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Sherwood Anderson (September 13, 1876 – March 8, 1941)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For a year now I have been thinking of writing a certain book. “Well, tomorrow I’ll get at it,” I’ve been saying to myself. Every night whenUnder the elevated railway, Chicago,Il I get into bed I think about the book. The people that are to be put between its covers dance before my eyes. I live in the city of Chicago and at night motor trucks go rumbling along the roadway outside my house. Not so very far away there is an elevated railroad and after twelve o’clock at night trains pass at pretty long intervals. Before it began I went to sleep during one of the quieter intervals but now that the idea of writing this book has got into me I lie awake and think.
For one thing it is hard to get the whole idea of the book fixed in the setting of the city I live in now. I wonder if you, who do not try to write books, perhaps will understand what I mean. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t. It is a little hard to explain. You see, it’s something like this.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           SA190

You as a reader will, some evening or some afternoon, be reading in my book and then you will grow tired of reading and put it down. You will go out of your house and into the street. The sun is shining and you meet people you know. There are certain facts of your life just the same as of mine. If you are a man, you go from your house to an office and sit at a desk where you pick up a telephone and begin to talk about some matter of business with a client or a customer of your house. If you are an honest housewife, the ice man has come or there drifts into your mind the thought that yesterday you forgot to remember some detail concerned with running your house. Little outside thoughts come and go in your mind, and it is so with me too. For example when I have written the above sentence, I wonder why I have written the words “honest housewife.” A housewife I suppose can be as dishonest as I can. What I am trying to make clear is that, as a writer, I am up against the same things that confront you, as a reader.
What I want to do is to express in my book a sense of the strangeness that has gradually, since I was a boy, been creeping more and more into my feeling about everyday life. It would all be very simple if I could write of life in an interior city of China or in an African forest. A man I know has recently told me of another man who, wanting to write a book about Parisian life and having no money to go to Paris to study the life there, went instead to the city of New Orleans. He had heard that many people livedSA237 in New Orleans whose ancestors were French. “They will have retained enough of the flavor of Parisian life for me to get the feeling,” he said to himself. The man told me that the book turned out to be very successful and that the city of Paris read with delight a translation of his work as a study of French life, and I am only sorry I can’t find as simple a way out of my own job. The whole point with me is that my wish to write this book springs from a somewhat different notion. “If I can write everything out plainly, perhaps I will myself understand better what has happened,” I say to myself and smile. During these days I spend a good deal of time smiling at nothing. It bothers people. “What are you smiling about now?” they ask, and I am up against as hard a job trying to answer as I am trying to get underway with my book.
Sometimes in the morning I sit down at my desk and begin writing, taking as my subject a scene from my own boyhood.
Very well, I am coming home from school. The town in which I was born and raised was a dreary, lonely little place in the far western section of the state of Nebraska, and I imagine myself walking along one of its streets. Sitting upon a curbing before a store is a sheep herder who has left his flock many miles away in the foothills at the base of the western mountains and has come into our town, for what purpose he himself does not seem to know. He is a bearded man without a hat and sits with his mouth slightly open, staring up and down the street. There is a half-wild uncertain look in his eyes SA181and his eyes have awakened a creepy feeling in me. I hurry away with a kind of dread of some unknown thing eating at my vital organs.  Old men are great talkers. It may be that only kids know the real terror of loneliness.
I have tried, you see, to start my book at that particular point in my own life. “If I can catch exactly the feeling of that afternoon of my boyhood, I can give the reader the key to my character,” I tell myself.
The plan won’t work. When I have written five, ten, fifteen hundred words, I stop writing and look out at my window. A man is driving a team of horses hitched to a wagon-load of coal along my street and is swearing at another man who drives a Ford. They have both stopped and are cursing each other.
The coal wagon driver’s face is black with coal dust but anger has reddened his cheeks and the red and black have produced
a dusky brown like the skin of a Negro. I have got up from my typewriter and walk up and down in my room smoking cigarettes. My fingers pick up little things on my desk and then put them down.
I am nervous like the race horses I used to be with at one period of my boyhood. Before a race and when they had been brought out onSA228 the tracks before all the people and before the race started, their legs quivered. Sometimes there was a horse got into such a state that when the race started he would do nothing. “Look at him. He can’t untrack himself,” we said.
Right now I am in that state about my book. I run to the typewriter, write for a time, and then walk nervously about. I smoke a whole package of cigarettes during the morning.
And then suddenly I have again torn up all I have written. “It won’t do,” I have told myself. In this book I am not intending to try to give you the story of my life. “What of life, any man’s life?—forked radishes running about, writing declarations of independence, telling themselves little lies, having dreams, getting puffed up now and then with what is called greatness. Life begins, runs its course and ends,” a man I once knew told me one evening, and it is true. Even as I write these words a hearse is going through my street. Two young girls, who are going off with two young men to walk I suppose in the fields where the city ends, stop laughing for a moment and look up at the hearse. It will be a moment before they forget the passing hearse and begin laughing again.
“A life is like that, it passes like that,” I say to myself as I tear up my sheets and begin again walking and smoking the cigarettes. If you think I am sad, having these thoughts about the brevity and insignificance of a life, you are mistaken. In the state I am in such things do not matter. “Certain things last,” I say to myself. “One might make things a little clear. One might even imagine a man, say a Negro, going along a SA143city street and humming a song. It catches the ear of another man who repeats it on the next day. A thin strand of song, like a tiny stream far up in some hill, begins to flow down into the wide plains. It waters the fields. It freshens the air above a hot stuffy city.”
Now I have got myself worked up into a state. I am always doing that these days. I write again and again tear up my words.
I go out of my room and walk about.
I have been with a woman I have found and who loves me. It has happened that I am a man who has not been loved by women and have all my life been awkward and a little mixed up when in their presence. Perhaps I have had too much respect for them, have wanted them too much. That may be. Anyway I am not so rattled in her presence.
She, I think, has a certain control over herself and that is helpful to me. When I am with her I keep smiling to myself and thinking, “It would be rather a joke all around if she found me out.”
When she is looking in another direction I study her a little. That she should seem to like me so much surprises me and I am sore at my own surprise. I grow humble and do not like my humbleness either. “What is she up to? She is very lovely. Why is she wasting her time with me?”
I shall remember always certain hours when I have been with her. Late on a certain Sunday afternoon I remember I sat in a chair in aSA188 room in her apartment. I sat with my hand against my cheek, leaning a little forward. I had dressed myself carefully because I was going to see her, had put on my best suit of clothes. My hair was carefully combed and my glasses carefully balanced on my rather large nose. And there I was, in her apartment in a certain city, in a chair in a rather dark corner, with my hand against my cheek, looking as solemn as an old owl. We had been walking about and had come into the house and she had gone away leaving me sitting there, as I have said. The apartment was in a part of the city where many foreign people live and from my chair I could, by turning my head a little, look down into a street filled with Italians.
It was growing dark outside and I could just see the people in the street. If I cannot remember facts about my own and other people’s lives, I can always remember every feeling that has gone through me, or that I have thought went through anyone about me. The men going along the street below the window all had dark swarthy faces and nearly all of them wore, somewhere about them, a spot of color. The younger men, who walked with a certain swagger, all had on flaming red ties. The street was dark but far down the street there was a spot where a streak of sunlight still managed to find its way in between two tall buildings and fell sharp against the face of a smaller red-brick building. It pleased my fancy to imagine the street had also put on a red necktie, perhaps because there would be lovemaking along the street before Monday morning.
SA219Anyway I sat there looking and thinking such thoughts as came to me. The women who went along the street nearly all had dark colored shawls drawn up about their faces. The road-way was filled with children whose voices made a sharp tinkling sound.
My fancy went out of my body in a way of speaking, I suppose, and I began thinking of myself as being at that moment in a city in Italy. Americans like myself who have not traveled are always doing that. I suppose the people of another nation would not understand how doing it is almost necessity in our lives, but any American will understand. The American, particularly a middle-American, sits as I was doing at that moment, dreaming you understand, and suddenly he is in Italy or in a Spanish town where a dark-looking man is riding a bony horse along a street, or he is being driven over the Russian steppes in a sled by a man whose face is all covered with whiskers. It is an idea of the Russians got from looking at cartoons in newspapers but it answers the purpose. In the distance a pack ofSA241 wolves are following the sled.A fellow I once knew told me that Americans are always up to such tricks because all of our old stories and dreams have come to us from over the sea and because we have no old stories and dreams of our own. Of that I can’t say. I am not putting myself forward as a thinker on the subject of the causes of the characteristics of the American people or any other monstrous or important matter of that kind. But anyway, there I was, sitting, as I have told you, in the Italian section of an American city and dreaming of myself being in Italy.
To be sure I wasn’t alone. Such a fellow as myself never is alone in his dreams. And as I sat having my dream, the woman with whom I had been spending the afternoon, and with whom I am no doubt what is called “in love,” passed between me and the window through which I had been looking. She had on a dress of some soft clinging stuff and her slender figure made a very lovely line across the light. Well, she was like a young tree you might see on a hill, in a windstorm perhaps.
What I did, as you may have supposed, was to take her with me into Italy.
The woman became at once, and in my dream, a very beautiful princess in a strange land I have never visited. It may be that when I was a boy in my western town some traveler came SA140there to lecture on life in Italian cities before a club that met at the Presbyterian church and to which my mother belonged, or perhaps later I read some novel the name of which I can’t remember. And so my princess had come down to me along a path out of a green wooded hill where her castle was located. She had walked under blossoming trees in the uncertain evening light and some blossoms had fallen on her black hair. The perfume of Italian nights was in her hair. That notion came into my head. That’s what I mean.
What really happened was that she saw me sitting there lost in my dream and, coming to me, rumpled my hair and upset the glasses perched on my big nose and, having done that, went laughing out of the room.
I speak of all this because later, on that same evening, I lost all notion of the book I am now writing and sat until three in the morning writing on another book, making the woman the central figure. “It will be a story of old times, filled with moons and stars and the fragrance of half-decayed trees in an oldSA131 land,” I told myself, but when I had written many pages I tore them up too.
“Something has happened to me or I should not be filled with the idea of writing this book at all,” I told myself going to my window to look out at the night. “At a certain hour of a certain day and in a certain place, something happened that has changed the whole current of my life. “The thing to be done,” I then told myself, “is to begin writing my book by telling as clearly as I can the adventures of that certain moment.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
SA243A task one hopes to complete and yet defers because it cannot be begun is perfectly expressed by the the word the Romans thought they heard in the cry of the raven – “cras, cras,” meaning “tomorrow, tomorrow” – and which symbolises  hope as well as procrastination. This seems to aptly echo the predicament adumbrated by Sherwood Anderson in this essay “Certain Things Last”, which he wrote sometime in the twenties, and which was found among his papers and published only in 1992.

We do not know if it was ever intended for publication; indeed, we cannot even know for certain if he completed the piece. All writers feel this way at times about the things they write, because they know what a devilishly difficult job the task of writing can present. Noah’s raven, and the first to be released from the ark, (unlike his second envoy the docile dove) never returned. We may wonder what happened to it, and how it was reunited with its mate who presumably was released after the flood subsided. But reunited they must have been, on some hopeful ‘tomorrow,’ for the world veritably teems with ravens and their ilk.

Anderson’s ‘tomorrow,’ after a difficult boyhood and adolescence in the small and typically claustrophobic town of Clyde, Ohio, led to the occupation of writer. By his own account, his best known work, a compilation of 22 stories published under the title of Winesburg, Ohio, came to him all in a rush.SA142  

“…it was a late fall night and raining…I was there naked in the bed and I sprang up. I went to my typewriter and began to write. It was there, under those circumstances, myself sitting near an open window, the rain occasionally blowing in and wetting my bare back, that I did my first writing…I wrote it, as I wrote them all, complete in the one sitting…The rest of the stories in the book came out of me on succeeding evenings, and sometimes during the day while I worked in the advertising office…”

But “Some Things Last” seems to tell a different story. As the cry of the raven suggests, the exercise of writing requires the disordering of time. Anderson’s writing career commenced after a mental breakdown, shortly after which he abandoned his family. Four days after he ‘disappeared’, he was found  thirty miles away in Cleveland, having walked that distance. He never went back home.

In order to make its way into writing, the past must be recollected, relived and recreated. It must sometimes be artificially rearranged and reordered before it can be placed in front of a reader, and if that weren’t enough cause for dismay, past and present, these two parallel and simultaneously unfolding tracks must be made to seem to come seamlessly together.

SA128The task set for himself here by Anderson, that of trying to grasp at the flickering pattern cast by scattered thoughts and  then to collect them for an arrangement to set on the page, is the perennial bane and delight of the writer. I don’t know if this is a task which may be better accomplished by a woman writer; certainly women like Virginia Woolf excelled at it, but Anderson shows us how a virtue may be made of stumbling. He conveys the slipperiness of the the whole process  so vividly that even to  someone who doesn’t think much about writing, the feeling of helplessness and unease comes wholly through. The hopeless feeling of being unable to ferry a thought from the having to the expressing of it is particularly acute when the ability to do it remains lost somewhere that is not amenable to recall.  It is like floating in dark water and trying to remember how to move one’s arms and legs. I think this is in part because the language of recall is not strictly speaking ‘language’ but a kind of code conveyed in images.

“Some Things Last” is writing thrice removed: it is writing that shows how a writer writes about writing. There is self-revelation in it, but only so much. Anderson is willing to reveal that he smokes somewhat to excess, but not that he drinks, though drink he did. His death in 1941 at the age of 64 – while  he and his fourth wife Eleanor Copenhaver were on a cruise to South America – was caused by peritonitis following the accidental ingestion of a toothpick from either a martini or an hors d’ oeuvre, though I rather think it was the former  than the latter.

Whether lubricated by alcohol or  driven by digressiveness or restlessness, Anderson’s mind, resorts to narratives of flowing images,SA216 even as he anxiously attempts to impose order and structure on his wayward thoughts in order to secure an outcome. He in turn surrenders and attempts to control in order to impose a shape or a structure or even an account of something written. Indeed one cannot be certain if this piece of writing was guided to its intended conclusion, or if it simply petered out at an impasse or a cul de sac with nowhere else to go and no way to turn back. “What is the point?” we wonder. Is it only to show that the writing of a book is a difficult enterprise, and that someone  who sets him- or herself to the task must contend with endless distractions, diversions and detours on the way to getting the job done? Or is it to reveal the unruly nature of the process, how the very thoughts that must make up the content turn out to be perturbations, which as they move away from their point of origin, take one further and further away from the goal? Writers  must learn to negotiate these obstacles, for they can never quite be overcome.

It would seem that a solution to the writer’s dilemma must be found in a skillful compromise. The kind of aimless undirected dreamy musings, the fragile repositories of vivid and detailed imagery, must be permitted to go on unimpeded SA132even as some agent of the thinking self stands by to take notes. And it seems that Anderson possessed a good note-taker, since it was he who wrote “She had on a dress of some clinging stuff and her slender figure made a very lovely line across the light” and  “she was like a young tree you might see on a hill  in a windstorm perhaps…..”    

One of the chief difficulties of writing is that what is written about, the sights, smells and sensations of it, come almost always from a different time and place from when the writing takes place. They are imported from another world, which has to be recalled and recreated in the mind at the moment of writing. The writer has to recall them from when, like a traveller, he or she  had to keep track of that place in the country, that path,  and the details  observed while on it, and the objects which were chosen to bring back from the journey.  Then, as now, there were problems to be solved – what could properly  be packed – what carried – and how these things would look when placed in the writer’s parlour or on the mantel. Would they bring back the sights and smells they seemed to be imbued  with  at the first encounter? Or would they become lifeless and incongruous when removed from their proper context, when forced to inhabit an unnatural place? Should the suggestion of the princess who lives in the castle at the end of the path along the green, wooded hill, be permitted to intrude? Yes, perhaps because it seems to echo the diffident insecurity this writer felt about his woman friend. And the blossoming trees, the evening light and the flowers in her dark hair must come along too. Then of course, blackSA151 hair and Italian nights, which are shadowy counterparts of each other, must gain admittance as well. If in the next moments one ‘goes to his window to look out at the night,’ one might see, instead of the spark-sprinkled darkness of a sleeping city, “the moon and stars, and half-decayed trees in an old land.’

The thoughts and images we carry away from our inward travels seem to undergo a change when made to enter the outside world. They are like poems which resist being translated into a different language. The greatest care must be taken so that they do not become mere representations of what they truly are in their own voice and  tongue. The difference between the inner and outer life is not always bridgeable, something most writers simultaneously accept and struggle mightily against.

The task of moving words from mind to paper, of trapping moments vivid with life and fixing them on the page, can seem daunting at times. The troublesomeness and difficulty of committing to memory the elusive phenomena of fleeting suggestions of thoughts and brief flares of barely glimpsed images as they pass through the mind SA244seem at times quite hopeless, and recollecting them seems like gathering leaves blown by the wind. Time too is not durable. It warps and bends in the attempt to draw it through the lens of memory.  Are these what Anderson refers to as ‘the adventures of that certain moment?’ Are they fit to be the chosen subject of a piece of writing?  Or should they be consigned to some vague designation of questionable value, to occupy the limbo between something which used to be either sustaining or memorable but is no longer, but is now discarded and stale as an old torn photograph or a half-eaten meal left neglected to grow cold on the kitchen table? Are these some things that last? Are they?

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Rebecca West (December 21 1892 – March 15 1983)

