, before whose questioning he quailed like the veriest coward; for when Henry was told of the death of Rosina, he suddenly returned from abroad to ask the cause – to visit her grave, and mourn her loss in the groves and valleys which had been the scenes of their mutual happiness. He made a thousand inquiries, and an ominous silence alone replied. Growing more earnest and more anxious, at length he drew from servants and dependants, and his odious aunt herself, the whole dreadful truth. From that moment despair struck his heart, and misery named him her own. He fled from his father’s presence; and the recollection that one whom he ought to revere was guilty of so dark a crime, haunted him, as of old the Eumenides tormented the souls of men given up to their torturings.
His first, his only wish, was to visit Wales, and to learn if any new discovery had been made, and whether it were possible to recover the mortal remains of the lost Rosina, so to satisfy the unquiet longings of his miserable heart. On this expedition was he bound, when he made his appearance at the village before named; and now in the deserted tower, his thoughts were busy with images of despair and death, and what his beloved one had suffered before her gentle nature had been goaded to such a deed of woe.
While immersed in gloomy reverie, to which the monotonous roaring of the sea made fit accompaniment, hours flew on, and Vernon was at last aware that the light of morning was creeping from out its eastern retreat, and dawning over the wild ocean, which still broke in furious tumult on the rocky beach. His companions now roused themselves, and prepared to depart. The food they had brought with them was damaged by sea water, and their hunger, after hard labour and many hours fasting, had become ravenous. It was impossible to put to sea in their shattered boat; but there stood a fisher’s cot about two miles off, in a recess in the bay, of which the promontory on which the tower stood formed one side, and to this they hastened to repair; they did not spend a second thought on the light which had saved them, nor its cause, but left the ruin in search of a more hospitable asylum. Vernon cast his eves round as he quitted it, but no vestige of an inhabitant met his eye, and he began to persuade himself that the beacon had been a creation of fancy merely. Arriving at the cottage in question, which was inhabited by a fisherman and his family, they made a homely breakfast, and then prepared to return to the tower, to refit their boat, and if possible bring her round. Vernon accompanied them, together with their host and his son. Several questions were asked concerning the Invisible Girl and her light, each agreeing that the apparition was novel, and not one being able to give even an explanation of how the name had become affixed to the unknown cause of this singular appearance; though both of the men of the cottage affirmed that once or twice they had seen a female figure in the adjacent wood, and that now and then a stranger girl made her appearance at another cot a mile off, on the other side of the promontory, and bought bread; they suspected both these to be the same, but could not tell. The inhabitants of the cot, indeed, appeared too stupid even to feel curiosity, and had never made any attempt at discovery. The whole day was spent by the sailors in repairing the boat; and the sound of hammers, and the voices of the men at work, resounded along the coast, mingled with the dashing of the waves. This was no time to explore the ruin for one who whether human or supernatural so evidently withdrew herself from intercourse with every living being. Vernon, however, went over the tower, and searched every nook in vain; the dingy bare walls bore no token of serving as a shelter; and even a little recess in the wall of the staircase, which he had not before observed, was equally empty and desolate.
Quitting the tower, he wandered in the pine wood that surrounded it, and giving up all thought of solving the mystery, was soon engrossed by thoughts that touched his heart more nearly, when suddenly there appeared on the ground at his feet the vision of a slipper. Since Cinderella so tiny a slipper had never been seen; as plain as shoe could speak, it told a tale of elegance, loveliness, and youth. Vernon picked it up; he had often admired Rosina’s singularly small foot, and his first thought was a question whether this little slipper would have fitted it. It was very strange! – it must belong to the Invisible Girl. Then there was a fairy form that kindled that light, a form of such material substance, that its foot needed to be shod; and yet how shod? – with kid so fine, and of shape so exquisite, that it exactly resembled such as Rosina wore! Again the recurrence of the image of the beloved dead came forcibly across him; and a thousand home-felt associations, childish yet sweet, and lover-like though trifling, so filled Vernon’s heart, that he threw himself his length on the ground, and wept more bitterly than ever the miserable fate of the sweet orphan.
In the evening the men quitted their work, and Vernon returned with them to the cot where they were to sleep, intending to pursue their voyage, weather permitting, the following morning.
