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Posts Tagged ‘Short Stories’

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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“… 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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Virginia Woolf (25 January 1882 – 28 March 1941)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting. From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure­  –  a ghostly couple.

“Here we left it,” she said. And he added, “Oh, but here too!” “It’s upstairs,” she murmured. “And in the garden,” he whispered. “Quietly,” they said, “or we shall wake them.”

But it wasn’t that you woke us. Oh, no. “They’re looking for it; they’re drawing the curtain,” one might say, and so read on a page or two. “Now they’ve found it, ” one would be certain, stopping the pencil on the margin. And then, tired of reading, one might rise and see for oneself, the house all empty, the doors standing open, only the wood pigeons bubbling with content and the hum of the threshing machine sounding from the farm. “What did I come in here for? What did I want to find?” My hands were empty. “Perhaps it’s upstairs then?” The apples were in the loft. And so down again, the garden still as ever, only the book had slipped into the grass.

But they had found it in the drawing room. Not that one could ever see them. The window panes reflected apples, reflected roses; all the leaves were green in the glass. If they moved in the drawing room, the apple only turned its yellow side. Yet, the moment after, if the door was opened, spread about the floor, hung upon the walls, pendant from the ceiling­ – what? My hands were empty. The shadow of a thrush crossed the carpet; from the deepest wells of silence the wood pigeon drew its bubble of sound. “Safe, safe, safe” the pulse of the house beat softly. “The treasure buried; the room . . .” the pulse stopped short. Oh, was that the buried treasure?

A moment later the light had faded. Out in the garden then? But the trees spun darkness for a wandering beam of sun. So fine, so rare, coolly sunk beneath the surface the beam I sought always burnt behind the glass. Death was the glass; death was between us; coming to the woman first, hundreds of years ago, leaving the house, sealing all the windows; the rooms were darkened. He left it, left her, went North, went East, saw the stars turned in the Southern sky; sought the house, found it dropped beneath the Downs. “Safe, safe, safe,” the pulse of the house beat gladly. “The Treasure yours.”

The wind roars up the avenue. Trees stoop and bend this way and that. Moonbeams splash and spill wildly in the rain. But the beam of the lamp falls straight from the window. The candle burns stiff and still. Wandering through the house, opening the windows, whispering not to wake us, the ghostly couple seek their joy.

“Here we slept,” she says. And he adds, “Kisses without number.” – “Waking in the morning­”  – “Silver between the trees­” –  “Upstairs­” “In the garden­” –  “When summer came­” – “In winter snowtime­” – “The doors go shutting far in the distance, gently knocking like the pulse of a heart.

Nearer they come, cease at the doorway. The wind falls, the rain slides silver down the glass. Our eyes darken, we hear no steps beside us; we see no lady spread her ghostly cloak. His hands shield the lantern. “Look,” he breathes. “Sound asleep. Love upon their lips.”

Stooping, holding their silver lamp above us, long they look and deeply. Long they pause. The wind drives straightly; the flame stoops slightly. Wild beams of moonlight cross both floor and wall, and, meeting, stain the faces bent; the faces pondering; the faces that search the sleepers and seek their hidden joy.

“Safe, safe, safe,” the heart of the house beats proudly. “Long years­” – he sighs. “Again you found me.” “Here,” she murmurs, “sleeping; in the garden reading; laughing, rolling apples in the loft. Here we left our treasure­” Stooping, their light lifts the lids upon my eyes. “Safe! safe! safe!” the pulse of the house beats wildly. Waking, I cry “Oh, is this your buried treasure? – The light in the heart.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In this utterly luminous piece of writing Virginia Woolf conjures up two pairs of lovers, one ghostly and the other living. Despite the suggestion implicit in the title, it is really the lovers who are haunted, and not the house – the dead by their past, and the living inhabitants by their spectral predecessors, whose presence persists in the small but telling events which are the currency of mortal life.

Here there is not a trace of Woolf’s caustic wit; her normally biting observation of humans and their ordinary doings, is suspended and held in abeyance and so is something which I refer to myself as her ‘remote viewing’: in fact it is completely absent, and there is not even a tinge of her customary note of acerbity.  Here she is in tune with a world, which though ever-present, is for the most part unseen and unfelt: the extended reality which can only be sensed through a refinement of the awareness and intuition. It is by the grace of this faculty that the echoes of the past can be heard again because, it would seem, they are never altogether lost.

I recently had a sense of this with the scent which continued to linger so heavily outside my door, of  the choke cherry blossoms which finished  their  blooming many days ago, and left behind a Kirlian image of odour whose origin is now quite invisible.

There is a sharpened sense of urgency in the trance-like succession of hurried, yet vivid conveyance of images, and a sense of life and pleasure which clamours to be reclaimed. The images themselves seem to be encoded: they are not quite cryptic, but the significance they transmit is suggestive of something which is less than obvious.

My own intuition informs me Woolf was swept up in what I call  ‘the writer’s trance’ – a kind of fugue, in which whisps of thought become ardent and  are enkindled. This gives rise to inspired writing, which is the kind that emerges from an altered state. It is instantly recognisable, because it enkindles the same state in others, and  leaves behind a sort of aching enchantment.

Woolf’s story suggests that here is nothing sinister in this intrusion of past lives into present ones –   it is solely benevolent.  The dead live on vicariously or by proxy, the living continue, extend, carry on. They accept the the weight of  the others’ unrealised love, perhaps because she died, perhaps because he went away: something was left unfulfilled, forfeit, overtaken by events, by his error, by a failure to realise the finiteness of mortality,  as often so much in our pasts remain unfulfilled.

But the sibilant incantation of  “safe safe safe” of the unseen lovers tells of  an anxiety allayed, a loss vicariously, but happily recovered by the agency of these suplanting two, who feel the invisible yet strongly sensed presence of the indelible persistence of love.

So, in Woolf’s telling, the treasure is restored love love regained and redeemed.  We are left with the conviction that the lives not lived we so often end up with, the unfulfilled and forfeit past, is not irreclaimable after all. In that spirit, I welcome such reverberations of the past as I am capable of hearing, feeling and sensing.

As usual I find myself coming up with my own twist on stories such as this one, which draw me in and set my thoughts awhirl. I am thinking now of the many generations of same-sex lovers who were not permitted to love as they would have wished. They lived their mortal lives cheated of their rightful inheritance, so perhaps we owe them a debt of remembrance. They are the repositories of  our gay and lesbian ancestral memory. If there is such a thing as a collective unconscious, we must in some sense retain the sparks of their lives. But rather than ‘the unconscious’ or ‘the subconscious,’  I prefer to think of this as the ‘adjacent conscious’, since it lives side- by-side with us and all around us. As such it retains for me a deep and persistent poignancy, which I feel is precious, and should be kept alive.

The heart of this story, and the reference to “kisses without number”,  instantly reminded me of a poem by Catullus – and I can’t help wondering if Woolf thought of it too – and resolved to provide an assurance to the contrary, suggesting that death does not always extinguish mortal love.  If so, I think I understand a little better what she meant by “the light of the heart.”

 

 

Catullus V

Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus,           
rumoresque senum severiorum
omnes unius aestimemus assis!
soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum.
dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
conturbābimus illa, ne sciāmus,
aut ne quis malus invidere possit,
cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.

 

Gaius Valerius Catullus

 

 

Catullus 5

*Let’s live and love, my Lesbia,                                  
counting the grumblings of severe old men
as being not worth a penny.
The western sun may rise again,
But when our brief light sets,
Night is a perpetual sleeping.
So give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred –
another thousand and a second hundred
and yet another thousand and another hundred
and when we have had many thousands of kisses
we will confound them, and lose count,
lest by counting so many kisses,
evil men should know their number
and be given cause for envy.

 

*My version, adapted from various translations of the original Latin.

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In lieu of a picture of D. van der Wert, this image of a young Burgher circa 1944.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I remember pushing my head and upper body as far out of the train window as I could. My grandfather would tell me to not look in the direction of the engine. If you looked that way, sooner or later a rock-hard piece of coal dust would come to lodge itself in the softness of your eye. I didn’t pull my head back even when we reached a tunnel with its scary jagged sides mere feet away from the window, and the hot coal-scented gloom would enter my nose, and my eyes, no matter how wide I opened them could take in nothing but the black velvet darkness.  When the inevitable cinder found its random lodgement, my grandfather would remove it by pushing my lower lid under the upper one, and allowing my lashes to remove the grit.

My grandfather brought along sandwiches wrapped in newspaper. Because we always took the early train he made them early in the morning, before the sun came up, as soon as the bread man made his delivery.  From my couch next to the dining room I could hear my grandfather’s  wooden slippers as he made his way up and down the stairs into the kitchen, to bring up the beef curry left over from the last night’s dinner. Thick red spicy sauce clung to the bits of beef and stuck to the butter between the slices of bread with their curved black crusts. I remember the scent rising out of the grease dotted newspaper, and the fragrance of those sandwiches.

This grandfather, who had been an engineer of the Ceylon Government Railway, spent many years driving this very train, an old steam engine called ‘The High-Country Princess.’ He knew all the stations by heart, and the places where the train narrowly skirted a deep precipice. He would point out all the important landmarks to me: Places remembered for being the lookout posts for robbers and bandits and partisans who tried desperately and by ambush to forestall the British conquest of the Kandyan Kingdom, the last to fall, (in 1815) by rolling rocks down the steep hillsides.  These places had Sinhalese names which meant ‘Getting out Swords’ and ‘North-forest-hill,’ the hide-out where Saradiel, the Robin Hood of Ceylon, had his cave. There was Bible Rock, Sensation Rock, Lion’s Mouth, Dawson’s Tower, and the many others I can still vividly remember. We would drink the sweet milky tea, brought around by a waiter in the heavy restaurant cups stamped with a crest and letters of the Ceylon Government Railway, and eat fried snacks from the vendors who hawked them at the train stations. I could forget for a little while that I was going back to boarding school, for another agonizing three months of wrenching loneliness and sadness, far away from anyone I loved or who loved me, not that there were too many of those.