Rebecca West (December 21 1892 – March 15 1983)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Uncle Arthur had red hair that lay close to his head in flat, circular curls, and a pointed red beard, and his blue-green eyes were at onceRWP221 penetrating and bemused. He was the object of mingled derision and respect in our family. He was a civil servant who had early attracted attention by his brilliance; but the chief of his department, like so many English civil servants, was an author in his spare time, and when he published a history of European literature, my uncle reviewed it in the leading weekly of the day, pointing out that large as was the number of works in the less familiar languages that his chief supposed to be written in prose, though in fact they were written in verse, it was not so large as the number of such works that he supposed to be written in verse, though in fact they were written in prose. He wrote without malice, simply thinking his chief would be glad to know. My uncle never connected this review with his subsequent failure to gain a promotion that had seemed certain, or to have the day as snug as civil servants usually had it in the nineteenth century. But in the course of time his chief died, and my uncle rose to be an important official. However, he did a Cabinet Minister much the same service he had rendered his chief, and he never received the title that normally went with his post.
So he seesawed through life, and I liked his company very much when he was an old man and I was a young girl, for it was full of surprises. C-691When I asked him a question, I never  knew if his answer would show that he knew far less than I did or far more; and though he was really quite old, for he was my father’s elder by many years, he often made discoveries such as a schoolchild might make, and shared them with an enthusiasm as little adult. One day he gave me no peace till I had come with him to see the brightest field of buttercups he had ever found near London; it lay, solid gold, beside the great Jacobean mansion Ham House, by the river Thames. After we had admired it he took me to nearby Petersham Church, to see another treasure, the tomb of Captain Vancouver, who gave his name to the island; my uncle liked this tomb because he had spent some years of his boyhood in Canada and had been to Vancouver Island when it was hardly inhabited. Then we had tea in an inn garden and it happened that the girl who waited on us was called away by the landlord as she set the china on the table. His voice came from the kitchen: “Parthenope! Parthenope!” My uncle started, for no very good reason that I could see. There had been a time when many ships in the British Navy were called after characters in Greek history and mythology, male and female, and therefore many sailors’ daughters had been given the names of nymphs and goddesses and Homeric princesses and heroines of Greek tragedy. The only strange thing was that it was a long time since British ships had been christened so poetically, and most of the women who had acquired these classical names by this secondary interest were by now old or middle-aged, while our little waitress was very young. She had, as she told us when she came back, been called after a grandmother. But my uncle was plainly shaken by hearing those four syllables suddenly borne on the afternoon air. His thin handRWP230 plucked at the edge of the tablecloth, he cast down his eyes, his head began to nod and shake. He asked me if he had ever told me the story of the Admiral and his seven daughters, in a tone that suggested that he knew he had not and was still trying to make up his mind whether he wanted to tell it now. Indeed, he told me very little that day though I was to hear the whole of it before he died.
The story began at the house of my grandmother’s sister, Alice Darrell, and it could hardly have happened anywhere else. When her husband, an officer in the Indian Army, died of fever, her father-in-law had given her a house that he had recently and reluctantly inherited and could not sell because it was part of an entailed estate. He apologized for the gift, pleading justly that he could not afford to buy her another, and she accepted it bravely. But the house lay in a district that would strain anybody’s bravery. To reach it, one travelled about eight miles out of London along the main Hammersmith Road, the dullest of highways, and then turned left and found something worse. For some forgotten reason, there had sprung up at this point a Hogarthian slum, as bad as anything in the East End, which turned into a brawling hell every Saturday night. Beyond this web of filthy hovels lay flatlands covered by orchards and farmlands and market gardens, among which there had been set down three or four large houses. There was nothing to recommend the site. The Thames was C-796not far distant, and it was comprehensible enough that along its bank there had been built a line of fine houses, But at Alice Darrell’s there was no view of the river, though it lay near enough to shroud the region in mist during the winter months. It was true that the gardens had an alluvial fertility, but even they did not give the pleasure they should have done, for the slum dwellers carried out periodical raids on the strawberry beds and raspberry canes and orchards. These stranded houses had been built in Regency times and were beautiful, though disconcerting, because there was no reason why they should be there, and they were so oddly placed in relation to each other. They all opened off the same narrow road, and Aunt Alice’s house, Currivel Lodge, which was the smallest of them, lay at the end of a drive, and there faced sideways, so that its upper windows looked straight down on the garden of the much bigger house beside it, as that had been built nearer the road. This meant that my grandaunt could not sit on the pretty balcony outside her bedroom window without seeming to spy on her neighbours, so she never used it. But when my Uncle Arthur went to stay with her as a little boy, which was about a hundred years ago, nothing delighted him more than to shut himself in his bedroom and kneel on his window and do what his Aunt Alice could not bear to be suspected of doing.
Currivel Lodge should have been a dreary place for the child. There was nowhere to walk and nowhere to ride. There was no village where one could watch the blacksmith at his forge and the carpenter at his bench. In those days, nobody rowed on the Thames anywhere but at Oxford, unless they were watermen earning their living. There was little visiting, for it took a good hour to an hour and a half to drive to London, and my needy grandaunt’s horses were old crocks. Her children were all older than little Arthur. But he enjoyed his visit simply because of the hours he spent on that window seat. I know the setting of the scene on which he looked, since I often stayed in that house many years later; for of course my grandaunt’s family never left it. When the entail came toRWP332 an end and the property could have been sold, there were the Zulu Wars, and South African War, the First World War, and all meant that the occupants were too busy or too troubled to move; and they were still living there when the house was swept away in a town-planning scheme during the twenties. What Arthur in his day and I in mine looked down on was a croquet lawn framed by trees, very tall trees-so tall and strong, my uncle said with approval, that though one could not see the river, one knew that there must be one not far away. Born and reared in one of the wettest parts of Ireland, he regarded dry weather and a dry soil as the rest of us regard dry bread.
To the left of his lawn, seen through foliage, was a stone terrace overgrown with crimson and white roses. Behind the terrace rose the mellow red rectangle of a handsome Regency house with a green copper cupola rising from its roof. What my uncle saw there that was not there for me to see was a spectacle that gave him the same soft of enjoyment I was to get from the ballet  Les Sylphides. When the weather was fine, it often happened that there would come down the broad stone steps of the terrace a number of princesses out of a fairy tale, each dressed in a different pale but bright colour. Sometimes there were as few as four of these princesses; occasionally there were as many as seven. Among the colours that my uncle thought he remembered them wearing were hyacinth blue, the green of the leaves of lilies of the valley, a silvery lilac that was almost grey, a transparent red RW347that was like one’s hand when one holds it up to a strong light, primrose yellow, a watery jade green, and a gentle orange. The dresses were made of muslin, and billowed in loops and swinging circles as their wearers’ little feet carried them about in what was neither a dance nor the everyday motion of ordinary people. It was as if these lovely, creatures were all parts of a brave and sensitive and melancholy being, and were at once confiding in each other about their griefs, which were their common grief, and giving each other reassurance.
Some carried croquet mallets and went on to the lawn and started to play, while the others sat down on benches to watch them. But sooner or later the players would pause and forget to make the next stroke, move toward each other and stand in a group, resting their mallets on the ground, and presently forget them and let them fall, as the spectators rose from their seats to join them in their exchange of confidences. Though they appeared in the garden as often as three times a week, they always seemed to have as much to say to one another as if they met but once a year; and they were always grave as they talked. There was a wildness about them, it was impossible to tell what they would do next, one might suddenly break away from the others and waltz round the lawn in the almost visible arms of an invisible partner; but when they talked, they showed restraint, they did not weep, though what they said was so plainly sad, and they rarely laughed. What was true of one of them was true of all, for there seemed very little difference between them. All were golden-headed. The only one who could be told apart was the wearer of the lilac-grey dress. She was taller than the rest, and often stood aloof while they clustered together and swayed and spoke. Sometimes a woman in a black gown came down from the terrace and talked to this separate one.
The girls in the coloured dresses were the seven daughters of the Admiral who owned the house. My uncle saw him once, when he called on AliceC-2374 Darrell to discuss with her arrangements for repairing the wall between their properties: a tall and handsome man with iron-grey hat, a probing, defensive gaze, and a mouth so sternly compressed that it was a straight line across his face. The call would never have been made had there not been business to discuss. The Admiral would have no social relations with his neighbours; nobody had ever been invited to his house. Nor, had such an invitation been sent, would Aunt Alice have accepted it, for she thought he treated his daughters abominably. She could not help smiling when she told her nephew their names, for they came straight off the Navy List: Andromeda, Cassandra, Clytie, Hera, Parthenope, Arethusa, and Persephone. But that was the only time she smiled when she spoke of them, for she thought they had been treated with actual cruelty, though not in the way that might have been supposed. They were not immured in this lonely house by a father who wanted to keep them to himself; their case was the very opposite. The Admiral’s daughters were, in effect, motherless. By Aunt Alice my Uncle Arthur was told that the Admiral’s wife was an invalid and had to live in a mild climate in the West of England, but from the servants he learned that she was mad. Without a wife to soften him, the Admiral dealt with his daughters summarily by sending each of them, as she passed her seventeenth birthday, to be guided through the London season by his only sister, a wealthy woman with a house in Berkeley Square, and by giving each to the first man of reasonably respectable character who made her an offer of marriage. He would permit no delay, though his daughters, who had inheritances from a wealthy RWP321grandfather, as well as their beauty, would obviously have many suitors. These precipitate marriages were always against the brides’ inclinations, for they had, strangely enough, no desire but to go on living in their lonely home.
“They are,” Aunt Alice told her nephew, hesitating and looking troubled, “oddly young for their ages. I know they are not old, and that they have lived a great deal alone, since their mother cannot be with them. But they are really very young for what they are.” They had yielded, it was said, only to the most brutal pressure exercised by their father. It astonished my uncle that all this was spoken of as something that had happened in the past. They did not look like grown-up ladies as they wandered in the garden, yet all but two were wives, and those two were betrothed, and some of them were already mothers. Parthenope, the one with most character, the one who had charge of the house in her father’s absence, had married a North Country landowner who was reputed to be a millionaire. It was a pity that he was twice her age and had, by a dead wife, a son almost as old as she was, but a fortune is a great comfort; and none of her sisters was without some measure of that same kind of consolation. Nevertheless, their discontent could be measured by the frequency with which they returned to the house of their childhood.
The first time my uncle visited Currivel Lodge, the Admiral’s seven daughters were only a spectacle for his distant enjoyment. But one day during his second visit, a year later, his aunt asked him to deliver a note for Miss Parthenope at the house next door. Another section of the wallRW348 between the properties was in need of buttresses, and the builder had to have his orders. My uncle went up to his bedroom and smoothed his hair and washed his face, a thing he had never done before between morning and night of his own accord, and when he got to the Admiral’s house, he told the butler, falsely but without a tremor, that he had been told to give the note into Miss Parthenope’s own hands. It did not matter to him that the butler looked annoyed at hearing this: too much was at stake. He followed the butler’s offended back through several rooms full of fine furniture, which were very much like the rooms to which he was accustomed, but had a sleepy air, as if the windows were closed, though they were not. In one there were some dolls thrown down on the floor, though he had never heard that there were any children living in the house. In the last room, which opened on the stone terrace and its white and crimson roses, a woman in a black dress with a suggestion of a uniform about it was sitting at an embroidery frame. She stared at him as if RWP352he presented a greater problem than schoolboys usually do, and he recognized her as the dark figure he had seen talking with the tallest of the daughters in the garden.
She took the letter from him, and he saw that the opportunity he had seized was slipping out of his grasp, so he pretended to be younger and simpler than he was, and put on the Irish brogue, which he never used at home except when he was talking to the servants or the people on the farms, but which he had found charmed the English. “May I not go out into the garden and see the young ladies?” he asked. “I have watched them from my window, and they look so pretty.”
It worked. The woman smiled and said. “You’re from Ireland, aren’t you?” and before he could answer she exclaimed, as if defying prohibitions of which she had long been weary, “What is the harm? Yes, go out and give the note to Miss Parthenope yourself. You will know her – she is wearing grey and is the tallest.” When he got out on the terrace, he saw that all seven of the Admiral’s daughters were on the lawn, and his heart was like a turning windmill as he went down the stone steps. Then one of the croquet players caught sight of him-the one who was wearing a red dress, just nearer flame colour than flesh. She dropped her mallet and cried, “Oh, look, a little boy! A little red-haired boy!” and danced toward him, sometimes pausing and twirling right round, so that her skirts billowed out round her. Other voices took up the cry, and, cooing like pigeons, the croquet players closed in on him in a circle of unbelievable beauty. It was their complexions that he remembered in later life as the marvel that made them, among all the women he was ever to see, the nonpareils. Light lay on their skin as it lies on the petals of flowers, but it promised that it would never fade, that it would last forever, like the pearl. Yet even while he remarked their loveliness and was awed by it, he was disconcerted. They came so close, and it seemed as if they might do more than look at him and speak to him. It was as if a flock of birds had come down on him, and were fluttering and pecking about him; and they asked so many questions, in voices that chirped indefatigably and were sharper than the human note. “Who are you?” “You are Mrs  Darrell’s nephew?” “HerC-260 brother’s child or her sister’s?” “How old are you?” “What is your name?” “Why is your middle name Greatorex?” “Oh, what lovely hair he has – true Titian! And those round curls like coins!” “Have you sisters?” “Have they hair like yours?” Their little hands darted out and touched his hands, his cheeks, his shoulders, briefly but not pleasantly. His flesh rose in goose pimples, as it did when a moth’s wing brushed his face as he lay in bed in the dark. And while their feathery, restlessness poked and cheeped at him, they looked at him with eyes almost as fixed as if they were blind and could not see him at all. Their eyes were immense and very bright and shaded by lashes longer than he had ever seen; but they were so light a grey that they were as colourless as clear water running over a bed of pebbles. He was glad when the woman in the black dress called from the terrace. “Leave the boy alone!” He did not like anything about the Admiral’s daughters, now he saw them at close range. Even their dresses, which had looked beautiful from a distance, repelled him. If a lady had been sitting to a portrait painter in the character of a wood nymph, she might have worn such draperies, but it was foolish to wear them in a garden, when there was nobody to see them. “Leave the boy alone!” the woman in black called again. “He has come with a letter for Parthenope.”
C-42She had not been one of the circle. Now that the others fell back, my uncle saw her standing a little way off, biting her lip and knitting her brows, as if the scene disturbed her. There were other differences, beyond her height, that distinguished her from her sisters. While they were all that was most feminine, with tiny waists and hands, and feet, she might have been a handsome and athletic boy dressed in woman’s clothes for a school play. Only, of course, one knew quite well that she was not a boy. She stood erect, her arms hanging by her sides, smoothing back the muslin billows of her skirt, as if they were foolishness she would be glad to put behind her; and indeed, she would have looked better in Greek dress. Like her sisters, she had golden hair, but hers was a whiter gold. As my uncle and she went toward each other, she smiled, and he was glad to see that her eyes were a darker grey than her sisters’, and were quick and glancing. He told her who he was, speaking honestly, not putting on a brogue to win her, and she smiled and held out her hand. It took her a little time to read the letter, and she frowned over it and held her forefinger to her lips, and bade him tell his aunt that she would send over an answer later in the day, after she had consulted her gardeners, and then she asked him if he would care to come into the house and drink some raspberry vinegar. As she led him across the lawn to the terrace, walking with long strides, he saw that her sisters were clustered in a group, staring up at a gutter high on the house, where a rook had perched, as if the bird were a great marvel. “Should I say good-bye to the ladies?” he asked nervously, and Parthenope answered, “No, they have forgotten you already” However, one had not. The sister who wore the light-red dress ran after him, crying, “Come back soon, little boy, Nobody ever comesRWP353 into this garden except to steal our strawberries.”
Parthenope took him through the silent house, pausing in the room where the dolls lay on the floor to lift them up and shut them in a drawer, and they came to a dining room, lined with pictures of great ships at war with stormy seas. There was no raspberry vinegar on the top of the sideboard–only decanters wearing labels marked with the names of adult drinks he was allowed only at Christmas and on his birthday, and then but one glass, and he always  chose claret. So they opened the cupboard below, and sat down together on the carpet and peered into the darkness while he told her that he did not really want any but if it had gone astray he would be pleased to help her find it. But when the decanter turned up at the very back of the shelf (and they agreed that that was what always happened where one lost anything, and that there was no doubt that objects can move), they both had a glass, talking meanwhile of what they liked to eat and drink. Like him, she hated boiled mutton, and she, too, liked goose better than turkey. When he had finished and the talk had slowed down, he rose and put his glass on the sideboard, and offered her a hand to help her up from the floor, but she did not need it; and he gave a last look round the room, so that he would not forget it. He asked her, “Why is your chandelier tied up in a canvas bag? At home that only happens when the family is away.” She answered, “Our family is away,” speaking so grimly that he said, “I did not mean to ask a rude question.” She told him. “you have not asked a rude question. What I meant was that all but two of us have our own homes, and those two will be leaving here soon.” It would not have RWP354been right to say that she spoke sadly. But her tone was empty of all it had held when they had talked about how much better chicken tastes when you eat it with your fingers when you are out shooting. He remembered all the sad things he had heard his aunt say about her family, the sadder things he had heard from the servants. He said, “Why don’t you come back with me and have tea with my aunt?” She said, smiling, “She has not asked me.” And he said, “Never think of that. We are not proper English, you know; we are from Ireland, and friends come in any time…” But she thanked him, sighing, so that he knew she would really have liked to come, and said that she must go back to her sisters. As the butler held the front door open for my uncle, she gave him a friendly slap across the shoulders, as an older boy might have done.
After that, my uncle never watched the Admiral’s daughters again. If a glance told him that they were in the garden, he turned his back on the window. He had not liked those staring eyes that were colourless as water, and it troubled him that though some of them had children, none had said, “I have a boy, too, but he is much younger than you,” for mothers always said that. He remembered Parthenope so well that he could summon her to his mind when he wished, and he could not bear to see her with these women who made him feel uneasy, because he was sure that he and she felt alike, and therefore she must be in a perpetual state of unease. so when, the very day before he was to go back to Ireland, he looked out of his bedroom window and saw her alone on the lawn, he threw up the sash and called to her; but she did not hear him. She was absorbed in playing a game byRW355 herself, a game that he knew well. She was throwing a ball high into the air, then letting her arms drop by her sides, and waiting to the last, the very last moment, before stretching out a hand to catch it. It was a strange thing for a grown-up lady to be doing, but it did not distress him like the play-ground gambolling and chattering of her sisters. They had been like children as grownups like to think of them, silly and meaningless and mischievous. But she was being a child as children really are, sobered by all they have to put up with and glad to forget it in play. There was currently some danger that his own father was going to get a post in some foreign place and that the whole family would have to leave County Kerry for years and years; and when he and his brothers and sisters thought of this, they would go and, each one apart, would play this very same game that Parthenope was playing.
He did not want to raise his voice in a shout, in case he was overheard by his aunt or his mother. They would not understand that although Parthenope and he had met only once, they knew each other quite well. He got up from the window seat and went out of his room and down through the house and out into the garden. There was a ladder in the coach house, and he dragged it to the right part of the wall and propped it up and stopped it with stones, and climbed to the top and called “Miss Parthenope” When she saw him, she smiled and waved at him as if she really were glad to see him again.
“Where are your sisters” he asked cautiously.
“They have all gone away. I am going home tomorrow.”
“So am I.”
“Are you glad?”
“Papa will be there,” he said, “and my brothers and sisters, and Garrity the groom, and my pony.”
NPG Ax45626,Jack Llewelyn Davies; Michael Llewelyn Davies; Sir James Matthew ('J.M.') Barrie, Bt; Sylvia Jocelyn Llewelyn Davies,by; copied by Unknown photographer; Lizzie Caswall SmithShe asked him the names of his brothers and sisters, and how old they were, and where his home was; and he told her all these things and told her, too, that his father was always being sent all over the world, and that of late he and his brothers and sisters had heard talk that someday,, and it might be soon, he would be sent to some foreign place for so long that they would have to go with him, and they didn’t want this to happen; for though they loved him and wanted to be near him, they loved County Kerry, too. At that, she stopped smiling and nodded her head, as if to say she knew how he must feel. “But perhaps it won’t happen,” he said, “and then you must come and stay with us for the hunting.” He thought of her in a riding habit, and at that he noticed that she was wearing a dress such as his own mother might have worn – a dress of grey cloth, with a tight bodice and a stiffened skirt, ornamented with braid. He said, “How funny to see you dressed like other ladies. Don’t you usually wear that lilac-grey muslin dress?”
She shook her head. “No. My sisters and I only wear those muslin dresses when we are together here. My, sisters like them.”
“Don’t you?”” he said, for her tone had gone blank again.
“No,” she answered, “not at all.”
He was glad to hear it, but it seemed horribly unfair that she should have to wear clothes she did not like, just because her sisters did; nothing ofRW360 the sort happened in his own family. “Then don’t wear them” he said passionately. “You mustn’t wear them! Not if you don’t like them!”
“You’re making your ladder wobble,” she said, laughing at him, “and if you fall down, I can’t climb over the wall and pick you up.” She started across the lawn toward the house.
“Garrity says that you’re lost if you let yourself be put upon,” he cried after her, his brogue coming back to him, but honestly, because he spoke to Garrity as Garrity spoke to him. He would have liked to have the power to make her do what she ought to do, and save her from all this foolishness.
“Good-bye, good-bye,” she called across the growing distance. “Be a good boy, and come back to see us next year.”
“You will be here for sure?” he asked eagerly.
“Oh, yes,” she promised. “We will always be back here for some time in the summer. My sisters would rather be here than anywhere in the world.”
“But do you like it yourself” he asked angrily.
It was no use. She had run up the steps to the terrace.
My uncle did not come back the next year, because his fears were realized and his father was appointed to a post in Canada. But from his aunt’s letters to his mother he learned that even if he had returned to Currivel Lodge, he would not have seen Parthenope, for the Admiral sold the house later that year, as soon as his two remaining daughters went C-419to the altar, which they did with even greater reluctance than their elder sisters. Alice Darrell’s maid happened to be at the window one winter day and saw the two of them walking up and down the lawn, dressed in those strange, bright muslin gowns and wearing no mantles, though the river mist was thick, while they wept and wrung their hands. Aunt Alice felt that even if the Admiral had felt obliged to bundle all his daughters into matrimony, he should at least not have sold the house, which was the one place where they could meet and have a little nursery happiness again.
In the course of time, Uncle Arthur came back to Ireland, and went to Trinity College, Dublin, and passed into the English Civil Service, and was sent to London. The first time he went back to Currivel Lodge, he stood at his bedroom window and stared out at the croquet lawn of the house next door, and it looked very much like other croquet lawns. Under the trees two men and two women were sitting round a tea table, all of them presenting the kind of appearance, more common then than now, that suggests that nothing untoward happens to the human race. It occurred to him that perhaps his boyish imagination had made a story out of nothing, but Aunt Alice gave him back his version intact. The Admiral had really hectored his daughters into early and undesired marriages, with the most brutal disregard for their feelings, and the daughters had really been very strange girls, given to running about the garden in a sort of fancy dress and behaving like children – all except Parthenope, who was quite remarkable. She had made her mark in society since then. Well, so they all had, in a way. Their photographs were always in the papers, at one time, and no wonder, they were so very pretty. But that seemed over now, and, indeed, they must all be out of their twenties by now, even the youngest. Parthenope’s triumphs, however, had been more durable. It was said that Queen Victoria greatly approved of her, and she was often at Court. My uncle always thought of Parthenope when he was dressingRWP344 for any of the grander parties to which he was invited, and he soon found his way to the opera and ascertained which was her box, but she was never at the parties, and, unless she had changed out of all recognition, never in her box at Covent Garden, either. My uncle did not wish to approach her, for he was a poor young man far below her grandeur, and they belonged to different generations; at the least, she was twelve years older than he was. But he would have liked to see her again.
Soon, however, he received an intimation that that would not be possible. One morning at breakfast he unfolded his newspaper and folded it again almost immediately, having read a single paragraph, which told him that Parthenope had met a violent death. He had failed to meet her at parties and to see her in her opera box because she had been spending the winter abroad, taking care of two of her sisters who had both been the victims of prolonged illness. Originally, they had settled at Nice, but had found it too urban, and had moved to a hotel at Grasse, where they spent some weeks. Then a friend had found them a pleasant villa at Hyères, and the party had started off from Grasse in two carriages. Parthenope and her sisters and a lady’s maid had travelled in the first, and another maid and a courier had followed in the second. The second carriage had dropped far behind. Afterwards, the coachman remembered that he had been oddly delayed in leaving the inn where they had stopped for a midday meal; he had been told that a (c) Fife Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundationman was looking for him with a letter for his employers, and failing to find him had gone to a house some way down the village street. The coachman sought him but there was nobody there; and on his return to his horses he discovered that a harness strap was broken, and he had to mend it before they could resume their journey. After a sharp turn in the road, he had found himself driving into a felled tree trunk, and when the courier and the maid and the coachman got out, they could see no sign of the first carriage. It was found some hours later, abandoned on a cart track running through a wood to a river. There was no trace of any of its occupants. Later that same day the maid crawled up to a farmhouse door. Before she collapsed she was able to tell the story of an attack by masked men, who had, she thought, killed the three sisters outright because they refused to tell in which trunk their jewel cases were packed. She had escaped during the struggle, and while she was running away through the woods, she had heard terrible prolonged screaming from the riverbank. As the river was in flood, there was no hope of recovering the bodies.
After my uncle had read all the accounts of the crime that appeared in the newspapers, and had listened to all he could hear from gossiping friends, there hung, framed on the wall of his mind, a romantic picture of a highway robbery, in the style of Senator Rosa, with coal-black shadows and highlights white on hands lifted in imploration, and he felt no emotion whatsoever. When he had opened The Times at breakfast, his heart had stopped. But now he felt as if he had been stopped before an outmoded and conventional picture in a private gallery by a host who valued it too highly.
A year or so later, Alice Darrell mentioned to him an odd story she had heard. It appeared that Parthenope had been carrying a great deal moreRWP361 jewelry than would seem necessary for a woman travelling quietly with two invalid sisters. To be sure, she had not taken all tire jewelry she possessed, but she had taken enough for the value to be estimated at fifty thousand pounds; and of this not a penny could be recovered, for it was uninsured. Her husband had left the matter for her to handle, because she had sold some old jewelry and had bought some to replace it just about the time that the policy should have been renewed, but she had failed to write the necessary letter to her lawyers till the very night before the journey to Hyères, and it was found, unposted, at the hotel in Grasse.
“Parthenope!” my uncle said. “Let an insurance policy lapse! Parthenope! I’ll not believe it.”
“That’s just what I said,” Alice Darrell exclaimed. ‘Any of the others, but not Parthenope. She had her hand on everything. Yet, of course, she may have changed. They are a queer family. There was the other one, you know – the one who disappeared. That was after the accident.
It seemed that another sister – Hera, Aunt Alice thought it was – had also suffered ill health, and had gone to France with a nurse, and one day her cloak and bonnet were found on the bank of a river. “I wish that things turned out better,” Aunt Alice remarked sadly. “They do sometimes, but not often enough.” This was the only criticism of life he had ever heard her utter, though she had had a sad life, constantly losing the people she loved, to tropical diseases or to wars against obscure tribes that lacked even the interest of enmity. What she uttered now made him realize that she had indeed thought Parthenope remarkable, and he said, smiling, ” Why, we are making ourselves quite miserable about her, though all we know for sure is that she let an insurance policy lapse.”
C-2928He did not hear of the Admiral’s daughters again until after a long space of time, during which he had many other things to think about: his career, which was alternatively advanced by his brilliance and retarded by his abstracted candour; a long affair with a married woman older than himself, some others that were briefer; and his marriage, which, like his career, and for much the same reason, was neither a success nor a failure. One day when he was reading the papers at his club, he heard two men speaking of a friend who was distressed about his mother, whose behaviour had been strange since she had been left a widow. She had rejected the dower house and gone off to the Continent to travel by herself and now refused to come back to see her family or to meet them abroad. The mother had an old Greek name, and so had a sister, who had got herself murdered for her jewels in the South of France. My uncle went on staring at his newspaper, but it was as if a door in his mind were swinging backward and forward on a broken hinge.
Many years later, when Aunt Alice was dead and my uncle was a middle-aged man, with children who were no longer children, he broke his journey home from a conference in Spain at a certain town in the southwest of France, for no other reason than that its name had always charmed him. But it proved to be a dull place, and as he sat down to breakfast at a cafe€ in the large and featureless station square, it occurred to him to ask the waiter if there were not some smaller and pleasanter place in the neighbourhood where he could spend the rest of the day and night. The waiter said that if Monsieur would take the horse-bus that started from the other side of the square in half an hour, it would take him to the village where he, the waiter, was born, and there he would find a good inn and a church that people came all the way from ParisRWP362 to see. My uncle took his advice; and because his night had been wakeful, he fell asleep almost as soon as the bus started. He woke suddenly to find that the journey had ended and he was in a village which was all that he had hoped it would be. A broad, deliberate river, winding among low wooded hills, spread its blessings at this point through a circular patch of plain, a couple of miles or so across, which was studded with farmhouses, each standing beside its deep green orchard. In the centre of this circle was a village that was no more than one long street, which looked very clean. The houses were built of stone that had been washed by the hill rains, and beside the road a brook flowed over a paved bed. There were bursts of red valerian growing from the cracks in the walls and in the yard-long bridges that crossed the brook. The street ended in a little square, where the church and the inn looked across cobblestones, shaded by pollarded limes, at the mairie and the post office. At the inn, my uncle took a room and slept for an hour or two in a bed smelling of the herbs with which the sheets had been washed. Then, as it was past RWP365noon, he went down to lunch, and ate some potato soup, a trout, some wood strawberries, and a slice of cheese. Afterwards, he asked the landlord how soon the church would be open, and was told that he could open it himself when he chose. The priest and his housekeeper were away until vespers, and had left the church keys at the inn. When he went to the church, it was a long time before he unlocked the door, for there was a beautiful tympanum in the porch, representing the Last Judgement. It was clear-cut in more than one sense. There was no doubt who was saved and who was damned: there was a beatific smile on the faces of those walking in  Paradise, which made it seem as if just there a shaft of sunlight had struck the dark stone. Also the edges of the carving, though the centuries had rubbed them down, showed a definition more positive than mere sharpness. Often my uncle played games when he was alone, and now he climbed on a wooden stool which was in the porch, and shut his eyes and felt the faces of the blessed, and pretended that he had been blind for a long time, and that the smiles of the blessed were striking into his darkness through his fingertips. When he went into the church, he found, behind an oaken door, the steps that led to the top of the tower. He climbed up through darkness that was transfixed every few steps by thin shafts of light, dancing with dust, coming through the eyelet windows, and he found that though the tower was not very high, it gave a fine view of an amphitheatre of hills, green on their lower slopes with chestnut groves, banded higher with fir woods and bare turf, and crowned with shining rock. He marked some likely paths on the nearest hills, and then dropped his eyes to the village below, and looked down into the oblong garden of a house that seemed larger than the rest. At the farther end was the usual, pedantically neat French vegetable garden; then there was a screen of espaliered fruit trees; then there was a lawn framed in trees so tall and strong that it could have been guessed from them alone that not far away there was a river. The lawn wasRWP366 set with croquet hoops, and about them were wandering four figures in bright dresses—one hyacinth blue, one primrose yellow, one jade green, one clear light red. They all had croquet mallets in their hands, but they had turned from the game, and as my uncle watched them they drew together, resting their mallets on the ground. some distance away, a woman in black, taller thin the others, stood watching them.
When one of the croquet players let her mallet fall on the grass, and used her free hands in a fluttering gesture, my uncle left the top of the tower and went down through the darkness and shafts of light and locked the church door behind him. In the corner of the square he found what might have been the chateau of the village – one of those square and solid dwellings, noble out of proportion to their size, which many provincial French architects achieved in the seventeenth century. My uncle went through an iron gateway into a paved garden and found that the broad door of the house was open. He walked into the vestibule and paused, looking up the curved staircase. The pictures were as old as the house, and two had been framed to fit the recessed panels in which they hung. The place must have been bought as it stood. On the threshold of the corridor beyond, he paused again, for it smelled of damp stone, as all the back parts of his father’s house in County Kerry did, at any time of the year but high summer. It struck him as a piece of good fortune for which he had never before been sufficiently grateful that he could go back to that house any time he pleased; he would be there again in a few weeks’ time. He passed the open door of a kitchen, where two women RWP368were rattling dishes and pans and singing softly, and came to a closed door, which he stared at for a second before he turned the handle.
He found himself in a salon that ran across the whole breadth of the house, with three French windows opening on a stone terrace overlooking the garden. As he crossed it to the steps that led down to the lawn, he came close to a bird cage on a pole, and the scarlet parrot inside broke into screams. All the women on the lawn turned and saw him, and the tall woman in black called, “Que voulez-vous, Monsieur?” She had put her hand to her heart and he was eager to reassure her, but could not think how, across that distance, to explain why he had come. So he continued to walk toward her, but could not reach her because the four others suddenly scampered toward him, crying “Go away! Go away!” Their arms flapped like bats’ wings, and their voices were cracked, but, under their white hair, their faces were unlined and their eyes were colourless as water, “Go away!” shrilled the one in light red. “We know you have come to steal our strawberries. why may we not keep our own strawberries?” But the figure in black had come forward with long strides, and told them to go on with their game, and asked again, “Que voulez-vous, Monsieur?” Her hair was grey now, and her mouth so sternly compressed that it was a straight line across her face. She reminded my uncle of a particular man – her father, the Admiral-but she was not like a man, she was still a handsome and athletic boy, though a frost had fallen on him; and still it was strange that she should look like a boy, since she was also not male at all. My uncle found that now he was face to face with her, it was just as difficult to explain to her why he had come. He said, “I came to this village by chance this morning, and after I had luncheon at the inn I went to the top of the church tower, and looked down on this garden, and recognized you all. I came to tell you that if there is anything I can do for you I will do it. I am a civil servant who has quite a respectable career,C-2038 and so I can hope that I might be efficient enough to help you if you need it.”
“That is very kind,” she said, and paused, and it was as if she were holding a shell to her ear and listening to the voice of a distant sea. “Very kind,” she repeated. “But who are you?”
“I am the nephew of your neighbour, Mrs Darrell,” said my uncle. “I brought you a letter from her, many years ago, when you were all in your garden.”
Her smile broke slowly. “I remember you,” she said. “You were a fatherly little boy. You gave me good advice from the top of a ladder. Why should you have found me here, I wonder? It can’t be that, after all, there is some meaning in the things that happen. You had better come into the house and drink some of the cherry brandy we make here. I will get the cook to come out and watch them. I never leave them alone now.”
While she went to the kitchen, my uncle sat in the salon and noted that, for all its fine furniture and all its space and light, there was a feeling that the place was dusty, the same feeling that he had noticed in the Admiral’s house long ago. It is the dust of another world, he thought with horror, and the housemaids of this world are helpless against it. It settles wherever these women live, and Parthenope must live with them.
When she came back, she was carrying a tray with a slender decanter and very tiny glasses. They sat sipping the cherry brandy in silence until she said, “I did nothing wrong.”
He looked at her in astonishment. Of course she had done nothing wrong. Wrong was what she did not do.
But she continued gravely. “When we all die, it will be found that the sum I got for the jewelry is intact. My stepson will not be a penny the worse off. Indeed, he is better off, for my husband has had my small inheritance long before it would have come to him if I had not done this.”
C-1616“I knew you would have done it honestly,” said my uncle. He hesitated. “This is very strange. You see, I knew things about you which I had no reason to know. I knew you had not been murdered.” Then my uncle had to think carefully. They were united by eternal bonds, but hardly knew each other, which was the reverse of what usually happened to men and women. But they might lapse into being strangers and nothing else if he showed disrespect to the faith by which she lived. He said only, “Also I knew that what you were doing in looking after your family was terrible.”
She answered, “Yes. How good it is to hear somebody say that it is terrible, and to be able to answer that it is. But I had to do it. I had to get my sisters away from their husbands. They were ashamed of them. They locked them up in the care of strangers. I saw their bruises.”  My uncle caught his breath, “Oh,” she said, desperately just, “the people who looked after them did not mean to be cruel. But they were strangers; they did not know the way to handle my sisters. And their husbands were not bad men, either. And even if they had been, I could not say a word against them, for they were cheated; my father cheated them. They were never told the truth about my mother. About my mother and half her family.” She raised her little glass of cherry brandy to her lips and nodded, to intimate that that was all she had to say, but words rushed out and she brought her glass down to her lap. “I am not telling the truth. Their husbands cheated, too. No, I am wrong. They did not cheat. But they failed to keep their bond. Still, there is no use talking about that.”
“What bond did your sisters’ husbands not keep?” my uncle asked.
“They married my sisters because they were beautiful, and laughed easily, and could not understand figures. They might have considered thatRWP341 women who laugh easily might scream easily, and that if figures meant nothing to them, words might mean nothing, either, and that if figures and words meant nothing to them, thoughts and feelings might mean nothing, too. But these men had the impudence to feel a horror of my sisters.”
She rose, trembling, and told him that he must have a sweet biscuit with his cherry brandy, and that she would get him some; they were in a cupboard in the corner of the room. Over her shoulder, she cried, “I cannot imagine you marrying a woman who was horrible because she was horrible, and then turning against her because she was horrible.” She went on seeing some wafers out on a plate, and he stared at the back of her head, unable to imagine what was inside it, saying to himself, “She realizes that they are horrible; there is no mitigation of her state.”
When she sat down again, she said, “But it was my father’s fault.”
“What was your father’s fault?” he asked gently, when she did not go on.
“Why, he should not have made us marry; he should not have sold our house. My sisters were happy there, and all they asked was to be allowed to go on living there, like children.”
“Your father wanted his daughters to marry so that they would have someone to look after them when he was dead,” my uncle told her.
“I could have looked after them.”
“Come now,” said my uncle, “you are not being fair. You are the same sort of person as your father. And you know quite well that if you were a man you would regard all women as incapable. You see, men of the better kind want to protect the women they love, and there is so much RWP336stupidity in the male nature and the circumstances of life are generally so confused that they end up thinking they must look after women because women cannot look after themselves. It is only very seldom that a man meets a woman so strong and wise that he cannot doubt her strength and wisdom, and realizes that his desire to protect her is really the same as his desire to gather her into his arms and partake of her glory.”
Moving slowly and precisely, he took out his card-case and was about to give her one of his cards when a thought struck him. She must have the name of his family’s house in County Kerry as well as his London address, and know that he went there at Christmas and at Easter, and in the summer, too. She would be able to find him whenever she wanted him, since such bootblack service was all he could render her.
She read the card and said in an astonished whisper, “Oh, how kind, how kind.” Then she rose and put it in a drawer in a secretaire, which she locked with a key she took from a bag swinging from the belt of her hateful black gown. “I have to lock up everything,” she said, wearily. “They mean no harm, but sometimes they get at papers and tear them up.”
“What I have written on that card is for an emergency,” said my uncle. “But what is there I can do now? I do not like the thought of you sitting here in exile, among things that mean nothing to you. Can I not send you out something English – a piece of furniture, a picture, some china or glass? If I were in your place, I would long for something that reminded me of the houses where I had spent my childhood.”
“If you were in my place, you would not,” she said. “You are very kind, but the thing that has happened to my family makes me not at all anxious to remember my childhood. We were all such pretty children. Everybody always spoke as if we were bound to be. And in those days nobody wasRWP369 frightened of Mamma – they only laughed at her, because she was such a goose. Then one thing followed another, and it became quite certain about Mamma, and then it became quite certain about the others; and now I cannot bear to think of the good times that went before. It is as if someone had known and was mocking us. But you may believe that it is wonderful for me to know that there is someone I can call on at any time. You see, I had supports, which are being taken away from me. You really have no idea how I got my sisters out here?”
My uncle shook his head. “I only read what was in the newspapers and knew it was not true.”
“But you must have guessed I had helpers,” she said. “There was the highway robbery to be arranged. All that was done by somebody who was English but had many connections in France, a man who was very fond of Arethusa.  Arethusa is the one who spoke to you in the garden; she always wears red. This man was not like her husband; when she got worse and worse, he felt no horror for her, only pity. He has always been behind me, but he was far older than we were, and he died three years ago; and since then his lawyer in Paris has been a good friend, but now he is old, too, and I must expect him to go soon, I have made all arrangements for what is to happen to my sisters after my death. They will go to a convent near here, where the nuns are really kind, and we are preparing them for it. One or other of the nuns comes here every day to see my sisters, so that they will never have to be frightened by strange faces; and I think that if my sisters go on getting worse at the same rate as at present, they will by then believe the nuns when they say that I have been obliged to go away and will come back presently. But till that time comes, I will be very glad to have someone I can ask for advice. I RWP371can see that you are to be trusted. You are like the man who loved Arethusa. My poor Arethusa! Sometimes I think,” she said absently, “that she might have been all right if it had been that man whom she had married. But no,” she cried, shaking herself awake, “none of us should have married, not even me.”
“Why should you not have married? asked my uncle. “That the others should not I understand. But why not you? There is nothing wrong with you.”
“Is there not?” she asked. “To leave my family and my home, to stage a sham highway robbery, and later to plot and lie, and lie and plot, in order to get my mad sisters to a garden I had once noted, in my travels, as something like the garden taken from them when they were young. There is an extravagance in the means my sanity took to rescue their madness that makes the one uncommonly like the other.”
“You must not think that,” my uncle told her. “Your strange life forced strangeness on your actions, but you are not strange. You were moved by love, you had seen their bruises.”
“Yes, I had seen their bruises,” she agreed. “But,” she added, hesitantly, “you are so kind that I must be honest with you. It was not only for the love of my sisters that I arranged this flight. It is also true that I could not bear my life. I was not wholly unselfish. You do not know what it is likeRWP372 to be a character in a tragedy. Something has happened which can only be explained by supposing that God hates you with merciless hatred, and nobody will admit it. The people nearest you stand round you saying that you must ignore this extraordinary event, you must – what were the words I was always hearing? – ‘keep your sense of proportion,’ ‘not brood on things.’ They do not understand that they are asking you to deny your experiences, which is to pretend that you do not exist and never have existed. And as for the people who do not love you, they laugh. Our tragedy was so ridiculous that the laughter was quite loud. There were all sorts of really funny stories about the things my mother and sisters did before they were shut up. That is another terrible thing about being a character in a tragedy; at the same time you become a character in a farce. Do not deceive yourself,” she said, looking at him kindly and sadly. “I am not a classical heroine, I am not Iphigenia or Electra or Alcestis, I am the absurd Parthenope. There is no dignity in my life. For one thing, too much has happened to me. One calamity evokes sympathy; when two calamities call for it, some still comes, but less. Three calamities are felt to be too many, and when four are reported, or five, the thing is ludicrous. God has only to strike one again and again for one to become a clown. There is nothing about me which is not comical. Even my flight with my sisters has become a joke.” She sipped at her glass. “My sisters’ husbands and their families must by now have found out where we are. I do not think my husband ever did, or he would have come to see me. But there are many little indications that the others know, and keep their knowledge secret, rather than let loose so monstrous a scandal.”
“You say your husband would have come to see you?” asked my uncle, wanting to make sure. “But that must mean he loved you.”
C-819At last the tears stood in her eyes. She said, her voice breaking, “Oh, things might have gone very well with my husband and myself, if love had been possible for me. But of course it never was.”
“How wrong you are,” said my uncle. “There could be nothing better for any man than to have you as his wife. If you did not know that, your husband should have made you understand it.”
“No, no,” she said. “The fault was not in my husband or myself. It was in love, which cannot do all that is claimed for it. Oh, I can see that it can work miracles, some miracles, but not all the miracles that are required before life can be tolerable, Listen: I love my sisters, but I dare not love them thoroughly. To love them as much as one can love would be to go to the edge of an abyss and lean over the edge, farther and farther, till one was bound to lose one’s balance and fall into the blackness of that other world where they live. That is why I never dared let my husband love me fully. I was so much afraid that I might be an abyss, and if he understood me, if we lived in each other, he would be drawn down into my darkness.”
“But there is no darkness in you,” said my uncle, “you are not an abyss, you are the solid rock.”
“Why do you think so well of me?” she wondered. “Of course, you are right to some extent – I am not the deep abyss I might be. But how could I be sure of that when I was young? Every night when I lay down in bed I examined my day for signs of folly. If I had lost my temper, if I had felt more joy than was reasonable, I was like one of a tuberculous family who has just heard herself cough. Only the years that had not then passed made me sure that I was unlike my sisters, and until I knew, I had to hold myself back. I could not let the fine man who was my husband beC-1452 tempted into my father’s fault.”
“What was your father’s fault?” asked my uncle, for the second time since he had entered that room.
Again her disapproval was absolute, her eyes were like steel. But this time she answered at once, without a moment’s hesitation: Why, he should not have loved my mother.”
“But you are talking like a child!” he exclaimed. “You cannot blame anyone for loving anyone.”
“Did you ever see him?” she asked, her eyes blank because they were filled with a distant sight. “Yes? You must have been only a boy, but surely, you say that he was remarkable. And he had a mind, he was a mathematician, he wrote a book on navigation that was thought brilliant; they asked him to lecture to the Royal Society. And one would have thought from his face that he was a giant of goodness and strength. How could such a man love such a woman as my mother? It was quite mad, the way he made us marry. How could he lean over the abyss of her mind and let himself be drawn down into that darkness?”
“Do not let your voice sink to a whisper like that,” my uncle begged her. “It – it –”
“It frightens you,” she supplied.
“But have you,” he pressed her, “no feeling for your mother?”
“Oh yes,” she said, her voice breaking. “I loved my mother very much. But when she went down into the darkness, I had to say good-bye to her or I could not have looked after my sisters.” It seemed as if she was going to weep, but she clung to her harshness and asked again, “How could my father love such a woman?”
My uncle got up and knelt in front of her chair and took her trembling hands in his. “There is no answer, so do not ask the question.”
C-1550“I must ask it,” she said. “surely it is blasphemy to admit that one can ask questions to which there are no answers. I must ask why my father leaned over the abyss of my mother’s mind and threw himself into it, and dragged down victim after victim with him – not only dragging them down but manufacturing them for that sole purpose, calling them out of nothingness simply so that they could fall and fall. How could he do it? If there is not an answer – ”
He put his hand over her lips. “He cannot have known that she was mad when he begot his children.”
Her passion had spent itself in her question. She faintly smiled as she said, “No, but I never liked the excuse that he and my sisters’ husbands made for themselves. They all said that at first they had simply thought their wives were rather silly. I could not have loved someone whom I thought rather silly. Could you?”
“It is not what I have done,” said my uncle. “May I have some more cherry brandy?”
“I am so glad you like it,” she said, suddenly happy. “But you have given me the wrong glass to fill. This is mine.”
“I knew that,” he told her. “I wanted to drink from your glass.”
“I would like to drink from yours,” she said, and for a little time they were silent. “Tell me,” she asked meekly, as if now she had put herself in his hands, “do you think it has been wrong for me to talk about what has happened to me? When I was at home they, always said it was bad to brood over it.”
“What nonsense,” said my uncle. “I am sure that it was one of the major misfortunes of Phèdre and Bérénice that they were unable to read Racine’s clear-headed discussions of their miseries.”
“You are right,” said Parthenope. “Oh, how kind Racine was to tragic people! He would not allow for a moment that they were comic. People atRWP375 those courts must have giggled behind their hands at poor Bérénice, at poor Phèdre. But he ignored them. You are kind like Racine.”
There was a tapping on the glass of the French window,, and her face went grey. “What has happened now? Oh, what has happened now?” she murmured to herself. It was the cook who had tapped, and she was looking grave. Parthenope went out and spoke with her for a minute, and then came back, and again the tears were standing in her eyes. “I thought I might ask you to stay all day with me,” she said. “I thought we might dine together. But my sisters cannot bear it that there is a stranger here. They’re are hiding in the raspberry canes, and you must have heard them screaming. Part of that noise comes from the parrot, but part from them. It sometimes takes hours to get them quiet. I cannot help it; you must go.”
He took both her hands and pressed them against his throat, and felt it swell as she muttered, “Good-bye.” But as he was going through the paved garden to the gateway he heard her call “Stop! Stop!” and she was just behind him, her skirts lifted over her ankles so that she could take her long strides. “The strangest thing,” she said, laughing. “I have not told you the name by which I am known here.” She spelled it out to him as he wrote it down in his diary, and turned back toward the house, exclaiming, “What a thing to forget” But then she swung back again, suddenly pale, and said, “But do not write to me. I am only giving you the name so that if I send you a message you will be able to answer it. But do not write to me.”
“Why not?” he asked indignantly. “Why not?”
“You must not be involved in my life,” she said. “There is a force outside the world that hates me and all my family. If you wrote to me too often it might hate you, too.”
C-2351“I would risk that,” he said, but she cried, covering her eyes, “No, no, by being courageous you are threatening my last crumb of happiness. If you stay a stranger, I may be allowed to keep what I have of you. So do as I say.”
He made a resigned gesture, and they parted once more. But as she got to her door, he called to her to stop and hurried back. “I will not send you anything that will remind you of your home,” he said, “but may I not send you a present from time to time – some stupid little thing that will not mean much but might amuse you for a minute or two?”
She hesitated but in the end nodded. “A little present, a very little present,” she conceded. “And not too often.” She smiled like the saved in the sculpture in the church, and slowly closed the door on him.
But when he was out in the square and walking toward the inn, he heard her voice crying again, “Stop! Stop!” This time she came quite close to him and said, as if she were a child ashamed to admit to a fault, “There is another thing that I would like to ask of you. You said that I might write to you if I wanted anything, and I know that you meant business things – the sort of advice men give women. But I wonder if your kindness goes beyond that; You are so very kind. I know all about most dreadful things in life, but I know nothing about death. Usually I think I will not mind leaving this world, but just now and then, if I wake up in the night, particularly in winter, when it is very cold, I am afraid that I may be frightened when I die.”
“I fear that, too, sometimes,” he said.
“It seems a pity, too, to leave this world, in spite of the dreadful things that happen in it,” she went on. “There are things that nothing can spoil –C-3061 the spring and the summer and the autumn.”
“And, indeed, the winter, too,” he said.
“Yes, the winter, too,” she said and looked up at the amphitheatre of hills round the village. “You cannot think how beautiful it is here when the snow has fallen. But, of course, death may be just what one has been waiting for; it may explain everything. But still, I may be frightened when it comes. So if I do not die suddenly, if I have warning of my death, would it be a great trouble for you to come and be with me for a little?”
“As I would like to be with you always, I would certainly want to be with you then,” he said. “And if I have notice of my death and you are free to travel, I will ask you to come to me.”
My uncle found that he did not want to go back to the inn just then, and he followed a road leading up to the foothills. There he climbed one of the paths he had remarked from the top of the church tower, and when he got to the bare rock, he sat down and looked at the village beneath him till the twilight fell. On his return to London, he painted a water-colour of the view of the valley as he recollected it, and pasted it in a book, which he kept by his bedside. From time to time, some object in the window of an antique shop or a jeweller’s would bring Parthenope to his mind, and he would send it to her, The one that pleased him as most fitting was a gold ring; in the form of two leaves, which was perhaps Saxon. She acknowledged these presents in brief letters; and it delighted him that often her solemn purpose of brevity broke down and she added an unnecessary sentence or two, telling him of something that had brightened her day – of a strayed fawn she had found in her garden, or a prodigious crop of cherries, RWP379which had made her trees quite red. But after some years these letters stopped. When he took into account how old she was, and by how many years she had been the elder, he realized that probably she had died. He told himself that at least she had enjoyed the mercy of sudden death, and presently ceased to think of her. It was as if the memory of her were too large to fit inside his head; he felt actual physical pain when he tried to recollect her. This was the time when such things as the finest buttercup field near London and the tomb of Captain Vancouver seemed to be all that mattered to him. But from the day when he heard the girl at the inn called by the name of his Parthenope, he again found it easy to think of her; and he told me about her very often during the five years that passed before his death.