Vernon said nothing of his slipper, but returned with his rough associates. Often he looked back; but the tower rose darkly over the dim waves, and no light appeared. Preparations had been made in the cot for their accommodation, and the only bed in it was offered Vernon; but he refused to deprive his hostess, and spreading his cloak on a heap of dry leaves, endeavoured to give himself up to repose. He slept for some hours; and when he awoke, all was still, save that the hard breathing of the sleepers in the same room with him interrupted the silence. He rose, and going to the window, looked out over the now placid sea towards the mystic tower; the light burning there, sending its slender rays across the waves. Congratulating himself on a circumstance he had not anticipated, Vernon softly left the cottage, and, wrapping his cloak round him, walked with a swift pace round the bay towards the tower. He reached it; still the light was burning. To enter and restore the maiden her shoe, would be but an act of courtesy; and Vernon intended to do this with such caution, as to come unaware, before its wearer could, with her accustomed arts, withdraw herself from his eyes; but, unluckily, while yet making his way up the narrow pathway, his foot dislodged a loose fragment, that fell with crash and sound down the precipice. He sprung forward, on this, to retrieve by speed the advantage he had lost by this unlucky accident. He reached the door; he entered: all was silent, but also all was dark. He paused in the room below; he felt sure that a slight sound met his ear. He ascended the steps, and entered the upper chamber; but blank obscurity met his penetrating gaze, the starless night admitted not even a twilight glimmer through the only aperture. He closed his eyes, to try, on opening them again, to be able to catch some faint, wandering ray on the visual nerve; but it was in vain. He groped round the room: he stood still, and held his breath; and then, listening intently, he felt sure that another occupied the chamber with him, and that its atmosphere was slightly agitated by an-other’s respiration. He remembered the recess in the staircase; but, before he approached it, he spoke: he hesitated a moment what to say. “I must believe,” he said, “that misfortune alone can cause your seclusion; and if the assistance of a man – of a gentleman…”
An exclamation interrupted him; a voice from the grave spoke his name – the accents of Rosina syllabled, “Henry! – is it indeed Henry whom I hear?”
He rushed forward, directed by the sound, and clasped in his arms the living form of his own lamented girl – his own Invisible Girl he called her; for even yet, as he felt her heart beat near his, and as he entwined her waist with his arm, supporting her as she almost sank to the ground with agitation, he could not see her; and, as her sobs prevented her speech, no sense, but the instinctive one that filled his heart with tumultuous gladness, told him that the slender, wasted form he pressed so fondly was the living shadow of the Hebe beauty he had adored.
The morning saw this pair thus strangely restored to each other on the tranquil sea, sailing with a fair wind for L–, whence they were to proceed to Sir Peter’s seat, which, three months before, Rosina had quitted in such agony and terror. The morning light dispelled the shadows that had veiled her, and disclosed the fair person of the Invisible Girl. Altered indeed she was by suffering and woe, but still the same sweet smile played on her lips, and the tender light of her soft blue eyes were all her own. Vernon drew out the slipper, and shoved the cause that had occasioned him to resolve to discover the guardian of the mystic beacon; even now he dared not inquire how she had existed in that desolate spot, or wherefore she had so sedulously avoided observation, when the right thing to have been done was, to have sought him immediately, under whose care, protected by whose love, no danger need be feared. But Rosina shrunk from him as he spoke, and a death-like pallor came over her cheek, as she faintly whispered, “Your father’s curse – your father’s dreadful threats!” It appeared, indeed, that Sir Peter’s violence, and the cruelty of Mrs. Bainbridge, had succeeded in impressing Rosina with wild and unvanquishable terror. She had fled from their house without plan or forethought, driven by frantic horror and overwhelming fear, she had left it with scarcely any money, and there seemed to her no possibility of either returning or proceeding onward. She had no friend except Henry in the wide world; whither could she go? – to have sought Henry would have sealed their fates to misery; for, with an oath, Sir Peter had declared he would rather see them both in their coffins than married. After wandering about, hiding by day, and only venturing forth at night, she had come to this deserted tower, which seemed a place of refuge. I low she had lived since then she could hardly tell; she had lingered in the woods by day, or slept in the vault of the tower, an asylum none were acquainted with or had discovered: by night she burned the pine-cones of the wood, and night was her dearest time; for it seemed to her as if security came with darkness. She was unaware that Sir Peter had left that part of the country, and was terrified lest her hiding-place should be revealed to him. Her only hope was that Henry would return – that Henry would never rest till he had found her. She confessed that the long interval and the approach of winter had visited her with dismay; she feared that, as her strength was failing, and her form wasting to a skeleton, that she might die, and never see her own Henry more.
