Authors: Djuna Barnes
PREFACE BYJEANETTE WINTERSONINTRODUCTION BYT. S. ELIOT
A New Directions Book
ToPEGGY GUGGENHEIMandJOHN FERRAR HOLMSCONTENTS
Preface by Jeanette Winterson
Introduction by T. S. Eliot
WATCHMAN, WHAT OF THE NIGHT?
WHERE THE TREE FALLS
GO DOWN, MATTHEW
Certain texts work in homeopathic dilutions; that is, nano amounts effect significant change over long periods of time.
Nightwoodis a nano-text.
It is, in any case, not quite two hundred pages long, and more people have heard about it than have read it. Reading it is mainly the preserve of academics and students. Others have a vague sense that it is a Modernist text, that T. S. Eliot adored it, that Dylan Thomas called it “one of the three great prose books ever written by a woman,” (accept the compliment to DB, ignore the insult directed elsewhere), that the work is an important milestone on any map of gay literature—even though, like all the best books, its power makes nonsense of any categorization, especially of gender or sexuality.
Nightwoodis itself. It is its own created world, exotic and strange, and reading it is like drinking wine with a pearl dissolving in the glass. You have taken in more than you know, and it will go on doing its work. From now on, a part of you is pearl-lined.
In his Introduction, Eliot talks about the necessity of readingNightwoodmore than once—because the second reading will feel very different to the first. This is true.
In our society, where it is hard to find time to do anything properly, even once, the leisure—which is part of the pleasure—of reading is one of our culture-casualties.
For us, books have turned into fast food, to be consumed in the gaps between one bout of relentless living and the next. Airports, subways, maybe half an hour at bedtime, maybe something with the office sandwich, isn’t really ideal. At least at the cinema, or at the theater, or at a concert, or even in a gallery, some real time has to be set aside. Books have been squeezed in, which goes a long way towards explaining why our appetite for literature is waning, and our allergic reaction to anything demanding is on the rise.
Nightwoodis demanding. You can slide into it, because the prose has a narcotic quality, but you can’t slide over it. The language is not about conveying information; it is about conveying meaning. There is much more to this book than its story, which is slight, or even its characters, who are magnificent tricks of the light. This is not the solid nineteenth-century world of narrative, it is the shifting, slipping, relative world of Einstein and the Modernists, the twin assault by science and art on what we thought we were sure of.
That is why, inNightwood, Baron Felix represents a world that is disappearing. It is why he is so confused about the world he must live in, and why his son Guido is a kind of holy fool. As Gertrude Stein put it so well, “There is no there there.” You can read this twice—as a comment on matter, and a warning against consolation.
There is no consolation inNightwood. There is a wild intensity, recklessness, defiance in the face of suffering. All the characters are exiles of one kind or another—American, Irish, Austrian, Jewish. This is the beginning of the modern diaspora—all peoples, all places, all change.
Djuna Barnes’s 1920s/30s Paris is a Paris on the cusp of leaving behind forever the haute world of Henry James, taken from Proust. That is a world where the better people dine in the Bois, and where open horse-drawn carriages still circle the park. It is in this world that the eager hands of Jenny Petherbridge first claw at Robin Vote, the American whom we meet passed out dead drunk in one of the new class of “middle” hotels, designed for a new kind of tourist—definitely not of the old world of servants and steamer trunks.
Seedy Paris of whores and cheap bars has not yet begun to change. It is to this world that Robin Vote is drawn; the night-time world, where she will not be judged, and where she can find the anonymity of a stranger’s embrace. This world is faithfully tracked and searched by Robin’s lover, Nora Flood, hunting faint imprints of her errant amour, sometimes finding her, collapsed with drink, and threatened by police, beggars, and women on the make.
It is a bleak picture of love between women. Jenny Petherbridge avid and ruthless. “When she fell in love it was with a perfect fury of accumulated dishonesty; she became instantly a dealer in second-hand and therefore incalculable emotions…. she appropriated the most passionate love that she knew, Nora’s for Robin. She was a ‘squatter’ by instinct.”
Nora Flood, “‘I have been loved,’ she said, ‘by something strange, and it has forgotten me.’”
Robin Vote “sitting with her legs thrust out, her head thrown back against the embossed cushion of the chair, sleeping, one arm fallen over the chair’s side, the hand somehow older and wiser than her body.”
Robin’s passivity, Jenny’s predatory nature, and Nora’s passionate devotion make an impossible triangle. The daily assaults of selfishness and self-harm do not offer a picture of love between women as anything safe or easy. A negative reading would sink us into the misery of the “invert,” the medical pathology of Havelock Ellis, and the bitterness of Radclyffe Hall andThe Well of Loneliness(1928).
Djuna Barnes was well aware of these readings, and her own Paris community had its fair share of destroyed lives—think of Renée Vivien or Dolly Wilde. Djuna Barnes had spoofed the gay and not so gay times of her circle inLadies Almanack, but if she was able to lampoon it—and that in itself is much healthier than Radclyffe Hall’s miserable mopings—then she was also able to celebrate it.
Nightwoodhas neither stereotypes nor caricatures; there is a truth to these damaged hearts that moves us beyond the negative. Humans suffer, and, gay or straight, they break themselves into pieces, blur themselves with drink and drugs, choose the wrong lover, crucify themselves on their own longings, and let’s not forget, are crucified by a world that fears the stranger—whether in life or in love.
InNightwood, they are all strangers, and they speak to those of us who are always, or just sometimes the stranger, or the ones who open the door to find the stranger standing outside.
And yet, there is great dignity in Nora’s love for Robin, written without cliché or compromise in the full-blown archetypal language of romance. We are left in no doubt that this love is worthy of greatness—that it is great. As the doctor, Matthew O’Connor, remarks, ‘“Nora will leave that girl some day; but though those two are buried at opposite ends of the earth, one dog will find them both.’”
“Grave” would have been a cliché, “dog” is a snapping stroke of genius. That’s how alive is the language of this text.
Robin, Nora, Jenny. Robin’s brief and disastrous marriage to Baron Felix, Felix’s own story of inferiority and loss, the underworld life of Paris, all are seen through the glittering eyes of a creature half leprechaun, half angel, half freak, half savant, half man, half woman, the “doctor,” Matthew-Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante-O’Connor.
It is the doctor who first finds Robin Vote drowned in drink. The doctor who becomes the confidante of Felix, and urges him to carry his son’s mind “‘like a bowl picked up in the dark; you do not know what’s in it.’”
It is the doctor who talks his way through life as though words were a needle and thread that could mend it. When Nora finally comes to him, in the blackness of her despair, he talks her through it, alright, sitting up in his tiny iron bed, in a servant’s room at the top of a house, the slop bucket to one side, “brimming with abominations.”
The doctor is wearing full make-up, a nightgown, and a woman’s wig—he had been expecting someone else, but he begins his speech, as good as Molly Bloom’s soliloquy inUlysses, and this episode is a linguistic, artistic, and emotional triumph. It matters that it is emotional.Nightwoodis not afraid of feeling. It is not a glittering high-wire act, its pearls are deep-dived, and then dissolved into the language.
The best texts are time machines; they are of their moment, and can tell it, and they can take us back there later. But they are something more, too—they live on into the future because they were never strapped into time.
Most of what we hype is time-bound, and soon vanishes. Indeed, a good test of a work of art is that it goes on interesting us long after any contemporary relevance is dead. We don’t go to Shakespeare to find out about life in Elizabethan England; we go to Shakespeare to find out about ourselves now.
Djuna Barnes’s Paris is of its moment; yetNightwoodhas survived not as a slice of history, but as a work of art. The excitements and atmosphere of her period are there, but there is nothing locked-in aboutNightwood.
Readers in 1936, whenNightwoodwas published in Britain, would have been uncomfortably aware of Hitler’s rise and rise, and his notorious propaganda offensive at the Berlin Olympic Games—remember, Strength Through Joy?
It was the year of the British Abdication Crisis, when Edward VIII chose his American mistress, Wallace Simpson, over the English throne.
In America, other women were in the headlines—Margaret Mitchell publishedGone With The Wind, and Clare Boothe Luce’s stageplay,The Women, was taking Broadway by storm.
It was also the start of the Spanish Civil War.
Nightwoodisn’t directly connected to any of this—a good example of why we must be careful of muddling up a work of art, or not one, with its subject matter.
Art isn’t rarefied or aloof, but it may have different concerns to the general—for instance, the Napoleonic Wars are never mentioned by Jane Austen, although she was living and working right through them.
Nightwood, peculiar, eccentric, particular, shaded against the insistence of too much daylight, is a book for introverts, in that we are all introverts in our after-hours secrets and deepest loves.
Our world, this one now, wants everything on the outside, displayed and confessed, but really it cannot be so. The private dialogue of reading is an old-fashioned confessional, and better for it. What you admit here, what the book admits to you, is between you both and left there.Nightwoodis a place where much can be said—and left unsaid.
For the rest of my life I will be climbing those stairs with Nora to the doctor’s filthy garret.
Why? Something ofNightwoodhas lodged in me.
It is not my story, or my experience, it is not my voice or my fear. It is, through its language, a true-shot arrow, a wound that is also a remedy.Nightwoodopens a place that does not easily skin over.
There is pain in who we are, and the pain of love—because love itself is an opening and a wound—is a pain no one escapes except by escaping life itself.