But now my school days were over. My widowed grandmother from the other side of the family, whom I called Nanna, lived in Colombo, and now I was living with her. Nanna’s house was at the end of a lane full of deep ruts, which would get deeper and more treacherous with each monsoon season. I had been staying here since I finished school. Nanna was very respectable, and proud of her cabinet of wine glasses and knick-knacks and fading studio photographs of long-dead, formally-dressed family members. Everything  in the old house was neat and tidy, and nothing gathered dust as it did in my grandfather’s  Kandy home, where no book was ever thrown out, and snake-skins and antlers hung on the walls together with old photographs of hunting dogs and prints like ‘The Gleaners,’ and one in particular, which caused me great anguish called ‘The Last of the Garrison.’ This was an engraving of an old hound lying dead over the threshold of a shelled-out doorway, with a broken musket by his head.

But it wasn’t too bad here. There were diversions –  a piano in the living room which had only a couple of dumb notes – and a young girl who lived in the neighbouring  house around the back of ours, who filled the late afternoons with the wild romantic  music of her piano. During the worst heat which came just before the evening, I would sit on the steps of the algae-covered servants’ bathroom behind the garage and listen to her playing, and my mind would float as far away as the desperate notes could take me.

Nanna’s youngest son, my uncle Walter kept birds in a huge cage on the verandah. They were finches that chirped and fluttered all day, and built their nests in little boxes near the top of the cage, and cleaned their beaks on cuttlefish bones. Still unmarried in his forties, he stayed in the front room, the only one with a sink. My grandmother had the next room, which she shared with me. The two rooms next to them were occupied with boarders: a young married couple who couldn’t yet afford their own home, and a medical student who had the last room next to the bathroom and lavatory. It was clear to me that the boarders all had futures. I did not.

My stomach was still jumpy from this morning. I felt sick and lightheaded and my mouth remained stubbornly dry.  I couldn’t quite believe that I had actually pulled off this stunt. Despite the weeks of planning, when it actually came to doing it, things took on their own momentum.  It was fairly easy to stick to my decision in the dark early morning, as I felt around for the heavy drawer pull of the bottom shelf of Nanna’s old almirah. Neatly folded in the drawer and smelling of mothballs, I knew I would find the two starched and ironed suits of clothes she had kept there for the last twenty years since Grandpapa’s death. I knew I would find a pale blue long sleeved shirt, only a little frayed at the collar, placed on top of a pair of khaki shorts and a cotton vest with short sleeves, and a pair of white cotton socks. There was also a second set of clothes  –  a white shirt and a pair of eggshell coloured cotton longs – and a matching cotton coat with a white handkerchief folded in the pocket. On the top of coat was a blue and brown striped tie and an old  ‘Peacock’ brand cigarette box that contained the yellowing removable celluloid trouser studs that went with both pairs of trousers.

I took the studs and put the box back. Everything smelled coldly of camphor and old tobacco, because together with the clothes, and my grandfathers brush and comb and a tassel from his coffin, my grandmother had stored Grandpapa’s pipe.  I hesitated before coming to a decision: Even though everyone in my family including my aunt Lennie, my father’s older sister, had the same height and build right down to the skinny legs and flat backsides. I didn’t want to chance it with the longs, in case they weren’t exactly the right length.  I knew the shorts would do fine. Even if they didn’t exactly fit, it wouldn’t matter. There was no required length of planters’ shorts. They could be anywhere from an inch to three inches above the knee: But I took both shirts and the vest.

The morning was cold, and grew colder as I bathed in the servants’ bathroom around the back of the house shivering as I poured the buckets of  night-cooled water over my head as quietly as I could.  It had begun to drizzle. Using my grandmother’s sewing scissors and the small piece of mirror used by the cook for shaving, I began with little snips to transform my head of wet hair.  I carefully felt around my head, and trimmed up the back by feel. Then I did the front and sides, stopping every few minutes to wipe the raindrops off the glass. I tried to leave a hint of sideburns in the front.  The face that looked back at me from the dark surface was uncertain. It would do.  When I shut the tall iron gate behind me the garden was still and quiet. My footsteps made no sound in the damp sand, and the birds on the veranda were still asleep, with the canvas cover drawn down over the front of their cage. I wished I still had my old sweater.  Only one house on the lane had a lighted window; the rest were dark, and opaque, their occupants still asleep. Soon I was standing at the bus-stop in the quiet street.  The drizzle had made the blue shirt a little crumpled and spotted with rain drops, but the clothes seemed to belong to me, and I thought I seemed quite presentable.  The bus ride to Fort cost ten cents.

Taking care to avoid the puddles and to keep my shoes unspotted, I walked the short distance to the train station, which was crowded. The sun was coming up.  When I gave the man in the ticket booth my money he barely looked up at me.  “Where to Sir”?  –  “One third class to Kandy”. People milled around the station even though the Kandy train would not arrive for some time yet. They walked around with their dripping umbrellas, or sat on the benches or on their suitcases if they had them.  Conversations in three languages swirled around in the watery air and settled like a foggy covering around my ears. I counted out my loose change and bought three ‘Three Roses’ brand unfiltered cigarettes, a couple of toffees and a box of ‘Elephant Brand’ matches from a vendor.   I would rather have that than a snack, and it was wonderful to smoke in the open. When the train pulled in, I grabbed a door handle of the first third class compartments to pass me, and ran along while holding on to it, and jumped in.  A man jumped in close beside me, brushing my shoulder as we entered the compartment, and we each claimed a window seat diagonally across from each other.

So this was it. This was the something I had told myself I had to do, suddenly the cord that had wound itself around my chest and stomach during the last few days seemed to loosen, and I began to hear myself breathing.  More people entered the compartment, a man with a little girl in a red dress and a pink ribbon in her braid sat next to me, and a genteel old burgher couple in front of me. Unusually, the compartment did not fill up. On the other side of the aisle sat a Sinhalese gentleman with a tortoise shell comb in his hair, and from the snatches of conversation I overheard I guessed he was traveling with his son and daughter-in-law. Across from them and next to the young man who jumped into the train with me, sat an elderly Sinhalese lady dignified in her white sari, and a silver clasp pinning it to her blouse where it covered her shoulder. There were no standing passengers, and  even a couple of empty seats. The whistle blew, the green flag waved and the train pulled out and soon the moist, morning, smoke-mixed air began to rush past the open window.

She got in at Maradana, which was the next station.  The train now stopped for nearly fifteen minutes was filling up, but the seat across from mine still had only two occupants: The very proper old burgher gentleman reading his damp copy of ‘The Daily News,’ and his white-haired, comfortable-looking wife who smelled faintly of 4711 and smiled as she crocheted blue glass beads onto the lace border of a small white doily. We all looked up when she stepped into the compartment. The old man sized up the situation: A young burgher girl traveling alone: He folded his newspaper and moved away from his  window seat and took the aisle seat next to his wife. “You can sit here, I don’t like the wind.”  He said.  She thanked him and  took the seat directly in front of me. I smoked my second cigarette right down to where it burned my fingers, and threw the butt out of the window.  The whistle blew, the guard waved his green flag, and again the train slowly pulled out of the platform with many metallic groans and shrieks. I looked at the scraps of refuse and paper swirling away from the tracks and fervently hoped that I could leave my dismal prospects to fade away with them into the distance separating me from Colombo.

We were stopped for a long time at Ragama. The small girl sitting next to me was singing a little ditty that echoed the sound of train:“ For the up-country princess, pairs and pairs of silk umbrellas….”  She smiled shyly  at me when I looked at her, so I reached into my pocket and gave her the toffees. I wished I had brought a book. The old lady smiled when she caught me looking at her. Leaning across the space between us, and cupping her hand next to her cheek in order to be heard above the rattle of the engine, began to speak to me.

“Where are you going?”

“To Kandy.”

“Do you live there? What is your name?”

“I’m from Colombo, but I am going to visit my aunt in “Katukelle.” My hands turned clammy: I hadn’t yet thought of a name.

“Where in Colombo do you live?”

“In Dehiwela – before the bridge – 47th Lane.”

“Son, I didn’t catch your name.”

“Daniel Greve,” I said – using my grandfather’s first name.

“Oh – I knew some Greves – Sam,”  she said, tapping the old man’s arm, “Don’t you remember the Greves?  Before he died so suddenly I think old Mr. Greve used to work for an insurance  office in Fort –”

Not waiting for an answer she turned to me again:

“My daughter went to school with their daughter Lenore Greves – at  Methodist College.”

“That is my Aunt Lennie.”

“Greve worked at The Great Eastern Life Insurance office” the old gentleman said, but his wife did not appear to hear him.

“Oh how nice! She was such a nice girl!”  Now her face was beaming.

“That’s whom I am going to see.”

“When you see her tell her that Connie Martyns sent her regards.  My daughter’s name was Francine, but now her surname is Vantwest.”

“Tell her go come and visit Sam and me, we live on the main road next to the Girls’ High School. Its the house with the Kohomba tree in front – you can’t miss it.”

“All right Aunty, I will do that.”

I was anxious to end the conversation. I had not counted on conversation, and could hear my voice becoming suspiciously

Planters.

uneven under the tension. Turning my body away from the old lady and towards the old man who was now nodding drowsily as his head bobbed to the rhythm of the train, I asked to borrow the newspaper. Before I raised it to hide behind and gratefully shield my stinging ears, I saw his pale hands come to rest in his lap against the soft cotton fabric of his loose trousers.

The train got stuck on the track for an hour and a half a little before we reached Polgahawela. Several of the passengers, the ones who were probably close to their final destinations, got off the train.  When the Sinhalese gentleman rose to his feet his son handed him a rolled up umbrella to use as a cane, and the daughter-in-law followed them carrying a suitcase.  They exited through the door on my side of the compartment, which I held open for them. The young man helped his father and then his wife with the big step down onto the rough stones beside the track, and when soon thereafter the man sitting next to me climbed down the steps, I handed the little girl down to him. All five began to walk towards the station, perhaps to catch a goods train later on in the day or maybe to take a bus. They all had a purpose, or so it seemed to me.  The train continued, and as it   pulled into Labugolla station, the old Sinhalese lady carefully prepared a small chew of betel and placed it in her mouth. She rearranged the newspaper-wrapped packages in her straw bag and walked across to the door. Softly she said,  “May you attain merit Sir” when I handed her bag to her on the platform.