 

 

 

 

 

Blogs by their very nature tend to be personal, so it may not be amiss for me to admit that a few months ago I suffered a reverse which thenRWP381 slipped into an ever-worsening slump, and that since then my thinking has still not recovered its accustomed level of serviceability. But this story by the redoubtable Rebecca West has gone a long way towards ameliorating that condition, though not my present inclination to cavil and inveigh.

It is the kind of old-fashioned, rambling short-story one is pleased and surprised to find being published in the New Yorker on the cusp of the ‘sixties. The story has nothing in it – not even a trace –  of anything sordid, base or dull, and none of West’s caustic wit at the forefront, for there is no need here for her to be blatant about it. Her narrative is deceptively relaxed, but finely wrought – an antique gold watch chain attached to a fine old watch that keeps perfect time.

It comes as no surprise then, that reading it was to me as a gentle restorative, and in its way a redemption. I have to curb myself in order to restrain, as one would call it, an excess of enthusiasm, as one feels when encountering after a long while an old love, or the object of a deep affection. But why should I be so powerfully affected? The simple and truthful answer is that something in me was made to resonate.
As with all periodicals, even the highly traditional New Yorker has had to change somewhat with the times, and the changes are never more apparent to me than in the current quality and tone of its fiction. I do not know whether there have been still further changes, and perhaps for the better, in recent times, but since I  have simply stopped reading the short stores, I have no way of knowing for certain if the cooked cardboard characters going about their uninteresting business have ceased to inhabit the fiction features. Perhaps it is not the New Yorker which is to blame, but the dearth of available material. Perhaps before too long I might persuade myself to summon the gumption to try reading another such offering, because I would like very much to be surprised.

C-1436Part of the problem is perhaps that in this century, short-stories have become recognisably formulaic, consistently striking the same dull note. The challenge in many instances seems to be how much can be written about little or nothing that is of any significance, and how much talent and determination can be brought to documenting a catalogue of banalities. Not that it can’t be superbly done, and Elizabeth Bowen’s October 11, 1941 piece “Everything’s Frightfully Interesting” written almost entirely in dialogue, takes triviality and vapid conversation to the level of sublimity. But Bowen isn’t around anymore is she – nor is Katherine Mansfield or Sylvia Townsend Warner, or for a matter of fact Rebecca West. Its needs must when the devil rides for the New Yorker I suppose, when there are no longer any such writers to contribute.

All writing is contrived: that is axiomatic, and the most of it more flagrantly than the small remainder. But some contrivances are so obviously, so egregiously and blatantly, fake as to resemble painted corpses, and the surrounding flowers and white satin only serve to accentuate that there is no life to be found here.  I often wonder if this kind of writing is the precursor of further corruption. Certainly it is not something which belongs above-ground, as one instinctively feels in it the incipience of decay. The New Yorker published  “Parthenope” on November 7 1959, but this story seems much older in tone, and one suspects that West might have written it several decades earlier. Then too, her characters were born in the Victorian era, and this is something we must bear in mind when we read her story. So I could, I suppose, conclude that some of my obvious delight derives from my bitterRWP383 and forlorn inner literary atavist raising its shaggy head.

In “Parthenope” we have all the potent ingredients of a Victorian story finely adapted to a later time: first love, an implacably authoritarian father, madness, victimised women, self-sacrifice, an honourable protagonist, glimpses into the workings of families, foreign travel, inter-generational relationships, and a high moral tone modulated to a contemporary range of hearing. Still, I find West’s adumbration of the original Parthenope story curious. Our Parthenope, despite her act of heroic self-sacrifice, was a married woman and not a virgin (the Greek name ‘Parthenope’ means maiden-face), and did not commit suicide for love of an adventurer. And Uncle Arthur, despite his infidelities and foreign travel, was no Odysseus. True, he seems to have been beckoned by the siren’s song, but he never stopped his ears to keep from hearing it, and I think he was ready to love as fully and authentically as he could, had he been so permitted. The Sirens’ call is a metaphor for the implacable undertow that beauty and music have on our lives. These two forces often divert us from our charted course, RWP384and we founder on them and lose our wonted bearings, but the paradox is that rather than killing us, they remove us from the deadness of what life would be without them. Perhaps it is a small but definite riff of redemption that West intended us to hear, for there is no connection in the story to Naples, where after her suicide Parthenope’s body was washed ashore between Chiatamone and Posilippo at a place originally called Parthenope by the Greeks and Neapolis by the Romans. West might have chosen to name her character after Parthenope in order to echo the themes of the divine punishment visited upon the Sirens,  their uncanny natures, as well as that of unfulfilled love, all themes which possess the elements of tragedy, but don’t quite rise to its accepted requirements.

West’s Parthenope is an intriguing character. Her androgynous appearance, stressed and carefully described by West, suggests for me a subtly lesbian flavour, much like Marion (another resourceful and loyal sister) in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. When she creates an almost saintly heroine who martyrs herself in order to take care of her weak-minded sisters (one of whom nevertheless knew about Titian, and loved light, red dresses and red hair), West departs from her unshakable conviction that self-sacrifice in women is to be deplored, or perhaps this story predated that conviction. But is it really sacrifice when it is the only choice one can make, and other choices lead only to self-betrayal?C-3915 Is West implying there is no such thing as being altruistic? Or in Parthenope is she painting for us a different kind of ‘sacrifice’ which has nothing to do with weak submission, but a strong and decisive resolve to assume responsibility for the happiness and welfare of her sisters? Certainly Parthenope showed evidence of an exceptional courage when she set aside the fear that she herself might go mad in the future, and  put into action a daring plan to rescue her sisters from the horror of the lives to which their mental disease and and unsympathetic husbands had destined them. Though Fate ran through it like an indelible blight, there seems to have been so much grace to be found in her uneasy life, and there is no doubt at all that in the last or any other judgement, Parthenope would be on the side of those redeemed. She herself is one of the things that ‘nothing can spoil’.

The ambivalent feelings reserved by his family for Uncle Arthur (‘derision and respect’) give us an important key to his character. He is brilliant but clueless, at least in regard to his relationships with his superiors in the Civil Service. He also seems to be  ineffectual, unambitious, and with the exception of the niece in the story, his family ties seem rather loose. But that may be only as it appears. Uncle Arthur’s RWP385career setbacks have hidden implications. Anyone who has been employed for any significant length of time in a State bureaucracy will soon learn that these are highly corrupt places, where those in power have gained their position through political manouevering. Superiors, even if they are not intrinsically evil, are people who manage to set themselves up in positions of authority over others, and soon themselves become the tools of moral corruption. That Uncle Arthur seems to have been oblivious to this could mean one of two things: either he might not have cared enough about the consequences of offending the vanity of his chiefs, or something in his character carried him beyond the reach of the internal culture of his profession. He seems quite simply to have been a gentle scholar who nevertheless did not desist from using his scholarship to point out the vanity and ignorance of his eminently placed superiors. To describe him as unambitious is one of the  greatest compliments it is possible for me to pay a civil servant, since in my personal experience at least, what is required in order to fulfill any professional ambitions in such an organisation or one like it, is close and vigilant engagement with a pack of highly detestable characters, and a willingness to engage with them on questionable terms. He had, I think, a greatRWP387 sense of justice and fairness,  and an instinctive honesty. It seems not to have been learned, or forced, or acquired as a desirable trait, and not adopted to please God, but an instinct for virtue. He did not turn bitter for not having reaped the rewards he might have expected  either in his career or his marriage, or for that matter, for not having managed a single successful relationship with a member of the opposite sex.

It is possible that marriage failed to give satisfaction because there was nothing there that needed saving, the impulse to save being deeply ingrained in his character. When he shuts his eyes and explores the faces of the blessed on the tympanum of the chapel, one feels it is an act  which afforded him great satisfaction and pleasure. He would have wished to save Parthenope had he been given the opportunity. She had inspired in him an instant spark of fellow-feeling, and the first flaring of indignation he felt on her behalf had never been entirely extinguished. That was his immediate impulse when he saw her again, and when he found this was not possible, he resolved to offer her whatever ancillary support it was in his power to provide. He never seems to have been able to forget Parthenope, and one wonders if he sought her echo in the older married woman with whom he had an affaire. His infidelities notwithstanding, we find in him the unmistakable evidence of a lofty nature: a deferential love, deference being the complex and evolved behaviour it always is when at its finest and not merely a trait which cannot be distinguished from weakness or inferiority.

RWP388Though his love was to find no conventional fulfillment, he found no cause to repine. Even at a difficult moment he was determined to find joy by resolving to be alive to life and natural beauty. He may have been deprived of youthful happiness, the lush beauty of Summer and Autumn, but he would claim from what remained whatever there was of love and happiness to be desired by his heart. This to me seems much more suggestive of strength than weakness.  Arthur was precocious when young and child-like when old. Does this mean he was at his core a balanced well-integrated being? Or does it suggest he was always out of synch with his chronological stage in life? At an obvious level, I think it reveals that he possessed an ability to respond to circumstances with an unexpected amplitude of feeling .

This and other aspects of West’s story lead me to the conclusion that she wrote it when still quite young. For instance, every exchange between Uncle Arthur and Parthenope when he was a young boy and an old man, is marked by a tacit discernment and intuitive grasp of what each reveals to the other. This is very much the kind of understanding young people would like their elders to have, and would wish to be seen to have themselves. To be perceived and to be taken seriously by an adult is a gift which a young child in Victorian times could not often expect to receive, and it is no wonder then that Uncle Arthur found Parthenope unforgettable.

I suspect that Uncle Arthur was never really understood by anyone else. I suspect he might have seemed remote and removed with his family, toRWP389 whom he was neither fish nor fowl, and his peers and colleagues were probably at a loss of what to make of him. He seems to have been adept at keeping his own counsel, and accustomed to keeping his ears open and his mouth shut, which is an equally useful skill in a State bureaucracy, or a club or breakfast table when one has just read a shocking bit of news about which it is important to not immediately comment. Nor does he seem to have flaunted his brilliance or erudition or worked to his advantage his astute understanding of the relationships between men and women, which is why, I suppose, he seems, despite such  obvious disappointments, to have no axe to grind in that regard.  Though by the time he meets Parthenope again, and being very much comme il faut, he knows exactly when to presume, and when not. He lets himself onto the premises unannounced, and allows himself the intimacy of drinking from Parthenope’s glass. He appears not to have outgrown his childish claim of “we are not proper English you know…” but retains intact the same delicacy about her feelings he possessed as a child. I think more than the recognition and appreciation of one lonely soul of another it is the knowledge that each was the only soul to whom the other could make itself known that forms the basis of their ‘unbreakable bond’. They have much in common, and though he is wrong RWP390about a few things about her (such as when he mistakenly assumes that she suffers from a sense of exile and misses her old home in England and wishes to to be reminded of it), he recognises her strength and beauty, and in fact sees her much better than she appears to see herself. One hopes that before he left, and  later by his continued expression of loyalty and love, he was able to convince her to recognise her strength and worth. I hope as well he might have persuaded her to find a more personal happiness for herself than she had permitted herself to have until then, though West rings down the curtain on Parthenope without permitting us the gratification of knowing that to any degree of certainty.

I suppose this might be a good place at which to stop my commentary, but many speculations still linger on in my mind. West’s classical allusion is a reflection of the punishment the Sirens incurred for challenging the Muses in a contest of singing, after which they were changed into creatures with the heads of birds and the bodies of women, which seems to imply, given a dual nature. In the case of Parthenope (the siren), the punishment was worse: her failed attempt to seduce Odysseus drove her to suicide. In giving Parthenope the face of a woman and the body of a boy, West suggest a similar duality. Along with that, West endows her with traits thought conventionally to be masculine, those of protectiveness, courage,  and resourcefulness. Uncle Arthur however bears only the vaguest  resemblance to Odysseus, and that only in the feeling we get that he is a wanderer always far from home. But there is a hidden implication here as well. The union of Odysseus and Penelope is described by Homer as comprising a perfect balance of male and female. So this is what appears to me to be at the root of Uncle Arthur’s ‘homesickness’, a fact that as a classical scholar, might not have escaped him entirely. He seems to have lacked the ability to respond competently and effectively to a situation that needed changing or improving, and simply tolerated the circumstances in which he found himselfRWP391 with what might be seen as as bland passivity, as Parthenope did not.

Parthenope’s ‘presumption’ may have been that she took it upon herself to play a masculine role, that of a guardian and protector of women. Complexities of character sometimes tend to be sorted out in pairs of opposites such as ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’. The reason she was not fatally punished for this is that she, like Odysseus, ‘lashed herself to the mast’ – hers the mast of the eternal vigilance she exercised over her thoughts and actions, always subjecting herself to the closest scrutiny for any sign of incipient madness. Thinking herself always to be on the very brink of that abyss, she would never permit herself to be lost in it, and so discharged her duties sedulously and assiduously like the ‘wise virgin’ she was. Vigilance was the price for avoiding perdition.

G2729Parthenope’s understanding of tragedy was entirely Greek, whereas Uncle Arthur’s, with its understanding of redress and even salvation, tends towards the Christian, and in this he does indeed resemble Racine to whom West would, as Parthenope does, compare him. But another Racinian insight (a term I just made up) is that tragedy derives from the realisation that one can do nothing to alter the more intractable forms of tragic inheritance, as well as the irresistible compulsion to reflect upon it which usually accompanies an introspective nature. I think ‘Parthenope’ also invites us to ask the question of what rises to the level of tragedy and what does not, or not quite does, and the parts played by fate and choice in our lives. Parthenope chose to forego the happiness of a continued liaison with Uncle Arthur for fear of the tragic consequences she believed might ensue if she did not withhold herself,  and he complies with her mandate with only a few small but significant exemptions. So both of them resolve their dilemmas by deciding to forgo happiness in order that in doing so tragedy might be averted.

But my own stubborn mind reverts to a third option, that of propitiation. The gods are not always implacable, and their vanity predisposes them to be susceptible to appeasement. I don’t know why at this point I was reminded of the Palinode written by Stesichoros, by which means he induced Helen (who was worshipped by the Spartans as a goddess) to retract the penalty of blindness she had imposed on him for the impudent statements he had made about her. In his palinode Stesichoros revised history:

There is no truth in that story,
You didn’t ride in the well-rowed galleys,
You didn’t reach the walls of Troy.

Though there is no mitigation for ultimate tragedy, there is some for loss, and one of them is the retention of dignity. Uncle Arthur insisted onRWP394 reframing Parthenope’s despairing characterisation of her tragedy as verging on farce to a great misfortune faced with gallantry and strength, and in doing so he restored to her a sense of her own dignity. Sometimes this perspective can only be gained by securing a view from a point above the plane of action. Uncle Arthur’s ascent to the top of the church tower permitted him to catch sight of Parthenope’s sisters playing croquet, and thus to find her again. In aiding a revisitation of her past, he helped her reexamine her father’s behaviour and her own conclusions about him in a different light, and in so doing perhaps he rewrote Parthenope’s history himself.

Another possibility is that Parthenope might well have served out her term of punishment. I wonder if this idea occurred to Uncle Arthur, though it was one he was constrained by Parthenope from pursuing. The foregoing  of the pleasure of a day spent in each other’s company was one of the final offerings laid by Parthenope on the altar of the punitive gods, but they must have known that in the preceding years Uncle Arthur too had paid a collateral price, because  both he and Parthenope had, each in his and her different way, become exiles. Although both of their exiles possessed ambiguous RWP395elements (hers because she herself wished to escape her old life, and his because he was deterred from finding as fitting a place in life with her as might have been wished), the price paid by him might have been considered to augment hers. Euripides remarked that “All women are exiles”,  but we sense in Uncle Arthur too a certain rootlessness, and what appear to be his frequent travels away from home may have been contrived in part to sharpen the pleasure of his return. He shows no indication of wanting to return to his his wife and family, though is it left unclear if he had either to return to. ‘Home’ to him meant a place and not people, but it may have been that this was an accommodation he was inclined to make, in the absence of the only person who mattered to him and with whom he might have been ‘at home’.

It did not matter to Uncle Arthur that in sharing Parthenope’s life he risked incurring God’s displeasure, but it mattered very much to her. Was her dread merely a superstition, or was she right? That one is hated by God for this, that and the other reason, is an assertion many Christians use in order to bully the people they themselves hate, but what if they are on to something? We have only to cast a single look about us in order to see everywhere the evidence of a malevolent God, and if further proof were required, we are assured that it is in His image that man was created. But one thing is certain: there are certain kinds of human love which seem as if they could put God to shame,RW398 and this was demonstrated by Parthenope, who believed that God hated her. She sent Uncle Arthur away for his own safety. In caring for her sisters she demonstrated that the sternest, most consistently enduring morality is inspired and dictated by love, for all other kinds are bound sooner or later to fail; and in refusing to let Uncle Arthur run the risk of being cursed as she was, she revealed the hidden grace of blasphemy.

 

 

 

Rebecca WestMore on Rebecca West

 

Rebecca West, Dame Commander of the British Empire and member of the French Légion d”Honneur was born Cicely Isabel Fairfield, on the winter solstice December 21 1892, and died on March 15 1983 the Ides of March.
Victoria Glendinning’s biography on  Rebecca West: A Life
A fine chapter in Rosemary Dinnage’s book of some  remarkable  women  Alone, Alone
Link to the post on Rebecca West Wikipedia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebecca_West

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Eileen Mary (Didi) Nearne (March 15th 1921 – September 2nd 2010)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was my initial idea to precede a commentary on Sarah Water’s remarkable novel The Night Watch with a true story of a WW2 hero, because

Eileen Nearne’s Finishing Report

the post war life of  Water’s character Kay connects in my mind with this true story, but I subsequently decided I could not properly begin an article or an essay or indeed any piece of writing with a digression. Instead, I decided this post could stand on its own merits, to be followed later by another on The Night Watch.

This post is about the life of a remarkable woman. Her name was Eileen Nearne.

I obtained the digital facsimiles of her S.O.E Finishing Report and other documents  shown here from The British National Archives.

This story, like The Night Watch, began in a backwards chronological direction when the neighbors of an 89 year old woman who had been living in a flat in Torquay became concerned about her welfare and alerted the authorities on September 15th 2010.

The woman, Eileen Nearne, was found dead the same day, though her body was supposed to have remained undiscovered for an unspecified length of time before that, perhaps as long as two weeks. The cause of death was determined to be ‘natural causes’ – the particular cause which precipitated the fatality being deemed ‘a heart attack’.