Nightwoodis not an escape-text. It writes into the center of human anguish, unrelieved, but in its dignity and its defiance, it becomes, by strange alchemy, its own salve.
“‘Is there such extraordinary need of misery to make beauty?’” asks the doctor, but the answer is already written: Yes.
When the question is raised, of writing an introduction to a book of a creative order, I always feel that the few books worth introducing are exactly those which it is an impertinence to introduce. I have already committed two such impertinences; this is the third, and if it is not the last no one will be more surprised than myself. I can justify this preface only in the following way. One is liable to expect other people to see, on their first reading of a book, all that one has come to perceive in the course of a developing intimacy with it. I have readNightwooda number of times, in manuscript, in proof, and after publication. What one can do for other readers—assuming that if you read this preface at all you will read it first—is to trace the more significant phases of one’s own appreciation of it. For it took me, with this book, some time to come to an appreciation of its meaning as a whole.
In describingNightwoodfor the purpose of attracting readers to the English edition, I said that it would “appeal primarily to readers of poetry.” This is well enough for the brevity of advertisement, but I am glad to take this opportunity to amplify it a little. I do not want to suggest that the distinction of the book is primarily verbal, and still less that the astonishing language covers a vacuity of content. Unless the term “novel” has become too debased to apply, and if it means a book in which living characters are created and shown in significant relationship, this book is a novel. And I do not mean that Miss Barnes’s style is “poetic prose.” But I do mean that most contemporary novels are not really “written.” They obtain what reality they have largely from an accurate rendering of the noises that human beings currently make in their daily simple needs of communication; and what part of a novel is not composed of these noises consists of a prose which is no more alive than that of a competent newspaper writer or government official. A prose that is altogether alive demands something of the reader that the ordinary novel-reader is not prepared to give. To say thatNightwoodwill appeal primarily to readers of poetry does not mean that it is not a novel, but that it is so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it. Miss Barnes’s prose has the prose rhythm that is prose style, and the musical pattern which is not that of verse. This prose rhythm may be more or less complex or elaborate, according to the purposes of the writer; but whether simple or complex, it is what raises the matter to be communicated, to the first intensity.
When I first read the book I found the opening movement rather slow and dragging, until the appearance of the doctor. And throughout the first reading, I was under the impression that it was the doctor alone who gave the book its vitality; and I believed the final chapter to be superfluous. I am now convinced that the final chapter is essential, both dramatically and musically. It was notable, however, that as the other characters, on repeated reading, became alive for me, and while the focus shifted, the figure of the doctor was by no means diminished. On the contrary, he came to take on a different and more profound importance when seen as a constituent of a whole pattern. He ceased to be like the brilliant actor in an otherwise unpersuasively performed play for whose re-entrance one impatiently waits. However in actual life such a character might seem to engross conversation, quench reciprocity, and blanket less voluble people; in the book his role is nothing of the kind. At first we only hear the doctor talking; we do not understand why he talks. Gradually one comes to see that together with his egotism and swagger—Dr. Matthew-Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante-O’-Connor—he has also a desperate disinterestedness and a deep humility. His humility does not often appear so centrally as in the prodigious scene in the empty church, but it is what throughout gives him his helpless power among the helpless. His monologues, brilliant and witty in themselves as they are, are not dictated by an indifference to other human beings, but on the contrary by a hypersensitive awareness of them. When Nora comes to visit him in the night (Watchman, What of the Night?) he perceives at once that the only thing he can do for her (“he was extremely put out, having expected someone else”)—the only way to “save the situation”—is to talk torrentially, even though she hardly takes in anything he says, but reverts again and again to her obsession. It is his revulsion against the strain of squeezing himself dry for other people, and getting no sustenance in return, that sends him raving at the end.The people in my life who have made my life miserable, coming to me to learn of degradation and the night.But most of the time he is talking to drown the still small wailing and whining of humanity, to make more supportable its shame and less ignoble its misery.
Indeed, such a character as Doctor O’Connor could not be real alone in a gallery of dummies: such a character needs other real, if less conscious, people in order to realize his own reality. I cannot think of any character in the book who has not gone on living in my mind. Felix and his child are oppressively real. Sometimes in a phrase the characters spring to life so suddenly that one is taken aback, as if one had touched a wax-work figure and discovered that it was a live policeman. The doctor says to Nora,I was doing well enough until you kicked my stone over, and out I came, all moss and eyes.Robin Vote (the most puzzling of all, because we find her quite real without quite understanding the means by which the author has made her so) isthe vision of an eland coming down an aisle of trees, chapleted with orange-blossoms and bridal veil, a hoof raised in the economy of fear; and later she hastemples like those of young beasts cutting horns, as if they were sleeping eyes.Sometimes also a situation, which we had already comprehended loosely, is concentrated into a horror of intensity by a phrase, as when Nora suddenly thinks on seeing the doctor in bed,“God, children know something they can’t tell; they like Red Riding Hood and the wolf in bed!”
The book is not simply a collection of individual portraits; the characters are all knotted together, as people are in real life, by what we may call chance or destiny, rather than by deliberate choice of each other’s company: it is the whole pattern that they form, rather than any individual constituent, that is the focus of interest. We come to know them through their effect on each other, and by what they say to each other about the others. And finally, it ought to be superfluous to observe—but perhaps to anyone reading the book for the first time, it is not superfluous—that the book is not a psychopathic study. The miseries that people suffer through their particular abnormalities of temperament are visible on the surface: the deeper design is that of the human misery and bondage which is universal. In normal lives this misery is mostly concealed; often, what is most wretched of all, concealed from the sufferer more effectively than from the observer. The sick man does not know what is wrong with him; he partly wants to know, and mostly wants to conceal the knowledge from himself. In the Puritan morality that I remember, it was tacitly assumed that if one was thrifty, enterprising, intelligent, practical and prudent in not violating social conventions, one ought to have a happy and “successful” life. Failure was due to some weakness or perversity peculiar to the individual; but the decent man need have no nightmares. It is now rather more common to assume that all individual misery is the fault of “society,” and is remediable by alterations from without. Fundamentally the two philosophies, however different they may appear in operation, are the same. It seems to me that all of us, so far as we attach ourselves to created objects and surrender our wills to temporal ends, are eaten by the same worm. Taken in this way,Nightwoodappears with profounder significance. To regard this group of people as a horrid sideshow of freaks is not only to miss the point, but to confirm our wills and harden our hearts in an inveterate sin of pride.
I should have considered the foregoing paragraph impertinent, and perhaps too pretentious for a preface meant to be a simple recommendation of a book I greatly admire, were it not that one review (at least), intended in praise of the book, has already appeared which would in effect induce the reader to begin with this mistaken attitude. Otherwise, generally, in trying to anticipate a reader’s misdirections, one is in danger of provoking him to some other misunderstanding unforeseen. This is a work of creative imagination, not a philosophical treatise. As I said at the beginning, I am conscious of impertinence in introducing the book at all; and to have read a book a good many times does not necessarily put one in the right knowledge of what to say to those who have not yet read it. What I would leave the reader prepared to find is the great achievement of a style, the beauty of phrasing, the brilliance of wit and characterisation, and a quality of horror and doom very nearly related to that of Elizabethan tragedy.
T. S. Eliot
Note to Second Edition
The foregoing preface, as the reader will have just observed, was written twelve years ago. As my admiration for the book has not diminished, and my only motive for revision would be to remove or conceal evidences of my own immaturity at the time of writing—a temptation which may present itself to any critic reviewing his own words at twelve years’ distance—I have thought best to leave unaltered a preface which may still, I hope, serve its original purpose of indicating an approach which seems to me helpful for the new reader.
Early in 1880, in spite of a well-founded suspicion as to the advisability of perpetuating that race which has the sanction of the Lord and the disapproval of the people, Hedvig Volkbein—a Viennese woman of great strength and military beauty, lying upon a canopied bed of a rich spectacular crimson, the valance stamped with the bifurcated wings of the House of Hapsburg, the feather coverlet an envelope of satin on which, in massive and tarnished gold threads, stood the Volkbein arms—gave birth, at the age of forty-five, to an only child, a son, seven days after her physician predicted that she would be taken.
Turning upon this field, which shook to the clatter of morning horses in the street beyond, with the gross splendour of a general saluting the flag, she named him Felix, thrust him from her, and died. The child’s father had gone six months previously, a victim of fever. Guido Volkbein, a Jew of Italian descent, had been both a gourmet and a dandy, never appearing in public without the ribbon of some quite unknown distinction tinging his buttonhole with a faint thread. He had been small, rotund, and haughtily timid, his stomach protruding slightly in an upward jutting slope that brought into prominence the buttons of his waistcoat and trousers, marking the exact centre of his body with the obstetric line seen on fruits—the inevitable arc produced by heavy rounds of burgundy, schlagsahne, and beer.
The autumn, binding him about, as no other season, with racial memories, a season of longing and of horror, he had called his weather. Then walking in the Prater he had been seen carrying in a conspicuously clenched fist the exquisite handkerchief of yellow and black linen that cried aloud of the ordinance of 1468, issued by one Pietro Barbo, demanding that, with a rope about its neck, Guido’s race should run in the Corso for the amusement of the Christian populace, while ladies of noble birth, sitting upon spines too refined for rest, arose from their seats, and, with the red-gowned cardinals and theMonsignori, applauded with that cold yet hysterical abandon of a people that is at once unjust and happy, the very Pope himself shaken down from his hold on heaven with the laughter of a man who forgoes his angels that he may recapture the beast. This memory and the handkerchief that accompanied it had wrought in Guido (as certain flowers brought to a pitch of florid ecstasy no sooner attain their specific type than they fall into its decay) the sum total of what is the Jew. He had walked, hot, incautious and damned, his eyelids quivering over the thick eyeballs, black with the pain of a participation that, four centuries later, made him a victim, as he felt the echo in his own throat of that cry running thePiazza Montanaralong ago,“Roba vecchia!”—the degradation by which his people had survived.