An illness, indeed, in spite of all his care, followed her restoration to security and the comforts of civilized life; many months went by before the bloom revisiting her cheeks, and her limbs regaining their roundness, she resembled once more the picture drawn of her in her days of bliss, before any visitation of sorrow. It was a copy of this portrait that decorated the tower, the scene of her suffering, in which I had found shelter. Sir Peter, overjoyed to be relieved from the pangs of remorse, and delighted again to see his orphan-ward, whom he really loved, was now as eager as before he had been averse to bless her union with his son: Mrs. Bainbridge they never saw again. But each year they spent a few months in their Welch mansion, the scene of their early wedded happiness, and the spot where again poor Rosina had awoke to life and joy after her cruel persecutions. Henry’s fond care had fitted up the tower, and decorated it as I saw; and often did he come over, with his “Invisible Girl,” to renew, in the very scene of its occurrence, the remembrance of all the incidents which had led to their meeting again, during the shades of night, in that sequestered ruin.
All over the pavement of the church spread the exaggerated cross-hatching of the old pews’ oak, a Smithfield market of intersecting lines such as children made with cards in the old days when kings and knaves had fat legs bulging above their serviceable feet, and queens had skirts to their gowns and were not cut across their royal middles by mirrors reflecting only the bedizened torso of them and the charge—heart, trefoil, or the like—in the right-hand top corner of the oblong that framed them.
The pew had qualities: tall fat hassocks, red cushions, a comparative seclusion, and, in the case of the affluent, red curtains drawn at sermon-time.
The child wearied by the spectacle of a plump divine, in black gown and Geneva bands, thumping the pulpit-cushions in the madness of incomprehensible oratory, surrendered his ears to the noise of intonations which, in his own treble, would have earned the reprimand, ‘Naughty temper.’ His eyes, however, were, through some oversight of the gods of his universe, still his own. They found their own pasture: not, to be sure, the argent and sable of gown and bands, still less the gules of flushed denunciatory gills.
There is fair pasture in an old church which, when Norman work was broken down, men loved and built again as from the heart, with pillars and arches, which, to their rude time, symbolized all that the heart desires to materialize, in symbolic stone. The fretted tombs where the effigies of warrior and priest lay life-like in dead marble, the fretted canopies that brooded above their rest. Tall pillars like the trunks of the pine woods that smelt so sweet, the marvel of the timbered roof—turned upside down it would be like a ship. And what could be easier than to turn it upside down? Imagination shrank bashfully from the pulpit already tightly tenanted, but the triforium was plainly and beautifully empty; there one could walk, squeezing happily through the deep thin arches and treading carefully by the unguarded narrow ledge. Only if one played too long in the roof aunts nudged, and urgent whispers insisted that one must not look about like that in church. When this moment came it came always as a crisis foreseen, half dreaded, half longed-for. After that the child kept his eyes lowered, and looked only at the faded red hassocks from which the straw bulged, and in brief, guarded, intimate moments, at the other child.
The other child was kneeling, always, whether the congregation knelt or stood or sat. Its hands were clasped. Its face was raised, but its back bowed under a weight—the weight of the font, for the other child was of marble and knelt always in the church, Sundays and week-days. There had been once three marble figures holding up the shallow basin, but two had crumbled or been broken away, and now it seemed that the whole weight of the superimposed marble rested on those slender shoulders.
The child who was not marble was sorry for the other. He must be very tired.
The child who was not marble,—his name was Ernest,—that child of weary eyes and bored brain, pitied the marble boy while he envied him.
‘I suppose he doesn’t really feel, if he’s stone,’ he said. ‘That’s what they mean by the stony-hearted tyrant. But if he does feel— How jolly it would be if he could come out and sit in my pew, or if I could creep under the font beside him. If he would move a little there would be just room for me.’
The first time that Ernest ever saw the marble child move was on the hottest Sunday in the year. The walk across the fields had been a breathless penance, the ground burned the soles of Ernest’s feet as red-hot ploughshares the feet of the saints. The corn was cut, and stood in stiff yellow stooks, and the shadows were very black. The sky was light, except in the west beyond the pine trees, where blue-black clouds were piled.
‘Like witches’ feather-beds,’ said Aunt Harriet, shaking out the folds of her lace shawl.
‘Not before the child, dear,’ whispered Aunt Emmeline.
Ernest heard her, of course. It was always like that: as soon as any one spoke about anything interesting, Aunt Emmeline intervened. Ernest walked along very melancholy in his starched frill. The dust had whitened his strapped shoes, and there was a wrinkle in one of his white socks.