We were now in the mountains, and the locomotive was straining to climb the steep gradient of the tracks. Mrs. Martyns set her crocheting aside and unwrapped a newspaper package and produced sandwiches. As I handed back “The Daily News” to Mr. Martyns’s I felt the  smooth papery touch of his hand. He took the paper and began to read the last page.

“Old Henry Toussaint has died,” He said to his wife as she handed him a sandwich. She handed me one as well, and I took it gratefully. I hadn’t expected to be hungry.  “Thank you, Aunty, Corned beef  – how nice!”

She demurred at the same offer. “Eat a little bit child, we won’t always get this kind of food now that the war is over.”

The old man was holding his sandwich in one hand still looking at the last page of the newspaper.  He cleared his throat slowly.

“Do you remember Henry? He used to work in the mercantile building with Fred.”

“Of course I remember Henry.”  She nodded her head and raised her eyebrows while brushing the crumbs from her dress.

“He used to visit our house in Kolpetty and bring us guavas from his garden. I can’t believe he is dead.  How did he die? How old was he?”

“Probably old age.  It says here he went in his sleep. Eighty-three I think.”

“Can’t be that old!”

“Yes. That old. Now we are all old. That was before the first war, when you knew him.”

“What was his wife’s name?  Do you remember?”

Thoughtfully he raised his eyes to the soot-stained roof of the carriage. His shirt collar slid down his skinny neck, and he lifted a blue-veined hand to slowly stroke his chin.

“Eunice Decker I think. Her people came from Matale.”

Mrs. Martyns picked up her doily. “We must send a telegram when we reach home.”

But Mr. Martyns was looking out the window and appeared not to hear her. The train lurched to a start, and we were off again.The conversation kept winding around, easy but persistent. I should have known something like this would happen. All the vines and tendrils of the burger community were intricately intertwined.  If you ran into a fellow burgher, the chances were that he or she would keep asking questions, like a person anxious to solve a puzzle, until the thread was caught which connected  you to someone already known. She was looking out the window at the mountains beyond the border of green along side the tracks. Her face was relaxed and  she seemed to be lost in thought. Her slightly waving brown hair was parted on the left and held firmly in a clip, away from her forehead.

I continued to watch her secretly in the dull yellow flickering light that bathed the compartment. Then we entered the Mirigama tunnel, one of the nine or ten pitch black holes  basted through the rock along our 79 mile route.  When a piece of grit flew into her eye she took out a white handkerchief and carefully used a corner of it to clean it. She dabbed the tears running down her cheeks and looked down at her lap as if she was carefully inspecting the yellow and pink rose print with green sprigs of her dress. Either that or she was carefully looking past them to my feet, which stuck out on the floor between us. I had shined my pair of brown shoes to a high lustre, but the loose cotton socks had sagged shamefully around my ankles. I was suddenly glad for the soft but visible covering of hair on my shins and calves.  I wished I had had a clean white handkerchief.

At Rambukkana we were delayed for another half hour while a second engine was added to the train for the big climb we would have to make into the mountains. Soon we were stalwartly taking the treacherous the curves, but I could hear the engines pushing and straining, and remnants of the large gusts of grey smoke they exhaled overwhelmed the white steam and came streaming past my window.  I wondered, what if there was a rock-fall and what if the train derailed on one of the passes – but I told myself that wasn’t likely, and it was only just another appearance of all my other fears in a new disguise.

When we reached Kadugannawa the Martyns got up to leave. I pulled out one suitcase from under my seat, and reached over her to take the other down from the luggage rack. For a moment my arm was stretched over her, and it seemed as if she gave a quick upward glance, but I couldn’t tell. When I looked at my elbow I could see the sooty double tracks smeared from the window.  Maybe that’s what she was looking at.   I stepped onto the platform with the old couple to say goodbye. Mrs. Martyns was holding Mr. Martyns’ arm.  A porter had already grabbed their bags and was racing ahead towards the other end of the platform. With his free hand the old man reached up and stroked my head.

“You are a good boy,” He said.

“Don’t forget to tell your aunty about me, ” She said.

Burgher siblings

I felt lost when I climbed back into the train. The sound of the train may as well have been a silence for the sense of emptiness that followed me. I felt the worlds within worlds within worlds, and  each of those worlds was changing faster than the other, and I was in the midst of them all. I couldn’t bear to look in front of me at the two vacant spaces: such slow going. The newspaper was gone. I had nothing.  My neck was aching with nowhere to look except outside the window. In the opposite corner the young man smoked his cigarette with fierce dedication, inhaling and re-inhaling each thick plume of blue smoke which rushed out from his mouth.  I wondered where he was going and when he would get off the train. I felt the silence surge and pulse over the monotony of the train.

“I went to Methodist too.” She was talking to me.

“Really?”

“Yes. Those old people were really nice. I think the old lady was a Miss Pietersz. I’m related to the Pieterszs on my mother’s side.” She moved her hand away from the window-sill and moved the hair away from her cheek. She had large hands.

“Then you must be from Kandy.”

“Not really. My dad’s family was originally from Peradeniya, and he used to teach Chemistry at the university, but we moved to Maradana  after my mother died. Our family home is in Peradeniya, so we moved back there last year, but before that I went to school in Colombo.”

She smoothed her skirt, which was not in any way crumpled, over her knees.  While she was speaking I managed a couple of times to look directly at her face. Her expression was serious but friendly. Then she was smiling slightly, and I could see that her teeth were white and even, except for one on the right side, which slightly overlapped the tooth beside it.  That was probably when I began to think she was really beautiful.

I couldn’t help wondering about her  – her life, her father, her dead mother,  her home. I tried to make a quick calculus of which and what threads could possibly connect the Greve’s to the Pietersz’s, and from thence to her. Inside my head I could see the names and the tangle of lines connecting them, but the lines and letters kept getting separated and reconnected in ways that made my thoughts stutter and my mouth turn dry again.

Why was it this way? Why couldn’t I ever find a single way in which to think my way clearly into a moment or two of happiness.  It was cruel that I couldn’t. Irresoluteness was thoroughly dissolved into my bloodstream, already thinned by the blood that had come down to me through generations of clerks and civil servants.  Of course that had skipped a generation, but it must have resurfaced in me.  I was no Daniel. Life with all its possibilities and impossibilities frightened and dismayed me. The girl frightened me as only something filled with careless and unconscious beauty could. I looked at her grey eyes and her smooth skin and I knew now that she would change my life. The waiter with his tray of rattling teacups was making his careful way between the compartments.  I wished I could have bought her a cup of tea.

Back at the house on 47th lane they would have afternoon tea without me.  I wondered if my Nanna would worry a little as she filled the cups on the table in the back verandah, opening the meat safe with one of the keys on her key chain to get the can of condensed milk.  The chickens in the back yard would be clucking and gathering below the window ledge, waiting for their own tea-time snack of the handfuls of paddy my grandmother kept in an old pillow case and would throw to them out the window.  She may or may not have discovered that my suitcase was missing, together with a few of my clothes and the few sad things she had saved to remember Grandpapa’s life, a life so uneventful, until that morning in May, when dressed and ready to go to work, he suddenly dropped dead of what my grandmother referred to as “a burst blood vessel.” That was a story she repeated from time to time, about her dear good husband, but I had also heard her allude, though never directly, to the black moods that would overtake him, when he would refuse to eat, or go to the office, or talk to anyone for days on end.

I hadn’t taken any money from my Nanna’s clay till which stood on the bureau in her bedroom. I did take out two Rupees from my own smaller till, being careful to leave enough coins so that my withdrawal would not be noticed or discovered.  I didn’t own anything of value,  but last week I had sold some of my clothes including the old blue sweater I had outgrown for to the bottle-man for seven rupees.  Though we were not poor by the standards of the time, and very respectable, cash money was scarce.  As old as I was, Nanna would only give me a Rupee on special days like birthdays, Easter and Christmas, but uncle Walter would give me two Rupees from the envelope of crisp new bank notes he kept for just such occasions.  When I looked up from my welter of thoughts the waiter had long since passed us and was moving down the aisle of the train and out of sight.

“What are you going to do in Kandy?” She was straightening the pleats in her skirt. What was the use of speaking? But I made myself answer.

“I’m going to see if I can get a job.”

“What kind of job?” She was frowning now, and interested. I heard my voice answering.

“I don’t know – I could get a job in the an office – or the Kutcherry maybe. I matriculated with high marks, and I know some short-hand and typing, and my uncle is a clerk in an accounting office.”  Hearing the words spill out I almost believed it could happen.

“That is nice, but I was thinking you looked like you could be a planter.”

“A planter! That would be a story of rags to riches!”

“Yes it could!” She was laughing a little and wiping off a few drops of rain that blew onto her face.

“Look at you in your planter’s shorts! You almost look the part, and you could even be handsome, except that your socks look funny  bunched up like that around your ankles, and your hair is terrible!”

I found myself laughing with her. I wanted to please her, to confide in her, to reveal my thoughts to her. I told her that if I could  really have had my wish I would have liked to work on the trains. There had been Greves’s in the railway off and on as far back as 1845 when John Ryland Greves was a goods clerk with the Kandy railway.

The faint sun was dying away.  She stood up to stretch and the smoker across the way turned around to look. I did too. She was tall – maybe as tall as I was – That surprised me, and again I could feel a wave of something I could not easily recognise coming over me. It made me want to see into her life. Even though she hadn’t said very much about herself, I could see this girl belonged in her life. I wanted to hold on to that feeling of knowing, so I couldn’t and wouldn’t ask her any questions.  I didn’t need to talk much because I didn’t know what to say anyway. I didn’t want her to ask me too many questions. At the same time I was aware of the way in which she was affecting me. I felt myself giving in to the sort of heavy feeling that comes before a fever, when you don’t want to hold your head up  and you don’t want anything except to be quiet and still and safe.
“Why don’t you come and see us?”

I wondered if  I could really have been hearing this.

“Who? Where? At your house?”

“Yes. My dad and me.  You can easily take the train and we can meet you at the station and drive you back to our home.”

“Your dad has a car?”  So they must be rich.