Childless at fifty-nine, Guido had prepared out of his own heart for his coming child a heart, fashioned on his own preoccupation, the remorseless homage to nobility, the genuflexion the hunted body makes from muscular contraction, going down before the impending and inaccessible, as before a great heat. It had made Guido, as it was to make his son, heavy with impermissible blood.
And childless he had died, save for the promise that hung at the Christian belt of Hedvig. Guido had lived as all Jews do, who, cut off from their people by accident or choice, find that they must inhabit a world whose constituents, being alien, force the mind to succumb to an imaginary populace. When a Jew dies on a Christian bosom he dies impaled. Hedvig, in spite of her agony, wept upon an outcast. Her body at that moment became the barrier and Guido died against that wall, troubled and alone. In life he had done everything to span the impossible gap; the saddest and most futile gesture of all had been his pretence to a barony. He had adopted the sign of the cross; he had said that he was an Austrian of an old, almost extinct line, producing, to uphold his story, the most amazing and inaccurate proofs: a coat of arms that he had no right to and a list of progenitors (including their Christian names) who had never existed. When Hedvig came upon his black and yellow handkerchiefs he had said that they were to remind him that one branch of his family had bloomed in Rome.
He had tried to be one with her by adoring her, by imitating her goose-step of a stride, a step that by him adopted became dislocated and comic. She would have done as much, but sensing something in him blasphemed and lonely, she had taken the blow as a Gentile must—by moving toward him in recoil. She had believed whatever he had told her, but often enough she had asked: “What is the matter?”—that continual reproach which was meant as a continual reminder of her love. It ran through his life like an accusing voice. He had been tormented into speaking highly of royalty, flinging out encomiums with the force of small water made great by the pressure of a thumb. He had laughed too heartily when in the presence of the lower order of title, as if, by his good nature, he could advance them to some distinction of which they dreamed. Confronted with nothing worse than a general in creaking leather and with the slight repercussion of movement common to military men, who seem to breathe from the inside out, smelling of gunpowder and horse flesh, lethargic yet prepared for participation in a war not yet scheduled (a type of which Hedvig had been very fond), Guido had shaken with an unseen trembling. He saw that Hedvig had the same bearing, the same though more condensed power of the hand, patterned on seizure in a smaller mould, as sinister in its reduction as a doll’s house. The feather in her hat had been knife-clean and quivering as if in an heraldic wind; she had been a woman held up to nature, precise, deep-bosomed and gay. Looking at the two he had become confused as if he were about to receive a reprimand, not the officer’s, but his wife’s.
When she had danced, a little heady with wine, the dance floor had become a tactical manoeuvre; her heels had come down staccato and trained, her shoulders as conscious at the tips as those which carry the braid and tassels of promotion; the turn of her head had held the cold vigilance of a sentry whose rounds are not without apprehension. Yet Hedvig had done what she could. If ever there was a massivechicshe had personified it—yet somewhere there had been anxiety. The thing that she had stalked, though she herself had not been conscious of it, was Guido’s assurance that he was a Baron. She had believed it as a soldier “believes” a command. Something in her sensitory predicament—upon which she herself would have placed no value—had told her much better. Hedvig had become a Baroness without question.
In the Vienna of Volkbein’s day there were few trades that welcomed Jews, yet somehow he had managed, by various deals in household goods, by discreet buying of old masters and first editions and by money changing, to secure for Hedvig a house in the Inner City, to the north overlooking the Prater, a house that, large, dark and imposing, became a fantastic museum of their encounter.
The long rococo halls, giddy with plush and whorled designs in gold, were peopled with Roman fragments, white and disassociated; a runner’s leg, the chilly half-turned head of a matron stricken at the bosom, the blind bold sockets of the eyes given a pupil by every shifting shadow so that what they looked upon was an act of the sun. The great salon was of walnut. Over the fireplace hung impressive copies of the Medici shield and, beside them, the Austrian bird.
Three massive pianos (Hedvig had played the waltzes of her time with the masterly stroke of a man, in the tempo of her blood, rapid and rising—that quick mannerliness of touch associated with the playing of the Viennese, who, though pricked with the love of rhythm, execute its demands in the duelling manner) sprawled over the thick dragon’s-blood pile of rugs from Madrid. The study harboured two rambling desks in rich and bloody wood. Hedvig had liked things in twos and threes. Into the middle arch of each desk silver-headed brads had been hammered to form a lion, a bear, a ram, a dove, and in their midst a flaming torch. The design was executed under the supervision of Guido who, thinking on the instant, claimed it as the Volkbein field, though it turned out to be a bit of heraldry long since in decline beneath the papal frown. The full length windows (a French touch that Guido thought handsome) overlooking the park were curtained in native velvets and stuffs from Tunis, and the Venetian blinds were of that particularly sombre shade of red so loved by the Austrians. Against the panels of oak that reared themselves above the long table and up to the curving ceiling hung life-sized portraits of Guido’s claim to father and mother. The lady was a sumptuous Florentine with bright sly eyes and overt mouth. Great puffed and pearled sleeves rose to the pricked-eared pointings of the stiff lace about the head, conical and braided. The deep accumulation of dress fell about her in groined shadows; the train, rambling through a vista of primitive trees, was carpet-thick. She seemed to be expecting a bird. The gentleman was seated precariously on a charger. He seemed not so much to have mounted the animal as to be about to descend upon him. The blue of an Italian sky lay between the saddle and the buff of the tightened rump of the rider. The charger had been caught by the painter in the execution of a falling arc, the mane lifted away in a dying swell, the tail forward and in between thin bevelled legs. The gentleman’s dress was a baffling mixture of the Romantic and the Religious, and in the cradling crook of his left arm he carried a plumed hat, crown out. The whole conception might have been a Mardi Gras whim. The gentleman’s head, stuck on at a three-quarter angle, had a remarkable resemblance to Guido Volkbein, the same sweeping Cabalistic line of nose, the features seasoned and warm save where the virgin blue of the eyeballs curved out the lids as if another medium than that of sight had taken its stand beneath that flesh. There was no interval in the speed of that stare, endless and objective. The likeness was accidental. Had anyone cared to look into the matter they would have discovered these canvases to be reproductions of two intrepid and ancient actors. Guido had found them in some forgotten and dusty corner and had purchased them when he had been sure that he would need an alibi for the blood.
At this point exact history stopped for Felix who, thirty years later, turned up in the world with these facts, the two portraits and nothing more. His aunt, combing her long braids with an amber comb, told him what she knew, and this had been her only knowledge of his past. What had formed Felix from the date of his birth to his coming to thirty was unknown to the world, for the step of the wandering Jew is in every son. No matter where and when you meet him you feel that he has come from some place—no matter from what place he has come—some country that he has devoured rather than resided in, some secret land that he has been nourished on but cannot inherit, for the Jew seems to be everywhere from nowhere. When Felix’s name was mentioned, three or more persons would swear to having seen him the week before in three different countries simultaneously.
Felix called himself Baron Volkbein, as his father had done before him. How Felix lived, how he came by his money—he knew figures as a dog knows the covey and as indefatigably he pointed and ran—how he mastered seven languages and served that knowledge well, no one knew. Many people were familiar with his figure and face. He was not popular, though the posthumous acclaim meted out to his father secured from his acquaintances the peculiar semi-circular stare of those who, unwilling to greet with earthly equality, nevertheless give to the living branch (because of death and its sanction) the slight bend of the head—a reminiscent pardon for future apprehension—a bow very common to us when in the presence of this people.
Felix was heavier than his father and taller. His hair began too far back on his forehead. His face was a long stout oval, suffering a laborious melancholy. One feature alone spoke of Hedvig, the mouth, which, though sensuous from lack of desire as hers had been from denial, pressed too intimately close to the bony structure of the teeth. The other features were a little heavy, the chin, the nose, and the lids; into one was set his monocle which shone, a round blind eye in the sun.
He was usually seen walking or driving alone, dressed as if expecting to participate in some great event, though there was no function in the world for which he could be said to be properly garbed; wishing to be correct at any moment, he was tailored in part for the evening and in part for the day.
From the mingled passions that made up his past, out of a diversity of bloods, from the crux of a thousand impossible situations, Felix had become the accumulated and single—the embarrassed.
His embarrassment took the form of an obsession for what he termed “Old Europe”: aristocracy, nobility, royalty. He spoke any given title with a pause before and after the name. Knowing circumlocution to be his only contact, he made it interminable and exacting. With the fury of a fanatic he hunted down his own disqualification, rearticulating the bones of the Imperial Courts long forgotten (those long remembered can alone claim to be long forgotten), listening with an unbecoming loquacity to officials and guardians for fear that his inattention might lose him some fragment of his resuscitation. He felt that the great past might mend a little if he bowed low enough, if he succumbed and gave homage.