‘Pull it up, child, pull it up,’ said Aunt Jessie; and shielded from the world by the vast silk-veiled crinolines of three full-sized aunts, he pulled it up.
On the way to church, and indeed, in all walks abroad, you held the hand of an aunt; the circumferent crinolines made the holding an arm’s-length business, very tiring. Ernest was always glad when, in the porch, the hand was dropped. It was just as the porch was reached that the first lonely roll of thunder broke over the hills.
‘I knew it,’ said Aunt Jessie, in triumph; ‘but you would wear your blue silk.’
There was no more thunder till after the second lesson, which was hardly ever as interesting as the first, Ernest thought. The marble child looked more tired than usual, and Ernest lost himself in a dream-game where both of them got out from prison and played hide-and-seek among the tombstones. Then the thunder cracked deafeningly right over the church. Ernest forgot to stand up, and even the clergyman waited till it died away.
It was a most exciting service, well worth coming to church for, and afterwards people crowded in the wide porch and wondered whether it would clear, and wished they had brought their umbrellas. Some went back and sat in their pews till the servants should have had time to go home and return with umbrellas and cloaks. The more impetuous made clumsy rushes between the showers, bonnets bent, skirts held well up. Many a Sunday dress was ruined that day, many a bonnet fell from best to second-best.
And it was when Aunt Jessie whispered to him to sit still and be a good boy and learn a hymn, that he looked to the marble child with, ‘Isn’t it a shame?’ in his heart and his eyes, and the marble child looked back, ‘Never mind, it will soon be over,’ and held out its marble hands. Ernest saw them come toward him, reaching well beyond the rim of the basin under which they had always, till now, stayed.
‘Oh!’ said Ernest, quite out loud; and, dropping the hymn-book, held out his hands, or began to hold them out. For before he had done more than sketch the gesture, he remembered that marble does not move and that one must not be silly. All the same, marble had moved. Also Ernest had ‘spoken out loud’ in church. Unspeakable disgrace!
He was taken home in conscious ignominy, treading in all the puddles to distract his mind from his condition.
He was put to bed early, as a punishment, instead of sitting up and learning his catechism under the charge of one of the maids while the aunts went to evening church. This, while it was terrible to Ernest, was in the nature of a reprieve to the housemaid, who found means to modify her own consequent loneliness. Far-away whispers and laughs from the back or kitchen windows assured Ernest that the front or polite side of the house was unguarded. He got up, simulated the appearance of the completely dressed, and went down the carpeted stairs, through the rosewood-furnished drawing-room, rose-scented and still as a deathbed, and so out through the French windows to the lawn, where already the beginnings of dew lay softly.
His going out had no definite aim. It was simply an act of rebellion such as, secure from observation, the timid may achieve; a demonstration akin to putting the tongue out behind people’s backs.
Having got himself out on the lawn, he made haste to hide in the shrubbery, disheartened by a baffling consciousness of the futility of safe revenges. What is the tongue put out behind the back of the enemy without the applause of some admirer?
The red rays of the setting sun made splendor in the dripping shrubbery.
‘I wish I hadn’t,’ said Ernest.
But it seemed silly to go back now, just to go out and to go back. So he went farther into the shrubbery and got out at the other side where the shrubbery slopes down into the wood, and it was nearly dark there—so nearly that the child felt more alone than ever.
And then quite suddenly he was not alone. Hands parted the hazels and a face he knew looked out from between them.
He knew the face, and yet the child he saw was not any of the children he knew.
‘Well,’ said the child with the face he knew; ‘I’ve been watching you. What did you come out for?’
‘I was put to bed.’
‘Do you not like it?’
‘Not when it’s for punishment.’
‘If you’ll go back now,’ said the strange child, ‘I’ll come and play with you after you’re asleep.’
‘You daren’t. Suppose the aunts catch you?’
‘They won’t,’ said the child, shaking its head and laughing. ‘I’ll race you to the house!’
Ernest ran. He won the race. For the other child was not there at all when he reached the house.
‘How odd!’ he said. But he was tired and there was thunder again and it was beginning to rain, large spots as big as pennies on the step of the French window. So he went back to bed, too sleepy to worry about the question of where he had seen the child before, and only a little disappointed because his revenge had been so brief and inadequate.
Then he fell asleep and dreamed that the marble child had crept out from under the font, and that he and it were playing hide-and-seek among the pews in the gallery at church. It was a delightful dream and lasted all night, and when he woke he knew that the child he had seen in the wood in yesterday’s last light was the marble child from the church.