“Yes – an old Morris Minor – and it runs most of the time.”

“I don’t know – I will have to ask my aunty.”

It was out before I could stop it. It felt like someone else was speaking for me.

“Really? Even on the weekend? How old are you?”

“Eighteen.”

But it was getting late, and the train would soon reach Peradeniya station: Then Kandy. As I watched the darkening world flying past my window, I knew it was flying past me too.  I was thinking now that this was the kind of escape that has no escape. I wished with all my heart that I was someone else: Someone who really had a chance at life: Someone who belonged somewhere safe and secure, or at least someone who had a home, or parents – or even a small job.  A line from an old play drifted into my mind. “I am a tainted wether of the flock,” And the thought that six thousand ducats was a king’s ransom.

“I know about you.”

She was looking away from me now and at the man across from us who had lit another cigarette. He seemed to sense her attention and looked up at her, and she nodded briefly to acknowledge him. I had looked at her during this exchange when she suddenly turned and caught my eye. I fought to not look away. She held steady.

“I know your secret.”

She was biting her lip. Her eyes were deep: Sweet and deep as the sky in which I thought the stars must love to lose themselves. I felt my stomach lurch and my hands begin to turn clammy.  Then  the nervous laughter almost spilled out, at the irony of who had come to judge. But I said nothing.

“Tell me really, what are you going to do in Kandy”?

Against the cool upright of my seat I could feel the dampness on the back of my shirt spreading.

“I really don’t know.”

She nudged my foot with her shoe.

“What are you going to say to your aunt? What do you think she is going to say?”

I thought of Lennie and the serious way in which she said funny things and the funny way she had for saying cutting things, and I felt a little unsure. I knew for certain she would take me in: She had to love me, and we even looked alike, but there was so much that could happen that I didn’t know and couldn’t guess. What I did know was that I just couldn’t go on living as I had been.  It was better to die. I was like a candle in my chemistry class, about to go out because it had burned up all the oxygen in the jar. I thought Lennie would know – might understand –  that about me.

“She might scold me for leaving Colombo.”

There was almost the hint of a catch in her voice.

“Please come and visit me in Peradeniya.”

I noticed the “please.” It leapt out into the air between us together with the ‘us’ that was now a ‘me.’

“I don’t know.”

“Then I’ll come and see you.”

“No. You can’t.”

“Yes I can, and if you don’t come to see me that’s what I’ll do.  Listen to me. I have an idea. My Dad’s brother, Uncle Peter, is a planter. He works at an estate called Bellwood in Newralia.”

She pronounced it in the burgher way.

“And I remember now that quite recently he wrote to my dad and said he was looking for a creeper.”

What was she saying? Was she really saying this?

“Even though it wont pay much you will learn a lot, and you wont need a lot of money anyway, and he wont make you ask permission for everything you do.”

“But they will all find out!”

“Yes, in the end they might: But we could keep it a secret long enough.”

“Long enough? Long enough for what?”

Silence stepped in to make a brief appearance, then the sounds of the train surged back and caught us.

“For us – to get engaged – or something.”

I looked up expecting to see some hint that she was teasing. But she wasn’t. She was serious, and her gaze was fixed on my face.

“I can think up a story. I don’t know what the details will be, but if I have a little time I  know could make it all fit.”

“They will know you are lying with any kind of story you could think up.”

“You don’t know me. I have read a lot of books and heard a lot of stories, and all I’ll have to do is chang a few details.”

“What about my family?”

“Who and who is in your family?”

“Just my Nanna and my Aunt Lennie – Uncle Eddie – Uncle Walter.”

“That’s all?”

“That’s all.”

After all, I didn’t really have a father.

“Alright! That makes it really easy!  We’ll say that your father was a planter and that you were adopted and brought up by your mother’s family. That will make it hard for them to ask too many questions. They will assume that you are not legitimate and that will make them feel too ashamed to ask any questions.”

“Are you crazy? People always ask questions! They ask a lot of questions! – and they don’t stop asking until they have dotted every ‘i’ and crossed every ‘t’.”

“Don’t be a coward. There is nothing to be afraid of.”

“What about – ”

But she cut me off.

“You’ll have to leave all the details to me. Just let me take care of everything. When I was in school I was very good at writing stories, and I always made them have happy endings.”

“All stories can’t have happy endings.”

“Yes they can. All of them.  I detest stories with sad endings. Especially now.”

“Why are you doing this!”

Even I could hear the worry in my voice.

“I don’t know. Maybe its because I like you. Maybe its because I don’t really want to go to university or be a Montesorri teacher or a stenographer,  or worse marry someone and have a lot of children – and there aren’t many other things besides that I could do.”

I shook my head and clasped my clammy hands.

“It will never work.”

This seemed to make her angry. Her face reddened slightly.

“Stop jiggling your leg. And stop acting like a child. You started this! You should have thought of that before you started.”

She saw my frightened look.

“Listen to me. We could pretend that you are like my cousin John.”

I looked at my feet.

“Look at me! His mum, my aunty Amy and my dad were on a ship, on their way to a holiday in England when she met this fellow on board. That’s how she had John. When he was born she kept him, and even gave him the fellow’s last name. My dad probably felt guilty, so he helped her with everything. He sent John to Trinity College, and found him a job even though he didn’t bother to matriculate.”

“Where is your cousin now?”

“He is on an estate in Uva. He is also a planter.  He has a wife and two kids and a car and my aunt lives with them, and she and John’s wife get along and no one ever says anything about his past.  See? A happy ending.”

A whole shimmering world built itself before my eyes, of hand cut-lawns and rose gardens and hydrangea borders: Of mango and mulberry trees and long driveways and cypress hedges: A house with polished red floors and echoing rooms and pictures on the wall and old photographs of dead ancestors.  There would be a teak-wood dining table and food served by men in starched white coats and polished brass buttons:  A bathroom with an enamel tub and a hot water geyser and of course a bedroom with a sofa and an armchair and a side table with a reading lamp: And of course a bed. That was unavoidable. I had never slept next to anyone before in my whole life. I wondered what that would that be like.

She was repeating herself.

“Don’t worry, I can make everything work out.”

She seemed impossibly strong: So much stronger than I felt I could ever be. I thought of my bed in Colombo, across the room from Nanna. I couldn’t  even have my own room because she kept boarders: and here was this girl, deciding her own fate – choosing this thing and pushing the other aside – and in spite of myself I felt a tremor of some feeling that was a mixture of horror and joy.  She said it again.

“Don’t worry, I can make it all work out.”

And I could think of nothing else to do with my life than put it in her hands. Only yesterday the truth of that life seemed unbearable – and now I was going to exchange it for a web of lies in which I was caught like a helpless fly. But never before in the world had there been such an intoxicated fly. To do something with my hands which were about to start shaking, I took out the box of matches from my pocket and began to rattle it.

“Look here,  pull yourself together and listen to me. I’ll tell my dad that I met someone who can creep for Uncle Peter: We can even say you will work for free. Since you know short hand and typing you could even work in the factory office and help him with the clerking. That would really be good.” She spoke faster.

“I know Uncle Peter has an old clerk called Mr. de Jong who wants to retire. He has a son in Australia who has been asking him to leave his job – leave Ceylon – This could really work! I could come and join you!  – And then – ”

She paused for a moment.

“Are you a Methodist?”

“Yes. Why?”

But she didn’t answer.  She seemed to drift away and I could see she was  absorbed in thinking. “That’s good.”

What on earth did it matter whether or not I was a Methodist? What did it matter whether the world saw me as I was or wasn’t? I was invisible. No one had seen me before this. She was the only one who had ever seen me. Here I sat in a dead man’s thin blue cotton shirt and old khaki shorts, buckles pulled tight as far as they would go at the waist, with only a few coins and not even a hanky in my pocket, and she was seeing me and my present, past and future in a way I could never have dreamed possible. Sometimes when I looked at old people I imagined I could see around the corner into the past when they were young. I liked doing that, but I had never met anyone who could grasp and unravel the whole thread of life wrapped around a single moment.

The air outside the window had turned chilly and again the rain had begun to fall. The trees looked wet and glistening in the thick, heavy light. All along the way there had been little cadjan-thatched huts with bunches of plantains hanging from the rafters and men and women sitting beside baskets of fruits and betel leaves and piles of new clay pots. I had watched them with envy, even envying the occupants of the little graves with their cement headstones, that came into view from time to time.

I thought  of how in less than an hour I might be sitting down for dinner at Lennie’s table, with the antique Dutch oil lamp shedding its light on the dishes and glasses. I could see the scarred bread-board with its companion the bone handled knife which she kept by her side, cutting off a couple of slices at a time as they were needed. We would have bread every night I knew. No rice for dinner that was Lennie’s way of keeping up the old burgher ways.  Then I saw myself sitting with her at the table. I felt like a fly that had flown into a fly-paper, unable to move without tearing myself apart. All the bits and pieces of my past had suddenly become disconnected. The years in boarding school, a father who only left the asylum for a few weeks at a time and then during the term rather than the holidays, my resourceful Nanna making do by taking in boarders and supplying lunches to office workers, mending my socks with the old silver thimble with the holes in it on her finger, and telling me how it had belonged to her favourite aunt, who sewed dolls dresses in the latest Victorian fashions. I saw myself watching her unpick the tacking thread from a hem to save and use again, I saw myself as a child, with my Kandy grandfather who bought me marbles, and thread and  tissue paper for kites, and how happiness seemed to appear and disappear and be replaced by pain and emptiness. Now that past would have to be left behind, together with all the scenes that passed by my train window today. How simple and yet how strange life was turning out to be – frightening and mysterious and full of promises I didn’t know could ever be fulfilled.

The train was pulling in to Peradeniya station. She reached out suddenly and grabbed my hand, shaking it hard with both hers,  sending  a hot jolt of electricity through us both, making us prickle with the sparks. She leaned forward and I could feel the pulse in my neck begin to throb.

“Remember everything I said!”

“Alright. Yes: I will.”

Neither one of us had a pencil or paper, so she told me her address.

“Write to me first and ask about my uncle Peter. Then I’ll arrange things and write back.”