In nineteen hundred and twenty he was in Paris (his blind eye had kept him out of the army), still spatted, still wearing his cutaway, bowing, searching, with quick pendulous movements, for the correct thing to which to pay tribute: the right street, the right café, the right building, the right vista. In restaurants he bowed slightly to anyone who looked as if he might be “someone,” making the bend so imperceptible that the surprised person might think he was merely adjusting his stomach. His rooms were taken because a Bourbon had been carried from them to death. He kept a valet and a cook; the one because he looked like Louis the Fourteenth and the other because she resembled Queen Victoria, Victoria in another cheaper material, cut to the poor man’s purse.
In his search for the particularComédie humaineFelix had come upon the odd. Conversant with edicts and laws, folk story and heresy, taster of rare wines, thumber of rarer books and old wives’ tales—tales of men who became holy and of beasts that became damned—read in all plans for fortifications and bridges, given pause by all graveyards on all roads, a pedant of many churches and castles, his mind dimly and reverently reverberated to Madame de Sévigné, Goethe, Loyola and Brantôme. But Loyola sounded the deepest note; he was alone, apart and single. A race that has fled its generations from city to city has not found the necessary time for the accumulation of that toughness which produces ribaldry, nor, after the crucifixion of its ideas, enough forgetfulness in twenty centuries to create legend. It takes a Christian, standing eternally in the Jew’s salvation, to blame himself and to bring up from that depth charming and fantastic superstitions through which the slowly and tirelessly milling Jew once more becomes the “collector” of his own past. His undoing is never profitable until somegoyhas put it back into such shape that it can again be offered as a “sign.” A Jew’s undoing is never his own, it is God’s; his rehabilitation is never his own, it is a Christian’s. The Christian traffic in retribution has made the Jew’s history a commodity; it is the medium through which he receives, at the necessary moment, the serum of his own past that he may offer it again as his blood. In this manner the Jew participates in the two conditions; and in like manner Felix took the breast of this wet nurse whose milk was his being but which could never be his birthright.
Early in life Felix had insinuated himself into the pageantry of the circus and the theatre. In some way they linked his emotions to the higher and unattainable pageantry of kings and queens. The more amiable actresses of Prague, Vienna, Hungary, Germany, France and Italy, the acrobats and sword-swallowers, had at one time or another allowed him their dressing rooms—sham salons in which he aped his heart. Here he had neither to be capable nor alien. He became for a little while a part of their splendid and reeking falsification.
The people of this world, with desires utterly divergent from his own, had also seized on titles for a purpose. There was a Princess Nadja, a Baron von Tink, a Principessa Stasera y Stasero, a King Buffo and a Duchess of Broadback: gaudy, cheap cuts from the beast life, immensely capable of that great disquiet called entertainment. They took titles merely to dazzle boys about town, to make their public life (and it was all they had) mysterious and perplexing, knowing well that skill is never so amazing as when it seems inappropriate. Felix clung to his title to dazzle his own estrangement. It brought them together.
Going among these people, the men smelling weaker and the women stronger than their beasts, Felix had that sense of peace that formerly he had experienced only in museums. He moved with a humble hysteria among the decaying brocades and laces of theCarnavalet;he loved that old and documented splendour with something of the love of the lion for its tamer—that sweat-tarnished spangled enigma that, in bringing the beast to heel, had somehow turned toward him a face like his own, but which though curious and weak, had yet picked the precise fury from his brain.
Nadja had sat back to Felix, as certain of the justice of his eye as she would have been of the linear justice of a Rops, knowing that Felix tabulated precisely the tense capability of her spine with its lashing curve swinging into the hard compact cleft of her rump, as angrily and as beautifully as the more obvious tail of her lion.
The emotional spiral of the circus, taking its flight from the immense disqualification of the public, rebounding from its illimitable hope, produced in Felix longing and disquiet. The circus was a loved thing that he could never touch, therefore never know. The people of the theatre and the ring were for him as dramatic and as monstrous as a consignment on which he could never bid. That he haunted them as persistently as he did was evidence of something in his nature that was turning Christian.
He was, in like manner, amazed to find himself drawn to the church, though this tension he could handle with greater ease; its arena he found was circumscribed to the individual heart.
It was to the Duchess of Broadback (Frau Mann) that Felix owed his first audience with a “gentleman of quality.” Frau Mann, then in Berlin, explained that this person had been “somewhat mixed up with her in the past.” It was with the utmost difficulty that he could imagine her “mixed up” with anyone, her coquetries were muscular and localized. Her trade—the trapeze—seemed to have preserved her. It gave her, in a way, a certain charm. Her legs had the specialized tension common to aerial workers; something of the bar was in her wrists, the tan bark in her walk, as if the air, by its very lightness, by its very non-resistance, were an almost insurmountable problem, making her body, though slight and compact, seem much heavier than that of women who stay upon the ground. In her face was the tense expression of an organism surviving in an alien element. She seemed to have a skin that was the pattern of her costume: a bodice of lozenges, red and yellow, low in the back and ruffled over and under the arms, faded with the reek of her three-a-day control, red tights, laced boots—one somehow felt they ran through her as the design runs through hard holiday candies, and the bulge in the groin where she took the bar, one foot caught in the flex of the calf, was as solid, specialized and as polished as oak. The stuff of the tights was no longer a covering, it was herself; the span of the tightly stitched crotch was so much her own flesh that she was as unsexed as a doll. The needle that had made one the property of the child made the other the property of no man.
“Tonight,” Frau Mann said, turning to Felix, “we are going to be amused. Berlin is sometimes very nice at night,nicht wahr?And the Count is something that must be seen. The place is very handsome, red and blue, he’s fond of blue, God knows why, and he is fond of impossible people, so we are invited—” The Baron moved his foot in.
“He might even have the statues on.”
“Statues?” said Felix.
“The living statues,” she said. “He simply adores them.” Felix dropped his hat; it rolled and stopped.
“Is he German?” he said.
“Oh, no, Italian, but it does not matter, he speaks anything, I think he comes to Germany to change money—he comes, he goes away, and everything goes on the same, except that people have something to talk about.”
“What did you say his name was?”
“I didn’t, but he calls himself Count Onatorio Alta-monte, I’m sure it’s quite ridiculous, he says he is related to every nation—that should please you. We will have dinner, we will have champagne.” The way she said “dinner” and the way she said “champagne” gave meat and liquid their exact difference, as if by having surmounted two mediums, earth and air, her talent, running forward, achieved all others.
“Does one enjoy oneself?” he asked.
She leaned forward; she began removing the paint with the hurried technical felicity of an artist cleaning a palette. She looked at the Baron derisively. “Wir setzen an dieser Stelle über den Fluss—” she said.
Standing about a table at the end of the immense room, looking as if they were deciding the fate of a nation, were grouped ten men, all in parliamentary attitudes, and one young woman. They were listening, at the moment of the entrance of Felix and the Duchess of Broadback, to a middle-aged “medical student” with shaggy eyebrows, a terrific widow’s peak, over-large dark eyes, and a heavy way of standing that was also apologetic. The man was Dr. Matthew O’Connor, an Irishman from the Barbary Coast (Pacific Street, San Francisco), whose interest in gynaecology had driven him half around the world. He was taking the part of host, the Count not yet having made his appearance, and was telling of himself, for he considered himself the most amusing predicament.
“We may all be nature’s noblemen,” he was saying, and the mention of a nobleman made Felix feel happier the instant he caught the word, though what followed left him in some doubt, “but think of the stories that do not amount to much! That is, that are forgotten in spite of all man remembers (unless he remembers himself) merely because they befell him without distinction of office or title—that’s what we call legend and it’s the best a poor man may do with his fate; the other”—he waved an arm—“we call history, the best the high and mighty can do with theirs. Legend is unexpurgated, but history, because of its actors, is deflowered—every nation with a sense of humour is a lost nation, and every woman with a sense of humour is a lost woman. The Jews are the only people who have sense enough to keep humour in the family; a Christian scatters it all over the world.”
“Ja! das ist ganz richtig—” said the Duchess in a loud voice, but the interruption was quite useless. Once the doctor had his audience—and he got his audience by the simple device of pronouncing at the top of his voice (at such moments as irritable and possessive as a maddened woman’s) some of the more boggish and biting of the shorter early Saxon verbs—nothing could stop him. He merely turned his large eyes upon her and having done so noticed her and her attire for the first time, which, bringing suddenly to his mind something forgotten but comparable, sent him into a burst of laughter, exclaiming: “Well, but God works in mysterious ways to bring things up in my mind! Now I am thinking of Nikka, the nigger who used to fight the bear in theCirque de Paris. There he was, crouching all over the arena without a stitch on, except an ill-concealed loin-cloth all abulge as if with a deep-sea catch, tattooed from head to heel with all theameublementof depravity! Garlanded with rosebuds and hackwork of the devil—was he a sight to see! Though he couldn’t have done a thing (and I know what I am talking about in spite of all that has been said about the black boys) if you had stood him in a gig-mill for a week, though (it’s said) at a stretch it spelled Desdemona. Well then, over his belly was an angel from Chartres; on each buttock, half public, half private, a quotation from the book of magic, a confirmation of the Jansenist theory, I’m sorry to say and here to say it. Across his knees, I give you my word, ‘I’ on one and on the other, ‘can,’ put those together! Across his chest, beneath a beautiful caravel in full sail, two clasped hands, the wrist bones fretted with point lace. On each bosom an arrow-speared heart, each with different initials but with equal drops of blood; and running into the arm-pit, all down one side, the word said by Prince Arthur Tudor, son of King Henry the Seventh, when on his bridal night he called for a goblet of water (or was it water?). His Chamberlain, wondering at the cause of such drought, remarked on it and was answered in one word so wholly epigrammatic and in no way befitting the great and noble British Empire that he was brought up with a start, and that is all we will ever know of it, unless,” said the doctor, striking his hand on his hip, “you are as good at guessing as Tiny M’Caffery.”