Nearne had never married, and she had no friends or family. She had lived in her Torquay flat for two decades, during which time she  had been intractably reclusive. When the occasion arose of disposing of her remains, the authorities found that they had to  step in, because Nearne had no living relatives, and therefore no one  who could be found to foot the cost of a funeral.

I suppose it was in the course of this pecuniarily inspired investigation that  the facts about Nearne’s remarkable past were uncovered.

When council workers found obsolete French currency, old correspondence and military medals among her effects, it was determined that Nearne was a decorated war hero, who had served her country as a radio operator the U.K. Special Operations Executive during WW2, in occupied France. In 1944, at the perilously tender age of 23, the fluently bilingual Nearne had worked as a wireless operator under the nom de guerre of Mademoiselle du Tort, and the code name ‘Rose’.  She also used the names of Jacqueline Duterte (coincidentally her older sister’s name was Jacqueline) and ‘Alice Wood.’

The S.O.E  parachute-dropped  Nearne behind enemy lines in France on March 2nd 1944.  Soon thereafter she was captured by the Gestapo, but managed to convince them she was an ordinary shop-girl. She was found out and arrested again four months later, on August 15th 1944, when her transmitter was detected by the Gestapo. The Gestapo then tortured Nearne in order to extract information about her mission.

A report made by  the BBC after Nearne’s death states that she “survived in silence  the full revolting treatment of the baignoire” (probably a practice that resembles what we know of today as  ‘water-boarding’) in the torture chambers of the Gestapo on the Rue des Saussaies.

Nearne was then sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp and from there to a forced-labour camp in Silesia where she was again tortured. Here her head was shaved, and she was threatened with shooting for refusal to follow work orders. The sheer beastliness of the Germans has been extensively documented in innumerable other instances, but suffice it to say that camp life was barely survivable. The prisoners were forcibly subjected to 12 hour work-days on a diet of acorn coffee, turnip soup, and a little dried bread, and were expected to work until they died of exhaustion.

On April 13th 1945, Nearne, while on a forced night march from Ravensbrück, managed to escape with two other French girls who were her fellow prisoners and members of a camp work gang. The trio hid in the forest, and made it all the way to Leipzig, a distance of 213 km, before being arrested by the S.S.  Once again, Nearne, an accomplished linguist, managed to talk herself and her fellow escapees out of potentially deadly situation by convincing the Germans that she and her friends  were ordinary Frenchwomen who had lost their papers. They managed to reach Leipzig where a priest hid the unconscious Nearne in a bell tower until the Germans had been defeated.

Nearne (described by some as Anglo-Spanish but elsewhere as the youngest of four children of an English father and French mother),moved to France in 1923 when she was two years old, and this might explain how her British origins came to be nearly undetectable.

Nearne and her family fled through Spain in 1942 on the way back to England two years after the war in France began. Her two older siblings, her sister Jacqueline who was the oldest and her brother Francis, were also S.O.E operatives. There was another brother Frederick, about whom nothing is known.

After the war was over the Nearne sisters (there is no further mention of Francis) returned to England by way of Portugal and Gibraltar. It is an irony that Nearne was at first ‘identified’ by American Intelligence as a Nazi Collaborator! An American interrogator stated  “Subject creates a very unbalanced impression. She often is unable to answer the simplest questions, as though she was impersonating someone else. Her account of what happened to her after her landing in Orleans is held to be invented. It is recommended that Subject be put at the disposal of the British Authourities for further investigation and disposition.” But doubts were set aside when London confirmed Nearne’s statements.

Nearne was awarded an M.B.E on the14th of February 1946 by George VI for ‘services in France during the enemy occupation.’ The sisters lived in London until Jacqueline’s death in 1982. Eileen moved to Torquay in 1990. She had been devastated by the death of her sister, and was said to have ‘suffered psychological problems resulting from her wartime service’ – but more properly as a result of being tortured by the Germans.

What are we to make of this amazing story? Nearne’s heroic past was discovered only because among her possessions were found several medals (one of them the French Croix de Guerre with Palm which was awarded to her on the 16th of January 1946), old devalued French currency and some French correspondence. There was talk of the medals being buried with her – but we are not told what eventually became of them. The currency was no doubt discarded, and ‘documents relating to the war’ were was claimed by MI5.

This leaves the fascinating question about the nature of the French correspondence. What could those letters have been about? Who was the other correspondent? Did MI5 take them as well?  It has been claimed that some of the information regarding Nearne’s wartime experience is still classified.

It is likely that there may have been many heterosexual women who were war heroes, who never married and lived in lonely seclusion with no friends or family, but in my personal (and I admit, possibly biased) calculus, Eileen Nearne was probably a lesbian, and if she wasn’t, she may as well have been.

There are many considerations that lead to this conclusion, based in large part on Nearne’s reclusiveness. If she was indeed a lesbian, she would have had several compelling reasons to remain incognito, the most significant to me being that the British Government did not prove to be particularly grateful for even the most exceptional services rendered to them by its non-heterosexual and non-male citizens.

The harassment suffered by Alan Turing, (the man who cracked the Enigma Code,) which culminated in his suspicious ‘suicide’ – or probably  murder –  is a testament to the fact that the British Government did not feel obliged to honour the service and sacrifice of its gay subjects, even if their service was critical in winning the war. It did not matter to the British government that the war would certainly have been prolonged, if not lost, without Turing’s code-cracking genius. He was charged and convicted of  gross indecency for a private consensual homosexual act, and subsequently forced to take synthetic estrogen for the period of one year.  His mysterious death by ingestion or inhalation of cyanide about a year after he had served his ‘sentence’, when he was said to be in good spirits, suggests that he was murdered by his former employers in the British Secret Service, who after the war was over, may have concluded he was disposable.

Nearne’s habit of enforced secrecy – vitally essential to her  wartime survival – may have been a hard one to break. But she may have wisely decided that as a lesbian, her post-war survival and possibly her pension, might have depended on her continuing to keep below the radar.  Secrecy might indeed have become a life-and-death imperative, for her, not only in war-time, but afterwards, for a this different reason. It may have been impossible for her to overcome what might have grown to be a pathological reticence.

What was considered criminal and what was not, in those days, as now, was fairly arbitrary. During and after WW2, the British committed many shameful acts in order to protect members of the aristocracy who were enthusiastically pro-Nazi. One should not forget that Edward VII and his wife Wallis Warfield were keen admirers of Hitler. British wartime Nazi sympathizers included Admiral Sir Barry Domvile, head of the the British naval intelligence, who was a friend of Goebbels and Himmler. Domvile, who was in favor of an alliance with Germany, was detained by the British government at the beginning of the war, but many others remained in power, and retained their positions of influence, and were never disciplined either for their actions or for their views.

This pro-Nazism may not have seemed criminal in those days, but lesbianism, while not explicitly criminalized, received the treatment more suitable to criminal activity. Given the atmosphere of intense homosexual repression in that time, Nearne might have come to the conclusion that secrecy was the price she had to pay for her survival.

One can get a very vivid impression of this era from lesbian pulps of the ‘Fifties – conditions that are almost impossible to imagine for those who have not lived through them: Being gay was considered evil, sinful, pathological and criminal. Any intelligent lesbian might well have felt that God, the state, the medical/psychological establishment, society and family together were colluding to extinguish her life.

While it is true that the gallant example offered by Nearne’s older siblings alone might have been sufficient inducement to her to join the S.O.E, if Nearne was a lesbian, this might have been all the more reason that she was receptive to the S.O.E.’s recruitment efforts. She probably decided that the only useful thing to do with her life (if other ‘normal’ and ‘human’ choices were denied her), would have been to throw caution and all else to the winds and risk everything in order to find a niche and a purpose in life, regardless of the dangers involved.

But the Ravensbrück experience may have depleted her of whatever emotional strength she had left at the end of her ordeal. While living with her sister Jacqueline, Nearne is said to have painted violent pictures in an effort to exorcise her horrific wartime experiences at the hands of the Germans. She must have yearned desperately for peace; hence the quiet –  almost silent – remainder of her life.

Nearne was grossly underestimated by her S.O.E recruiters, and her character, and abilities were described by them in vividly derisive terms, as shown in the document at the top of this page. One wonders now how these recruiters, whose reports of Nearne were so  cruelly scathing – and so wrong –  might themselves have fared if subjected to the tortures Nearne suffered at the hands of the Gestapo and the S.S.  Nearne, after all, was a woman who received distinguished awards for her “cool efficiency, perseverance and willingness to undergo any risk.”

When the news about Nearn’s death made its way into the media, and it was made public that what lay in store for her body was either a cremation or what was known as  a council funeral (in other words a pauper’s grave), Torquay citizens were indignant and outraged. Offers of money to cover the cost of a funeral service and a decent burial for Nearne poured in. A local funeral service offered to defray the expenses for the obsequies.

The government, however,  made no such offers, though the British Royal Legion (or the Royal British Legion, the Daily Mail article from which I gleaned my first bits of information has it both ways) magnanimously offered  – rather than a genuine acknowledgment of of services – to to place a flag on her coffin, which might have been in any case the minimum required gesture owed to someone who served her country. The funeral was scheduled to be held  on September 21st, three weeks after Nearne’s death.

Nearne’s neighbors had no idea whatsoever about her spectacular wartime record. They had not the slightest notion that they were living next to a war hero.

The Daily Mail quoted Nearne’s neighbor Steven Cook as saying “She was very reclusive: I was very surprised at the extent of her heroism. You would never have thought it, as she never spoke of it. I just want everyone to know what she had done in her past.”

An unnamed neighbor describes Nearne as being a contributor to animal charities, who sat outside her flat with her ginger cat, and read the newspaper. The neighbor states that Nearne never talked about herself but only about the cat! I am sure she would have wanted a good home to be have been found for the animal, but I have not been able to find any mention of him.

Another interviewee,  Jane Roberts of Oxford, made the poignant statement “How sad, and how dreadful that a woman who served her country with such courage should have died alone.”

An article in the New York Times states:

Friends said that she withdrew into herself and shunned all opportunities to earn celebrity from her wartime experiences. In 1993, she returned to Ravensbruck for a visit, but otherwise she cherished her anonymity. As she told a television interviewer several years before she died: “It was a life in the shadows, but I was suited for it. I could be hard and secret. I could be lonely. I could be independent. But I wasn’t bored. I liked the work. After the war, I missed it.”

The Daily Mail article, which was the first to report Nearne’s death, was probably written by an inexperienced stringer, who nevertheless seems to have done a very creditable job. However, it contained several statements that simply did not add up.

The article stated that:

The funeral director has offered to not only pay for the service but to move it to a larger church to accommodate the members of the public who wish to attend.

…The lack of any next of kin means that Torbay council will now pay for the funeral next week.

The Torbay council had been contacted by various organizations offering to pay the funeral expenses.

The public was informed that their donations were no longer needed.

We (the Torquay Council) are liaising with the Royal British Legion regarding a protocol for the service so Ms Nearne can be laid to rest with the dignity and respect she deserves.

The daring British Second World War spy who died alone in her flat earlier this moth will receive an all-expenses paid funeral following public outcry that she was to be cremated unmourned.

(…A  spokesman) added that the funeral will be arranged by the authority (MI5) who will claim the money back from her estate.

The original funeral was due to be held on September 21st but a new date will now be found.

The funeral service will be held at Drake’s Chapel in Hele Road, Torquay, on September 21st at 11 am.

But finally The Torbay & District Funeral Service of Torquay footed the bill for Nearne’s funeral, which was held  as scheduled on September 21st 2010 at Our Lady Help of Christians and St Denis Roman Catholic Church, Torquay.

In accordance with her wishes, (apparently made known by Nearne to a niece who lived in Italy) Nearne was cremated rather than buried, and her ashes were scattered at sea.

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Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (September 24, 1896 – December 21, 1940)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Birthday Mr. Fitzgerald! It has always pleased me that we share this date in common!

 

As long ago as 1860 it was the proper thing to be born at home. At present, so I am told, the high gods of medicine have decreed that the first cries of the young shall be uttered upon the anæsthetic air of a hospital, preferably a fashionable one. So young Mr. and Mrs. Roger Button were fifty years ahead of style when they decided, one day in the summer of 1860, that their first baby should be born in a hospital. Whether this anachronism had any bearing upon them astonishing history I am about to set down will never be known.
I shall tell you what occurred, and let you judge for yourself.
The Roger Buttons held an enviable position, both social and financial, in Antebellum Baltimore. They were related to the This Family and the That Family, which, as every Southerner knew, entitled them to membership in that enormous peerage which largely populated the Confederacy. This was their first experience with the charming old custom of having babies–Mr. Button was naturally nervous. He hoped it would be a boy so that he could be sent to Yale College in Connecticut, at which institution Mr. Button himself had been known for four years by the somewhat obvious nickname of “Cuff.”
On the September morning consecrated to the enormous event he arose nervously at six o’clock dressed himself, adjusted an impeccable stock, and hurried forth through the streets of Baltimore to the hospital, to determine whether the darkness of the night had borne in new life upon its bosom.
When he was approximately a hundred yards from the Maryland Private Hospital for Ladies and Gentlemen he saw Doctor Keene, the family physician, descending the front steps, rubbing his hands together with a washing movement–as all doctors are required to do by the unwritten ethics of their profession.
Mr. Roger Button, the president of Roger Button & Co., Wholesale Hardware, began to run toward Doctor Keene with much less dignity than was expected from a Southern gentleman of that picturesque period.
“Doctor Keene!” he called. “Oh, Doctor Keene!”
The doctor heard him, faced around, and stood waiting, a curious expression settling on his harsh, medicinal face as Mr. Button drew near.
“What happened?” demanded Mr. Button, as he came up in a gasping rush.
“What was it? How is she? A boy? Who is it? What – ”
“Talk sense!” said Doctor Keene sharply, He appeared somewhat irritated.
“Is the child born?” begged Mr. Button.
Doctor Keene frowned. “Why, yes, I suppose so – after a fashion.” Again he threw a curious glance at Mr. Button.
“Is my wife all right?”
“Yes.”
“Is it a boy or a girl?”
“Here now!” cried Doctor Keene in a perfect passion of irritation,”
I’ll ask you to go and see for yourself. Outrageous!” He snapped the last word out in almost one syllable, then he turned away muttering:
“Do you imagine a case like this will help my professional reputation? One more would ruin me–ruin anybody.”
“What’s the matter?” demanded Mr. Button appalled. “Triplets?”
“No, not triplets!” answered the doctor cuttingly. “What’s more, you can go and see for yourself. And get another doctor. I brought you into the world, young man, and I’ve been physician to your family for forty years, but I’m through with you! I don’t want to see you or any of your relatives ever again! Good-bye!”
Then he turned sharply, and without another word climbed into his phaeton, which was waiting at the curbstone, and drove severely away.
Mr. Button stood there upon the sidewalk, stupefied and trembling from head to foot. What horrible mishap had occurred? He had suddenly lost all desire to go into the Maryland Private Hospital for Ladies and Gentlemen – it was with the greatest difficulty that, a moment later, he forced himself to mount the  steps and enter the front door.
A nurse was sitting behind a desk in the opaque gloom of the hall. Swallowing his shame, Mr. Button approached her.
“Good-morning,” she remarked, looking up at him pleasantly.
“Good-morning. I – I am Mr. Button.”
At this a look of utter terror spread itself over girl’s face. She rose to her feet and seemed about to fly from the hall, restraining herself only with the most apparent difficulty.
“I want to see my child,” said Mr. Button.
The nurse gave a little scream. “Oh – of course!” she cried hysterically. “Upstairs. Right upstairs. Go – up!”
She pointed the direction, and Mr. Button, bathed in cool perspiration, turned falteringly, and began to mount to the second floor. In the upper hall he addressed another nurse who approached him, basin in hand.   “I’m Mr. Button,” he managed to articulate.  “I want to see my – ”
Clank! The basin clattered to the floor and rolled in the direction of the stairs. Clank! Clank! I began a methodical decent as if sharing in the general terror which this gentleman provoked.
“I want to see my child!” Mr. Button almost shrieked. He was on the verge of collapse.
Clank! The basin reached the first floor. The nurse regained control of herself, and threw Mr. Button a look of hearty contempt.
“All right, Mr. Button,” she agreed in a hushed voice. “Very well! But if you knew what a state it’s put us all in this morning! It’s perfectly outrageous! The hospital will never have a ghost of a reputation after – ”
“Hurry!” he cried hoarsely. “I can’t stand this!”
“Come this way, then, Mr. Button.”
He dragged himself after her. At the end of a long hall they reached a room from which proceeded a variety of howls – indeed, a room which, in later parlance, would have been known as the “crying-room.” They entered.
“Well,” gasped Mr. Button, “which is mine?”
“There!” said the nurse.
Mr. Button’s eyes followed her pointing finger, and this is what he saw. Wrapped in a voluminous white blanket, and partly crammed into one of the cribs, there sat an old man apparently about seventy years of age. His sparse hair was almost white, and from his chin dripped a long smoke-colored beard, which waved absurdly back and forth, fanned by the breeze coming in at the window. He looked up at Mr. Button with dim, faded eyes in which lurked a puzzled question.
“Am I mad?” thundered Mr. Button, his terror resolving into rage. “Is this some ghastly hospital joke?
“It doesn’t seem like a joke to us,” replied the nurse severely. “And I don’t know whether you’re mad or not – but that is most certainly your child.”
The cool perspiration redoubled on Mr. Button’s forehead. He closed his eyes, and then, opening them, looked again. There was no mistake – he was gazing at a man of threescore and ten – a baby of threescore and ten, a baby whose feet hung over the sides of the crib in which it was reposing.
The old man looked placidly from one to the other for a moment, and then suddenly spoke in a cracked and ancient voice. “Are you my father?” he demanded.
Mr. Button and the nurse started violently.
“Because if you are,” went on the old man querulously, “I wish you’d get me out of this place – or, at least, get them to put a comfortable rocker in here,”
“Where in God’s name did you come from? Who are you?” burst out Mr. Button frantically.
“I can’t tell you exactly who I am,” replied the querulous whine, “because I’ve only been born a few hours – but my last name is certainly Button.”
“You lie! You’re an impostor!”
The old man turned wearily to the nurse. “Nice way to welcome a new-born child,” he complained in a weak voice. “Tell him he’s wrong, why don’t you?”
“You’re wrong. Mr. Button,” said the nurse severely. “This is your child, and you’ll have to make the best of it. We’re going to ask you to take him home with you as soon as possible – some time to-day.”
“Home?” repeated Mr. Button incredulously.
“Yes, we can’t have him here. We really can’t, you know?”
“I’m right glad of it,” whined the old man. “This is a fine place to keep a youngster of quiet tastes. With all this yelling and howling, I haven’t been able to get a wink of sleep. I asked for something to eat” – here his voice rose to a shrill note of protest – “and they brought me a bottle of milk!”
Mr. Button, sank down upon a chair near his son and concealed his face in his hands. “My heavens!” he murmured, in an ecstasy of horror.
“What will people say? What must I do?”
“You’ll have to take him home,” insisted the nurse – “immediately!”
A grotesque picture formed itself with dreadful clarity before the eyes of the tortured man–a picture of himself walking through the crowded streets of the city with this appalling apparition stalking by his side.
“I can’t. I can’t,” he moaned.
People would stop to speak to him, and what was he going to say? He would have to introduce this–this septuagenarian: “This is my son, born early this morning.” And then the old man would gather his blanket around him and they would plod on, past the bustling stores, the slave market–for a dark instant Mr. Button wished passionately that his son was black – past the luxurious houses of the residential district, past the home for the aged….
“Come! Pull yourself together,” commanded the nurse.
“See here,” the old man announced suddenly, “if you think I’m going to walk home in this blanket, you’re entirely mistaken.”
“Babies always have blankets.”
With a malicious crackle the old man held up a small white swaddling garment. “Look!” he quavered. “This is what they had ready for me.”
“Babies always wear those,” said the nurse primly.
“Well,” said the old man, “this baby’s not going to wear anything in about two minutes. This blanket itches. They might at least have given me a sheet.”
“Keep it on! Keep it on!” said Mr. Button hurriedly. He turned to the nurse. “What’ll I do?”
“Go down town and buy your son some clothes.”
Mr. Button’s son’s voice followed him down into the: hall: “And a cane, father. I want to have a cane.”
Mr. Button banged the outer door savagely….

2
“Good-morning,” Mr. Button said nervously, to the clerk in the Chesapeake Dry Goods Company. “I want to buy some clothes for my child.”
“How old is your child, sir?”
“About six hours,” answered Mr. Button, without due consideration.
“Babies’ supply department in the rear.”
“Why, I don’t think – I’m not sure that’s what I want. It’s – he’s an unusually large-size child. Exceptionally – ah large.”
“They have the largest child’s sizes.”
“Where is the boys’ department?” inquired Mr. Button, shifting his ground desperately. He felt that the clerk must surely scent his shameful secret.
“Right here.”
“Well –– ” He hesitated. The notion of dressing his son in men’s clothes was repugnant to him. If, say, he could only find a very large boy’s suit, he might cut off that long and awful beard, dye the white hair brown, and thus manage to conceal the worst, and to retain something of his own self-respect–not to mention his position in Baltimore society.
But a frantic inspection of the boys’ department revealed no suits to fit the new-born Button. He blamed the store, of course – in such cases it is the thing to blame the store.
“How old did you say that boy of yours was?” demanded the clerk curiously.
“He’s – sixteen.”
“Oh, I beg your pardon. I thought you said six hours. You’ll find the youths’ department in the next aisle.”
Mr. Button turned miserably away. Then he stopped, brightened, and pointed his finger toward a dressed dummy in the window display. “There!” he exclaimed. “I’ll take that suit, out there on the dummy.”
The clerk stared. “Why,” he protested, “that’s not a child’s suit. At least it is, but it’s for fancy dress. You could wear it yourself!”
“Wrap it up,” insisted his customer nervously. “That’s what I want.”
The astonished clerk obeyed.
Back at the hospital Mr. Button entered the nursery and almost threw the package at his son. “Here’s your clothes,” he snapped out.
The old man untied the package and viewed the contents with a quizzical eye.
“They look sort of funny to me,” he complained, “I don’t want to be made a monkey of – ”
“You’ve made a monkey of me!” retorted Mr. Button fiercely. “Never you mind how funny you look. Put them on – or I’ll – or I’ll spank you.” He swallowed uneasily at the penultimate word, feeling nevertheless that it was the proper thing to say.
“All right, father” – this with a grotesque simulation of filial respect – “you’ve lived longer; you know best. Just as you say.”
As before, the sound of the word “father” caused Mr. Button to start violently.
“And hurry.”
“I’m hurrying, father.”
When his son was dressed Mr. Button regarded him with depression. The costume consisted of dotted socks, pink pants, and a belted blouse with a wide white collar. Over the latter waved the long whitish beard, drooping almost to the waist. The effect was not good.
“Wait!”
Mr. Button seized a hospital shears and with three quick snips amputated a large section of the beard. But even with this improvement the ensemble fell far short of perfection. The remaining brush of scraggly hair, the watery eyes, the ancient teeth, seemed oddly out of tone with the gaiety of the costume. Mr. Button, however, was obdurate – he held out his hand. “Come along!” he said sternly.
His son took the hand trustingly. “What are you going to call me, dad?” he quavered as they walked from the nursery–”just ‘baby’ for a while? till you think of a  better name?”
Mr. Button grunted. “I don’t know,” he answered harshly. “I think we’ll call you Methuselah.”

3
Even after the new addition to the Button family had had his hair cut short and then dyed to a sparse unnatural black, had had his face shaved so close that it glistened, and had been attired in small-boy clothes made to order by a flabbergasted tailor, it was impossible for Button to ignore the fact that his son was an excuse for a first family baby. Despite his aged stoop, Benjamin Button – for it was by this name they called him instead of by the appropriate but invidious Methuselah – was five feet eight inches tall. His clothes did not conceal this, nor did the clipping and dyeing of his eyebrows disguise the fact that the eyes under were faded and watery and tired. In fact, the baby-nurse who had been engaged in advance left the house after one look, in a state of considerable indignation.
But Mr. Button persisted in his unwavering purpose. Benjamin was a baby, and a baby he should remain. At first he declared that if Benjamin didn’t like warm milk he could go without food altogether, but he was finally prevailed upon to allow his son bread and butter, and even oatmeal by way of a compromise. One day he brought home a rattle and, giving it to Benjamin, insisted in no uncertain terms that he should “play with it,” whereupon the old man took it with a weary expression and could be heard jingling it obediently at intervals throughout the day.
There can be no doubt, though, that the rattle bored him, and that he found other and more soothing amusements when he was left alone. For instance, Mr. Button discovered one day that during the preceding week be had smoked more cigars than ever before – a phenomenon, which was explained a few days later when, entering the nursery unexpectedly, he found the room full of faint blue haze and Benjamin, with a guilty expression on his face, trying to conceal the butt of a dark Havana. This, of course, called for a severe spanking, but Mr. Button found that he could not bring himself to administer it. He merely warned his son that he would “stunt his growth.”
Nevertheless he persisted in his attitude. He brought home lead soldiers, he brought toy trains, he brought large pleasant animals made of cotton, and, to perfect the illusion which he was creating–for himself at least–he passionately demanded of the clerk in the toy-store whether “the paint would come off the pink duck if the baby put it in his mouth.” But, despite all his father’s efforts, Benjamin refused to be interested. He would steal down the back stairs and return to the nursery with a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica, over which he would pore through an afternoon, while his cotton cows and his Noah’s ark were left neglected on the floor. Against such a stubbornness Mr. Button’s efforts were of little avail.
The sensation created in Baltimore was, at first, prodigious. What the mishap would have cost the Buttons and their kinsfolk socially cannot be determined, for the outbreak of the Civil War drew the city’s attention to other things. A few people who were unfailingly polite wracked  their brains for compliments to give to the parents – and finally hit upon the ingenious device of declaring that the baby resembled his grandfather, a fact which, due to the standard state of decay common to all men of seventy, could not be denied. Mr. and Mrs. Roger Button were not pleased, and Benjamin’s grandfather was furiously insulted.
Benjamin, once he left the hospital, took life as he found it. Several small boys were brought to see him, and he spent a stiff-jointed afternoon trying to work up an interest in tops and marbles – he even managed, quite accidentally, to break a kitchen window with a stone from a sling shot, a feat which secretly delighted his father.
Thereafter Benjamin contrived to break something every day, but he did these things only because they were expected of him, and because he was by nature obliging.
When his grandfather’s initial antagonism wore off, Benjamin and that gentleman took enormous pleasure in one another’s company. They would sit for hours, these two, so far apart in age and experience, and, like old cronies, discuss with tireless monotony the slow events of the day. Benjamin felt more at ease in his grandfather’s presence than in his parents’–they seemed always somewhat in awe of him and, despite the dictatorial authority they exercised over him, frequently addressed him as “Mr.”
He was as puzzled as any one else at the apparently advanced age of his mind and body at birth. He read up on it in the medical journal, but found that no such case had been previously recorded. At his father’s urging he made an honest attempt to play with other boys, and frequently he joined in the milder games–football shook him up too much, and he feared that in case of a fracture his ancient bones would refuse to knit.
When he was five he was sent to kindergarten, where he initiated into the art of pasting green paper on orange paper, of weaving colored mats and manufacturing eternal cardboard necklaces. He was inclined to drowse off to sleep in the middle of these tasks, a habit which both irritated and frightened his young teacher. To his relief she complained to his parents, and he was removed from the school. The Roger Buttons told their friends that they felt he was too young.
By the time he was twelve years old his parents had grown used to him. Indeed, so strong is the force of custom that they no longer felt that he was different from any other child–except when some curious anomaly reminded them of the fact. But one day a few weeks after his twelfth birthday, while looking in the mirror, Benjamin made, or thought he made, an astonishing discovery. Did his eyes deceive him, or had his hair turned in the dozen years of his life from white to iron-gray under its concealing dye? Was the network of wrinkles on his face becoming less pronounced? Was his skin healthier and firmer, with even a touch of ruddy winter color? He could not tell. He knew that he no longer stooped, and that his physical condition had improved since the early days of his life.
“Can it be––?” he thought to himself, or, rather, scarcely dared to think.
He went to his father. “I am grown,” he announced determinedly. “I want to put on long trousers.”
His father hesitated. “Well,” he said finally, “I don’t know. Fourteen is the age for putting on long trousers–and you are only twelve.”
“But you’ll have to admit,” protested Benjamin, “that I’m big for my age.”
His father looked at him with illusory speculation. “Oh, I’m not so sure of that,” he said. “I was as big as you when I was twelve.”
This was not true-it was all part of Roger Button’s silent agreement with himself to believe in his son’s normality.
Finally a compromise was reached. Benjamin was to continue to dye his hair. He was to make a better attempt to play with boys of his own age. He was not to wear his spectacles or carry a cane in the street. In return for these concessions he was allowed his first suit of long trousers….