The tension and the excitement inside me rose to such a pitch, I felt everything around me begin to melt and disappear. I could see something reflected in her face and in her eyes, which were glittering brightly in the uneven light of the compartment.  The pattern of what life had meant to me shifted and changed like the sudden click of a kaleidoscope.

“Yes,” I said:  “Yes.”

I got her suitcase down from the luggage rack and stepped down to the platform with it.  A porter came running and grabbed it. She turned away.  I got back into the train and stood leaning out of the middle window. I saw a tall older man in a white cotton suit and brown hat come walking towards her. She almost ran towards him. They kissed and embraced each other. She turned around and waved, and I watched her thin straight form move away until it got swallowed up in the crowd. The guard blew his whistle and waved his flag. The train began slowly to grind its tired way away from the station platform.

I sat down, suddenly feeling weak. My legs were shaking and my eyes turned hot and filled with tears.  I took out the last crumpled cigarette from my shirt pocket and began to smoke. I began to compose a letter to her in my head, and it was then I realized that I didn’t know her name. A sense of horror came over me and deepened until I felt myself engulfed in it.  I thought, this must be what it feels like to die.  I could recall every detail of her face, every expression, every mannerism, every inflection of her voice.

But the address had flown out of my mind like a bird leaving its cage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Burghers are the mixed descendants of Dutch, French and  to a lesser degree, British colonial settlers in Ceylon. They  were

A Planter with his family and staff.

an anglicised culture, speaking English as their first language, and were largely employed in the public sector, but also the schools, and the banks, etc.  It would not be an over-statement to say they ran the country, until Ceylon gained its independence from the British in 1948.

The  subsequent rise of nationalistic sentiments and the shift from English to Sinhalese as the lingua franca sealed the fate of the Burghers, and their displacement  and removal as a stable part of Ceylonese society. The displacement, which in fact was an eviction, began to pick up speed in the early ‘fifties, when most of the Burghers began to leave to country and move to other parts of the British commonwealth, chiefly to Australia and Canada.

Tea was brought to Ceylon by the British, in the mid 19th Century as a source of revenue,  and a complex sub- culture grew up around the business. Planters were a sub-set of a certain social class originally

Job offer made to an 18 year old in response to an application.

consisting mostly of Englishmen and Burghers. Their positions allowed considerable autonomy over the running of very large tea and rubber plantations, and over the labour force (Imported from South India) used to pluck the tea leaves – a highly labour-intensive process.

Most Planters lived in large bungalows built in the style of country houses, and were served by sizable staffs of servants. Most parent companies would provide their British Planters an all-expenses-paid trip to England every ten years, and in time this privilege was extended to the Ceylonese as well.

This story is set at the beginning of  the time of social upheaval and unraveling for the Burghers. About forty years or so ago,  the government began the processes which ended in its seizing ownership of  the tea  and rubber estates, and a way of life came to an end, but by that time the Burgher diaspora had been well underway for decades.

A ‘creeper’ is an apprentice Planter.

The picture at the top of the post, shown in lieu of the writer, is that of a girl. She was my Aunt Mone’s school-friend.

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M.R. James (August 1st 1862 - June 12th 1936)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some time ago I believe I had the pleasure of telling you the story of an adventure which happened to a friend of mine by the name of Dennistoun, during his pursuit of objects of art for the museum at Cambridge.

He did not publish his experiences very widely upon his return to England; but they could not fail to become known to a good many of his friends, and among others to the gentleman who at that time presided over an art museum at another University. It was to be expected that the story should make a considerable impression on the mind of a man whose vocation lay in lines similar to Dennistoun’s, and that he should be eager to catch at any explanation of the matter which tended to make it seem improbable that he should ever be called upon to deal with so agitating an emergency. It was, indeed, somewhat consoling to him to reflect that he was not expected to acquire ancient MSS. for his institution; that was the business of the Shelburnian Library. The authorities of that might, if they pleased, ransack obscure corners of the Continent for such matters. He was glad to be obliged at the moment to confine his attention to enlarging the already unsurpassed collection of English topographical drawings and engravings possessed by his museum. Yet, as it turned out, even a department so homely and familiar as this may have its dark corners, and to one of these Mr. Williams was unexpectedly introduced.

Those who have taken even the most limited interest in the acquisition of topographical pictures are aware that there is one London dealer whose aid is indispensable to their researches. Mr. J.W. Britnell publishes at short intervals very admirable catalogues of a large and constantly changing stock of engravings, plans, and old sketches of mansions, churches, and towns in England and Wales. These catalogues were, of course, the ABC of his subject to Mr. Williams: but as his museum already contained an enormous accumulation of topographical pictures, he was a regular, rather than a copious, buyer; and he rather looked to Mr. Britnell to fill up gaps in the rank and file of his collection than to supply him with rarities.

Now, in February of last year there appeared upon Mr. Williams’s desk at the museum a catalogue from Mr. Britnell’s emporium, and accompanying it was a typewritten communication from the dealer himself. This latter ran as follows:

DEAR SIR,–

We beg to call your attention to No. 978 in our accompanying catalogue, which we shall be glad to send on approval.

Yours faithfully,

J. W. BRITNELL.

To turn to No. 978 in the accompanying catalogue was with Mr. Williams (as he observed to himself) the work of a moment, and in the place indicated he found the following entry:

“978.–Unknown. Interesting mezzotint: View of a manor-house, early part of the century. 15 by 10 inches; black frame. £2 2s.

It was not specially exciting, and the price seemed high. However, as Mr. Britnell, who knew his business and his customer, seemed to set store by it, Mr. Williams wrote a postcard asking for the article to be sent on approval, along with some other engravings and sketches which appeared in the same catalogue. And so he passed without much excitement of anticipation to the ordinary labours of the day.

A parcel of any kind always arrives a day later than you expect it, and that of Mr. Britnell proved, as I believe the right phrase goes, no exception to the rule. It was delivered at the museum by the afternoon post of Saturday, after Mr. Williams had left his work, and it was accordingly brought round to his rooms in college by the attendant, in order that he might not have to wait over Sunday before looking through it and returning such of the contents as he did not propose to keep. And here he found it when he came in to tea, with a friend.

The only item with which I am concerned was the rather large, black-framed mezzotint of which I have already quoted the short description given in Mr. Britnell’s catalogue. Some more details of it will have to be given, though I cannot hope to put before you the look of the picture as clearly as it is present to my own eye. Very nearly the exact duplicate of it may be seen in a good many old inn parlours, or in the passages of undisturbed country mansions at the present moment. It was a rather indifferent mezzotint, and an indifferent mezzotint is, perhaps, the worst form of engraving known. It presented a full-face view of a not very large manor-house of the last century, with three rows of plain sashed windows with rusticated masonry about them, a parapet with balls or vases at the angles, and a small portico in the centre. On either side were trees, and in front a considerable expanse of lawn. The legend “A.W.F. sculpsit” was engraved on the narrow margin; and there was no further inscription. The whole thing gave the impression that it was the work of an amateur. What in the world Mr. Britnell could mean by affixing the price of £2 2s. to such an object was more than Mr. Williams could imagine. He turned it over with a good deal of contempt; upon the back was a paper label, the left-hand half of which had been torn off. All that remained were the ends of two lines of writing: the first had the letters –ngley Hall; the second, –ssex.

It would, perhaps, be just worth while to identify the place represented, which he could easily do with the help of a gazetteer, and then he would send it back to Mr. Britnell, with some remarks reflecting upon the judgment of that gentleman.

He lighted the candles, for it was now dark, made the tea, and supplied the friend with whom he had been playing golf (for I believe the authorities of the University I write of indulge in that pursuit by way of relaxation); and tea was taken to the accompaniment of a discussion which golfing persons can imagine for themselves, but which the conscientious writer has no right to inflict upon any non-golfing persons.

The conclusion arrived at was that certain strokes might have been better, and that in certain emergencies neither player had experienced that amount of luck which a human being has a right to expect. It was now that the friend–let us call him Professor Binks–took up the framed engraving, and said:

“What’s this place, Williams?”

“Just what I am going to try to find out,” said Williams, going to the shelf for a gazetteer. “Look at the back. Somethingley Hall, either in Sussex or Essex. Half the name’s gone, you see. You don’t happen to know it, I suppose?”

“It’s from that man Britnell, I suppose, isn’t it?” said Binks. “Is it for the museum?”

“Well, I think I should buy it if the price was five shillings,” said Williams; “but for some unearthly reason he wants two guineas for it. I can’t conceive why. It’s a wretched engraving, and there aren’t even any figures to give it life.”

“It’s not worth two guineas, I should think,” said Binks; “but I don’t think it’s so badly done. The moonlight seems rather good to me; and I should have thought there were figures, or at least a figure just on the edge in front.”

“Let’s look,” said Williams. “Well, it’s true the light is rather cleverly given. Where’s your figure? Oh yes! Just the head, in the very front of the picture.”

And indeed there was–hardly more than a black blot on the extreme edge of the engraving–the head of a man or woman, a good deal muffled up, the back turned to the spectator, and looking towards the house.

Williams had not noticed it before.

“Still,” he said, “though it’s a cleverer thing than I thought, I can’t spend two guineas of museum money on a picture of a place I don’t know.”

Professor Binks had his work to do, and soon went; and very nearly up to Hall time Williams was engaged in a vain attempt to identify the subject of his picture. “If the vowel before the ng had only been left, it would have been easy enough,” he thought; “but as it is, the name may be anything from Guestingley to Langley, and there are many more names ending like this than I thought; and this rotten book has no index of terminations.”

Hall in Mr. Williams’s college was at seven. It need not be dwelt upon; the less so as he met there colleagues who had been playing golf during the afternoon, and words with which we have no concern were freely bandied across the table–merely golfing words, I would hasten to explain.

I suppose an hour or more to have been spent in what is called common-room after dinner. Later in the evening some few retired to Williams’s rooms, and I have little doubt that whist was played and tobacco smoked. During a lull in these operations Williams picked up the mezzotint from the table without looking at it, and handed it to a person mildly interested in art, telling him where it had come from, and the other particulars which we already know.

The gentleman took it carelessly, looked at it, then said, in a tone of some interest:

“It’s really a very good piece of work, Williams; it has quite a feeling of the romantic period. The light is admirably managed, it seems to me, and the figure, though it’s rather too grotesque, is somehow very impressive.”