“And the legs?” Felix asked uncomfortably.
“The legs,” said Doctor O’Connor, “were devoted entirely to vine work, topped by the swart rambler rose copied from the coping of the Hamburg house of Rothschild. Over hisdos, believe it or not and I shouldn’t, a terse account in early monkish script—called by some people indecent, by others Gothic—of the really deplorable condition of Paris before hygiene was introduced, and nature had its way up to the knees. And just above what you mustn’t mention, a bird flew carrying a streamer on which was incised, ‘Garde tout!’ I asked him why all this barbarity; he answered he loved beauty and would have it about him.”
“Are you acquainted with Vienna?” Felix inquired.
“Vienna,” said the doctor, “the bed into which the common people climb, docile with toil, and out of which the nobility fling themselves, ferocious with dignity—I do, but not so well but that I remember some of it still. I remember young Austrian boys going to school, flocks of quail they were, sitting out their recess in different spots in the sun, rosy-cheeked, bright-eyed, with damp rosy mouths, smelling of the herd childhood, facts of history glimmering in their minds like sunlight, soon to be lost, soon to be forgotten, degraded into proof. Youth is cause, effect is age; so with the thickening of the neck we get data.”
“I was not thinking of its young boys, but of its military superiority, its great names,” Felix said, feeling that the evening was already lost, seeing that as yet the host had not made his appearance and that no one seemed to know it or to care and that the whole affair was to be given over to this volatile person who called himself a doctor.
“The army, the celibate’s family!” nodded the doctor. “His one safety.”
The young woman, who was in her late twenties, turned from the group, coming closer to Felix and the doctor. She rested her hands behind her against the table. She seemed embarrassed. “Are you both really saying what you mean, or are you just talking?” Having spoken, her face flushed, she added hurriedly, “I am doing advance publicity for the circus; I’m Nora Flood.”
The doctor swung around, looking pleased. “Ah!” he said, “Nora suspects the cold incautious melody of time crawling, but,” he added, “I’ve only just started.” Suddenly he struck his thigh with his open hand. “Flood, Nora, why, sweet God, my girl, I helped to bring you into the world!”
Felix, as disquieted as if he were expected to “do something” to avert a catastrophe (as one is expected to do something about an overturned tumbler, the contents of which is about to drip over the edge of the table and into a lady’s lap), on the phrase “time crawling” broke into uncontrollable laughter, and though this occurrence troubled him the rest of his life he was never able to explain it to himself. The company, instead of being silenced, went on as if nothing had happened, two or three of the younger men were talking about something scandalous, and the Duchess in her loud empty voice was telling a very stout man something about the living statues. This only added to the Baron’s torment. He began waving his hands, saying, “Oh, please! please!” and suddenly he had a notion that he was doing something that wasn’t laughing at all, but something much worse, though he kept saying to himself, “I am laughing, really laughing, nothing else whatsoever!” He kept waving his arms in distress and saying, “Please, please!” staring at the floor, deeply embarrassed to find himself doing so.
As abruptly he sat straight up, his hands on the arms of the chair, staring fixedly at the doctor who was leaning forward as he drew a chair up exactly facing him. “Yes,” said the doctor, and he was smiling, “you will be disappointed!In questa tomba oscura—oh, unfaithful one! I am no herbalist, I am no Rutebeuf, I have no panacea, I am not a mountebank—that is, I cannot or will not stand on my head. I’m no tumbler, neither a friar, nor yet a thirteenth-century Salome dancing arse up on a pair of Toledo blades—try to get any lovesick girl, male or female, to do that today! If you don’t believe such things happened in the long back of yesterday look up the manuscripts in the British Museum or go to the cathedral ofClermont-Ferrand,it’s all one to me; become as the rich Mussulmans of Tunis who hire silly women to reduce the hour to its minimum of sense, still it will not be a cure, for there is none that takes place all at once in any man. You know what man really desires?” inquired the doctor, grinning into the immobile face of the Baron. “One of two things: to find someone who is so stupid that he can lie to her, or to love someone so much that she can lie to him.”
“I was not thinking of women at all,” the Baron said, and he tried to stand up.
“Neither was I,” said the doctor. “Sit down.” He refilled his glass. “Thefineis very good,” he said.
Felix answered, “No, thank you, I never drink.”
“You will,” the doctor said. “Let us put it the other way; the Lutheran or Protestant church versus the Catholic. The Catholic is the girl that you love so much that she can lie to you, and the Protestant is the girl that loves you so much that you can lie to her, and pretend a lot that you do not feel. Luther, and I hope you don’t mind my saying so, was as bawdy an old ram as ever trampled his own straw, because the custody of the people’s ‘remissions’ of sins and indulgences had been snatched out of his hands, which was in that day in the shape of half of all they had and which the old monk of Wittenberg had intended to get off with in his own way. So, of course, after that, he went wild and chattered like a monkey in a tree and started something he never thought to start (or so the writing on his side of the breakfast table would seem to confirm), an obscene megalomania—and wild and wanton stranger thatthatis, it must come clear and cool and long or not at all. What do you listen to in the Protestant church? To the words of a man who has been chosen for his eloquence—and not too eloquent either, mark you, or he gets the bum’s rush from the pulpit, for fear that in the end he will use his golden tongue for political ends. For a golden tongue is never satisfied until it has wagged itself over the destiny of a nation, and this the church is wise enough to know.
“But turn to the Catholic church, go into mass at any moment—what do you walk in upon? Something that’s already in your blood. You know the story that the priest is telling as he moves from one side of the altar to the other, be he a cardinal, Leo X, or just some poor bastard from Sicily who has discovered thatpecca fortiteramong his goats no longer masses his soul, and has, God knows, been God’s child from the start—it makes no difference. Why? Because you are sitting there with your own meditationsanda legend (which is nipping the fruit as the wren bites), and mingling them both with the Holy Spoon, which is that story; or you can get yourself into the confessional, where, in sonorous prose, lacking contrition (if you must) you can speak of the condition of the knotty, tangled soul and be answered in Gothic echoes, mutual and instantaneous—one saying hail to your farewell. Mischief unravels and the fine high hand of Heaven proffers the skein again, combed and forgiven!
“The one House,” he went on, “is hard, as hard as the gift of gab, and the other is as soft as a goat’s hip, and you can blame no man for anything, and you can’t like them at all.”
“Wait!” said Felix.
“Yes?” said the doctor.
Felix bending forward, deprecatory and annoyed, went on: “I like the prince who was reading a book when the executioner touched him on the shoulder telling him that it was time, and he, arising, laid a paper-cutter between the pages to keep his place and closed the book.”
“Ah,” said the doctor, “that is not man living in his moment, it is man living in his miracle.” He refilled his glass.“Gesundheit”he said;“Freude sei Euch von Gott beschieden, wie heut’ so immerdar!”
“You argue about sorrow and confusion too easily,” Nora said.
“Wait!” the doctor answered. “A man’s sorrow runs uphill; true it is difficult for him to bear, but it is also difficult for him to keep. I, as a medical man, know in what pocket a man keeps his heart and soul, and in what jostle of the liver, kidneys and genitalia these pockets are pilfered. There is no pure sorrow. Why? It is bedfellow to lungs, lights, bones, guts and gall! There are only confusions; about that you are quite right, Nora my child, confusions and defeated anxieties—there you have us, one and all. If you are a gymnosophist youcando without clothes, and if you are gimp-legged you will know more wind between the knees than another; still it is confusion; God’s chosen walk close to the wall.
“I was in a war once myself,” the doctor went on, “in a little town where the bombs began tearing the heart out of you, so that you began to think of all the majesty in the world that you would not be able to think of in a minute, if the noise came down and struck in the right place; I was scrambling for the cellar—and in it was an old Breton woman and a cow she had dragged with her, and behind that someone from Dublin saying, ‘Glory be to God!’ in a whisper at the far end of the animal. Thanks be to my Maker I had her head on, and the poor beast trembling on her four legs so I knew all at once that the tragedy of the beast can be two legs more awful than a man’s. She was softly dropping her dung at the far end where the thin Celtic voice kept coming up saying, ‘Glory be to Jesus!’ and I said to myself, ‘Can’t the morning come now, so I can see what my face is mixed up with?’ At that a flash of lightning went by and I saw the cow turning her head straight back so her horns made two moons against her shoulders, the tears soused all over her great black eyes.
“I began talking to her, cursing myself and the mick, and the old woman looking as if she were looking down her life, sighting it the way a man looks down the barrel of a gun for an aim. I put my hand on the poor bitch of a cow and her hide was running water under my hand, like water tumbling down from Lahore, jerking against my hand as if she wanted to go, standing still in one spot; and I thought, there are directions and speeds that no one has calculated, for believe it or not that cow had gone somewhere very fast that we didn’t know of, and yet was still standing there.”