This did not surprise him as much as it would surprise you: the world where children live is so full of amazing and incredible-looking things that turn out to be quite real. And if Lot’s wife could be turned into a pillar of salt, why should not a marble child turn into a real one? It was all quite plain to Ernest, but he did not tell any one: because he had a feeling that it might not be easy to make it plain to them.
‘That child doesn’t look quite the thing,’ said Aunt Emmeline at breakfast. ‘A dose of Gregory’s, I think, at eleven.’
Ernest’s morning was blighted. Did you ever take Gregory’s powder? It is worse than quinine, worse than senna, worse than anything except castor oil.
But Ernest had to take it—in raspberry jam.
‘And don’t make such faces,’ said Aunt Emmeline, rinsing the spoon at the pantry sink. ‘You know it’s all for your own good.’
As if the thought that it is for one’s own good ever kept any one from making faces!
The aunts were kind in their grown-up crinolined way. But Ernest wanted some one to play with. Every night in his dreams he played with the marble child. And at church on Sunday the marble child still held out its hands, farther than before.
‘Come along then,’ Ernest said to it, in that voice with which heart speaks to heart; ‘come and sit with me behind the red curtains. Come!’
The marble child did not look at him. Its head seemed to be bent farther forward than ever before.
When it came to the second hymn Ernest had an inspiration. All the rest of the churchful, sleepy and suitable, were singing,—
‘The roseate hues of early dawn,
The brightness of the day,
The crimson of the sunset sky,
How fast they fade away.’
Ernest turned his head towards the marble child and softly mouthed,—you could hardly call it singing,—
‘The rosy tews of early dawn,
The brightness of the day;
Come out, come out, come out, come out,
Come out with me and play.’
And he pictured the rapture of that moment when the marble child should respond to this appeal, creep out from under the font, and come and sit beside him on the red cushions beyond the red curtains. The aunts would not see, of course. They never saw the things that mattered. No one would see except Ernest. He looked hard at the marble child.
‘You must come out,’ he said; and again, ‘You must come, you must.’
And the marble child did come. It crept out and came to sit by him, holding his hand. It was a cold hand certainly, but it did not feel like marble.
And the next thing he knew, an aunt was shaking him and whispering with fierceness tempered by reverence for the sacred edifice,—
‘Wake up, Ernest. How can you be so naughty?’
And the marble child was back in its place under the font.
When Ernest looks back on that summer it seems to have thundered every time he went to church. But of course this cannot really have been the case.
But it was certainly a very lowering purple-skied day which saw him stealthily start on the adventure of his little life. He was weary of aunts—they were kind yet just; they told him so and he believed them. But their justice was exactly like other people’s nagging, and their kindness he did not want at all. He wanted some one to play with.
‘May we walk up to the churchyard?’ was a request at first received graciously as showing a serious spirit. But its reiteration was considered morbid, and his walks took the more dusty direction of the County Asylum.
His longing for the only child he knew, the marble child, exacerbated by denial, drove him to rebellion. He would run away. He would live with the marble child in the big church porch; they would eat berries from the wood near by, just as children did in books, and hide there when people came to church.
So he watched his opportunity and went quietly out through the French window, skirted the side of the house where all the windows were blank because of the old window-tax, took the narrow strip of lawn at a breathless run, and found safe cover among the rhododendrons.
The church-door was locked, of course, but he knew where there was a broken pane in the vestry window, and his eye had marked the lop-sided tombstone underneath it. By climbing upon that and getting a knee in the carved water-spout— He did it, got his hand through, turned the catch of the window, and fell through upon the dusty table of the vestry.
The door was ajar and he passed into the empty church. It seemed very large and gray now that he had it to himself. His feet made a loud echoing noise that was disconcerting. He had meant to call out, ‘Here I am!’ But in the face of these echoes he could not.
He found the marble child, its head bent more than ever, its hands reaching out quite beyond the edge of the font; and when he was quite close he whispered,—
‘Here I am.—Come and play!’
But his voice trembled a little. The marble child was so plainly marble. And yet it had not always been marble. He was not sure. Yet—
‘I am sure,’ he said. ‘You did talk to me in the shrubbery, didn’t you?’
But the marble child did not move or speak.
‘You did come and hold my hand last Sunday,’ he said, a little louder.
And only the empty echoes answered him.
‘Come out,’ he said then, almost afraid now of the church’s insistent silence. ‘I’ve come to live with you altogether. Come out of your marble, do come out!’