“Yes, isn’t it?” said Williams, who was just then busy giving whisky-and-soda to others of the company, and was unable to come across the room to look at the view again.

It was by this time rather late in the evening, and the visitors were on the move. After they went Williams was obliged to write a letter or two and clear up some odd bits of work. At last, some time past midnight, he was disposed to turn in, and he put out his lamp after lighting his bedroom candle. The picture lay face upwards on the table where the last man who looked at it had put it, and it caught his eye as he turned the lamp down. What he saw made him very nearly drop the candle on the floor, and he declares now that if he had been left in the dark at that moment he would have had a fit. But, as that did not happen he was able to put down the light on the table and take a good look at the picture. It was indubitable–rankly impossible, no doubt, but absolutely certain. In the middle of the lawn in front of the unknown house there was a figure where no figure had been at five o’clock that afternoon. It was crawling on all-fours towards the house, and it was muffled in a strange black garment with a white cross on the back.

I do not know what is the ideal course to pursue in a situation of this kind. I can only tell you what Mr. Williams did. He took the picture by one corner and carried it across the passage to a second set of rooms which he possessed. There he locked it up in a drawer, sported the doors of both sets of rooms, and retired to bed; but first he wrote out and signed an account of the extraordinary change which the picture had undergone since it had come into his possession.

Sleep visited him rather late; but it was consoling to reflect that the behaviour of the picture did not depend upon his own unsupported testimony. Evidently the man who had looked at it the night before had seen something of the same kind as he had, otherwise he might have been tempted to think that something gravely wrong was happening either to his eyes or his mind. This possibility being fortunately precluded, two matters awaited him on the morrow. He must take stock of the picture very carefully, and call in a witness for the purpose, and he must make a determined effort to ascertain what house it was that was represented. He would therefore ask his neighbour Nisbet to breakfast with him, and he would subsequently spend a morning over the gazetteer.

Nisbet was disengaged, and arrived about 9.30. His host was not quite dressed, I am sorry to say, even at this late hour. During breakfast nothing was said about the mezzotint by Williams, save that he had a picture on which he wished for Nisbet’s opinion. But those who are familiar with University life can picture for themselves the wide and delightful range of subjects over which the conversation of two Fellows of Canterbury College is likely to extend during a Sunday morning breakfast. Hardly a topic was left unchallenged, from golf to lawn-tennis. Yet I am bound to say that Williams was rather distraught; for his interest naturally centred in that very strange picture which was now reposing, face downwards, in the drawer in the room opposite.

The morning pipe was at last lighted, and the moment had arrived for which he looked. With very considerable–almost tremulous–excitement, he ran across, unlocked the drawer, and, extracting the picture–still face downwards–ran back, and put it into Nisbet’s hands.

“Now,” he said, “Nisbet, I want you to tell me exactly what you see in that picture. Describe it, if you don’t mind, rather minutely. I’ll tell you why afterwards.”

“Well,” said Nisbet, “I have here a view of a country-house–English, I presume–by moonlight.

“Moonlight? You’re sure of that?”

“Certainly. The moon appears to be on the wane, if you wish for details, and there are clouds in the sky.”

“All right. Go on. I’ll swear,” added Williams in an aside, “there was no moon when I saw it first.”

“Well, there’s not much more to be said,” Nisbet continued. “The house has one–two–three rows of windows, five in each row, except at the bottom, where there’s a porch instead of the middle one, and—-”

“But what about figures?” said Williams, with marked interest.

“There aren’t any,” said Nisbet; “but—-”

“What! No figure on the grass in front?”

“Not a thing.”

“You’ll swear to that?”

“Certainly I will. But there’s just one other thing.”

“What?”

“Why, one of the windows on the ground-floor–left of the door–is open.”

“Is it really? My goodness! he must have got in,” said Williams, with great excitement; and he hurried to the back of the sofa on which Nisbet was sitting, and, catching the picture from him, verified the matter for himself.

It was quite true. There was no figure, and there was the open window. Williams, after a moment of speechless surprise, went to the writing-table and scribbled for a short time. Then he brought two papers to Nisbet, and asked him first to sign one–it was his own description of the picture, which you have just heard–and then to read the other which was Williams’s statement written the night before.

“What can it all mean?” said Nisbet.

“Exactly,” said Williams. “Well, one thing I must do–or three things, now I think of it. I must find out from Garwood”–this was his last night’s visitor–“what he saw, and then I must get the thing photographed before it goes further, and then I must find out what the place is.”

“I can do the photographing myself,” said Nisbet, “and I will. But, you know, it looks very much as if we were assisting at the working out of a tragedy somewhere. The question is, Has it happened already, or is it going to come off? You must find out what the place is. Yes,” he said, looking at the picture again, “I expect you’re right: he has got in. And if I don’t mistake there’ll be the devil to pay in one of the rooms upstairs.”

“I’ll tell you what,” said Williams: “I’ll take the picture across to old Green” (this was the senior Fellow of the College, who had been Bursar for many years). “It’s quite likely he’ll know it. We have property in Essex and Sussex, and he must have been over the two counties a lot in his time.”

“Quite likely he will,” said Nisbet; “but just let me take my photograph first. But look here, I rather think Green isn’t up to-day. He wasn’t in Hall last night, and I think I heard him say he was going down for the Sunday.”

“That’s true, too,” said Williams; “I know he’s gone to Brighton. Well, if you’ll photograph it now, I’ll go across to Garwood and get his statement, and you keep an eye on it while I’m gone. I’m beginning to think two guineas is not a very exorbitant price for it now.”

In a short time he had returned, and brought Mr. Garwood with him. Garwood’s statement was to the effect that the figure, when he had seen it, was clear of the edge of the picture, but had not got far across the lawn. He remembered a white mark on the back of its drapery, but could not have been sure it was a cross. A document to this effect was then drawn up and signed, and Nisbet proceeded to photograph the picture.

“Now what do you mean to do?” he said. “Are you going to sit and watch it all day?”

“Well, no, I think not,” said Williams. “I rather imagine we’re meant to see the whole thing. You see, between the time I saw it last night and this morning there was time for lots of things to happen, but the creature only got into the house. It could easily have got through its business in the time and gone to its own place again; but the fact of the window being open, I think, must mean that it’s in there now. So I feel quite easy about leaving it. And, besides, I have a kind of idea that it wouldn’t change much, if at all, in the daytime. We might go out for a walk this afternoon, and come in to tea, or whenever it gets dark. I shall leave it out on the table here, and sport the door. My skip can get in, but no one else.”

The three agreed that this would be a good plan; and, further, that if they spent the afternoon together they would be less likely to talk about the business to other people; for any rumour of such a transaction as was going on would bring the whole of the Phasmatological Society about their ears.

We may give them a respite until five o’clock.

At or near that hour the three were entering Williams’s staircase. They were at first slightly annoyed to see that the door of his rooms was unsported; but in a moment it was remembered that on Sunday the skips came for orders an hour or so earlier than on week-days. However, a surprise was awaiting them. The first thing they saw was the picture leaning up against a pile of books on the table, as it had been left, and the next thing was Williams’s skip, seated on a chair opposite, gazing at it with undisguised horror. How was this? Mr. Filcher (the name is not my own invention) was a servant of considerable standing, and set the standard of etiquette to all his own college and to several neighbouring ones, and nothing could be more alien to his practice than to be found sitting on his master’s chair, or appearing to take any particular notice of his master’s furniture or pictures. Indeed, he seemed to feel this himself. He started violently when the three men came into the room, and got up with a marked effort. Then he said:

“I ask your pardon, sir, for taking such a freedom as to set down.”

“Not at all, Robert,” interposed Mr. Williams. “I was meaning to ask you some time what you thought of that picture.”

“Well, sir, of course I don’t set up my opinion again yours, but it ain’t the pictur I should ‘ang where my little girl could see it, sir.”

“Wouldn’t you, Robert? Why not?”

“No, sir. Why, the pore child, I recollect once she see a Door Bible, with pictures not ‘alf what that is, and we ‘ad to set up with her three or four nights afterwards, if you’ll believe me; and if she was to ketch a sight of this skelinton here, or whatever it is, carrying off the pore baby, she would be in a taking. You know ‘ow it is with children; ‘ow nervish they git with a little thing and all. But what I should say, it don’t seem a right pictur to be laying about, sir, not where anyone that’s liable to be startled could come on it. Should you be wanting anything this evening sir? Thank you, sir.”

With these words the excellent man went to continue the round of his masters, and you may be sure the gentlemen whom he left lost no time in gathering round the engraving. There was the house, as before, under the waning moon and the drifting clouds. The window that had been open was shut, and the figure was once more on the lawn: but not this time crawling cautiously on hands and knees. Now it was erect and stepping swiftly, with long strides, towards the front of the picture. The moon was behind it, and the black drapery hung down over its face so that only hints of that could be seen, and what was visible made the spectators profoundly thankful that they could see no more than a white dome-like forehead and a few straggling hairs. The head was bent down, and the arms were tightly clasped over an object which could be dimly seen and identified as a child, whether dead or living it was not possible to say. The legs of the appearance alone could be plainly discerned, and they were horribly thin.

From five to seven the three companions sat and watched the picture by turns. But it never changed. They agreed at last that it would be safe to leave it, and that they would return after Hall and await further developments.

When they assembled again, at the earliest possible moment, the engraving was there, but the figure was gone, and the house was quiet under the moonbeams. There was nothing for it but to spend the evening over gazetteers and guide-books. Williams was the lucky one at last, and perhaps he deserved it. At 11.30 p.m. he read from Murray’s Guide to Essex the following lines:

“16½ miles, Anningley. The church has been an interesting building of Norman date, but was extensively classicized in the last century. It contains the tombs of the family of Francis, whose mansion, Anningley Hall, a solid Queen Anne house, stands immediately beyond the churchyard in a park of about 80 acres. The family is now extinct, the last heir having disappeared mysteriously in infancy in the year 1802. The father, Mr. Arthur Francis, was locally known as a talented amateur engraver in mezzotint. After his son’s disappearance he lived in complete retirement at the Hall, and was found dead in his studio on the third anniversary of the disaster, having just completed an engraving of the house, impressions of which are of considerable rarity.”