4
Of the life of Benjamin Button between his twelfth and twenty-first year I intend to say little. Suffice to record that they were years of normal ungrowth. When Benjamin was eighteen he was erect as a man of fifty; he had more hair and it was of a dark gray; his step was firm, his voice had lost its cracked quaver and descended to a healthy baritone. So his father sent him up to Connecticut to take examinations for entrance to Yale College. Benjamin passed his examination and became a member of the freshman class.
On the third day following his matriculation he received a notification from Mr. Hart, the college registrar, to call at his office and arrange his schedule. Benjamin, glancing in the mirror, decided that his hair needed a new application of its brown dye, but an anxious inspection of his bureau drawer disclosed that the dye bottle was not there. Then he remembered – he had emptied it the day before and thrown it away.
He was in a dilemma. He was due at the registrar’s in five minutes. There seemed to be no help for it– he must go as he was. He did.
“Good-morning,” said the registrar politely. “You’ve come to inquire about your son.”
“Why, as a matter of fact, my name’s Button –” began Benjamin, but Mr. Hart cut him off.
“I’m very glad to meet you, Mr. Button. I’m expecting your son here any minute.”
“That’s me!” burst out Benjamin. “I’m a freshman.”
“What!”
“I’m a freshman.”
“Surely you’re joking.”
“Not at all.”
The registrar frowned and glanced at a card before him. “Why, I have Mr. Benjamin Button’s age down here as eighteen.”
“That’s my age,” asserted Benjamin, flushing slightly.
The registrar eyed him wearily. “Now surely, Mr. Button, you don’t expect me to believe that.”
Benjamin smiled wearily. “I am eighteen,” he repeated.
The registrar pointed sternly to the door. “Get out,” he said. “Get out of college and get out of town. You are a dangerous lunatic.”
“I am eighteen.”
Mr. Hart opened the door. “The idea!” he shouted. “A man of your age trying to enter here as a freshman. Eighteen years old, are you? Well, I’ll give you eighteen minutes to get out of town.”
Benjamin Button walked with dignity from the room, and half a dozen undergraduates, who were waiting in the hall, followed him curiously with their eyes. When he had gone a little way he turned around, faced the infuriated registrar, who was still standing in the door-way, and repeated in a firm voice: “I am eighteen years old.”
To a chorus of titters which went up from the group of undergraduates, Benjamin walked away.
But he was not fated to escape so easily. On his melancholy walk to the railroad station he found that he was being followed by a group, then by a swarm, and finally by a dense mass of undergraduates. The word had gone around that a lunatic had passed the entrance examinations for Yale and attempted to palm himself off as a youth of eighteen. A fever of excitement permeated the college. Men ran hatless out of classes, the football team abandoned its practice and joined the mob, professors’ wives with bonnets awry and bustles out of position, ran shouting after the procession, from which proceeded a continual succession of remarks aimed at the tender sensibilities of Benjamin Button.
“He must be the wandering Jew!”
“He ought to go to prep school at his age!”
“Look at the infant prodigy!”
“He thought this was the old men’s home.”
“Go up to Harvard!”
Benjamin increased his gait, and soon he was running. He would show them! He would go to Harvard, and then they would regret these ill-considered taunts!
Safely on board the train for Baltimore, he put his head from the window. “You’ll regret this!” he shouted.
“Ha-ha!” the undergraduates laughed. “Ha-ha-ha!” It was the biggest mistake that Yale College had ever made….

5
In 1880 Benjamin Button was twenty years old, and he signalized his birthday by going to work for his father in Roger Button & Co., Wholesale Hardware. It was in that same year that he began “going out socially”–that is, his father insisted on taking him to several fashionable dances. Roger Button was now fifty, and he and his son were more and more companionable – in fact, since Benjamin had ceased to dye his hair (which was still grayish) they appeared about the same age, and could have passed for brothers.
One night in August they got into the phaeton attired in their full-dress suits and drove out to a dance at the Shevlins’ country house, situated just outside of Baltimore. It was a gorgeous evening. A full moon drenched the road to the lusterless color of platinum, and late-blooming harvest flowers breathed into the motionless air aromas that were like low, half-heard laughter. The open country, carpeted for rods around with bright wheat, was translucent as in the day. It was almost impossible not to be affected by the sheer beauty of the sky – almost.
“There’s a great future in the dry-goods business,” Roger Button was saying. He was not a spiritual man – his aesthetic sense was rudimentary.
“Old fellows like me can’t learn new tricks,” he observed profoundly. “It’s you youngsters with energy and vitality that have the great future before you.”
Far up the road the lights of the Shevlins’ country house drifted into view, and presently there was a sighing sound that crept persistently toward them – it might have been the fine plaint of violins or the rustle of the silver wheat under the moon.
They pulled up behind a handsome brougham whose passengers were disembarking at the door. A lady got out, then an elderly gentleman, then another young lady, beautiful as sin. Benjamin started; an almost chemical change seemed to dissolve and recompose the very elements of his body. A rigor passed over him, blood rose into his cheeks, his forehead, and there was a steady thumping in his ears. It was first love.
The girl was slender and frail, with hair that was ashen under the moon and honey-colored under the sputtering gas-lamps of the porch. Over her shoulders was thrown a Spanish mantilla of softest yellow, butterflied in black; her feet were glittering buttons at the hem of her bustled dress.
Roger Button leaned over to his son. “That,” he said, “is young Hildegarde Moncrief, the daughter of General Moncrief.”
Benjamin nodded coldly. “Pretty little thing,” he said indifferently. But when the Negro boy had led the buggy away, he added: “Dad, you might introduce me to her.”
They approached a group, of which Miss Moncrief was the center. Reared in the old tradition, she curtsied low before Benjamin. Yes, he might have a dance. He thanked her and walked away – staggered away.
The interval until the time for his turn should arrive dragged itself out interminably. He stood close to the wall, silent, inscrutable, watching with murderous eyes the young bloods of Baltimore as they eddied around Hildegarde Moncrief, passionate admiration in their faces. How obnoxious they seemed to Benjamin; how intolerably rosy! Their curling brown whiskers aroused in him a feeling equivalent to indigestion.
But when his own time came, and he drifted with her out upon the changing floor to the music of the latest waltz from Paris, his jealousies and anxieties melted from him like a mantle of snow. Blind with enchantment, he felt that life was just beginning.
“You and your brother got here just as we did, didn’t you?” asked Hildegarde, looking up at him with eyes that were like bright blue enamel.
Benjamin hesitated. If she took him for his father’s brother, would it be best to enlighten her? He remembered his experience at Yale, so he decided against it. It would be rude to contradict a lady; it would be criminal to mar this exquisite occasion with the grotesque story of his origin. Later, perhaps. So he nodded, smiled, listened, was happy.
“I like men of your age,” Hildegarde told him. “Young boys are so idiotic. They tell me how much champagne they drink at college, and how much money they lose playing cards. Men of your age know how to appreciate women.”
Benjamin felt himself on the verge of a proposal–with an effort he choked back the impulse. “You’re just the romantic age,” she continued – “fifty. Twenty-five is too wordly-wise; thirty is apt to be pale from overwork; forty is the age of long stories that take a whole cigar to tell; sixty is – oh, sixty is too near seventy; but fifty is the mellow age. I love fifty.”
Fifty seemed to Benjamin a glorious age. He longed passionately to be fifty.
“I’ve always said,” went on Hildegarde, “that I’d rather marry a man of fifty and be taken care of than marry a man of thirty and take care of him.”
For Benjamin the rest of the evening was bathed in a honey-colored mist. Hildegarde gave him two more dances, and they discovered that they were marvelously in accord on all the questions of the day. She was to go driving with him on the following Sunday, and then they would discuss all these questions further.
Going home in the phaeton just before the crack of dawn, when the first bees were humming and the fading moon glimmered in the cool dew, Benjamin knew vaguely that his father was discussing wholesale hardware.
“…. And what do you think should merit our biggest attention after hammers and nails?” the elder Button was saying.
“Love,” replied Benjamin absent-mindedly.
“Lugs?” exclaimed Roger Button, “Why, I’ve just covered the question of lugs.”
Benjamin regarded him with dazed eyes just as the eastern sky was suddenly cracked with light, and an oriole yawned piercingly in the quickening trees…

6
When, six months later, the engagement of Miss Hildegarde Moncrief to Mr. Benjamin Button was made known (I say “made known,” for General Moncrief declared he would rather fall upon his sword than announce it), the excitement in Baltimore society reached a feverish pitch. The almost forgotten story of Benjamin’s birth was remembered and sent out upon the winds of scandal in picaresque and incredible forms. It was said that Benjamin was really the father of Roger Button, that he was his brother who had been in prison for forty years, that he was John Wilkes Booth in disguise – and, finally, that he had two small conical horns sprouting from his head.
The Sunday supplements of the New York papers played up the case with fascinating sketches which showed the head of Benjamin Button attached to a fish, to  a snake, and, finally, to a body of solid brass. He became known, journalistically, as the Mystery Man of Maryland. But the true story, as is usually the case, had a very small circulation.
However, every one agreed with General Moncrief that it was “criminal” for a lovely girl who could have married any beau in Baltimore to throw herself into the arms of a man who was assuredly fifty. In vain Mr. Roger Button published his son’s birth certificate in large type in the Baltimore Blaze. No one believed it. You had only to look at Benjamin and see.
On the part of the two people most concerned there was no wavering. So many of the stories about her fiance were false that Hildegarde refused stubbornly to believe even the true one. In vain General Moncrief pointed out to her the high mortality among men of fifty – or, at least, among men who looked fifty; in vain he told her of the instability of the wholesale hardware business. Hildegarde had chosen to marry for mellowness, and marry she did….

7
In one particular, at least, the friends of Hildegarde Moncrief were mistaken. The wholesale hardware business prospered amazingly. In the fifteen years between Benjamin Button’s marriage in 1880 and his father’s retirement in 1895, the family fortune was doubled – and this was due largely to the younger member of the firm.
Needless to say, Baltimore eventually received the couple to its bosom. Even old General Moncrief became reconciled to his son-in-law when Benjamin gave him the money to bring out his History of the Civil War in twenty volumes, which had been refused by nine prominent publishers.
In Benjamin himself fifteen years had wrought many changes. It seemed to him that the blood flowed with new vigor through his veins. It began to be a pleasure to rise in the morning, to walk with an active step along the busy, sunny street, to work untiringly with his shipments of hammers and his cargoes of nails. It was in 1890 that he executed his famous business coup: he brought up the suggestion that all nails used in nailing up the boxes in which nails are shipped are the property of the shippee, a proposal which became a statute, was approved by Chief Justice Fossile, and saved Roger Button and Company, Wholesale Hardware, more than six hundred nails every year.
In addition, Benjamin discovered that he was becoming more and more attracted by the gay side of life. It was typical of his growing enthusiasm for pleasure that he was the first man in the city of Baltimore to own and run an automobile. Meeting him on the street, his contemporaries would stare enviously at the picture he made of health and vitality.
“He seems to grow younger every year,” they would remark. And if old Roger Button, now sixty-five years old, had failed at first to give a proper welcome to his son he atoned at last by bestowing on him what amounted to adulation.
And here we come to an unpleasant subject which it will be well to pass over as quickly as possible. There was only one thing that worried Benjamin Button; his wife had ceased to attract him.
At that time Hildegarde was a woman of thirty-five, with a son, Roscoe, fourteen years old. In the early days of their marriage Benjamin had worshipped her. But, as the years passed, her honey-colored hair became an unexciting brown, the blue enamel of her eyes assumed the aspect of cheap crockery – moreover, and, most of all, she had become too settled in her ways, too placid, too content, too anaemic in her excitements, and too sober in her taste. As a bride it been she who had “dragged” Benjamin to dances and dinners – now conditions were reversed. She went out socially with him, but without enthusiasm, devoured already by that eternal inertia which comes to live with each of us one day and stays with us to the end.
Benjamin’s discontent waxed stronger. At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898 his home had for him so little charm that he decided to join the army. With his business influence he obtained a commission as captain, and proved so adaptable to the work that he was made a major, and finally a lieutenant-colonel just in time to participate in the celebrated charge up San Juan Hill. He was slightly wounded, and received a medal.
Benjamin had become so attached to the activity and excitement of army life that he regretted to give it up, but his business required attention, so he resigned his commission and came home. He was met at the station by a brass band and escorted to his house.

8
Hildegarde, waving a large silk flag, greeted him on the porch, and even as he kissed her he felt with a sinking of the heart that these three years had taken their toll. She was a woman of forty now, with a faint skirmish line of gray hairs in her head. The sight depressed him.
Up in his room he saw his reflection in the familiar mirror – he went closer and examined his own face with anxiety, comparing it after a moment with a photograph of himself in uniform taken just before the war.
“Good Lord!” he said aloud. The process was continuing. There was no doubt of it – he looked now like a man of thirty. Instead of being delighted, he was uneasy – he was growing younger. He had hitherto hoped that once he reached a bodily age equivalent to his age in years, the grotesque phenomenon which had marked his birth would cease to function. He shuddered. His destiny seemed to him awful, incredible.
When he came downstairs Hildegarde was waiting for him. She appeared annoyed, and he wondered if she had at last discovered that there was something amiss. It was with an effort to relieve the tension between them that he broached the matter at dinner in what he considered a delicate way.
“Well,” he remarked lightly, “everybody says I look younger than ever.”
Hildegarde regarded him with scorn. She sniffed. “Do you think it’s anything to boast about?”
“I’m not boasting,” he asserted uncomfortably. She sniffed again. “The idea,” she said, and after a moment: “I should think you’d have enough pride to stop it.”
“How can I?” he demanded.
“I’m not going to argue with you,” she retorted. “But there’s a right way of doing things and a wrong way. If you’ve made up your mind to be different from everybody else, I don’t suppose I can stop you, but I really don’t think it’s very considerate.”
“But, Hildegarde, I can’t help it.”
“You can too. You’re simply stubborn. You think you don’t want to be like any one else. You always have been that way, and you always will be. But just think how it would be if every one else looked at things as you do – what would the world be like?”
As this was an inane and unanswerable argument Benjamin made no reply, and from that time on a chasm began to widen between them. He wondered what possible fascination she had ever exercised over him.
To add to the breach, he found, as the new century gathered headway, that his thirst for gaiety grew stronger. Never a party of any kind in the city of Baltimore but he was there, dancing with the prettiest of the young married women, chatting with the most popular of the debutantes, and finding their company charming, while his wife, a dowager of evil omen, sat among the chaperons, now in haughty disapproval, and now following him with solemn, puzzled, and reproachful eyes.
“Look!” people would remark. “What a pity! A young fellow that age tied to a woman of forty-five. He must be twenty years younger than his wife.” They had forgotten–as people inevitably forget–that back in 1880 their mammas and papas had also remarked about this same ill-matched pair.
Benjamin’s growing unhappiness at home was compensated for by his many new interests. He took up golf and made a great success of it. He went in for dancing: in 1906 he was an expert at “The Boston,” and in 1908 he was considered proficient at the “Maxine,” while in 1909 his “Castle Walk” was the envy of every young man in town.
His social activities, of course, interfered to some extent with his business, but then he had worked hard at wholesale hardware for twenty-five years and felt that he could soon hand it on to his son, Roscoe, who had recently graduated from Harvard.
He and his son were, in fact, often mistaken for each other. This pleased Benjamin–he soon forgot the insidious fear which had come over him on his return from the Spanish-American War, and grew to take a naive pleasure in his appearance. There was only one fly in the delicious ointment – he hated to appear in public with his wife. Hildegarde was almost fifty, and the sight of her made him feel absurd….

9
One September day in 1910 – a few years after Roger Button & Co., Wholesale Hardware, had been handed over to young Roscoe Button – a man, apparently about twenty years old, entered himself as a freshman at Harvard University in Cambridge. He did not make the mistake of announcing that he would never see fifty again, nor did he mention the fact that his son had been graduated from the same institution ten years before.
He was admitted, and almost immediately attained a prominent position in the class, partly because he seemed a little older than the other freshmen, whose average age was about eighteen.
But his success was largely due to the fact that in the football game with Yale he played so brilliantly, with so much dash and with such a cold, remorseless anger  that he scored seven touchdowns and fourteen field goals for Harvard, and caused one entire eleven of Yale men to be carried singly from the field, unconscious. He was the most celebrated man in college.
Strange to say, in his third or junior year he was scarcely able to “make” the team. The coaches said that he had lost weight, and it seemed to the more observant among them that he was not quite as tall as before. He made no touchdowns – indeed, he was retained on the team chiefly in hope that his enormous reputation would bring terror and disorganization to the Yale team.
In his senior year he did not make the team at all. He had grown so slight and frail that one day he was taken by some sophomores for a freshman, an incident which humiliated him terribly. He became known as something of a prodigy – a senior who was surely no more than sixteen – and he was often shocked at the worldliness of some of his classmates. His studies seemed harder to him–he felt that they were too advanced. He had heard his classmates speak of St. Midas’s, the famous preparatory school, at which so many of them had prepared for college, and he determined after his graduation to enter himself at St. Midas’s, where the sheltered life among boys his own size would be more congenial to him.
Upon his graduation in 1914 he went home to Baltimore with his Harvard diploma in his pocket. Hildegarde was now residing in Italy, so Benjamin went to live with his son, Roscoe. But though he was welcomed in a general way there was obviously no heartiness in Roscoe’s feeling toward him–there was even perceptible a tendency on his son’s part to think that Benjamin, as he moped about the house in adolescent moodiness, was somewhat in the way. Roscoe was married now and prominent in Baltimore life, and he wanted no scandal to creep out in connection with his family.
Benjamin, no longer persona grata with the debutantes and younger college set, found himself left much alone, except for the companionship of three or four fifteen-year-old boys in the neighborhood. His idea of going to St. Midas’s school recurred to him.
“Say,” he said to Roscoe one day, “I’ve told you over and over that I want to go to prep, school.”
“Well, go, then,” replied Roscoe shortly. The matter was distasteful to him, and he wished to avoid a discussion.
“I can’t go alone,” said Benjamin helplessly. “You’ll have to enter me and take me up there.”
“I haven’t got time,” declared Roscoe abruptly. His eyes narrowed and he looked uneasily at his father. “As a matter of fact,” he added, “you’d better not go on with this business much longer. You better pull up short. You better – you better” – he paused and his face crimsoned as he sought for words–”you better turn right around and start back the other way. This has gone too far to be a joke. It isn’t funny any longer. You– you behave yourself!”
Benjamin looked at him, on the verge of tears.
“And another thing,” continued Roscoe, “when visitors are in the house I want you to call me ‘Uncle’ – not ‘Roscoe,’ but ‘Uncle,’ do you understand? It looks absurd for a boy of fifteen to call me by my first name. Perhaps you’d better call me ‘Uncle’ all the time, so you’ll get used to it.”
With a harsh look at his father, Roscoe turned away….

10
At the termination of this interview, Benjamin wandered dismally upstairs and stared at himself in the mirror. He had not shaved for three months, but he could find nothing on his face but a faint white down with which it seemed unnecessary to meddle. When he had first come home from Harvard, Roscoe had approached him with the proposition that he should wear eye-glasses and imitation whiskers glued to his cheeks, and it had seemed for a moment that the farce of his early years was to be repeated. But whiskers had itched and made him ashamed. He wept and Roscoe had reluctantly relented.
Benjamin opened a book of boys’ stories, The Boy Scouts in Bimini Bay, and began to read. But he found himself thinking persistently about the war. America had joined the Allied cause during the preceding month, and Benjamin wanted to enlist, but, alas, sixteen was the minimum age, and he did not look that old. His true age, which was fifty-seven, would have disqualified him, anyway.
There was a knock at his door, and the butler appeared with a letter bearing a large official legend in the corner and addressed to Mr. Benjamin Button. Benjamin tore it open eagerly, and read the enclosure with delight. It informed him that many reserve officers who had served in the Spanish-American War were being called back into service with a higher rank, and it enclosed his commission as brigadier-general in the United States army with orders to report immediately.
Benjamin jumped to his feet fairly quivering with enthusiasm. This was what he had wanted. He seized his cap, and ten minutes later he had entered a large tailoring establishment on Charles Street, and asked in his uncertain treble to be measured for a uniform.
“Want to play soldier, sonny?” demanded a clerk casually.
Benjamin flushed. “Say! Never mind what I want!” he retorted angrily. “My name’s Button and I live on Mt. Vernon Place, so you know I’m good for it.”
“Well,” admitted the clerk hesitantly, “if you’re not, I guess your daddy is, all right.”
Benjamin was measured, and a week later his uniform was completed. He had difficulty in obtaining the proper general’s insignia because the dealer kept insisting to Benjamin that a nice V.W.C.A. badge would look just as well and be much more fun to play with.
Saying nothing to Roscoe, he left the house one night and proceeded by train to Camp Mosby, in South Carolina, where he was to command an infantry brigade. On a sultry April day he approached the entrance to the camp, paid off the taxicab which had brought him from the station, and turned to the sentry on guard.
“Get some one to handle my luggage!” he said briskly.
The sentry eyed him reproachfully. “Say,” he remarked, “where you goin’ with the general’s duds, sonny?”
Benjamin, veteran of the Spanish-American War, whirled upon him with fire in his eye, but with, alas, a changing treble voice.
“Come to attention!” he tried to thunder; he paused for breath – then suddenly he saw the sentry snap his heels together and bring his rifle to the present. Benjamin concealed a smile of gratification, but when he glanced around his smile faded. It was not he who had inspired obedience, but an imposing artillery colonel who was approaching on horseback.
“Colonel!” called Benjamin shrilly.
The colonel came up, drew rein, and looked coolly down at him with a twinkle in his eyes. “Whose little boy are you?” he demanded kindly.
“I’ll soon darn well show you whose little boy I am!” retorted Benjamin in a ferocious voice. “Get down off that horse!”
The colonel roared with laughter.
“You want him, eh, general?”
“Here!” cried Benjamin desperately. “Read this.” And he thrust his commission toward the colonel. The colonel read it, his eyes popping from their sockets. “Where’d you get this?” he demanded, slipping the document into his own pocket. “I got it from the Government, as you’ll soon find out!” “You come along with me,” said the colonel with a peculiar look. “We’ll go up to headquarters and talk this over. Come along.” The colonel turned and began walking his horse in the direction of headquarters. There was nothing for Benjamin to do but follow with as much dignity as possible – meanwhile promising himself a stern revenge. But this revenge did not materialize. Two days later, however, his son Roscoe materialized from Baltimore, hot and cross from a hasty trip, and escorted the weeping general, sans uniform, back to his home.

11
In 1920 Roscoe Button’s first child was born. During the attendant festivities, however, no one thought it “the thing” to mention, that the little grubby boy, apparently about ten years of age who played around the house with lead soldiers and a miniature circus, was the new baby’s own grandfather.
No one disliked the little boy whose fresh, cheerful face was crossed with just a hint of sadness, but to Roscoe Button his presence was a source of torment. In the idiom of his generation Roscoe did not consider the matter “efficient.” It seemed to him that his father, in refusing to look sixty, had not behaved like a “red-blooded he-man” – this was Roscoe’s favorite expression – but in a curious and perverse manner. Indeed, to think about the matter for as much as a half an hour drove him to the edge of insanity. Roscoe believed that “live wires” should keep young, but carrying it out on such a scale was – was – was inefficient. And there Roscoe rested.
Five years later Roscoe’s little boy had grown old enough to play childish games with little Benjamin under the supervision of the same nurse. Roscoe took them both to kindergarten on the same day, and Benjamin found that playing with little strips of colored paper, making mats and chains and curious and beautiful designs, was the most fascinating game in the world. Once he was bad and had to stand in the corner – then he cried – but for the most part there were gay hours in the cheerful room, with the sunlight coming in the windows and Miss Bailey’s kind hand resting for a moment now and then in his tousled hair.
Roscoe’s son moved up into the first grade after a year, but Benjamin stayed on in the kindergarten. He was very happy. Sometimes when other tots talked about what they would do when they grew up a shadow would cross his little face as if in a dim, childish way he realized that those were things in which he was never to share.
The days flowed on in monotonous content. He went back a third year to the kindergarten, but he was too little now to understand what the bright shining strips of paper were for. He cried because the other boys were bigger than he, and he was afraid of them. The teacher talked to him, but though he tried to understand he could not understand at all.
He was taken from the kindergarten. His nurse, Nana, in her starched gingham dress, became the center of his tiny world. On bright days they walked in the park; Nana would point at a great gray monster and say “elephant,” and Benjamin would say it after her, and when he was being undressed for bed that night he would say it over and over aloud to her: “Elyphant, elyphant, elyphant.” Sometimes Nana let him jump on the bed, which was fun, because if you sat down exactly right it would bounce you up on your feet again, and if you said “Ah” for a long time while you jumped you got a very pleasing broken vocal effect.
He loved to take a big cane from the hat-rack and go around hitting chairs and tables with it and saying: “Fight, fight, fight.” When there were people there the old ladies would cluck at him, which interested him, and the young ladies would try to kiss him, which he submitted to with mild boredom. And when the long day was done at five o’clock he would go upstairs with Nana and be fed on oatmeal and nice soft mushy foods with a spoon.
There were no troublesome memories in his childish sleep; no token came to him of his brave days at college, of the glittering years when he flustered the hearts of many girls. There were only the white, safe walls of his crib and Nana and a man who came to see him sometimes, and a great big orange ball that Nana pointed at just before his twilight bed hour and called “sun.” When the sun went his eyes were sleepy – there were no dreams, no dreams to haunt him.
The past – the wild charge at the head of his men up San Juan Hill; the first years of his marriage when he worked late into the summer dusk down in the busy city for young Hildegarde whom he loved; the days before that when he sat smoking far into the night in the gloomy old Button house on Monroe Street with his grandfather – all these had faded like unsubstantial dreams from his mind as though they had never been. He did not remember.
He did not remember clearly whether the milk was warm or cool at his last feeding or how the days passed – there was only his crib and Nana’s familiar presence. And then he remembered nothing. When he was hungry he cried – that was all. Through the noons and nights he breathed and over him there were soft mumblings and murmurings that he scarcely heard, and faintly differentiated smells, and light and darkness.
Then it was all dark, and his white crib and the dim faces that moved above him, and the warm sweet aroma of the milk, faded out altogether from his mind.

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“… the idea of time recedes with the expansion of consciousness.”
P.D. Ouspensky.

“For a believing physicist like myself, the separation between past, present, and
future has the value of a mere, albeit stubborn, illusion.”
Albert Einstein.

“The lack of an absolute standard of rest meant that one could not determine
whether two events that took place at different times occurred in the same position
in space.”
Stephen Hawking.

“Most people believe that time passes. In fact it stays where it is.”
Dogen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She awoke from a dream, of a field of ripening grain which seemed to her like a field of yellow hair undulating in all its glorious opulence. The sight stirred her quiescent blood like a memory, she remembered someone had called it the colour of torch-light. She had buried her lips in that memory. She knew it would pass in a moment. She gathered her moments now with a greater urgency. Now the twilight was deepening ever faster and darkness with its smattering of stars chased away the last glimmers of her youth. Her chair on the shadowed front porch was more frequently occupied, and chores formerly attended to with such sedulous purposiveness, now tended to be forgotten. She was otherwise engaged. Only the cat by dint of its unremitting importunities broke into her reveries, contriving in the instinctual manner of animals to secure for itself a daily saucer of near sour milk. But the silent potted poinsettia and ficus in the living room expired in a prolonged dry attenuation, all unnoticed.

She liked the front porch. The porch swing, the small gate-legged table piled high with yellowing journals covered with the indecipherable script she had so long affected as a guardian to her privacy, all lay fallow, trapped with her in a long suspension. It was a privacy no one had bothered to invade in all these years. She gazed at her chair, an overstuffed phenomenon of patchily fading claret, so solid and unmoving.

The chair connected her to the past. It had been a gift from an old friend, delightful and epicene, whose friendship had been a casualty of her marriage. Her friend had made his living in ‘home-furnishings.’ She laughed mirthlessly, recalling the phrase. He had now long since turned to dust, who in his way had tried to warn her. But she hadn’t listened, had she? His cautionary tale had missed its mark, as had that of the first Christian missionaries who described the terrors of hell to the inhabitants of Iceland, which then caused the doughty natives to respond “We shall be warm! We shall be warm!”

But he would have understood her sense of urgency about the present and the effort she was making now. He would have understood her sense that the clock hanging on her wall, a plain Seth Thomas (“What sayeth Thomas?” she mumbled,) now silent from her neglection, still slyly indulged  its devouring predilection in the secrecy of a parallel universe. “What is time?”– She answered herself: “Just something a clock measures.”

She had hidden her husband’s prized Hunter under a pile of rags in the walnut wash stand (he had loved watches, as she despised them now), but the clock defied her efforts to lower it from its accustomed place above the dusty whatnot. What did it matter. She could avoid its bland and frozen gaze by averting her own whenever she made her way through the house. Her gaze was turned more and more inward now. The cost of looking outside she disbursed prudently and with a calculated thrift.

Her old black dress grew shabbier and fustier, taking on a rusty sheen like the patina of ancient metal. She didn’t seem to notice. She was trying to notice other colours; the colours in her rioting untrammeled garden; the magenta cosmos, the violent yellows of the marigolds bordering the fence, planted years ago and persistently self-seeding. They were put there to deter the aphids from her prized roses. No matter that the roses, neither pruned nor divested of their hips for several seasons, had succumbed to their own dilatory expression of blooming, in a recalcitrant rhythm rather resembling her own. She noticed the passage of time as an interlocution – the drab sparrows chirping in the gnarled branches of her ramblers, saying “Why? why?”, and the silent swarms of gnats hanging suspended  in the air offering their tacit answer after the passing of a sprinkling rain.