The doctor lifted the bottle. “Thank you,” said Felix, “I never drink spirits.”
“You will,” said the doctor.
“There’s one thing that has always troubled me,” the doctor continued, “this matter of the guillotine. They say that the headsman has to supply his own knife, as a husband is supposed to supply his own razor. That’s enough to rot his heart out before he has whittled one head. Wandering about theBoul ‘Mich’one night, flittering my eyes, I saw one with a red carnation in his buttonhole. I asked him what he was wearing it for, just to start up a friendly conversation; he said, ‘It’s the headsman’s prerogative’—and I went as limp as a blotter snatched from the Senate. ‘At one time,’ he said, ‘the executioner gripped it between his teeth.’ At that my bowels turned turtle, seeing him in my mind’s eye stropping the cleaver with a bloom in his mouth, like Carmen, and he the one man who is supposed to keep his gloves on in church! They often end by slicing themselves up; it’s a rhythm that finally meets their own neck. He leaned forward and drew a finger across mine and said, ‘As much hair as thick as that makes it a little difficult,’ and at that moment I got heart failure for the rest of my life. I put down a franc and flew like the wind, the hair on my back standing as high as Queen Anne’s ruff! And I didn’t stop until I found myself spang in the middle of theMusée de Cluny, clutching the rack.”
A sudden silence went over the room. The Count was standing in the doorway, rocking on his heels, either hand on the sides of the door; a torrent of Italian, which was merely the culmination of some theme he had begun in the entrance hall, was abruptly halved as he slapped his leg, standing tall and bent and peering. He moved forward into the room, holding with thumb and forefinger the centre of a round magnifying glass which hung from a broad black ribbon. With the other hand he moved from chair to table, from guest to guest. Behind him, in a riding habit, was a young girl. Having reached the sideboard he swung around with gruesome nimbleness.
“Get out!” he said softly, laying his hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Get out, get out!” It was obvious he meant it; he bowed slightly.
As they reached the street the Duchess caught a swirling hem of lace about her chilling ankles. “Well, my poor devil?” she said, turning to Felix.
“Well!” said Felix. “What was that about, and why?”
The doctor hailed a cab with the waving end of a bulldog cane. “That can be repaired at any bar,” he said.
“The name of that,” said the Duchess, pulling on her gloves, “is a brief audience with the great, brief, but an audience!”
As they went up the darkened street Felix felt himself turning scarlet. “Is he really a Count?” he asked.
“Herr Gott!” said the Duchess. “Am I what I say? Are you? Is the doctor?” She put her hand on his knee. “Yes or no?”
The doctor was lighting a cigarette and in its flare the Baron saw that he was laughing silently. “He put us out for one of those hopes that is about to be defeated.” He waved his gloves from the window to other guests who were standing along the curb, hailing vehicles.
“What do you mean?” the Baron said in a whisper.
“Count Onatorio Altamonte—may the name eventually roll over the Ponte Vecchio and into the Arno—suspected that he had come upon his last erection.”
The doctor began to sing,“Nur eine Nacht.”
Frau Mann, with her face pressed against the cab window, said, “It’s snowing.” At her words Felix turned his coat collar up.
“Where are we going?” he asked Frau Mann. She was quite gay again.
“Let us go to Heinrich’s; I always do when it’s snowing. He mixes the drinks stronger then, and he’s a good customer; he always takes in the show.”
“Very well,” said the doctor, preparing to rap on the window. “Where is thy Heinrich?”
“Go downUnter den Linden,” Frau Mann said. “I’ll tell you when.”
Felix said, “If you don’t mind, I’ll get down here.” He got down, walking against the snow.
Seated in the warmth of the favoured café, the doctor, unwinding his scarf, said: “There’s something missing and whole about the Baron Felix—damned from the waist up, which reminds me of Mademoiselle Basquette, who was damned from the waist down, a girl without legs, built like a medieval abuse. She used to wheel herself through the Pyrenees on a board. What there was of her was beautiful in a cheap traditional sort of way, the face that one sees on people who come to a racial, not a personal, amazement. I wanted to give her a present for what of her was missing, and she said, ‘Pearls—they go so well with everything!’ Imagine, and the other half of her still in God’s bag of tricks! Don’t tell me that what was missing had not taught her the value of what was present. Well, in any case,” the doctor went on, rolling down his gloves, “a sailor saw her one day and fell in love with her. She was going uphill and the sun was shining all over her back; it made a saddle across her bent neck and flickered along the curls of her head, gorgeous and bereft as the figurehead of a Norse vessel that the ship has abandoned. So he snatched her up, board and all, and took her away and had his will; when he got good and tired of her, just for gallantry, he put her down on her board about five miles out of town, so she had to roll herself back again, weeping something fearful to see, because one is accustomed to see tears falling down to the feet. Ah, truly, a pin board may come up to the chin of a woman and still she will find reason to weep. I tell you, Madame, if one gave birth to a heart on a plate, it would say ‘Love’ and twitch like the lopped leg of a frog.”
“Wunderbar!”exclaimed Frau Mann. “Wunderbar, my God!”
“I’m not through,” said the doctor, laying his gloves across his knees, “someday I am going to see the Baron again, and when I do I shall tell him about the mad Wittelsbach. He’ll look as distressed as an owl tied up in a muffler.”
“Ah,” exclaimed Frau Mann, “he will enjoy it. He is so fond of titles.”
“Listen,” the doctor said, ordering a round, “I don’t want to talk of the Wittelsbach. Oh, God, when I think back to my past, everyone in my family a beauty, my mother, with hair on her head as red as a fire kicked over in spring (and that was early in the ‘80’s when a girl was the toast of the town, and going the limit meant lobster à la Newburg). She had a hat on her as big as the top of a table, and everything on it but running water; her bosom clinched into a corset of buckram, and my father sitting up beside her (snapped while they were riding on a roller-coaster). He had on one of those silly little yellow jackets and a tan bowler just up over his ears, and he must have been crazy, for he was sort of cross-eyed—maybe it was the wind in his face or thoughts of my mother where he couldn’t do anything about it.” Frau Mann took up her glass, looking at it with one eye closed. “I’ve an album of my own,” she said in a warm voice, “and everyone in it looks like a soldier—even though they are dead.”
The doctor grinned, biting his teeth. Frau Mann tried to light a cigarette; the match wavered from side to side in her unsteady hand.
Frau Mann was slightly tipsy, and the insistent hum of the doctor’s words was making her sleepy.
Seeing that Frau Mann dozed, the doctor got up lightly and tip-toed noiselessly to the entrance. He said to the waiter in bad German: “The lady will pay,” opened the door, and went quietly into the night.La Somnambule
Close to the church ofSt. Sulpice, around the corner in therue Servandoni, lived the doctor. His small slouching figure was a feature of thePlace. To the proprietor of theCafé de la Mairie du VIehe was almost a son. This relatively small square, through which tram lines ran in several directions, bounded on the one side by the church and on the other by the court, was the doctor’s “city.” What he could not find here to answer to his needs could be found in the narrow streets that ran into it. Here he had been seen ordering details for funerals in theparlourwith its black broadcloth curtains and mounted pictures of hearses; buying holy pictures andpetits Jésusin theboutiquedisplaying vestments and flowering candles. He had shouted down at least one judge in theMairie du Luxembourgafter a dozen cigars had failed to bring about his ends.
He walked, pathetic and alone, among the pasteboard booths of theFoire St. Germainwhen for a time its imitation castles squatted in the square. He was seen coming at a smart pace down the left side of the church to go in to Mass, bathing in the holy water stoup as if he were its single and beholden bird, pushing aside weary French maids and local tradespeople with the impatience of a soul in physical stress.
Sometimes, late at night, before turning in to theCafé de la Mairie du VIe, he would be observed staring up at the huge towers of the church which rose into the sky, unlovely but reassuring, running a thick warm finger around his throat, where, in spite of its custom, his hair surprised him, lifting along his back and creeping up over his collar. Standing small and insubordinate, he would watch the basins of the fountain loosing their skirts of water in a ragged and flowing hem, sometimes crying to a man’s departing shadow: “Aren’t you the beauty!”
To theCafé de la Mairie du VIehe brought Felix, who turned up in Paris some weeks after the encounter in Berlin. Felix thought to himself that undoubtedly the doctor was a great liar, but a valuable liar. His fabrications seemed to be the framework of a forgotten but imposing plan; some condition of life of which he was the sole surviving retainer. His manner was that of a servant of a defunct noble family, whose movements recall, though in a degraded form, those of a late master. Even the doctor’s favourite gesture—plucking hairs out of his nostrils—seemed the “vulgarization” of what was once a thoughtful plucking of the beard.
As the altar of a church would present but a barren stylization but for the uncalculated offerings of the confused and humble; as thecorsageof a woman is made suddenly martial and sorrowful by the rose thrust among the more decorous blooms by the hand of a lover suffering the violence of the overlapping of the permission to bestow a last embrace, and its withdrawal: making a vanishing and infinitesimal bull’s eye of that which had a moment before been a buoyant and showy bosom, by dragging time out of his bowels (for a lover knows two times, that which he is given, and that which he must make)—so Felix was astonished to find that the most touching flowers laid on the altar he had raised to his imagination were placed there by the people of the underworld, and that the reddest was to be the rose of the doctor.
After a long silence in which the doctor had ordered and consumed aChambéry fraiseand the Baron a coffee, the doctor remarked that the Jew and the Irish, the one moving upward and the other down, often meet, spade to spade in the same acre.