This looked like business, and, indeed, Mr. Green on his return at once identified the house as Anningley Hall.

“Is there any kind of explanation of the figure Green?” was the question which Williams naturally asked.

“I don’t know, I’m sure, Williams. What used to be said in the place when I first knew it, which was before I came up here, was just this: old Francis was always very much down on these poaching fellows, and whenever he got a chance he used to get a man whom he suspected of it turned off the estate, and by degrees he got rid of them all but one. Squires could do a lot of things then that they daren’t think of now. Well, this man that was left was what you find pretty often in that country–the last remains of a very old family. I believe they were Lords of the Manor at one time. I recollect just the same thing in my own parish.”

“What, like the man in Tess of the D’Urbervilles?” Williams put in.

“Yes, I dare say; it’s not a book I could ever read myself. But this fellow could show a row of tombs in the church there that belonged to his ancestors, and all that went to sour him a bit; but Francis, they said, could never get at him–he always kept just on the right side of the law–until one night the keepers found him at it in a wood right at the end of the estate. I could show you the place now; it marches with some land that used to belong to an uncle of mine. And you can imagine there was a row; and this man Gawdy (that was the name, to be sure–Gawdy; I thought I should get it–Gawdy), he was unlucky enough, poor chap! to shoot a keeper. Well, that was what Francis wanted, and grand juries–you know what they would have been then–and poor Gawdy was strung up in double-quick time; and I’ve been shown the place he was buried in, on the north side of the church–you know the way in that part of the world: anyone that’s been hanged or made away with themselves, they bury them that side. And the idea was that some friend of Gawdy’s–not a relation, because he had none, poor devil! he was the last of his line: kind of spes ultima gentis–must have planned to get hold of Francis’s boy and put an end to his line, too. I don’t know–it’s rather an out-of-the-way thing for an Essex poacher to think of–but, you know, I should say now it looks more as if old Gawdy had managed the job himself. Booh! I hate to think of it! have some whisky, Williams!”

The facts were communicated by Williams to Dennistoun, and by him to a mixed company, of which I was one, and the Sadducean Professor of Ophiology another. I am sorry to say that the latter when asked what he thought of it, only remarked: “Oh, those Bridgeford people will say anything”– a sentiment which met with the reception it deserved.

I have only to add that the picture is now in the Ashleian Museum; that it has been treated with a view to discovering whether sympathetic ink has been used in it, but without effect; that Mr. Britnell knew nothing of it save that he was sure it was uncommon; and that, though carefully watched, it has never been known to change again.

M.R. James

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

from The collected ghost stories of M.R. James
Edward Arnold & Co., (1931, 1944 ed.)
This story was originally published in 1904.

 

 

Mrs. Joachim on her 90th birthday, January 24th 2008.

‘The Mezzotint’ was one of the stories which the second of my beloved English teachers, Mrs. Audrey Joachim (nee Sansoni) read aloud to us in Second Form Literature class.
It is one of the stories I clearly remember her reading, besides ‘The Invisible Man’ by G.K. Chesterton, and some others about ‘Father Brown’.  There were certainly many others – surely I seem to remember some by Victor Hugo  – perhaps ‘The Bishop’s Candlesticks’ – and an excerpt  or two about Flambeau, but ‘The Mezzotint’ was the story which deliciously and horrifically  lodged itself in my memory forever.

If anyone is able to lay her hands on the Methodist College, Colombo, Second Form English booklist for 1967, the name of the anthology from which Mrs. Joachim read to us would there be found.

Wedding photograph of Audrey Louise Sansoni and Kenneth Graydon Joachim, July 29th 1944, Colombo, Ceylon.

What a treasure of a teacher Mrs. Joachim was: She taught us without a trace of harshness or unkindness. Her bright blue eyes always sparkled from behind her wire-rimmed glasses, and her prematurely snow-white hair always held its crisp, natural wave. She wore neatly tailored cotton dresses, and always looked cool and fresh, in contrast to us schoolgirlswho by the afternoon trooped into class with crumpled uniforms and dirt-scuffed canvas shoes, much the worse for the pipe-clayed whiteness with which they began the day.

Mrs. Joachim also taught us Maths: the Pythagoras and Appolonius theorems in our Geometry class, and factoring and binomials (perhaps trinomials as well) in Algebra. I had a few precious moments with Jokka (which is how we girls referred

November 2008, Mulgrave, Melbourne, Australia.

to her among ourselves)  when I visited her Melbourne retirement home in 2008, a visit I was nearly prevented from making because of the ‘no visitors’ rule occasioned by an outbreak of a stomach-flu bug in the facility.  My old class-mate Janis Armitage (now Thiedeman) very kindly drove me to Mulgrave one late afternoon, and we were able to chat for a little bit.  Janis took our photographs, and I took some as well, among them pictures of Mrs. Joachim’s wedding photograph which she had  hanging on her wall. Mrs. Joachim showed me letters she had received from our old principal Miss Grace Robbins, and I took some pictures of those as well.

Our redoubtable Miss.Robbins, who I suppose must have have been born around 1895,  was the daughter of a ship’s captain from Hull, and the rumor among us girls, who lived in fear of ever being transfixed by her gaze,  was that she had a glass eye.

Mrs. Joachim gave us our Literature lesson in a classroom on the top floor of Restarick Hall. We ran up the stairs and along a short passage with windows to our left and another classroom to our right. Restarick was named in honour of (and perhaps was also the residence of)  Reverend  A.E. Restarick, who had been the pastor of The Methodist Church Kolpetty  from 1917 – 1930. If those dedicated old educators and missionaries from decades past could have looked down and caught a glimpse of our teacher and her little cluster of pupils, they would no doubt have been pleased at the love of the written word – and so much more –  our wonderful Mrs. Joachim passed on to us.

Miss Robbins' handwriting.

Miss Grace Robbins

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Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (January 29th 1860 - July 15th 1904)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE twilight of evening. Big flakes of wet snow are whirling lazily about the street lamps, which have just been lighted, and lying in a thin soft layer on roofs, horses’ backs, shoulders, caps. Iona Potapov, the sledge-driver, is all white like a ghost. He sits on the box without stirring, bent as double as the living body can be bent. If a regular snowdrift fell on him it seems as though even then he would not think it necessary to shake it off. . . . His little mare is white and motionless too. Her stillness, the angularity of her lines, and the stick-like straightness of her legs make her look like a halfpenny gingerbread horse. She is probably lost in thought. Anyone who has been torn away from the plough, from the familiar gray landscapes, and cast into this slough, full of monstrous lights, of unceasing uproar and hurrying people, is bound to think.

It is a long time since Iona and his nag have budged. They came out of the yard before dinnertime and not a single fare yet. But now the shades of evening are falling on the town. The pale light of the street lamps changes to a vivid color, and the bustle of the street grows noisier.

“Sledge to Vyborgskaya!” Iona hears. “Sledge!”

Iona starts, and through his snow-plastered eyelashes sees an officer in a military overcoat with a hood over his head.

“To Vyborgskaya,” repeats the officer. “Are you asleep? To Vyborgskaya!”

In token of assent Iona gives a tug at the reins which sends cakes of snow flying from the horse’s back and
shoulders. The officer gets into the sledge. The sledge-driver clicks to the horse, cranes his neck like a swan, rises in his seat, and more from habit than necessity brandishes his whip. The mare cranes her neck, too, crooks her stick-like legs, and hesitatingly sets off. . . .

“Where are you shoving, you devil?” Iona immediately hears shouts from the dark mass shifting to and fro before him. “Where the devil are you going? Keep to the r-right!”

“You don’t know how to drive! Keep to the right,” says the officer angrily.

A coachman driving a carriage swears at him; a pedestrian crossing the road and brushing the horse’s nose with his shoulder looks at him angrily and shakes the snow off his sleeve. Iona fidgets on the box as though he were sitting on thorns, jerks his elbows, and turns his eyes about like one possessed as though he did not know where he was or why he was there.

“What rascals they all are!” says the officer jocosely. “They are simply doing their best to run up against you or fall under the horse’s feet. They must be doing it on purpose.”

Iona looks as his fare and moves his lips. . . . Apparently he means to say something, but nothing comes but a sniff.

“What?” inquires the officer.

Iona gives a wry smile, and straining his throat, brings out huskily: “My son . . . er . . . my son died this week, sir.”

“H’m! What did he die of?”

Iona turns his whole body round to his fare, and says:

“Who can tell! It must have been from fever. . . . He lay three days in the hospital and then he died. . . . God’s will.”

“Turn round, you devil!” comes out of the darkness. “Have you gone cracked, you old dog? Look where you are going!”

“Drive on! drive on! . . .” says the officer. “We shan’t get there till to-morrow going on like this. Hurry up!”

The sledge-driver cranes his neck again, rises in his seat, and with heavy grace swings his whip. Several times he looks round at the officer, but the latter keeps his eyes shut and is apparently disinclined to listen. Putting his fare down at Vyborgskaya, Iona stops by a restaurant, and again sits huddled up on the box. . . . Again the wet snow paints him and his horse white. One hour passes, and then another. . . .

Three young men, two tall and thin, one short and hunchbacked, come up, railing at each other and loudly stamping on the pavement with their goloshes.

“Cabby, to the Police Bridge!” the hunchback cries in a cracked voice. “The three of us, . . . twenty kopecks!”

Iona tugs at the reins and clicks to his horse. Twenty kopecks is not a fair price, but he has no thoughts for that. Whether it is a rouble or whether it is five kopecks does not matter to him now so long as he has a fare. . . . The three young men, shoving each other and using bad language, go up to the sledge, and all three try to sit down at once. The question remains to be settled: Which are to sit down and which one is to stand? After a long altercation, ill-temper, and abuse, they come to the conclusion that the hunchback must stand because he is the shortest.

“Well, drive on,” says the hunchback in his cracked voice, settling himself and breathing down Iona’s neck. “Cut along! What a cap you’ve got, my friend! You wouldn’t find a worse one in all Petersburg. . . .”