The mint patch spilling over its nominal boundary of stones was frequented by swarms of paper wasps, who, having constructed a sinister convolution under the dove cote, had forced the doves to move elsewhere. She noticed all these intrusions of the natural world with a vague tolerance, as a reverberation of vitality allowed to impinge on her thoughts. Yet she was busy recording her moments. She was occupied. It was her time of expurgation.
She had dragged her bed into the parlour because the path of the moon in summer traversed the arc of its window during the night. She extinguished the porch light because it pained her that so many fragile visitants, drawn irresistibly to it, met their desperate ends against a treacherous illumination. No lesser lights competed with the milky effusions she so loved to study. She welcomed the encroachments of clouds in the night sky, as they hung suspended over the tree-tops, and described to herself the colours of the gauzy shadows. Sometimes they made her smile pensively.

Summer was now like a woman, who after having played out her passion lies still, her eyelids closed, her heartbeat slowing to a quieter rhythm, letting her skin cool to the touch of a lover. She loved and feared this season with its hint of death in the yellow tinted leaves. Its cooling breezes rattling the branches of her elm and the world, filling with a sibilant echo, were tinged with a hint of menace, malevolence and dread. She was receptive to their suggestion.

A long time ago before she had married and made this her home, she had lived in a far larger and more ancient house. The scenes of her childhood had been played out on balconies where the moonlight splashed like cool water on old stone ledges, and where mosses and creeping vines hid amongst the deeper shadows visible from her window. In rooms above the stairs, the skylights wantonly admitted the moon, and the walls were scattered with the  shadowy fluttering shapes of leaves and branches, which sometimes suggested themselves into intuitions. There she had watched with someone, waiting and awaiting her time.

The name she searched for was elusive. She had forced herself to forget that name, and now her memory stubbornly persisted in retaining its obsolete instruction despite her repeated promptings. Perhaps she had forgotten the name, but the rest she could not forget.

There had been someone, bright and quick, who slipped easily into being imperious, and who had not a trace of melancholy. This other was full of youthful enthusiasms, affectations of the decadence of most things French, Baudelaire, “Gaspard de la Nuit,” Ravel, flirting with the romantic darkness which youth prefers to the plain good sense of older folks. She read “Undine” aloud: she refused to let the time merely pass. She made the moments urgent, as if she had known there was a reason to. But she had also known how to speak softly, and wait for her words to sink in.

But it was all so long ago. A vagueness and disquiet still overcame her when she tried to remember. The cat stared at her with his yellow eyes:  Yellow as the moon, as the marigolds, as the hair she remembered. She had read an old poem once, written by a woman, about hair yellower than torch light. She must remember: Something important depended upon it.

She walked urgently to the empty bedroom, hurriedly searching among the things in the unlit closet. She delved feverishly in its recesses, amongst the folds of the dark and musty garments of another time, plundering their secrets for the thing hidden from herself. Yes, now she remembered. But now she almost did not wish to remember. She grew faint with the remembering, sitting with her head bowed, on the cool floor amongst the old dresses.

So these were the memories she had evaded. She remembered. She remembered the garden:

The garden was strung with Japanese lanterns shedding their intimate light on the leaves and grass, and, preeminently for her, on the women, beautiful, strange, alluring, and exotic: women of unassailable poise and elegantly travested sex.
She looked at the picture in her hand; at the sleek head, the clear and deeply thoughtful gaze.
She remembered.

“Walk with me in the garden. I want us to disappear for a moment. I’ll introduce you to everyone later.”
“Shouldn’t we do that first? Don’t you think they might find us rude?”
“Who? these women? Heavens no! They only observe proprieties in the breach: If they notice we’re missing they’ll know why!”
“And what is why? – I’m afraid I’m not as sophisticated or bohemian as you are, and I can’t tell at all if I’m behaving strangely or simply fitting in!”
“Oh you fit in all right. All that is needed is that you be beautiful, and you are!”
Are you teasing me by quoting Baudelaire again?”
“Oh that! ‘What do I care if you be wise, be beautiful, be melancholy’?
She paused to turn and look over the hydrangea bush at some couples dancing in the punctuated light,
‘Why, no, not entirely: I could never be so rash as to discount wisdom – and I wouldn’t ever wish you sad.”
“I am not reassured. I suddenly feel as if I’m in another world.
She looked at the tall woman standing next to her in the suggestion of light as a match flared, a cigarette lit.
“I suddenly feel that I don’t know you, and that its you I need introducing to.”
“You do know me. You’ve always known me – and if you don’t you shall! – But you’re right. This is another world. It’s a world that I’m making mine, and Darling, I do so want you in it. And you needn’t worry about meaningless conventions, they’re not needed here.”
“But I was brought up to be conventional, and surely we still need to be polite!”
“But that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to tell you. Everyone here has made either a career or a religion of breaking the rules anyway, and I’ve already told them this is your first party – of this sort. They expect you to behave a little strangely.”
“I’ll hold you responsible for any faux pas I might happen to make; since I don’t  know which rules I’m supposed to break, I might break all the wrong ones!”
“It won’t matter, and  then you could blame me for any lapses. Its rather expected of me I’m afraid! But look, how busy with each other they all are. No one is looking at you – at us.”
She had continued her halted thought –
“I’m afraid I would be stupid – not melancholy or sad – but I think I’m just a little afraid.”

They had moved away from the intimate conspiratorial voices of the revelers, as they sat talking in convivial groups on the lawn and away from the sporadic glow of cigarettes and the fading sound of the gramophone, its needle  now suddenly stuck persistently in the groove of some repeated phrase in the smoky rendition of the love song which had been drifting over to them in tinny fragments.
She felt, rather than knew, that something culminal was about to happen. Something in her quickened.

She was pressed against the trunk of an elm. She felt its corrugated bark stick to the backs of her arms and her summer dress and she felt the bruising intensity of hands. She was being kissed.

She felt like a drunken moth pinned to the wax board, but she didn’t care. A heady reckless excitement overtook her in the darkness. The glint of fiery hair against a dark fabric seemed like a lapse of memory, or a flaring of unbidden  imagination, she wouldn’t know which; but somewhere there was the image of a pale wrist and long blunt fingers poised on the dark wool of a thigh, and then the alchemical transmutation of her “No, no” To a gradual “Yes,” in a sudden rush of love or need, or a desire she never guessed would haunt her in the years to come. No names or words or concepts seemed as if they could intrude, but there was improbably imposed on her impressionable mind, a night with the association of a sonnet.

That was what she remembered. That in summary was the recapitulation of her brief capitulation.

And this was the part she both must remember and needed to forget: No matter that it might have been that her hand was forced, or that she might have been tipped out of the boat before she had learned to swim. What mattered was the flash of instant and incontrovertible recognition, of her utter familiarity with the element, regardless of how deep or disturbing, regardless of how much unanticipated.

What followed was by any standard a craven repudiation.

For later, she had again returned to ‘No’.

Some hidden demon in her of obduracy and panic brought the new, fragile world down around them both in sharpened splinters. She ignored the anguished  “Don’t do it.” The passionate admonitions, the “What profiteth a man” – or a woman for that matter. She resolved her dissonances in  an oracular fashion, based on a reading of the splinters of signs, and so she could not, would not, know the full extent of what she must keep hidden.

She had been driven home in a sober, fractured silence. She had had a total failure of nerve: And of something else.

She could now see that there could have been no gracious introduction possible for a mind caught in the vice of a fearful conventionalism drawn to masquerade itself in injured modesty, and weeks later, alone in her room, she had succumbed to a fit of silent panic. The terrifyingly personal events of that night, indistinguishable to her from what she had chosen, in her confusion, to think of as negligently cruel, blotted out her senses as surely as a powerful surge overwhelming a delicate circuit.

She chose Edwin, chose him deliberately as a dubious refuge; but from what? Perhaps she had sought to lay her secret self where she was certain  it would be unassailably safe; in the hands of someone who was  incapable of receiving it. Edwin, she thought, and his preoccupations with ledgers, profits, bonds and emoluments, with actuarials and compounding interests – Edwin would  suit her. Perhaps he had laid his devotion at her feet for the same reasons.

She laughed a cracked laugh remembering. She had excised a part of her soul, and a scar had grown around the gash, which in some strange way had proven itself more tender than the wound, but she had done her best to see to it that there was no longer anything she could cut or burn herself upon.

There had been nothing fiery about Edwin. His sparse demonstrations, as most other things about him, left her unmoved. His smell not her smell. She bore his fumbling excursions into a self, whose inviolability he could not fully perceive, borne with a knowledge of her deservedness.
The marriage had been not so much a marriage as a misunderstanding: a false agreement. It had not been a fair exchange: Oh no, not at all.

But somehow the years passed in a paradox of ever deferred and ever elusive resolution, and somehow, this thing in her, all mixed with pain and love, death and remembrance, refused to diminish. Now it was all so finally and beautifully clear.

She stood up and gazed in the mirror, at her reflection, her extreme slenderness, her fading hair, her delicate neck, her declivity of cheek, her full lips. Her eyes filled with derision. She felt a long exhalation. She knew what she most had wanted; most had feared.

She walked into the garden, picking the marigolds, filling her bosom with their bitter scented pungency until they spilled unheeded onto the long grass. She returned to the bedroom and severed the stout sash from the dusty blinds. She poured all that was left in the bottle of milk  into a blue  mixing bowl and set it before the cat, watching him taking pleasure in the simple act of feeding. Then, surrendering to a sudden impulse, she wound the clock.

She took the journals from the table and marked a page she remembered with a photograph. The wind chimes stirred in a sporadic murmur, and she suddenly yearned for music. She wound up the gramophone and put on a record.

The sash brought down a shower of dust upon her as it snaked over the beam. The wind chimes stirred again, in what seemed like the commencement of a sacred liturgy. The arced sliver of moon followed its nightly purpose.
“I’ll only be a moment”, she thought.

The table wobbled, but held her weight for a moment before it crashed against the porch railing, then fell its splintering way to the grass below.

The gramophone needle continued its fallow hiss as she smelled the marigolds, remembering their colour.

The clock began to strike.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The plangent sounds of the clock rang suddenly out, almost causing him to spill his coffee. It brought him back to the present in the unavoidably disturbing way clocks have of intruding into inner lives; disrupting them, taking them over and loudly asserting that the tyranny of the here-and-now could never be broken.  He wished it could:  that time could somehow be turned back on itself, and life remade simple. He struggled with a welter of emotions; fragments of the previous night, a persistent sense that something was going wrong and slipping out of his grasp, and the disturbing thought that perhaps his wife did not find him to be entirely agreeable.

Breakfast had been served, eaten, and its remains cleared away, but he still continued to sit at the table. He seemed absent; his mind elsewhere, not so much assailed by as imbued with impure thoughts, which he sought ineffectually to brush aside as he did the crumbs on his linen waistcoat. He wadded the table napkin in a sweaty hand, fingering the letter which lay beneath it. A slight sound escaped him, of displeasure at his internal disquiet, of sour denial. But the thoughts reoccurred. Strangely, in an ironical twist of uxoriality gone awry, his wife was the object of his prurient ruminations. He watched her secretly as she went about her business, tidying and cleaning, putting up and putting by. He had his secret speculations with regard to the cause of her imperviousness to his attentions, but they did not fit themselves neatly into any reconstruction of her past, at least not as he knew it. He knew she was chaste. His misgivings did not  include any speculations about her frames of reference and never extended to the unsafe ground of objective comparison. Still, it irked him fiercely that while he was transformed by ardour to gibbering puerility she remained poised and dignified. She seemed to succumb to his invasive attentions with a secret grace and an unassailable dignity.

The years since their marriage had not dimmed her loveliness, and instead of the pall of familiarity which customarily infects unruffled connubial arrangements, a certain withdrawal, a subtle imposition of distance had ‘leant enchantment to the view.’ Her eyes and skin retained the brilliance of youth, but now an additional depth, something he had not seen before, enhanced the currency of her ordinary beauty.
“Edwin, are you staring at me? Have I spilled something on my dress?”
He struggled for a semblance of composure, mumbling something about her brooch as she turned to lift the sash which opened the window.

He loved his wife. Didn’t he? He stood in secret awe of her. She spoke French with an old-fashioned propriety, played the piano with a personal delicacy, and sang in a slightly husky voice which, though it would  assuredly forfeit a purist’s approval, retained in charm and appeal what it lacked in training. He loved his wife, but he could not fathom why she had chosen him for a husband, and he could never tell if she loved him, though he had come to assume it.

If he had been more emotionally gifted, more perceptive in the area of the female psyche, or more experienced with women, he might have apprehended the elemental incongruity of her choice, but he was none of these. He was not romantic, or temperamentally disposed to romance. He was merely heir to a species of disturbance which  perhaps in other men might have evoked a more surreptitious expression of concupiscent impulse, or a weakness for drink, but in him only caused a deepening of gruffness and an undue emphasis on his already unappealing habits of physicality, his involuntary grunts, untimely sighs and persistent indigestion.

“You have a letter from Vivian.”
She stopped her wiping of the whatnot and stood motionless for a moment.
“Yes I know. It’s an invitation to tea this afternoon. She was expecting some new gramophone records to arrive in the mail last week – We were going to listen to music.”

He struggled with the upsurge of ire which threatened to choke him, dumbly suppressing it, absurdly wounded by the unconscious intimacy of that ‘we.‘ She caught his look and looked away. He managed to speak. “Will you be home for dinner?”
“I might be, but if  I’m not you needn’t worry; I’ll leave you a casserole and some dessert in the oven.”
It was not his dinner he was worried about. It was her. But what could he say?

He detested that woman and thought her ‘unnatural’. And he was right, at least based upon his limited suppositions of what was to be deemed natural in women. She was all that made him uneasy: a childhood friend of his wife’s, and therefore claimant to a deeper and longer standing intimacy than he suspected as being his own, a bluestocking, someone who read Latin, Greek and French!, someone he supposed his parents would have referred to as being “upper-crust.” Above all, she was a woman of independent means: a thoroughly bad influence.

He was completely unable to voice his thoughts. If he were so imprudent as to do so, his wife would then accuse him of trying to start a quarrel, and with her characteristic deftness of speech, convert his innocuous words into some bitter thing with a lingering aftertaste. She would by effortless implication make  him feel as if he’d misread his lines and committed a ghastly violation of his prescribed role. He would then find himself entangled in an intractable net of resentment and inexpressible frustration. He felt his stomach begin a symphony of disquiet against the background of his angry thoughts. He glanced at his Hunter in an effort to compose himself and began readying himself to leave the house.

He had heard about this woman, his wife’s newly returned friend, from his own friends, the ones he played poker and billiards with. He had been told of a very uncertain past, of outlandish dress, of books and pictures delivered – French novels, lithographs. His queasiness increased at the thought of a French novel he had read: One about a besotted husband and an uncontrollably romantic wife who deceived  him, exulting in her deception, “I have a lover! I have a lover!”

It didn’t bear thinking about. He knew he must not speak. To do so would mean to admit that he allowed himself to be the recipient of indiscreet garrulosity and gossip; that his friends in the post office steamed open letters and packages, and that he had let himself be informed by a cleaning lady who had been persuaded by one of their wives to inspect bookshelves and somewhat else besides in that house she was being paid to clean.

His wife would not fail to appreciate the irony if he complained about her friend’s questionable morality, thus laying his own vulnerabilities unacceptably bare. She would not fail to use her rebarbative wit in a devastating riposte. He was not her match. He knew it.

This was new in their marriage. This unsheathed display of sharpened wit and mental acuity. It disconcerted him. It showed up his own species of intelligence – so aptly suited to bureaucracy and accountancy and fiduciary administration – as meagre,  and exiguous, which is to say, to no advantage at all. He rather felt as if he had suddenly found a kitten, who had hitherto only purred by the fire, to be possessed of an uncalculated yet devastatingly effective atavism. His own primitive instincts, if he had ever had any to begin with, had been dulled by generations of placid good breeding between sober clerks and the dull daughters of others such. He was about to give voice to some uneasily shaping thought, which had to do with his antipathy. It had something to do with her manner when she returned from these visits;  her accentuated thoughtfulness and inwardness, as if she were visibly infected with a reflectiveness he could not hope to penetrate. He could not abide this mood of hers, this unilaterally imposed sense of privacy, of exclusion. It peeved him and increased his anxiety and his irascibility. Why did she always send notes? Why didn’t she use the telephone like normal people? He could then at least have heard half the conversation. But he felt his thoughts to have ventured out too far, and retreated.

As he left the room he saw her pick up the letter and raise it to her lips.

She settled herself down from the aftermath of a squabble, no less real for its invisibility, its unexpressed animus. It had upset her surprisingly little. In five years she had come to know her husband as one might an intimate associate. She had set aside her feelings when she married him, resolving never to venture into the depths she knew to exist behind her ordinary thoughts. She had ignored the advice of friends, one in particular, who had himself succumbed to marriage despite misgivings and who had told her of his regrets.

She brushed the nap on the arm of the chair she sat in as she tried to recall the details of a conversation. Charles had been a mutual friend of all three of them, Vivian, Edwin, herself, but Edwin had discouraged the friendship, stopping just short of forbidding it, and she had given in, sensing that once having chosen, she could no longer waver. Still, it had seemed a prudent decision to marry, and marriage had enabled her life to go on smoothly, if not indeed so placidly, for the past several years: Until this one; until now.

Now she had the feeling that her life was about to change. She felt something struggling within her, trying to escape its inner bounds, like a thin shaft of grass, a plumule emerging irresistibly from a tiny crack in the pavement, its impetus for growth unimpeded by any discouraging thought of an uncertain future: In darker moments it hovered like an unseen presence in the house, lurking behind the heavy furniture, the clock, the curtains; waiting to spring forth in an unexpected and unguarded moment. Her gaze wandered over her garden, at the roses in the first stage of their summer bloom; old fashioned  Albas, their pink and white delicacy somehow resisting the onslaught of the fierce May sun, the tender petals refusing to shrivel and droop, to die until they had lived out their season.

And perhaps she too had refused to wilt and droop under the stultifying depletion of her marriage. There were books to be read, journals to be kept up with, and evenings to be whiled away in light conversation, card games, knitting, embroidery. She had managed by a sheer persistency of effort to engage herself in an unremitting busyness, and to defer this day by polishing her housewifely skills to a high lustre. She had contrived to deflect and postpone the very thing which was happening to her now: but now it was here. The thoughts which arose in her mind in the middle of the night when the world receded, the thoughts which haunted her like unquiet souls tapping on the lids of their coffins, were now oh so close to emerging. She was no longer toying with the idea, but entertaining the prospect of their rupture, to wreak havoc on her ordered existence, with a sense of anticipation and even joy. She imagined vaguely how the carefully crafted edifice of her matrimonial endeavours might crumble. She examined her thoughts for a trace of unacknowledged fear. She found a trace of it, but no more.

She had thought that her marriage might be undertaken in the pioneering spirit of an ancestral sort she had read about in novels, in which home, even homeland, relatives, and close family – everything beloved and familiar – had to be left behind in order to start a new life. She had thought to arrive at a place where the old no longer impinged upon the new, except in the form of a harmless nostalgia, and then only at a great distance. But she had failed to take into account the hardships and tedium of the journey, the toll it would take on her. She had utterly failed to grasp or gauge the extent of her feelings. She could not know of the irrepressible alchemy of thought and sensibility left to ferment in the sealed recesses of her psyche, of the sterility and privation visited upon the remainder of her life by an unnatural sequestration of her natural vitality.

Yet she had felt herself helpless to unstop the lid. She looked at the letter again; at its angular script, and felt herself begin a slow emergence from the fog of her old habits of thought, into a strange place; greener, wilder, and less known in its dangers and delights, than the safe well-ordered pastoral of her history up to the present.

So in the late afternoon, she drove the lovely open miles to Vivian’s house, recalling the past, and realigning it with the present.  a bunch of freshly-picked roses on the seat beside her. She rolled all the windows down, unmindful of the dust, knowing only that the illimitability of the sky must not be denied, and that all her senses must be prevailed upon to bear witness to her slowly  yet irresistibly coalescing resolve. She heard with delight the sound of her gears shifting from a minor to a major key as she drove past the houses, copses, fields and tobacco sheds she had now come to recognise.

She paused in the driveway, still a distance from the front porch, allowing the sound of the engine to die away, waiting for her own thoughts to still. There was that ordinary house, hollyhocks blazing in the last light, a trumpet vine draped thick and sturdy over the side fence, the front door wide open – the sound of summer insects. She waited  for the sight of that figure to emerge and walk towards her, in a choreography her mind had rehearsed for endless moments past.

The evening did get on to a propitious start with strong, cold martinis and the conversation they were intended to facilitate.
“Why did you do it? Why did you run away?”
“I don’t know – I think I was terrified.”
“Of what?
“Of that world – those oh-so- assured women – of you even. I was shaking inside. You had suddenly become like them, and I felt you had gone on without me.”
“But surely –”
“Of drowning. I knew I couldn’t swim. I couldn’t keep up – I could hardly even speak! It was all to much for me – I couldn’t do it.
“Couldn’t do what? What was there to do?!”
“Those people – you had crossed over from my world to theirs – I felt as if you had left us and gone over to their side, and I could never follow. Those women… I would never have been able to understand them – That world…. I wouldn’t have known what to say – they were all so clever and sharp and – Oh I suppose I felt like an idiot – a child. I felt – I felt you had done that – made me feel like that, like a child who is suddenly made to have dinner with the grown-ups, and who knows she still can’t eat without spilling!”
“But they were just people – not at all like that! And they were my friends – they had invited me!”
“Oh but they weren’t – just – well, just anything – they seemed older, and sophisticated – they danced with each other! They were unreachable, and unreal – they seemed as if they were from another planet! And then…”
“And then?”
“And then…”
Her voice seemed to lose its footing and stumble against an invisible object which blocked its path.
The whirring of the cicadas grew louder.
“And then – you know ‘and then.'”
“No I don’t! I was there, and I loved you! I told you!”
“Yes you were – but where was I? I felt as if I was somewhere else – maybe floating above the trees with the cicadas.”
She emptied her glass and asked for it to be refilled. The sound of the ice crashed loudly against the shaker.
“You know, here in the South cicadas swarm every 13 and 17 years – its because there are two kinds of them, and since they only swarm together twice every hundred years they don’t get mixed up and breed with each other.”
What are you talking about? I don’t know what you mean –  and you’re doing it again. You’re making me dizzy.”
“That’s what you’re doing now.”
“No I’m not. And its only been five – not 13 – or God forbid! 17 years.”
“Only?” It never felt like only to me. And you were my first.”
“Or to me. And you mine. But you had gone so far ahead of me. And I wasn’t your only, was I? There have been others.”
“Not like this, and they are all in the past.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. And I am here now. I didn’t change.”
” I have, but I’m still the old-fashioned sort.”
“Yes, that’s why you married – and I didn’t.”
The words shocked her in the way that ordinary things sometimes do when one sees them in an unexpected way.
“I didn’t know that world – you wanted that world – you already belonged. So I knew you had to be there, and I knew I couldn’t. I knew it was too much for me.”
“You didn’t choose me, you rejected me – and you chose that stodge Edwin! God! I couldn’t believe it – I still can’t.”
“Darling, I couldn’t do it then, I knew it would be too much for me. I couldn’t understand. I was lost. I didn’t want to be made known that way. At least marriage is anonymous. You can say that much for it. I didn’t want to be  made public – to be talked about in whispers and discretely pointed at – Oh I know you wouldn’t have seen or heard anything, but I would have. I would have felt as if I was being stared at and and whispered about as I walked down the street. I didn’t want private parties, and to have my secrets known.”
“I never guessed … It was not at all that way for me. I felt it was a place I could go to from the world, away from it – where I could be myself – with women like me.”
“It wasn’t like that for me. I was terrified. Anyway, its different now isn’t it?”
“Let’s go inside. I’m cold, and we can pick over the rubble some more.”

The talk quickened inside.Their words seemed less spread-out than before, and it seemed as if they talked for hours, picking a careful path to the present, sweeping aside the bits of treachery and cowardice and misunderstanding and of course the pain. They came to a shared moment. They discovered to their delight that all there seemed to be to anybody’s salvation, and certainly to their own, was just a second chance.

It was late, and very dark. Vivian was quietly smoking a cigarette.
“Were you happy – at all –  these last years?”
“Happy? hardly happy. I used to think I could be content, but I couldn’t be that either. No; not happy.” She considered the implications of  this seemingly unnecessary question: The reason for it, its unasked counterpart, and searched for both answers. She started to explain how she  had thought of herself as being more like a corpse lodged in some underwater tangle, which might at any moment have risen unbidden to the surface, refusing any longer to hide its gruesomeness in the weeds, than anything remotely resembling happy. She expressed herself in words to that effect, sensing that she made an act of contrition in so doing. She drew tight the cord between her mistake, and her remorse.
“God! that sounds terrible.”
“It feels terrible – even now. I felt like a sinner who wanted to be saved, from my transgressions, because I felt that all my choices had been wrong, and that I was doomed – What could I have chosen anyway? There were no choices left – Until you came back. Why did you?”
“You asked, so I had to.”
“I merely ‘asked,’ and you ‘had to’? God! I wish I had ever been capable of such clarity. I’ve never been able to read my own heart – until now that is. Everything about it used to elude me; its needs, its desires, its very voice; all mysterious and unknown. That’s why I still can’t trust myself entirely. I’ve been a coward and a fool, and the choices I made, which I thought would keep me from pain, were the very ones which plunged me deepest into the pit.”
“And now?”
“And now, I still don’t trust myself to know – Her voice grew clouded, and she felt her eyes turn moist. “I am afraid that I might plunge both of us, all three of us now, into another terrible mess.”
“But you must choose! Remember how you used to quote Pascal? ‘Il faut parier.  Cela n’est pas volontaire: Vous êtes embarqué…'”
“You know that meant something else, and not this – and I did choose, though disasterously. But you should have explained my choices to me when you quoted Pascal to me a  long time ago – when we were at that party. You should have explained….”
“How could I have? You didn’t let me. You seemed as if you were about to shatter – and  you wouldn’t have understood then. You still might have chosen other than I would have wished.”
“I might  have understood more – if you had tried.”
“You made it clear you didn’t want me.”
“Yes – perhaps I did, but you should have known even if I didn’t. You might have been able to make me see…”
“But this is now – so what about now? – Imagine if you could choose now. What would you choose?”
She paused for a moment before answering. The sound of a cricket inside the room grew suddenly and feverishly loud.
“I would choose another life – away from there, away from everything: from Edwin.”
“And where would that be”?
“I don’t know – but somewhere far away I think, maybe back in California – and I think it would have to be with you.”
“With me!”
“Yes. You would have to be a part of any complete life I could ever have.”
“Darling, you know the kind of life I have chosen – or has chosen me – It’s not a part of the sane and ordinary world you live in. And I can tell you now about that evening: you were right, you might have been a fish out of water, for all your accomplishments. There were movie actresses there – two in particular whom I’m sure you must have recognised– and a director and a singer, and a famous photographer. I think we were the only ordinary people there. No one there lived – lives – a settled life.”
“But my world is not any longer settled, or ordinary. Its rough and bloody unpredictable and full of gaps and nasty pitfalls, and running into things in the dark.”
“And you think another kind of life, a life with me, would be simpler?”
“Not simpler, but  – more whole – more of a piece – more… put together. It would be more natural.”
“Oh God! natural! That’s priceless! How ironic! You thought Edwin was natural!”
“I know I deserved that, but you don’t have to remind me. But I did; and he is – but not as I  am. I don’t care much anymore about what that the rest of the world might think, and that they will doubtless see things his way and not mine.”
“And I am not merely a bitter – or even a convenient – pill to be swallowed so that you might be cured of a bad marriage?”
“I know. I never meant that you were.”
“Then what did you mean?”
Only that I can no longer be other than myself, even though I don’t quite know what that is, and that I want to find myself there with you – if you let me. I thought I could go to sleep and wake up and leave it all behind me like a dream, but I couldn’t, and I can’t.”
“Are you saying you love me?”
“Yes. That is what I am saying. I have felt like a glass you let fall, and I want to be put back together. I feel I must, because another future might be fatal to all that I am.”
“And are you sure this time?  You’re not going to lose your nerve again?”
“No. I know now what I didn’t know before.”

She drove home in the darkest part of the night. She knew herself to be no longer willing to simply succumb to the minatory passage of time: To arrive at senescence a dried up husk, doing a grotesque shuffle in the middle of the dance floor, after the band had left and the music died. She might have gone on protecting what she dared not risk, long after she had ceased to be desirable, shriveling and hardening in odd places, and learning too late that there would be no takers of the sort she had dreamed about, and that she would die with the mouldering hoard of her faded youth and rapidly decomposing beauty. But now she would not. Her memory of the previous hours, slow, halting, tentative then rapturous, electrifying, and ineradicable, would ever mean that she would now choose again.

The stars had advanced in a perceptible slice of arc when she pulled into to her own driveway. For the second time that day but in what seemed an indescribable age ago, she sat and waited, listening for her inner clamour to subside and  silence to descend. The darkness seemed impenetrable in the moments after she extinguished the headlights. She noticed that the porch light was out, but the window of the bedroom upstairs glowed ominously. She dreaded going inside. As her eyes adjusted she noticed how the outline of the elm tree made deeper incursions into the darkness. She let something in her be invaded by that soothing blackness. She felt the glory of night, its newness to her, its resonance with what was beginning to be fully and quietly infused in her thoughts.