“The Irish may be as common as whale-shit—excuse me—on the bottom of the ocean—forgive me—but they do have imagination and,” he added, “creative misery, which comes from being smacked down by the devil, and lifted up again by the angels.Misericordioso!Save me, Mother Mary, and never mind the other fellow! But the Jew, what is he at his best? Never anything higher than a meddler—pardon my wet glove—a supreme and marvellous meddler often, but a meddler nevertheless.” He bowed slightly from the hips. “All right, Jews meddle and we lie, that’s the difference, the fine difference. We say someone is pretty for instance, whereas, if the truth were known, they are probably as ugly as Smith going backward, but by our lie we have made that very party powerful, such is the power of the charlatan, the great strong! They drop on anything at any moment, and that sort of thing makes the mystic in the end, and,” he added, “it makes the great doctor. The only people who reallyknowanything about medical science are the nurses, and they never tell; they’d get slapped if they did. But the great doctor, he’s a divine idiot and a wise man. He closes one eye, the eye that he studied with, and putting his fingers on the arteries of the body says: ‘God, whose roadway this is, has given me permission to travel on it also,’ which, Heaven help the patient, is true; in this manner he comes on great cures, and sometimes upon that road is disconcerted by that Little Man.” The doctor ordered anotherChambéryand asked the Baron what he would have; being told that he wished nothing for the moment, the doctor added: “No man needs curing of his individual sickness; his universal malady is what he should look to.”
The Baron remarked that this sounded like dogma.
The doctor looked at him. “Does it? Well, when you see that Little Man you know you will be shouldered from the path.
“I also know this,” he went on: “One cup poured into another makes different waters; tears shed by one eye would blind if wept into another’s eye. The breast we strike in joy is not the breast we strike in pain; any man’s smile would be consternation on another’s mouth. Rear up, eternal river, here comes grief! Man has no foothold that is not also a bargain. So be it! Laughing I came into Pacific Street, and laughing I’m going out of it; laughter is the pauper’s money. I like paupers and bums,” he added, “because they are impersonal with misery, but me—me, I’m taken most and chiefly for a vexatious bastard and gum on the bow, the wax that clots the gall or middle blood of man known as the heart or Bundle of Hiss. May my dilator burst and my speculum rust, may panic seize my index finger before I point out my man.”
His hands (which he always carried like a dog who is walking on his hind legs) seemed to be holding his attention, then he said, raising his large melancholy eyes with the bright twinkle that often came into them: “Why is it that whenever I hear music I think I’m a bride?”
“Neurasthenia,” said Felix.
He shook his head. “No, I’m not neurasthenic; I haven’t that much respect for people—the basis, by the way, of all neurasthenia.”
The doctor nodded. “The Irish are impatient for eternity; they lie to hurry it up, and they maintain their balance by the dexterity of God, God and the Father.”
“In 1685,” the Baron said with dry humour, “the Turks brought coffee into Vienna, and from that day Vienna, like a woman, had one impatience, something she liked. You know, of course, that Pitt the younger was refused alliance because he was foolish enough to proffer tea; Austria and tea could never go together. All cities have a particular and special beverage suited to them. As for God and the Father—in Austria they were the Emperor.” The doctor looked up. Thechasseurof theHôtel Récamier(whom he knew far too well) was approaching them at a run.
“Eh!” said the doctor, who always expected anything at any hour. “Now what?” The boy, standing before him in a red-and-black-striped vest and flapping soiled apron, exclaimed in Midi French that a lady in twenty-nine had fainted and could not be brought out of it.
The doctor got up slowly, sighing. “Pay,” he said to Felix, “and follow me.” None of the doctor’s methods being orthodox, Felix was not surprised at the invitation, but did as he was told.
On the second landing of the hotel (it was one of those middle-class hostelries which can be found in almost any corner of Paris, neither good nor bad, but so typical that it might have been moved every night and not have been out of place) a door was standing open, exposing a red-carpeted floor, and at the farther end two narrow windows overlooking the square.
On a bed, surrounded by a confusion of potted plants, exotic palms and cut flowers, faintly over-sung by the notes of unseen birds, which seemed to have been forgotten—left without the usual silencing cover, which, like cloaks on funeral urns, are cast over their cages at night by good housewives—half flung off the support of the cushions from which, in a moment of threatened consciousness she had turned her head, lay the young woman, heavy and dishevelled. Her legs, in white flannel trousers, were spread as in a dance, the thick-lacquered pumps looking too lively for the arrested step. Her hands, long and beautiful, lay on either side of her face.
The perfume that her body exhaled was of the quality of that earth-flesh, fungi, which smells of captured dampness and yet is so dry, overcast with the odour of oil of amber, which is an inner malady of the sea, making her seem as if she had invaded a sleep incautious and entire. Her flesh was the texture of plant life, and beneath it one sensed a frame, broad, porous and sleep-worn, as if sleep were a decay fishing her beneath the visible surface. About her head there was an effulgence as of phosphorus glowing about the circumference of a body of water—as if her life lay through her in ungainly luminous deteriorations—the troubling structure of the born somnambule, who lives in two worlds—meet of child and desperado.
Like a painting by thedouanierRousseau, she seemed to lie in a jungle trapped in a drawing room (in the apprehension of which the walls have made their escape), thrown in among the carnivorous flowers as their ration; the set, the property of an unseendompteur, half lord, half promoter, over which one expects to hear the strains of an orchestra of wood-winds render a serenade which will popularize the wilderness.
Felix, out of delicacy, stepped behind the palms. The doctor with professional roughness, brought to a pitch by his eternal fear of meeting with the law (he was not a licensed practitioner), said: “Slap her wrists, for Christ’s sake. Where in hell is the water pitcher!”
He found it, and with amiable heartiness flung a handful against her face.
A series of almost invisible shudders wrinkled her skin as the water dripped from her lashes, over her mouth and on to the bed. A spasm of waking moved upward from some deep-shocked realm, and she opened her eyes. Instantly she tried to get to her feet. She said, “I was all right,” and fell back into the pose of her annihilation.
Experiencing a double confusion, Felix now saw the doctor, partially hidden by the screen beside the bed, make the movements common to the “dumbfounder,” or man of magic; the gestures of one who, in preparing the audience for a miracle, must pretend that there is nothing to hide; the whole purpose that of making the back and elbows move in a series of “honesties,” while in reality the most flagrant part of the hoax is being prepared.
Felix saw that this was for the purpose of snatching a few drops from a perfume bottle picked up from the night table; of dusting his darkly bristled chin with a puff, and drawing a line of rouge across his lips, his upper lip compressed on his lower, in order to have it seem that their sudden embellishment was a visitation of nature; still thinking himself unobserved, as if the whole fabric of magic had begun to decompose, as if the mechanics of machination were indeed out of control and were simplifying themselves back to their origin, the doctor’s hand reached out and covered a loose hundred franc note lying on the table.
With a tension in his stomach, such as one suffers when watching an acrobat leaving the virtuosity of his safety in a mad unravelling whirl into probable death, Felix watched the hand descend, take up the note, and disappear into the limbo of the doctor’s pocket. He knew that he would continue to like the doctor, though he was aware that it would be in spite of a long series of convulsions of the spirit, analogous to the displacement in the fluids of the oyster, that must cover its itch with a pearl; so he would have to cover the doctor. He knew at the same time that this stricture of acceptance (by which what we must love is made into what we can love) would eventually be a part of himself, though originally brought on by no will of his own.
Engrossed in the coils of this new disquiet, Felix turned about. The girl was sitting up. She recognized the doctor. She had seen him somewhere. But, as one may trade ten years at a certain shop and be unable to place the shopkeeper if he is met in the street or in thepromenoirof a theatre, the shop being a portion of his identity, she struggled to place him now that he had moved out of his frame.
“Café de la Mairie du VIe,”said the doctor, taking a chance in order to have a hand in her awakening.
She did not smile, though the moment he spoke she placed him. She closed her eyes, and Felix, who had been looking into them intently because of their mysterious and shocking blue, found himself seeing them still faintly clear and timeless behind the lids—the long unqualified range in the iris of wild beasts who have not tamed the focus down to meet the human eye.
The woman who presents herself to the spectator as a “picture” forever arranged is, for the contemplative mind, the chiefest danger. Sometimes one meets a woman who is beast turning human. Such a person’s every movement will reduce to an image of a forgotten experience; a mirage of an eternal wedding cast on the racial memory; as insupportable a joy as would be the vision of an eland coming down an aisle of trees, chapleted with orange blossoms and bridal veil, a hoof raised in the economy of fear, stepping in the trepidation of flesh that will become myth; as the unicorn is neither man nor beast deprived, but human hunger pressing its breast to its prey.
Such a woman is the infected carrier of the past: before her the structure of our head and jaws ache—we feel that we could eat her, she who is eaten death returning, for only then do we put our face close to the blood on the lips of our forefathers.
Something of this emotion came over Felix, but being racially incapable of abandon, he felt that he was looking upon a figurehead in a museum, which though static, no longer roosting on its cutwater, seemed yet to be going against the wind; as if this girl were the converging halves of a broken fate, setting face, in sleep, toward itself in time, as an image and its reflection in a lake seem parted only by the hesitation in the hour.