He reached up to stroke the marble cheek. A sound thrilled him, a loud everyday sound. The big key turning in the lock of the south door. The aunts!
‘Now they’ll take me back,’ said Ernest; ‘you might have come.’
But it was not the aunts. It was the old pew-opener, come to scrub the chancel. She came slowly in with pail and brush; the pail slopped a little water on to the floor close to Ernest as she passed him, not seeing.
Then the marble child moved, turned toward Ernest with speaking lips and eyes that saw.
‘You can stay with me forever if you like,’ it said, ‘but you’ll have to see things happen. I have seen things happen.’
‘What sort of things?’ Ernest asked.
‘What things shall I have to see?’
‘Her,’—the marble child moved a free arm to point to the old woman on the chancel steps,—’and your aunt who will be here presently, looking for you. Do you hear the thunder? Presently the lightning will strike the church. It won’t hurt us, but it will fall on them.’
Ernest remembered in a flash how kind Aunt Emmeline had been when he was ill, how Aunt Jessie had given him his chessmen, and Aunt Harriet had taught him how to make paper rosettes for picture-frames.
‘I must go and tell them,’ he said.
‘If you go, you’ll never see me again,’ said the marble child, and put its arms round his neck.
‘Can’t I come back to you when I’ve told them?’ Ernest asked, returning the embrace.
‘There will be no coming back,’ said the marble child.
‘But I want you. I love you best of everybody in the world,’ Ernest said.
‘I’ll stay with you,’ said Ernest.
The marble child said nothing.
‘But if I don’t tell them I shall be the same as a murderer,’ Ernest whispered. ‘Oh! let me go, and come back to you.’
‘I shall not be here.’
‘But I must go. I must,’ said Ernest, torn between love and duty.
‘And I shan’t have you any more?’ the living child urged.
‘You’ll have me in your heart,’ said the marble child—’that’s where I want to be. That’s my real home.’
They kissed each other again.
‘It was certainly a direct Providence,’ Aunt Emmeline used to say in later years to really sympathetic friends, ‘that I thought of going up to the church when I did. Otherwise nothing could have saved dear Ernest. He was terrified, quite crazy with fright, poor child, and he rushed out at me from behind our pew shouting, “Come away, come away, auntie, come away!” and dragged me out. Mrs. Meadows providentially followed, to see what it was all about, and the next thing was the catastrophe.’
‘The church was struck by a thunder-bolt was it not?’ the sympathetic friend asks.
‘It was indeed—a deafening crash, my dear—and then the church slowly crumbled before our eyes. The south wall broke like a slice of cake when you break it across—and the noise and the dust! Mrs. Meadows never had her hearing again, poor thing, and her mind was a little affected too. I became unconscious, and Ernest—well, it was altogether too much for the child. He lay between life and death for weeks. Shock to the system, the physician said. He had been rather run down before. We had to get a little cousin to come and live with us afterwards. The physicians said that he required young society.’
‘It must indeed have been a shock,’ says the sympathetic friend, who knows there is more to come.
‘His intellect was quite changed, my dear,’ Aunt Emmeline resumes; ‘on regaining consciousness he demanded the marble child! Cried and raved, my dear, always about the marble child. It appeared he had had fancies about one of the little angels that supported the old font, not the present font, my dear. We presented that as a token of gratitude to Providence for our escape. Of course we checked his fancifulness as well as we could, but it lasted quite a long time.’
‘What became of the little marble angel?’ the friend inquires as in friendship bound.
‘Crushed to powder, dear, in the awful wreck of the church. Not a trace of it could be found. And poor Mrs. Meadows! So dreadful those delusions.’
‘What form did her delusions take?’ the friend, anxious to be done with the old story, hastily asks.
‘Well, she always declared that two children ran out to warn me and that one of them was very unusual looking. “It wasn’t no flesh and blood, ma’am,” she used to say in her ungrammatical way; “it was a little angel a-taking care of Master Ernest. It ‘ad ‘old of ‘is ‘and. And I say it was ‘is garden angel, and its face was as bright as a lily in the sun.”‘
The friend glances at the India cabinet, and Aunt Emmeline rises and unlocks it.
‘Ernest must have been behaving in a very naughty and destructive way in the church—but the physician said he was not quite himself probably, for when they got him home and undressed him they found this in his hand.’
Then the sympathizing friend polishes her glasses and looks, not for the first time, at the relic from the drawer of the India cabinet. It is a white marble finger.
Thus flow the reminiscences of Aunt Emmeline. The memories of Ernest run as this tale runs.