She left Vivian, reluctantly, to return to her own home, still thinking of this place as home, and now she wondered at the word, at its meaning.  The house outlined itself against the night like a hulk; a boulder. She had tried to find a place for herself within its walls, within its shelter, but it had turned on  her, constricting and suffocating. Something had gone awry, like a bit of grit caught under an eyelid, and had gone on and on tearing and grinding away at her soft tissues. She had not noticed till this moment how she had felt  herself to be both grit and eye.

He was awake, waiting for her as she had expected. At first their words came measuredly, then erratically, as the bitterness and truth of a conversation long deferred flew about the room like crazed birds beating themselves against invisible panes. She was amazed at how unprepared he was for what he saw his life becoming; at how disabled he was in the unperceived privilege, which had masqueraded in his thoughts as unquestioned as the laws of nature. She pitied him, and was thus rendered impervious to his invective, unwittingly inflicting upon him an unforgettable and unintentioned mortal wound. All of life had seemed unexpectedly to become a weapon leveled him and everything about life that before had been merely ordinary. He stared at her, his lips bursting with unspilled words. She felt his bitterness about to overflow.

There was a moment when he struggled for control. He turned out the light. She could feel him willing her to get into the bed beside him, to take her accustomed place by his side. Disgust mingled with her pity: for his unclouded assumptions regarding the marital servility he had grown to expect and which had made him an unwitting victim to her unexamined, by him, submission. But it lasted only a moment. Sadness, generosity, and again pity, swiftly reasserted themselves within her. She stood silent for a moment, seeing before her a fellow spirit, embarking as she was, albeit along a vastly different path, upon a journey, a destination which only she now wished to reach.

She stooped swiftly to kiss him, then left the room, closing the door gently behind her.

She heard the clock striking as she slowly walked down the stairs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

by Dia Tsung.

Time: Chantal Kreviazuk

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Luigi Pirandello (28 June 1867 – 10 December 1936)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Through the large window that opened onto the house’s little hanging garden, the pure, fresh morning air made the pretty little room cheerful. An almond branch, which seemed to be all a-blossom with butterflies, projected toward the window; and, mingled with the hoarse, muffled gurgle of the small basin in the center of the garden, was heard the festive, peal of faraway church-bells and the chirping of the swallows intoxicated with the air and the sun-shine.

As she stepped away from the window, sighing, Anna noticed that her husband that morning had forgotten to rumple his bed as he used to do each time, so that the servants couldn’t tell that he hadn’t slept in his room. She rested her elbows on the untouched bed, then stretched out on it with her whole torso. bending her pretty blonde head over the pillows and half-closing her eyes, as if to savor, in the freshness of the linens, the slumbers he was accustomed to enjoy there. A flock of swallows flashed headlong past the window shrieking.

“You would have done better to sleep here….,” she murmured languidly after a moment, and got up wearily. Her husband was to set out that very evening, and Anna had come into his room to prepare for him the things he needed for the trip.

As she opened the wardrobe, she heard what seemed to  be a squeak in the inner drawer and quickly, drew back, startled. From a corner of the room she picked up a walking stick with a curved handle and, holding her dress tight against her legs, took the stick by the tip and, standing that way at a distance, tried to open the drawer with it. But as she pulled,  instead of the drawer coming out, an insidious gleaming blade emerged smoothly from inside the stick. Anna, who hadn’t expected this, felt an extreme repulsion and let the scabbard of the sword stick drop from her hand. At that moment, a second squeak made her turn abruptly toward the window, uncertain whether the first one as well had come from some rapidly passing swallow.

With one foot she pushed aside the unsheathed weapon and pulled out, between the two open doors of the wardrobe, the drawer full of her husband’s old suits that he no longer wore. Out of sudden curiosity she began to rummage around in it and, as she was putting back a worn-out, faded jacket, she happened to feel, in the hem
under the lining, a sort of small paper, which had slipped down there through the torn bottom of the breast pocket; she wanted to see what that paper was which had gone astray and been forgotten there who knows how many years ago; and so by accident Anna discovered the portrait of her husband’s first wife.

At first she had a start and turned pale; she quickly ran her hand, which was shaken by a shudder, through her hair, and, with her vision blurred and her heart stopped, she ran to the window, where she remained in astonishment, gazing at the unfamiliar image almost with a feeling of panic.

The bulky hair style and the old-fashioned dress kept her from noticing at first the beauty of that face; but as soon as she was able to concentrate on the features, separating them from the attire, which now, after so many years, looked ludicrous, and to pay special attention to the eyes, she felt wounded by them and, together with her blood a flush of hatred leaped from her heart to her brain; a hatred as if caused by posthumous jealousy; that hatred mingled with contempt which she had felt for that other woman when she fell in love with Vittore Brivio, eleven years after the marital tragedy that had at one blow destroyed his first household.

Anna had hated that woman, unable to comprehend how she had been capable of betraying the man whom she now worshiped, and in the second place, because her family had objected to her marriage with Brivio, as if he had been responsible for the disgrace and violent death of his unfaithful wife. – It was she, yes, it was she beyond a doubt! Vittore’s first wife: the one who had killed herself!

She found the proof in the dedication written on the back of the portrait: “‘To my Vittore, his Almira – November 11, 1873.” Anna had very vague information about the dead woman: she knew only that Vittore, when the betrayal was discovered, had, with the impassivity of a judge, ordered her to take her own life.

Now with satisfaction she recalled that terrible sentence issued by her husband, and was irritated  by that “my” and “his” of the dedication, as if the other woman had wished to flaunt the closeness of the mutual ties that had bound her and Vittore, solely to spite her.

That first flare-up of hatred, ignited, like a will-o’-the-wisp by a rivalry which by now existed only for her, was succeeded in Anna’s mind by feminine curiosity: she desired to examine the features of that face, although she was partially restrained by the odd sorrow one feels at the sight of an object that belonged to a person who died tragically – a sorrow that was sharper now, but not unfamiliar to her, because it permeated her love for her husband, who had formerly belonged to that other woman.

Examining her face, Anna immediately noticed how entirely dissimilar it was to hers, and at the same time there arose in her heart the question of how the husband who had loved that woman, that girl, whom he must have found beautiful, could ever have later fallen in love with her, who was so different.

It seemed beautiful; even to her it seemed much more beautiful than  hers – that face which from the portrait looked swarthy. There !  – those lips had joined in a kiss with his lips; but now that sorrowful crease at the corners of the mouth? And why was the gaze in those intense eyes so sad? The entire face spoke of deep suffering; and Anna was moved and almost vexed by the humble and genuine kindness expressed by those features, and after that she felt a twinge of repulsion and disgust, when all at once she believed she had observed in the gaze of those eyes the same expression her own eyes had, whenever, thinking of her husband, she looked at herself in the mirror, in the mornings, after arranging her hair.

She had barely enough time to thrust the portrait into her pocket: her husband appeared, fuming, on the threshold to the room.  “What have you been doing? The usual thing? Every time you come into this room to straighten up, you rearrange everything. . . ”

Then, seeing the unsheathed sword stick on the floor: “Have you been fencing with the suits in the wardrobe?”

And he laughed that laugh of his which came only from the throat, as if someone had tickled him there; and, laughing in that fashion, he looked at his wife, as if asking her why he himself was laughing. As he looked, his eyelids constantly blinked with extreme rapidity against his sharp, black, restless little eyes.

Vittore Brivio treated his wife like a child capable of nothing but that ingenuous, exclusive and almost childish love with which he felt himself surrounded, frequently to his annoyance, and to which he had determined to pay attention only on due occasion, and even at those times displaying an indulgence partially mixed with light irony, as if he meant to say: “All right, have it your way! For a while I too will become a child along with you: this, too, must be done, but let’s not waste too much time!”

Anna had let the old jacket in which she had found the portrait drop to her feet. He picked it up, piercing it with the point of the sword stick; then, through the garden window he called the young servant who also doubled as a coachman and was at that moment harnessing the horse to the cabriolet. As soon as the boy showed up, in his shirt sleeves, in the garden in font of the window, Brivio rudely threw the dangling jacket in his face, accompanying the handout with a: “Take it, it’s yours.”

“This way, you’ll have less to brush,” he added, turning toward his wife, “and to straighten up, I hope!”  And again, blinking, he uttered that stentorian laugh of his.

On other occasions her husband had traveled out of the city, and not merely for a few days, also leaving at night like this time; but Anna, still extremely shaken by the discovery of the portrait on that very day, felt a strange fear of being left alone and wept when she said goodbye to him.

Vittore Brivio, in a great rush of fear of being late and evidently preoccupied with his business, reacted ill-manneredly to those uncustomary tears of his wife.

“What!  Why? Come on now, come on now, that’s so childish!” And he left in hot haste, without even saying goodbye.

Anna jumped at the sound of the door that he closed behind him with force; she remained in the little room with the lamp in her hand and felt her tears growing cold in her eyes. Then she roused herself and hurriedly withdrew to her room, intending to go to bed at once.

In the room, which was already prepared, the little night light was burning. “Go to bed,” Anna said to the maid who was waiting for her. “I’ll take care of things myself. Good night.” She extinguished the lamp, but instead of putting it on the shelf, as she usually did, she put it on the night table, with the feeling – actually against her will – that she might need it later. She started to undress hastily, gazing fixedly at the floor in front of her. When her dress fell around her feet, it occurred to her that the portrait was there, and with acute vexation she felt herself being looked at and pitied by those sorrowful eyes, which had made such an impression on her. With determination she stooped down to pick up the dress from the carpet and, without folding it, she placed it on the armchair at the foot of the bed, as if the pocket that hid the portrait and the tangle of the fabric should and could prevent her from reconstructing the image of that dead woman.

As soon as she lay down, she closed her eyes and forced herself to follow her husband mentally along the road leading to the railroad station. She forced this upon herself as a spiteful rebellion against the feeling that had kept her alert all day long, observing and studying her husband. She knew where that feeling had come from and she wanted to get rid of it.

In this effort of her will, which caused her an acute nervous agitation, she pictured to herself with an extraordinary second sight the long road, deserted at night, illuminated by the street lamps projecting their wavering light onto the pavement, which seemed to palpitate because of  it; at the foot of every lamp, a circle of shadow; the shops, all closed; and there was the carriage in which Vittore was riding: as if she had been lying in wait for it, she started following it all the way to the station: she saw the gloomy train beneath the glass shed; a great many people milling about in that vast, smoky, poorly lit, mournfully echoing interior: now the train was pulling out; and, as if she were really watching it move away and disappear into the darkness, she suddenly came back to herself, opened her eyes in the silent room and felt an anguished feeling of emptiness, as if something were missing inside her. She then felt confusedly, in a flash, becoming bewildered, that for three years perhaps, from the moment in which she had left her parents’ home, she had been in that void of which she was only now becoming conscious. She  had been unaware of it before, because she had filled that void with herself alone, with her love; she was becoming aware of it now, because all day long she had, as it were, suspended her love in order to look and to observe.

“He didn’t even say goodbye to me,” she thought; and she started to cry again, as if that thought were the definite reason for her tears.

She sat up in bed: but she suddenly held back the hand she had stretched out, while sitting up, to get her handkerchief from her dress. No, it was no longer any use to forbid herself to take another look at that portrait, to reexamine it! She took it. She put the light back on.

How differently she had pictured that woman Now, contemplating her real likeness, she felt remorse for the feelings that the imaginary woman had aroused in her. She had pictured a woman rather fat and ruddy, with flashing, smiling eyes, always ready to laugh, enjoying common amusements . . . And instead, now, there she was: a young woman whose clean-cut features expressed a profound, sorrowful soul; whose eyes expressed a sort of all-absorbing silence; yes, different from herself, but not in that earlier vulgar sense: just the opposite; no, that mouth looked as if it had never smiled, whereas her own had laughed so often and so gaily; and surely, if that face was swarthy (as it seemed to be from the portrait), it had a less smiling air than her own blonde and rosy face. Why, why so sad?

A hateful thought flashed across her mind, and all at once with violent repulsion she tore her eyes away from that woman’s picture, suddenly discovering in it a snare threatening not only to her peace of mind, to her love, which, as it was, had received more than one wound that day, but also to her proud dignity as an honest woman who had never allowed herself even the remotest thought hostile to her husband.

That woman had had a lover And perhaps it was because of him she was so sad, because of that adulterous love, and not because of her husband!

She tossed the portrait onto the bedside table and put out the light again, hoping to fall asleep this time without thinking any more about that woman, with whom she could have nothing in common. But, closing her eyes, she suddenly saw, in spite of herself, the dead woman’s eyes, and sought in vain to dispel that sight. “Not because of him, not because of him!” she then murmured with frenzied persistence, as if by insulting her she hoped to be rid of her.

And she made an effort to recall everything she knew about that other man, the lover, as if compelling the gaze and the sadness of those eyes to look no longer at her but at the former lover, whom she knew only by name: Arturo Valli. She knew that he had married a few years later as if to prove his innocence of the blame that Vittore wanted to ascribe to him, that he had vigorously declined Vittore’s challenge to a duel, protesting that he would never fight with a mad killer. After this refusal, Vittore had threatened to kill him wherever he came across him, even in church; and then he had left the town with his wife, returning later as soon as Vittore, remarried, had departed.

But from the sadness of those events which she now brought back to mind, from Valli’s cowardice and, after so many years, from the way the first wife had been completely consigned to oblivion by her husband, who had been able to resume his life and remarry as if nothing had happened, from the joy that she herself had felt upon becoming Vittore’s wife, from those three years she had spent together with him with never a thought about that other woman, unexpectedly a cause of pity for her spontaneously forced itself upon Anna; she saw her image again vividly and it seemed to her that with those eyes, intense from so much suffering, that woman was saying to her:
“But I’m the only one that died as a result! All of you are still living!”

She saw, she felt, that she was alone in the house: she got frightened. Yes, she was living; but for three years, since her wedding day, she hadn’t seen her parents or sister, not even once. She who adored them, a dutiful daughter, a trusting sister, had had the courage to oppose their wishes out of love for her husband; for his sake, when he was rejected by his own family, she had fallen seriously ill, and would no doubt have died if the doctors hadn’t induced her father to accede to her desire. And her father had yielded, but without giving his consent; in fact, he swore that after that wedding she would no longer exist for him or for that household. Besides the difference in age, the husband being eighteen years older than the wife, a more serious obstacle for the father had been Brivio’s financial position, which was subject to rapid ups and downs because of the risky undertakings on which this most enterprising and extraordinarily active man was accustomed to embark with foolhardy confidence in himself and his luck.

In three years of marriage Anna, surrounded by comforts, had been able to consider as unjust, or dictated by hostile prejudice, her father’s prudent misgivings as to the financial means of her husband, in whom, moreover, in her ignorance, she placed as much confidence as he had in himself; then, as for the difference in their ages, up to then there had been no manifest cause of disappointment for her or surprise for others, because Brivio’s advanced years produced in him not the slightest impairment to his small, highly animated and robust body and even less to his mind, which was endowed with tireless energy and restless eagerness.

It was something totally different that Anna, now for the first time, looking into her life (without even realizing it) with the eyes of that dead woman depicted there in the portrait on the bedside table, found to complain of in her husband. Yes, it was true: she had felt hurt at other times by his almost disdainful indifference; but never so much as on that day; and now for the first time she felt so frighteningly alone, separated from her family, who at that moment seemed to her to have abandoned her there, as if, upon marrying Brivio, she already had something in common with that dead woman and was no longer worthy of anyone else’s company. And her husband, who ought to have consoled her, it seemed that even her husband was unwilling to give her any credit for the sacrifice of her daughterly and sisterly love that she had offered him, just as if it had cost her nothing, as if he had had a right to that sacrifice and therefore had no obligation to make it up to her.  Yes, he had a right, but it was because she had fallen so totally in love with him at that time; therefore he now had an obligation to repay her. And instead . . .

“It’s always been like that!” Anna thought she heard the sorrowful lips of the dead woman sigh to her. She lit the lamp again and once more, contemplating the picture, she was struck by the expression of those eyes. So then, it was true, she too had suffered on his account? She too, realizing she wasn’t loved, had felt that frightening emptiness?

“Yes? Yes?” Anna, choking with tears, asked the picture. And it then seemed to her that those kindly eyes, intense with passion and heartbreak, were pitying her in their turn, were condoling with her over that abandonment, that unrequited sacrifice, that love which remained locked up in her breast like a treasure in a casket to which he had the keys but would never use them, like a miser.

 

 

 

Translation Stanley Applebaum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I first read Luigi Pirandello’s “With Other Eyes”, my thoughts flew immediately to Horacio Quiroga’s “The Feather Pillow”. The parallels are undeniable – a naive and inexperienced young woman is shut in a trap of marital disquiet with an unsympathetic older man. Having unwitting swallowed the poison pill of matrimony, both women find themselves isolated in echoingly large houses, far away from family and friends, with no apparent means of escape, and only their maids for company.

Quiroga proceeds to develop a gothic tale, reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe, in which a blood-sucking insect becomes the means and symbol whereby the life and life-blood of the young woman is gradually and fatally drained away. The young woman never realises the cause of her debilitating disease. Quiroga leads his readers to the inevitable conclusion that it is the marriage itself which is the life-destroying  ‘insect.’ We are allowed into the secret from which the protagonists are excluded, but he does not permit us access to their inner awareness – or rather the absence of such an awareness.

Pirandello is much more nuanced and more subtle. From the very outset we are privy to Anna’s thoughts, and to the process of the rapidly growing realisation of her predicament. Pirandello delves into, and allows us to eavesdrop so that we hear, the actual unfolding of Anna’s internal conversation and her insights and feelings, rather than make us rely on a plot-driven narrative, as does Quiroga.

By a mere accident, Anna finds a photograph of  her husband Vittore’s first wife, and literally overnight, she becomes chillingly conscious of her situation and indeed her fate. She has spent the entire three years of her marriage placidly drifting downstream, never looking below the surface of the water, content that her little boat afforded her a reasonable view of the embankments, and perhaps an occasional glimpse of the sky. She has passed through the pools of light and shadow, trailing her hand in the water, never noticing its murkiness or wondering about what lay, or lurked, beneath the surface.

It is reasonable to suppose that Anna married Vittore for love and security, and in this she resembles most of the women of her era. Most had reason to believe that their marriages stood on a firm and enduring foundation. These marriages were meant to last a lifetime, which is why Vittore compelled his first wife to end her life as a means of ending his marriage to her. So what can we suppose will unfold in Anna’s future?

When a crack in the underground appears, hitherto concealed and long repressed forces break through, and can no longer be denied. The outcome for Anna was earthshaking.

The little jolt of Vittore’s abrupt departure on a business trip becomes a persistent tremour when it is compounded by the accidental discovery of the photograph, with the result that a dangerous and irremediable rift tears open the foundation of Anna’s life.  She had permitted herself to be seduced by the superficial appearance of stability, the fiction of solid ground, the seemingly placid surface beneath which nature conceals her shifty proclivities.

Could it have been that until that very moment, in all of those three years, there had been no evidence, no hint, no suggestion even of a shaky foundation?  It must have been that the awareness of something was so deeply buried under such a profound and impermeable stratum of ignorance  – or denial – that no expression of it was permitted to rise to the surface.

Pirandello does not tell us directly, or in any great detail, what Anna saw when she stared into the fissure: but he doesn’t have to. She is marooned in a desolate wasteland. She has no family, and no children, and there is the strong suggestion that she will have none. Pirandello has deftly added a hovering cloud of ruin in the future, due to Vittore’s habit of reckless financial speculation. Anna may have had three years of relatively untroubled slumber, but now she is awake. She is trapped, isolated in a loveless marriage, in which the gradual decay of any previous happiness is inevitable, and death the most  probable means of escape.

In other stories with which we are familiar, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca come to mind, first wives are represented as sinister and dangerous artifacts of the past, whose resurgence into the present signals the incipience of a severe threat, or even the possible destruction of the second marriage. The sub-text, however, suggests that they represent hidden parts of the second wives’ psyches. I find myself concluding that this theory also finds its application in Pirandello’s story.

Anna’s happiness thus far has been procured at the cost of a deadened awareness, as forgotten and concealed as an old photograph in the pocket of an old suit belonging to someone else. From its place of concealment between the suit and lining, it has now emerged into the light of a lovely spring day.  She has been unconscious, but now the protection offered by that unconscious state has been stripped away. Now her only ally, the only one who shares her understanding of her predicament, is a face in an old photograph. It bears a mute witness to her newly dawning realisation that all is not as it had seemed. Two women, one dead and one who risks a living death, are each other’s only allies.  They share the knowledge of their deception by a ruthless man, a brute, a vulgar little bounder with eyes like a rodent’s, whose humanity is as vestigial as a human tail.

I had supposed when I first read this story, that Quiroga’s version was the darker, and Pirandello’s the softer and kinder, but now I am not so sure. I must suppose that Pirandello’s Anna is made of sterner stuff than either his Almira, or Quiroga’s Alicia (“rubia, angelical y tímida”), and that she is better equipped to resist than the other two.  Quiroga’s provision determined that Alicia’s suffering was to be of a relatively brief duration, and death provided her an expeditious and permanent end to it.

The only basis for any trace of optimism in a speculation of how her future might turn out, is that Anna, unlike the others, was awakened from her sleep. She has been warned by Almira, that taking a lover will not be a good option. She must constrain her emotional needs, and devise a way to negotiate the odium of all the empty years that lie ahead of her, however blighted they might be. She will have to mature, to grow wise, to rely on her own strengths, even though her only weapon appears to be one of negation, that is, to refuse to allow her heart and mind to be corrupted. I hope that she will succeed, because, I think, she must. It is imperative that she be able to find a way in which she will not merely endure, but survive a loveless life, and to go on living in spite of its horror.

There is an art, I believe, of finding a measure of freedom even within the confines a prison, and so the gaoler’s more advanced age must be allowed to count in Anna’s favour.

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Luigi Pirandello (28 June 1867 – 10 December 1936)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Is Teresina here?”
The servant – still in his shirt-sleeves, but with his neck already squeezed into an extremely high collar and with his sparse hair carefully dressed and arranged on his cranium  – raised his thick, joined eyebrows, which resembled a displaced mustache that had been shaved off his lips and pasted up there so he wouldn’t lose it, and examined from head to foot the young man stranding in front of him on the staircase landing: a rustic from the look of him, with the collar of his rough overcoat raised up to his ears and his hands-purple, numbed with cold – holding a dirty little sack on one side and a small old suitcase on the other, as a counterweight.
“Who is Teresina?”
The young man first shook his head to get rid of a little water drop on the tip of his nose, then replied:
“Teresina, the singer.”
“Ah!” exclaimed the servant with a smile of ironic amazement.
“That’s her name, just plain Teresina? And who are you?”
“Is she here or isn’t she?” asked the young man, knitting his brows and sniffling. “Tell her that Micuccio is here, and let me in.”
“But there’s no one here,” continued the servant with his smile congealed on his lips. “Madame Sina Marnis is still at the theater and. . .”
“Aunt Marta, too?” Micuccio interrupted him.
“Ah, you’re a relative, sir? In that case, step right in, step right in . . . No one’s at home. She’s at the theater, too, your aunt. They won’t be back before one. This is the benefit night of your . . . what is she to you, the lady? Your cousin, perhaps?”
Micuccio stood there embarrassed for a moment.
“I’m not a relative . . . I’m Micuccio Bonavino, she knows . . . I’ve come on purpose from our hometown.”
Upon receiving this reply, the servant deemed it suitable above all else to take back the more polite ‘lei’ form of address and go back to the ordinary ‘voi.’ He led Micuccio into a small unlighted room near the kitchen, where someone was snoring noisily, and said to him:
“Sit here. I’ll go and get a lamp.”
Micuccio first looked in the direction from which the snoring was coming, but couldn’t make out anything then he looked into the kitchen, where the cook, aided by a scullery boy, was preparing a supper. The mingled aromas of the dishes being prepared overpowered him; their effect on him was like a heady intoxication; he had hardly eaten a thing since that morning; he had traveled from Reggio di Calabria, a night and a full day on the train.
The servant brought the lamp, and the person who was snoring in the room, behind a curtain hung from a cord between two walls, muttered sleepily:
“Who is it?”
“Hey, Dorina, get up!” the servant called. “Look, Mr. Bonvicino is here. . .”
“Bonavino,” Micuccio corrected him, as he blew on his fingers.
“Bonavino, Bonavino . . . an acquaintance of the mistress. You really sleep soundly: they ring at the door and you don’t hear it.  I have to set the table; I can’t do everything myself, understand – keep an eye on the cook, who doesn’t know the ropes – watch for people who come to call . . .”
A big, loud yawn from the maid, prolonged while she stretched and ending in a whinny caused by a sudden shiver, was her reply to the complaint of the man servant, who walked away exclaiming:
“All right”
Micuccio smiled and watched him depart across another room in semidarkness until he reached the vast, well-lit ‘salon’ at the far end, where the splendid supper table towered; he kept on gazing in amazement until the snoring made him turn once more and look at the curtain.
The servant, with his napkin under his arm, passed back and forth, muttering now about Dorina, who went on sleeping, now about the cook, who was most likely a new man, called in for that evening’s event, and who was annoying him by constantly asking for explanations. Micuccio, to avoid annoying him further, deemed it prudent to repress all the questions  that he thought of asking him. He really ought to have told him or given him to understand that he was Teresina’s fiancé, but he didn’t want to, though he himself didn’t know why, unless perhaps it was because the servant would then have had to treat him, Micuccio, as his master, and he, seeing him so jaunty and elegant, although still without his tailcoat, couldn’t manage to overcome the embarrassment he felt at the very thought of it. At a certain point, however, seeing him pass by again, he couldn’t refrain from asking him:
“Excuse me . . . whose house is this?”
“Ours, as long as we’re in it,” the servant answered, hurriedly.
And Micuccio sat there shaking his head.
By heaven, so it was true! Opportunity seized by the forelock.
Good business. That servant who resembled a great nobleman, the cook and the scullery boy, that Dorina snoring over there: all servants at Teresina’s beck and call. . .  Who would have thought so?
In his mind he saw once again, the dreary garret, way down in Messina, where Teresa used to live with her mother . . . Five years earlier, in that faraway garret, if it hadn’t been for him, mother and daughter would have died of hunger. And he, he had discovered that treasure in Teresa’s throat. She was always singing, then, like a sparrow on the rooftops , unaware of her own treasure was always singing, then, like a sparrow on the roof-tops. unaware of her own treasure: he would sing to annoy, she would sing to keep from thinking of her poverty, which he would try to alleviate as best he could, in spite of the war his parents waged with him at home, his mother especially. But could he abandon Teresina in those circumstances, after her father’s death? – abandon her because she had nothing, while he, for better or worse, did have a modest employment, as flute player in the local orchestra? Fine reasoning – and what about his heart –  Ah, it had been a true inspiration from heaven, a prompting of fortune, when he had paid attention to that voice of hers, when no one one was giving it heed, on that very beautiful April day, near the garret window that framed the vivid blue of the sky. Teresina was singing softly an impassioned sicilian arietta, the tender words of which Micuccio still remembered. Teresina was sad, that day, over the recent death of her father and over his family’s stubborn opposition; and he too – he recalled – was sad, so much so that tears had come to his eyes when he heard her sing. And yet he had heard that arietta many other times; but sung that way, never. He had been so struck by it that the following day, without informing her or her mother, he had brought with him his friend, the orchestra conductor, up to the garret. And in that way the first singing lessons had begun; and for two years running he had spent almost all of his small salary on her; he had rented a piano for her, had purchased her sheet music and had also given the teacher some friendly remuneration. Beautiful  faraway days! Teresina burned intensely with the desire to take flight, to hurl herself into the future that her teacher promised her could be a brilliant one; and, in the meantime, what impassioned caresses for him to prove to him all her gratitude, and what dreams of happiness together!
Aunt Marta, on the other hand, would shake her head bitterly: she had seen so many ups and downs in her life, poor old lady, that by now she had no more trust left in the future; she feared for her daughter and didn’t want her ever to think about the possibility of escaping that poverty to which they were resigned and, besides, she knew, she knew how much the madness of that dangerous dream was costing him.
But neither he nor Teresina would listen to her, and she protested in vain when a young composer, having heard Teresina at a concert, declared that it would be a real crime not to give her better teachers and thorough artistic instruction: in Naples, it was essential to send her to the Naples conservatory, cost what it might.
And then he, Micuccio, breaking off with his parents altogether, had sold a little farm of his that had been bequeathed to him by his uncle the priest, and in that way Teresina had gone to Naples to perfect her studies.
He hadn’t seen her again since then; but he had received her letters from the conservatory and afterwards those of Aunt Marta, when Teresina was already launched on her artistic life, eagerly sought by the major theaters after her sensational debut at the San Carlo. At the foot of those shaky and hesitant letters, which the poor old lady scratched onto the paper as best she could, there were always a few words from her, from Teresina, who never had time to write: “Dear Micuccio, I go along with everything Mother is telling you. Stay healthy and keep caring for me.” They had agreed that he would leave her five or six years, time to pursue her career without impediment: they were both young and could wait.
And in the five years that had already elapsed, he had always shown those letters to anyone who wanted to see them, to combat the slanderous remarks his family would hurl at Teresina and her mother. Then he had fallen sick; he had been on the point of dying; and on that occasion, without his knowledge, Aunt Marta and Teresina had sent to his address a large sum of money; part had been spent during his illness. but the rest he had violently torn out of  his family’s hands, and now  precisely he was coming lo return it to Teresina. Because money – no! He didn’t want any.  Not because it seemed like a hand-out, seeing he had already spent so much on her; but . . . no!  He himself was unable to say why, and now,  more than ever, there in that house. . .  money, no!  Just  as he had waited all those years, he could wait some more. . .  Because if Teresina  actually had money to spare, it was a sign that the future was open to her, and therefore it was time for the old promise to be kept, in spite of anyone who refused to believe it.
Micuccio stood up with his brows knitted, so as to reassure himself about that conclusion:  once again he blew on his ice-cold hands and stamped on the floor.
“Cold?” the servant said to him passing by. It won’t be long now. Come here into the kitchen. You’ll be more comfortable.”
Micuccio did not want to follow the advice of the servant, who confused and irritated him with that lordly air. He sat down again and resumed thinking in dismay Shortly afterward a loud ring roused him.
“Dorina, the mistress!” screamed the servant, hurriedly slipping on his tailcoat as he ran to open the door; but seeing that Minuccio was about to follow him, he stopped short and issued an order:
“You stay here, let me notify her first.”
“Ohi, ohi, ohi . . . ,” lamented a sleepy voice behind the curtain; and after a moment there appeared a large, stocky, carelessly dressed woman who trailed one leg on the ground and was still unable to keep her eyes open; she had her woolen shawl pulled up over her nose, and her hair was dyed gold.
Micuccio kept looking at her foolishly. She too, in her surprise, opened her eyes wide when confronted by the outsider.
“The mistress, ” Micuccio repeated.
Then Dorina suddenly returned to consciousness:
“Here I am, here I am. . . .” she said, taking off her shawl and flinging it behind the curtain, and exerting her whole heavy body to run toward the entrance.
The apparition of that dyed witch, and the order given by the servant, suddenly gave Micuccio, in his dejection, an anguished presentiment. He heard Aunt Marta’s shrill voice:
“Over there, into the salon, into the salon. Dorina!”
And the servant and Dorina passed by him, carrying magnificent baskets of flowers. He leaned his head forward so he could observe the illuminated room at the far end, and he saw a great number of gentlemen in tailcoats talking confusedly. His sight grew dim; his amazement and agitation were so great that he himself didn’t realize that his eyes had filled with tears; he closed them, and he shut himself up completely in that darkness, as if to resist the torment that a long, ringing laugh was causing him. It was Teresina laughing like that, in the other room.
A muffled cry made him open his eyes again, and he saw before him – unrecognizable – Aunt Marta, with her hat on her head. poor thing! and laden down by a costly and splendid velvet mantilla.
“What! Micuccio . . . you here?”
“Aunt Marta . . . ,” exclaimed Micuccio, almost frightened, pausing to examine her closely.
“Whatever for?” continued the old lady, who was upset. “Without letting us know? What happened? When did you get here?
Tonight of all nights . . . Oh, God, God . . .”
“I’ve come to . . . ,” Micuccio stammered, not knowing what more to say.
“Wait!” Aunt Marta interrupted him. “What’s to be done? What’s to be done? See all those people, son? It’s Teresina’s celebration . . . her night . . . Wait, wait here for a bit. . . ”
“If you,” Micuccio attempted to say, as anxiety tightened his throat, “if you think I ought to go . . .”
“No, wait a bit, I say,” the kind old lady hastened to reply, all embarrassed.
“But,” Micuccio responded, “I have no idea where to go in this town. . . at this hour. . . ”
Aunt Marta left him, signaling to him with one of her gloved hands to wait, and entered the salon, in which a moment later Micuccio thought an abyss had opened; silence had suddenly fallen there. Then he heard, clear and distinct, these words of Teresina:
“One moment, gentlemen.”
Again his sight grew dim with the imminence of her appearance.
But Teresina did not come, and the conversation resumed in the salon. Instead, after a few minutes, which seemed an eternity to him, Aunt Marta came back, without her hat, without her mantilla, without her gloves, and less embarrassed.
“Let’s wait here for a while, would that be all right?” she said to him. “I’ll stay with you . . . Now they’re having supper . . . We’ll remain here. Dorina will set this little table for us, and we’ll have supper together, here; we’ll reminisce about the good old days, all right? . . . I can’t believe it’s true that I’m here with you, son, here, all by ourselves . . . In that room, you understand, all those gentlemen . . . She, poor girl, can’t avoid them . . . Her career, you get my meaning? Ah, what can you do!. . . Have you seen the newspapers? Big doings, son! As for me, I’m all at sea, all the time . . . I can’t believe I can really be here with you, tonight.”
And the kind old lady, who had gone on talking, instinctively, to keep Micuccio from having time to think, finally smiled and rubbed her hands together, looking at him compassionately.
Dorina came to set the table hastily, because there, in the salon, the meal had already begun.
“Will she come?” Micuccio asked gloomily, with a troubled voice. “I mean, at least to see her.”
“Of course she’ll come,” the old lady immediately replied, making an effort to get out of her awkward situation. “Just as soon as she has a minute free: she’s already told me so.”
They looked at each other and smiled at each other, as if they had finally  recognized each other.