“He-he! . . . he-he! . . .” laughs Iona. “It’s nothing to boast of!”

“Well, then, nothing to boast of, drive on! Are you going to drive like this all the way? Eh? Shall I give you one in the neck?”

“My head aches,” says one of the tall ones. “At the Dukmasovs’ yesterday Vaska and I drank four bottles of brandy between us.”

“I can’t make out why you talk such stuff,” says the other tall one angrily. “You lie like a brute.”

“Strike me dead, it’s the truth! . . .”

“It’s about as true as that a louse coughs.”

“He-he!” grins Iona. “Me-er-ry gentlemen!”

“Tfoo! the devil take you!” cries the hunchback indignantly. “Will you get on, you old plague, or won’t you? Is that the way to drive? Give her one with the whip. Hang it all, give it her well.”

Iona feels behind his back the jolting person and quivering voice of the hunchback. He hears abuse addressed to him, he sees people, and the feeling of loneliness begins little by little to be less heavy on his heart. The hunchback swears at him, till he chokes over some elaborately whimsical string of epithets and is overpowered by his cough. His tall companions begin talking of a certain Nadyezhda Petrovna. Iona looks round at them. Waiting till there is a brief pause, he looks round once more and says:

“This week . . . er. . . my. . . er. . . son died!”

“We shall all die, . . .” says the hunchback with a sigh, wiping his lips after coughing. “Come, drive on! drive on! My friends, I simply cannot stand crawling like this! When will he get us there?”

“Well, you give him a little encouragement . . . one in the neck!”

“Do you hear, you old plague? I’ll make you smart. If one stands on ceremony with fellows like you one may as well walk. Do you hear, you old dragon? Or don’t you care a hang what we say? ”

And Iona hears rather than feels a slap on the back of his neck.

“He-he! . . . ” he laughs. “Merry gentlemen . . . . God give you health!”

“Cabman, are you married?” asks one of the tall ones.

“I? He he! Me-er-ry gentlemen. The only wife for me now is the damp earth. . . . He-ho-ho!. . . .The grave that is! . . . Here my son’s dead and I am alive. . . . It’s a strange thing, death has come in at the wrong door. . . . Instead of coming for me it went for my son. . . .”

And Iona turns round to tell them how his son died, but at that point the hunchback gives a faint sigh and announces that, thank God! they have arrived at last. After taking his twenty kopecks, Iona gazes for a long while after the revelers, who disappear into a dark entry. Again he is alone and again there is silence for him. . . . The misery which has been for a brief space eased comes back again and tears his heart more cruelly than ever. With a look of anxiety and suffering Iona’s eyes stray restlessly among the crowds moving to and fro on both sides of the street: can he not find among those thousands someone who will listen to him? But the crowds flit by heedless of him and his misery. . . . His misery is immense, beyond all bounds. If Iona’s heart were to burst and his misery to flow out, it would flood the whole world, it seems, but yet it is not seen. It has found a hiding-place in such an insignificant shell that one would not have found it with a candle by daylight. . . .

Iona sees a house-porter with a parcel and makes up his mind to address him.

“What time will it be, friend?” he asks.

“Going on for ten. . . . Why have you stopped here? Drive on!”

Iona drives a few paces away, bends himself double, and gives himself up to his misery. He feels it is no good to appeal to people. But before five minutes have passed he draws himself up, shakes his head as though he feels a sharp pain, and tugs at the reins. . . . He can bear it no longer.

“Back to the yard!” he thinks. “To the yard!” And his little mare, as though she knew his thoughts, falls to trotting. An hour and a half later Iona is sitting by a big dirty stove. On the stove, on the floor, and on the benches are people snoring. The air is full of smells and stuffiness. Iona looks at the sleeping figures, scratches himself, and regrets that he has come home so early. . . .

“I have not earned enough to pay for the oats, even,” he thinks. “That’s why I am so miserable. A man who knows how to do his work, . . . who has had enough to eat, and whose horse has had enough to eat, is always at ease. . . .”

In one of the corners a young cabman gets up, clears his throat sleepily, and makes for the water-bucket.

“Want a drink?” Iona asks him.

“Seems so.”

“May it do you good. . . . But my son is dead, mate. . . . Do you hear? This week in the hospital. . . . It’s a queer business. . . .”

Iona looks to see the effect produced by his words, but he sees nothing. The young man has covered his head over and is already asleep. The old man sighs and scratches himself. . . . Just as the young man had been thirsty for water, he thirsts for speech. His son will soon have been dead a week, and he has not really talked to anybody yet . . . . He wants to talk of it properly, with deliberation. . . . He wants to tell how his son was taken ill, how he suffered, what he said before he died, how he died. . . . He wants to describe the funeral, and how he went to the hospital to get his son’s clothes. He still has his daughter Anisya in the country. . . . And he wants to talk about her too. . . . Yes, he has plenty to talk about now. His listener ought to sigh and exclaim and lament. . . . It would be even better to talk to women. Though they are silly creatures, they blubber at the first word.

“Let’s go out and have a look at the mare,” Iona thinks. “There is always time for sleep. . . . You’ll have sleep enough, no fear. . . .”

He puts on his coat and goes into the stables where his mare is standing. He thinks about oats, about hay, about the weather. . . . He cannot think about his son when he is alone. . . . To talk about him with someone is possible, but to think of him and picture him is insufferable anguish. . . .

“Are you munching?” Iona asks his mare, seeing her shining eyes. “There, munch away, munch away. . . . Since we have not earned enough for oats, we will eat hay. . . . Yes, . . . I have grown too old to drive. . . . My son ought to be driving, not I. . . . He was a real cabman. . . . He ought to have lived. . . .”

Iona is silent for a while, and then he goes on:

“That’s how it is, old girl. . . . Kuzma Ionitch is gone. . . . He said good-by to me. . . . He went and died for no reason. . . . Now, suppose you had a little colt, and you were own mother to that little colt. . . . And all at once that same little colt went and died. . . . You’d be sorry, wouldn’t you? . . .”

The little mare munches, listens, and breathes on her master’s hands. Iona is carried away and tells her all about it.

 

 

There is nothing one can say in order to enlarge upon a Chekhov short-story. It speaks for itself and says everything that can possibly be said about its subject. We can only justly speak about the the rock-hard grain of insight he has embedded in the heart of his account.  The unblinking eye Chekhov casts upon human nature is coldly dispassionate, even as he urges us to feel compassion.

‘Misery’ is about a man whose heart is on the verge of crumbling into grief, but it is a grief which cannot be eased by sharing: Not because it cannot be spoken, but  because there is simply no one in his whole world who will give him an ear, even for a moment.

The callousness and self-centredness  Iona the cabman encounters in his passengers, so busy with their useless comings and goings, makes them oblivious to his pitiful situation. Somehow, the lack of awareness and feeling that blinds them to all but the most single-minded focus on fulfilling their trivial needs swamps their ability to be humane in the slightest of ways. Iona’s offer of a drink of water from the common pail to one of the lodgers in his flophouse fails to engage the young man in the conversation Iona longs to have, because the lodger is too exhausted himself to stay awake long enough to listen: exhaustion  is just another type of incapacity.

Iona too is oblivious in his own way. At the careless bidding of his oafish passengers, he  unhesitatingly brandishes his whip at his hard-working little mare, and it doesn’t seem to worry him that at the close of an exhausting day of pulling a hack in the bitter cold of a Russian winter, she goes unfed but for a little hay.

He knows he could confide in his daughter Anisya who lives in the country, but deigns not to,  perhaps because she is unavailable at the time, but also perhaps because he finds women to be too foolish, and their emotions to be merely reflexive. These things – which the ruthless Chekhovian eye takes in, make it difficult for me to summon up the empathy and compassion I know I am being required to feel.

And that of course is something which could be construed as ‘original sin’ in us humans. It does not come naturally to most of us to care about others. We too keep missing the moment of potential connection, for any number of reasons – trivial or otherwise – or merely because of our unconscious habit.

Katherine Mansfield was a fervent admirer of  Chekhov in general, but of this story in particular, and it is easy to see why.  Like many of her own stories, it unfolds rapidly –  over a single day – in this case a single evening. Chekhov differs from Mansfield in that his prose style has more weight – more gravity – and his narrative possesses more external and chronological order. On the other hand, one finds that Mansfield’s stories are more dominated by imagistic connections – we experience moments as being connected by perception rather than thoughts.

This is a shift that separates Mansfield’s ‘Modernist’ writing from all its predecessors. It is strictly a female innovation, though it was enthusiastically adopted by men such as James Joyce. One also feels that Mansfield observes and infers, but does not judge or conclude, whereas Chekhov does both, or at least he leads us to the edge of the precipice of judgement so forcefully that our own momentum carries us beyond it.

When we cast an historical eye backwards on the crushing exigencies of Iona’s life, events such as the Russian Revolution make much more sense – and with greater immediacy – than the most acute political analysis ever could. Chekhov sharply sketches the just complaints of one class against another and crystalises them with brutal economy.

When my mind inevitably turns to speculations about the fate of Iona and his little mare, the picture I see turns dismayingly from grey to black. Iona will whip her, and over-work her, and soon she will be on the brink of death  of starvation and exhaustion. He will then escort her to the knacker’s yard, kiss her goodbye, and sell her  for a few kopeks.  Then he will make his way to the home of his daughter, and she will have to  take him in, as the couple had to in Robert Frost’s  poem ‘The Death of the Hired Man’. Home usually turns out to be any place of last resort.  Like his similarly unlucky  biblical namesake, Iona’s time spent in the city, swallowed in the belly of leviathan, is likely to be returned by fate to the place where he is destined to be.  We can hope that he will end his days working with his daugher on the farm he used to plough with his little white mare.

Chekhov died of tuberculosis in 1904 at the age of 44 – sixteen years before the Russian  Revolution.  He lived ten years longer than Mansfield, (who died of the same disease when she was 34,) and left behind a much larger body of work than she was able to.  But in a sense, to me at least, Chekhov’s writing is ‘more of the same’.  One reads his story as a listener, and not as an experiencer.  Events are ‘observed’ from in front of the eyes, and not behind them, and  that, to my mind, is one of the essential difference between Chekhov and Mansfield.

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