Despite the embarrassment and the excitement, their souls had found the way to greet each other with that smile.
“You’re Aunt Marta,” Micuccio’s eyes said.
“And you’re Micuccio, my dear, good son, still the same, poor boy!” said Aunt Marta. But suddenly the kind old lady lowered her own eyes, so that Micuccio might not read anything else in them. Again she rubbed her hands together and said: “Let’s eat, all right?”
“I’m good and hungry!” exclaimed Micuccio, quite happy and reassured.
“Let’s cross ourselves first: Here, in front of you, I can do it,” added the old lady in a mischievous manner, winking an eye, and she made the sign of the cross.
The manservant came, bringing their first course. Micuccio observed with close attention the way that Aunt Marta transferred her helping from the serving platter. But when his turn came, as he raised his hands, it occurred to him that they were dirty from the long trip; he blushed, he got confused, he raised his eyes to steal a glance at the servant, who, now the height of good manners, nodded slightly to him and smiled, as if inviting him to serve himself. Fortunately Aunt Marta helped him out of his predicament.
“Here, here, Micuccio, I’ll serve you.”
He could have kissed her out of gratitude! Once he received his helping, as soon as the servant had withdrawn, he too crossed himself hurriedly.
“Good boy!” Aunt Marta said to him.
And he felt carefree, contented, and started eating as he had never eaten in his life, no longer thinking about his hands or the servant.
Nevertheless, each and every time the latter, entering or leaving the salon, opened the glass double door, and a sort of wave of mingled words or some burst of laughter came from that direction, he turned around uneasily and then looked at the old lady’s sorrowful, loving eyes, as if to read an explanation there. But what he read there instead was an urgent request to ask no more for the moment, to put off explanations till a later time. And again they both smiled at each other and resumed eating and talking about their far-off hometown, friends and acquaintances, concerning whom Aunt Marta asked him for news endlessly.
“Aren’t you drinking?”
Micuccio put out his hand to take the bottle; but, just at that moment, the double door to the ballroom opened again; a rustle of silk, amid hurried steps: a flash, as if the little room had all at once been violently illuminated, in order to blind him.
“Teresina . . .”
And his voice died away on his lips, out of amazement. Ah, what a queen!
With face flushed, eyes bulging and mouth open, he stopped to gaze at her, dumbfounded. How could she ever. . . like that! Her bosom bare, her shoulders bare, her arms bare . . . all ablaze with jewels and rich fabrics . . . He didn’t see her, he no longer saw her as a living, real person in front of him. . . What was she saying to him? . . . Not her voice, nor her eyes, nor her laugh: nothing, nothing of hers did he recognize any more in that dream apparition.
“How are things? Are you getting along all right now, Micuccio?
Good, good . . . You were sick if I’m not mistaken . . . We’ll get together again in a little while. In the meantime, you have Mother with you here. . . Is that a deal? . . .”
And Teresina ran off again into the salon, all a-rustle.
“You’re not eating any more?” Aunt Marta asked timorously after a brief pause, to cut short Micuccio’s silent astonishment.
He looked at her in bewilderment.
“Eat,” the old lady insisted, showing him his plate.
Micuccio raised two fingers to his smoke-blackened, crumpled collar and tugged at it, trying to draw a deep breath.
“Eat?”
And several times he wiggled his fingers near his chin as if waving goodbye, to indicate: ‘I don’t feel like it anymore, I can’t.’ For another while he remained silent, dejected, absorbed in the vision he had just seen, then he murmured:
“How she’s turned out . . .”
And he saw that Aunt Marta was shaking her head bitterly and that she too had stopped eating, as if in expectation.
“It’s not even to be thought of . . . ,” he then added, as if to himself, closing his eyes.
Now he saw, in that darkness of his, the gulf that had opened between the two of them. No, she – that woman – was no longer his Teresina. It was all over . . .   for some time, for some time, and he, the fool,  the imbecile, was realizing it only now. They had told him so back home, and he had stubbornly refused to believe it . . . And now, how would he look staying on in that house? If all those gentlemen, if even that servant. had known that he, Micuccio Bonavino, had worn himself out coming such a distance, thirty-six hours by train, seriously believing that he was still the fiancé of that queen, what laughs they would raise, those gentlemen and that servant and that cook and the scullery boy and Dorina! What laughs, if Teresina had dragged him into their presence, in the salon there,saying: “Look, this pauper, this flute player, says he wants to become my husband!” She, yes, she had promised him this; but how could she herself suppose at that time that one day, she would become what  she now was? And it was also true, yes, that he had opened the path for her and had given her the means to travel it; but, there!  by this time she had come so very far, how could he, who had stayed where he was, always the same, playing his flute on Sundays in the town square, catch up to her anymore?  It wasn’t even to be thought of ! And, then, what were those few paltry cents spent on her back then, now that she had become a great lady? He was ashamed merely to think that. Someone might suspect that he, with his coming, wanted to assert some rights in exchange for those few miserable pennies . . . – But at that moment he remembered he had in his pocket the money sent him by Teresina during his illness. He blushed: he felt a twinge of shame, and he plunged one hand into the breast pocket of his jacket, where his wallet was.
“I’ve come, Aunt Marta,” he said hastily, “also to return to you this money you sent me. Is it meant as a payment? As repayment of a loan? What would that have to do with anything? I see that Teresina has become a . . . she looks like a queen to me! I see that . . . never mind.  It’s not even to be thought of any longer! But as for this money, no: I didn’t deserve such treatment from her . . . Where does that come in? It’s all over, and we won’t talk about it any more . . . but money, no way! I’m only sorry that it’s not all here . . .”
“What are you saying, son?” Aunt Marta tried to interrupt him, trembling, pained and with tears in her eyes.
Micuccio signaled to her to be silent.
“It wasn’t I who spent it: my family spent it, during my illness, without my knowledge. But let’s say it makes up for that trifle I spent back then . . . you remember? It doesn’t matter . . . Let’s think no more about it. Here is the difference. And I’m leaving.”
“What! Like that, all of a sudden?” exclaimed Aunt Marta, trying to hold him back. “At least wait until I tell Teresina. Didn’t you hear that she wanted to see you again? I’m going over to tell her. . .”

“No, it’s no use,” Micuccio replied, with determination. “Let her stay there with those gentlemen; it suits her there, she belongs there. I, poor fool . . . I got to see her; that was enough for me . . .No, now that I think of it, do go over there . . . you go there, too . . . Do you hear how they’re laughing? I don’t want the laugh to be on me . . . I’m leaving.”

Aunt Marta interpreted that sudden determination of Micuccio’s in the worst possible light: as an act of anger, a jealous reaction.
By now it seemed to her, the poor woman, as if everybody – seeing her daughter – ought immediately to conceive the meanest of suspicions, that very one which caused her to weep inconsolably as, without a moment’s rest, she bore the burden of her secret heart-break amid the hubbub of that life of detestable luxury which ignominiously dishonored her old age.
“But I,” the words escaped her, “by this time there’s no way for me to stand guard over her, son . . .”
“Why?” asked Micuccio, suddenly reading in her eyes the suspicion he had not yet formulated; and his face turned dark.
The old lady became bewildered in her sorrow and hid her face in her trembling hands, but failed to check the onrush of the tears that now gushed forth.
“Yes, yes, go, son, go . . .,” she said , strangled by sobs. “She’s not for you anymore, you’re right. . .  If the two of you had listened to me. . . ”
“And so,” Micuccio  burst out bending over her and violently pulling one hand away from her face. But so afflicted and wretched was the look with which she begged him for mercy as she put a finger to her lips, that he restrained himself and added in a different tone of voice, making an extra effort to speak softly: ”

“And so,” Micuccio  burst out bending over her and violently pulling one hand away from her face. But so afflicted and wretched was the look with which she begged him for mercy as she put a finger to her lips, that he restrained himself and added in a different tone of voice, making an extra effort to speak softly: “And so she, she. . .  she is no longer worthy of me. … Enough, enough, I’m leaving just the same . . . in fact, all the more, now. . .  What a dumbbell, Aunt Marta: I hadn’t understood!  Don’t cry. . . . Anyway, what  does it matter? Fate . . . fate . . .”
He took his little suitcase and little sack from under the table and was  on his way out when he recalled that there, in the sack were the beautiful citrons he had brought for Teresina from their hometown.
“Oh, look,  Aunt Marta,” he continued. He opened the top of the sack and, creating a barrier with one arm, he emptied that fresh, aromatic fruit onto the table. “And what if  I started tossing all these citrons I brought for her at the heads of those honorable gentlemen?”
“For mercy’s sake,” the old lady groaned amid her tears. once more making a beseeching sign to him to be silent.
”No, of course I won’t,” added Micuccio, smiling sourly and putting the empty sack in his pocket. “I’m leaving them for you alone, Aunt Marta. And to think that I even paid duty on them. . . Enough. For you alone, mind me now. As for her, tell her ‘Good luck!’ from me.”
He picked up the valise again and left. But on the stairs, a sense of anguished bewilderment overpowered him: alone, deserted, at night, in a big city he didn’t know, far from his home: disappointed dejected, put to shame. He made it to the street door, saw that there was a downpour of rain. He didn’t have the courage to venture onto those unfamiliar streets in a rain like that. He went back in very quietly, walked back back one flight of stairs, then sat down on the first step and, leaning his elbows on his knees and his head on his hands, began to weep silently.
When the supper was finished, Sina Marnis made another appearance in the little room, but she found her mother alone crying while back there the gentlemen were clamoring and laughing.
“He left?” she asked in surprise.
Aunt Marta nodded affirmatively, without looking at her. Sina stared into space, lost in thoughts, then sighed:
“Poor guy. . .”
“Look,” her mother said to her, no longer stemming her tears with the tablecloth. “He had brought citrons for you . . . “Oh, what beauties!” exclaimed Sina, cheering up. She clutched one arm to her waist and with the other hand gathered up as many as she could carry.
“No, not in there!” her mother vigorously protested.
But Sina shrugged her bare shoulders and ran into the salon shouting:
“Citrons from Sicily! Citrons from Sicily!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had so many thoughts whirling around in my head when I read this story that it took me hours to simply watch them  pass by. Since there is no chance at all  of my being able to organise them I will just let them appear in their own disorderly fashion.

My first encounter with Pirandello was about thirty years ago, when I saw the movie Kaos (meaning Chaos, and named for the village of Pirandello’s birth). I think it was in a run-down art deco theatre on Broadway called The Mayan, here in Denver.  The movie was based on five stories by this brilliant writer and dramatist, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1934.  One story in particular stuck in my my mind and that was “Moon Sickness”. “Citrons from Sicily” was not one of the five stories told in Kaos, which centred around rural life, but I wish someday a movie will be made of Pirandello’s ‘bourgeois’  stories, including this one. Pirandello did adapt “Citrons from Sicily” for the stage, (and “Citrons from Sicily” clearly displays his flair for stage drama) but the compromises which had to be made in order to flesh-out Micuccio’s past, did not allow for effective stage direction, whereas in a movie, well-spliced narrative, or even a back-story, would serve the purpose very well.

Pirandello was born in a part of Sicily which had deep Greek roots. The city closest to his village, Kaos, is now called Agrigento, but it used to be called Grigenti. It figures prominently in Tomasso Lampedusa’s classic, posthumously published novel Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) set in the period of Italy’s risorgimento Italy, which was Italy in its previous incarnation of separate semi-autonomous states. This was when the Bourbons ruled both Naples and Sicily as a single entity, called “The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Pirandello’s life bridged the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and while his literary contemporaries  were experimenting with new forms and ideas, he stuck steadfastly to an older and more balanced and perhaps more effective form of storytelling in which sympathy and irony were put to excellent use in fleshing out the characters. Pirandello created characters who are are fundamentally enigmatic, and whom we can never truly know. So when a character grabs hold of our imaginations, she or he tends to retain an obsessive hold on us, which is never quite relinquished.

I sense in “Citrons from Sicily” a veiled mockery of Dumas and Verdi, or rather their works  – La Dame aux Camélias and La Traviata. Pirandello published “Citrons from Sicily” in two installments in the Italian periodical Il Marzocco in May of 1900. I feel certain that Verdi’s La Traviata (first produced in 1883) and La Dame aux Camèlias (published in 1848) were lurking in the shadows of his mind when he wrote it. But Pirandello’s Teresina is no Camile, and certainly no Violetta. Courtesan she may be, but she possesses the particular weapon that sets her apart from those women – a voice.  She is unwilling to be exploited by the middle-class values – and proscriptions –  from which she could hope to derive no possible benefit. Her voice is her fortune, and in the few fords she has for Micuccio, it would seem that she takes care to not lavish it on him.

Pirandello makes a strong, and I think a very successful bid to divert sympathy form a female role and redirect it towards a male one, when he decides to turn the tables on the conceit of the self-sacrificing heroine, who gives up all for love, and presents us with Micuccio, the man behind Teresina’s unbounded success. Now risen well above her impoverished and seemingly hopeless beginnings as a village girl, who with her widowed mother lives on the very brink of destitution, she is the head of a household, the employer of several servants, and a cynosure of Neapolitan salon society. Her career as a singer has taken off, and she has shed her virtuous antecedents as easily as an old worn-out dress.

Divas in literature (and sometimes in real life) have tended to serve as symbols of a kind of demonic femininity. They disdain marriage because they dedicate themselves first and foremost to their voices and their art rather than to husband and children, and for this reason they are envied and reviled, even as they are venerated. On the stage, and sometimes off, they embody the mythical aspects of womanhood, of virgin, enchantress and whore. They are powerful, profligate, ruthless, solipsistic, superficial, brilliant and destructive They are arrogant, narcissistic, and careless of everyone’s feelings but their own. They are financially independent, beholden to none, beautiful, talented and unstoppable. None of these things endear them to a society in which conventional values are admired and aspired to, hence the powerful feeling of ambivalence divas inspire.

Aunt Marta is the female foil to Teresina. A virtuous widow who is appalled by her daughter’s new-found fame and the anticipated damage to her reputation. Aunt Marta is a fish out of water in the world in which she now finds herself. One might suppose that despite its bitter lessons of destitution and widowhood, she longs for her uncomplicated past, where her station in life was respectable and beyond reproach. Her life has been one of perennial dependence, first presumably, on her father, then her husband, and now her daughter. Her needs, we can safely deduce, have never been anyone’s priority, nor does it occur to her that they should be otherwise – which is to say, she is a ‘good woman.’

Divas are truly freaks of nature. Perhaps this is no longer seen as such in the world today where women are entitled to claim their legitimate position and wield their exceptional talent as they wish, but this was not so in the past.  To claim her own voice, to become the object of public adoration, to acquire and spend her own wealth, and revel in her own power to enthrall the public, were behaviours that ran counter to those approved by convention.  A diva’s voice was a highly sexualised  phenomenon, and the lives of the women who possessed these voices carried with them the whiff of scandal and sulphur. They were reputed to have and loose morals, to be promiscuous, and self-serving. The reversal of male and female roles in a story has the tendency to make us uneasy, and if we are to regain our composure as readers, the abandoning of female virtue cannot be permitted to go unpunished.

Micuccio, despite his strongly masculine character, plays a strangely feminised role in this story. He is really the spurned sweetheart, and young wife, who sacrifices herself to the ambitions of her spouse. He immediately wins our sympathy (as Teresina our contempt) for his faithful love and loyalty in the face of familial and social opposition. His more modest musical talents go unrewarded, and now even his masculinity is threatened by the unnatural diva status of his Teresina. She has usurped the well-established male prerogative of deserting a lover.  We ache to think of Micuccio being condemned to a shredded existence, as in our mind’s eye we watch him fade away into the distance to play his flute in the town square, for the pennies that must sustain him in his landless state for the rest of his bitter life. A ‘real’ Sicilian man might have slit Teresina’s throat – the symbol of her power and of her corruption –  then and there, and society would have thought well of him for it, but instead he sneaks back up the steps in the pouring rain, stranded in a strange city at night, to cry his eyes out in  bitter dejection.

The Citrons, in the story, stand for purity and unsullied virtue, and the values embodied by Micuccio but spurned by Teresina. She has gotten away with usurping the male prerogatives of power and ambition, and is now famous and wealthy. Though there is no explicit mention of her beauty, we can safely surmise that she is a beautiful woman. She is the object of male adoration and desire, and her professional success entitles her to both. In Pirandello’s story, her talent has made her into a monster – an ‘unnatural woman’, whose meteoric rise has commenced.

Pirandello’s Greek roots dispose him to have a predilection for tragedy, and there is a dark hint of a fall in the future in Micuccio’s question “whose house is this?” and the servant’s off-hand answer “Ours, as long as we’re in it.”  Pirandello expects us his readers to take note of this hint. We are unwillingly led to imagine what the future holds for Teresina.  Now we see her in her glittering salon, like the woman in a John Singer Sargent painting, What will happen when her beauty fades and her voice deserts her? The throat with its beauty emphasised and enhanced with jewels and rich fabrics will be emptied and abandoned, and her voice made dumb. Her wealth will be gone, and with it her fickle admirers and her chance of happiness. These are the misgivings that come to disturb us, even though we know that in terms of a literary symmetry we wish it as a counterbalance to allay our unease.

And when it comes to tragedy, Micuccio also must be given a fatal flaw. In his case it is a certain obdurate idealism which makes him ignore the crass suspicions of his more realistic family. He ignores their pragmatic warnings, and brushes aside all the evidence of Teresina’s lack of reciprocity for his love. He barely notices that her communications with him are trivial and impersonal, and her professions of affection vague, dilute and insincere. He believes implicitly in the promises he received, and expects that they will be kept, despite the inducements to Teresina (which he should have at least suspected) of money, success and vastly elevated social standing. He expects that despite being surrounded and immersed in change, Teresina will stay the same in relation to him. But Micuccio’s flaw is that of loyalty, trust and idealism and not blindness, and it is for this reason that he gains our sympathy. His loyalty and devotion and all the sacrifices he makes, despite the fact that he can ill-afford them, the purity of his male pride in not accepting money from a woman even when it is to save his life, endears him to us in way that makes us want to ignore or deny the implications that could show Teresina to us in a sympathetic light. In this sense Pirandello (who joined, and then repudiated the Fascist party a few decades after this story was written) is a revisionist and a reactionary.

At some point in my ruminations, I asked myself what other choice Teresina  could have made. What would have happened if she had married Micuccio instead of devoting herself to her talent? She might have been a typical Sicilian wife, living a meagre existence on a small stony piece of land, and her voice restricted  merely to sing lullabies to the children she would unavoidably have to bear. If Micuccio was fated to fall ill, (as he did) and there was no money to secure his care, he would have died, and Teresina would have been left a widow with no means of support, as her mother was when her own father died. She would have been a prisoner of dire circumstances, in that most patriarchal of cultures, and she would never have been able to contend with the oppressiveness it exerted in all that was rural as well as all that was Sicilian.  And what a reservoir of resentment and anger would have then accumulated. Sina might have to pay for her choices, but at least they would first pay her, but more importantly they would be her own choices.

Had she not received her musical training and instead become Micuccio’s wife, Teresina could never have realised her own potential. Now she seems willing to have repudiated marriage with him – or for that matter marriage with anyone –  in order to be her own woman. That she also seems to have lost some of her humanity in the process seems to have been an unfortunate collateral, but, at the time of the story she is still a young girl, and it is possible that some balance might be restored as her life continued to unfold.  Though she revels in being treated in society like a lady, she is not. She is a performer and a courtesan, two roles  associated with female promiscuity that the society of her time delighted to deride, and retribution is bound to follow as the price she must pay in the future for her present autonomy. She must conceal her mean provincial beginnings, and the sense of inferiority implicit in them. Beauty and talent even the odds, but only for the present. Seen in this sympathetic light, her subversion in defying social convention would appear to be amply justified,but at the same time we might feel pity or compassion for her, because we know what it will lead to.

But there is sufficient fateful condemnation for all in this story. Life is a punishing business, and none is exempt, and the piper must be paid in full. Now it is Micuccio’s turn to pay (there is the small irony that he is a flute-player). Aunt Marta,  despite her incongruous finery and new-found opulence, still continues to pay. She is a fish out of water, and is uneasy with the changes in her life .  Teresina pays as well, though she is oblivious to the fact, and she will pay still more in the future. Though Aunt Marta could not possible have foreseen the brilliant change in Sina’s and her fortunes which was to come, she had some presentiment that her daughter’s ambitions would have a dark side. She shares with Micuccio the feeling that despite appearances, all is not well, and that all will not be well in the future either.

Three poems I posted elsewhere in this blog, seem to me to express the rancour of rejected men, who perhaps incurred losses similar to Micuccio’s.  They are by Propertius, Francisco de Medrano and the other by Giacomo Leopardi, whose “Sopra il ritratto di una bella donna” unfolds such a scene as might exactly have played itself out in Sina’s salon.  I wonder that Micuccio too, will not later succumb to even an greater bitterness than he is now experiencing. Neither was the subject of ruin ever far from Pirandello’s life. His family wealth was lost when their sulphur mines flooded, and his wife’s dowry, which was invested in them, was lost as well. Her health was ruined, and her sanity forfeit, and Pirandello was compelled to commit her to an asylum. Though it is to our benefit that he was forced to earn his living by his pen, he could not have relished his lot in life.

In  Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, the hero Hoffmann falls in love with a diva who is a mechanical doll. He discovers the reality behind her appearance only when her squabbling creators smash her to bits. The siren-like soul-stealing spell of the diva can only be broken by a similar act of destruction. Micuccio’s suffering has only begun. We leave Sina as she is still wearing her crown. The village lass Micuccio loved is lost, gone forever, never to return, but this is not his loss alone. Sina’s dual personality consists of two halves which can never come together on their own. Only a third, larger self could ever integrate them. We have no way of knowing if that will happen, and she has only her art to redeem her. Will she go on to have a brilliant career, to break the rules of the stage as Maria Malibran did when she sang the role of  Otello? Or will she be like Olimpia the loftily named mechanical doll-diva in whose artificially brilliant voice was found the perfect exaggerated mingling of the natural and unnatural?  Will she too be a plaything of male passions, then to be cast down from her lofty height?

“He went back in very quietly, walked back back one flight of stairs, then sat down on the first step and, leaning his elbows on his knees and his head on his hands, began to weep silently.”
Micuccio’s female ‘virtue’ is in stark contrast to Sina’s male ‘vice’. He went back in. Did he re-enter the house?  And did he then overhear the humiliating exchange in Sina’s conversation? What happened the next day? Did he wander abjectly through the rain-drenched city and find his way back to the train station to go back home?He must have choked to swallow the bitter dose of reality which must have extinguished forever his youthful idealism. He was severely punished for his foolishness, his, naivety, his passivity and his love. He has only his pride left, and we hope he will succeed in retaining it in the days to come. I remember an old aunt repeating the axiom that “love and pride don’t mix” – so when love is forfeit pride must step in to serve as redemption, however false it might be.

This is, in a way, a story that sticks in the craw, as I am certain Pirandello intended it to be. I fantasize a sequel, which combines elements from Lampedusa’s  Il Gattopardo,  Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover and parts taken form the time Leopardi spent in Bologna and his ill-fated ‘romance’ with Fanny Targioni. I persist in hoping that there is an alternative to ruin, that is neither simple nor moralistic and which can satisfy the rigorous requirements of a good story. Pirandello has supplied us with sufficient grist for the mill, and were I a competent writer of fiction and a good researcher, I would be tempted to try.

The period of transition and dissolution of “The kingdom of the two Sicilies” is as Lampedusa has shown, a particularly fertile setting for a story in which change pervades everything, and past and present overlap in a dense cloud. Despite Pirandello’s apparent reservations, (in this story) the empowerment of women is not an intrinsically evil thing – far from it. The re-writing of a new script for old social roles  in the context of historical change can be the subject of fascinating drama. There is no need to stay stuck in the moribund dictates of social stratification and expectation, and above all, there is no need for every tale to always be either overtly or covertly cautionary. And this perfect story need not always be the only perfect kind of story.

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