In the tones of this girl’s voice was the pitch of one enchanted with the gift of postponed abandon: the low drawling “aside” voice of the actor who, in the soft usury of his speech, withholds a vocabulary until the profitable moment when he shall be facing his audience—in her case a guarded extempore to the body of what would be said at some later period when she would be able to “see” them. What she now said was merely the longest way to a quick dismissal. She asked them to come to see her when she would be “able to feel better.”
Pinching thechasseur, the doctor inquired the girl’s name. “Mademoiselle Robin Vote,” thechasseuranswered.
Descending into the street, the doctor, desiring “one last before bed,” directed his steps back to the café. After a short silence he asked the Baron if he had ever thought about women and marriage. He kept his eyes fixed on the marble of the table before him, knowing that Felix had experienced something unusual.
The Baron admitted that he had; he wished a son who would feel as he felt about the “great past.” The doctor then inquired, with feigned indifference, of what nation he would choose the boy’s mother.
“The American,” the Baron answered instantly. “With an American anything can be done.”
The doctor laughed. He brought his soft fist down on the table—now he was sure. “Fate and entanglement,” he said, “have begun again—the dung beetle rolling his burden uphill—oh, the hard climb! Nobility, very well, but what is it?” The Baron started to answer him, but the doctor held up his hand. “Wait a minute! I know—the few that the many have lied about well and long enough to make them deathless. So you must have a son,” he paused. “A king is the peasant’s actor, who becomes so scandalous that he has to be bowed down to—scandalous in the higher sense naturally. And why must he be bowed down to? Because he has been set apart as the one dog who need not regard the rules of the house, they are so high that they can defame God and foul their rafters! But the people—that’s different—they are church-broken, nation-broken—they drink and pray and piss in the one place. Every man has a house-broken heart except the great man. The people love their church and know it, as a dog knows where he was made to conform, and there he returns by his instinct. But to the graver permission, the king, the tsar, the emperor, who may relieve themselves on high heaven—to them they bow down—only.” The Baron, who was always troubled by obscenity, could never, in the case of the doctor, resent it; he felt the seriousness, the melancholy hidden beneath every jest and malediction that the doctor uttered, therefore he answered him seriously. “To pay homage to our past is the only gesture that also includes the future.”
“And so a son?”
“For that reason. The modern child has nothing left to hold to, or, to put it better, he has nothing to hold with. We are adhering to life now with our last muscle—the heart.”
“The last muscle of aristocracy is madness—remember that”—the doctor leaned forward—“the last child born to aristocracy is sometimes an idiot, out of respect—we go up—but we come down.”
The Baron dropped his monocle; the unarmed eye looked straight ahead. “It’s not necessary,” he said, then he added, “But you are American, so you don’t believe.”
“Ho!” hooted the doctor, “because I’m American I believe anything, so I say beware! In the king’s bed is always found, just before it becomes a museum piece, the droppings of the black sheep”—he raised his glass. “To Robin Vote,” he said. “She can’t be more than twenty.”
With a roar the steel blind came down over the window of theCafé de la Mairie du VIe.
Felix, carrying two volumes on the life of the Bourbons, called the next day at theHôtel Récamier. Miss Vote was not in. Four afternoons in succession he called, only to be told that she had just left. On the fifth, turning the corner of therue Bonaparte, he ran into her.
Removed from her setting—the plants that had surrounded her, the melancholy red velvet of the chairs and the curtains, the sound, weak and nocturnal, of the birds—she yet carried the quality of the “way back” as animals do. She suggested that they should walk together in the gardens of the Luxembourg toward which her steps had been directed when he addressed her. They walked in the bare chilly gardens and Felix was happy. He felt that he could talk to her, tell her anything, though she herself was so silent. He told her he had a post in theCrédit Lyonnais, earning two thousand five hundred francs a week; a master of seven tongues, he was useful to the bank, and, he added, he had a trifle saved up, gained in speculations.
He walked a little short of her. Her movements were slightly headlong and sideways; slow, clumsy and yet graceful, the ample gait of the night-watch. She wore no hat, and her pale head, with its short hair growing flat on the forehead made still narrower by the hanging curls almost on a level with the finely arched eyebrows, gave her the look of cherubs in Renaissance theatres; the eyeballs showing slightly rounded in profile, the temples low and square. She was gracious and yet fading, like an old statue in a garden, that symbolizes the weather through which it has endured, and is not so much the work of man as the work of wind and rain and the herd of the seasons, and though formed in man’s image is a figure of doom. Because of this, Felix found her presence painful, and yet a happiness. Thinking of her, visualizing her, was an extreme act of the will; to recall her after she had gone, however, was as easy as the recollection of a sensation of beauty without its details. When she smiled the smile was only in the mouth and a little bitter: the face of an incurable yet to be stricken with its malady.
As the days passed they spent many hours in museums, and while this pleased Felix immeasurably, he was surprised that often her taste, turning from an appreciation of the excellent, would also include the cheaper and debased, with an emotion as real. When she touched a thing, her hands seemed to take the place of the eye. He thought: “She has the touch of the blind who, because they see more with their fingers, forget more in their minds.” Her fingers would go forward, hesitate, tremble, as if they had found a face in the dark. When her hand finally came to rest, the palm closed; it was as if she had stopped a crying mouth. Her hand lay still and she would turn away. At such moments Felix experienced an unaccountable apprehension. The sensuality in her hands frightened him.
Her clothes were of a period that he could not quite place. She wore feathers of the kind his mother had worn, flattened sharply to the face. Her skirts were moulded to her hips and fell downward and out, wider and longer than those of other women, heavy silks that made her seem newly ancient. One day he learned the secret. Pricing a small tapestry in an antique shop facing the Seine, he saw Robin reflected in a door mirror of a back room, dressed in a heavy brocaded gown which time had stained in places, in others split, yet which was so voluminous that there were yards enough to refashion.
He found that his love for Robin was not in truth a selection; it was as if the weight of his life had amassed one precipitation. He had thought of making a destiny for himself, through laborious and untiring travail. Then with Robin it seemed to stand before him without effort. When he asked her to marry him it was with such an unplanned eagerness that he was taken aback to find himself accepted, as if Robin’s life held no volition for refusal.
He took her first to Vienna. To reassure himself he showed her all the historic buildings. He kept saying to himself that sooner or later, in this garden or that palace, she would suddenly be moved as he was moved. Yet it seemed to him that he too was a sightseer. He tried to explain to her what Vienna had been before the war; what it must have been before he was born; yet his memory was confused and hazy, and he found himself repeating what he had read, for it was what he knew best. With methodic anxiety he took her over the city. He said, “You are a Baronin now.” He spoke to her in German as she ate the heavySchnitzeland dumplings, clasping her hand about the thick handle of the beer mug. He said: “Das Leben ist ewig, darin liegt seine Schönheit.”
They walked before the Imperial Palace in a fine hot sun that fell about the clipped hedges and the statues warm and clear. He went into theKammergartenwith her and talked, and on into theGloriette, and sat on first one bench and then another. Brought up short, he realized that he had been hurrying from one to the other as if they were orchestra chairs, as if he himself were trying not to miss anything; now, at the extremity of the garden, he was aware that he had been anxious to see every tree, every statue at a different angle.
In their hotel, she went to the window and pulled aside the heavy velvet hangings, threw down the bolster that Vienna uses against the wind at the ledge, and opened the window, though the night air was cold. He began speaking of Emperor Francis Joseph and of the whereabouts of Charles the First. And as he spoke Felix laboured under the weight of his own remorseless recreation of the great, generals and statesmen and emperors. His chest was as heavy as if it were supporting the combined weight of their apparel and their destiny. Looking up after an interminable flow of fact and fancy, he saw Robin sitting with her legs thrust out, her head thrown back against the embossed cushion of the chair, sleeping, one arm fallen over the chair’s side, the hand somehow older and wiser than her body; and looking at her he knew that he was not sufficient to make her what he had hoped; it would require more than his own argument. It would require contact with persons exonerated of their earthly condition by some strong spiritual bias, someone of that old regime, some old lady of the past courts, who only remembered others when trying to think of herself.
On the tenth day, therefore, Felix turned about and reentered Paris. In the following months he put his faith in the fact that Robin had Christian proclivities, and his hope in the discovery that she was an enigma. He said to himself that possibly she had greatness hidden in the noncommittal. He felt that her attention, somehow in spite of him, had already been taken by something not yet in history. Always she seemed to be listening to the echo of some foray in the blood that had no known setting, and when he came to know her this was all he could base his intimacy upon. There was something pathetic in the spectacle. Felix reiterating the tragedy of his father. Attired like some haphazard in the mind of a tailor, again in the ambit of his father’s futile attempt to encompass the rhythm of his wife’s stride, Felix, with tightly held monocle, walked beside Robin, talking to her, drawing her attention to this and that, wrecking himself and his peace of mind in an effort to acquaint her with the destiny for which he had chosen her—that she might bear sons who would recognize and honour the past. For without such love, the past as he understood it, would die away from the world. She was not listening and he said in an angry mood, though he said it calmly, “I am deceiving you!” And he wondered what he meant, and why she did not hear.
“A child,” he pondered. “Yes, a child!” and then he said to himself, “Why has it not come about?” The thought took him abruptly in the middle of his accounting. He hurried home in a flurry of anxiety, as a boy who has heard a regiment on parade, toward which he cannot run because he has no one from whom to seek permission, and yet runs haltingly nevertheless. Coming face to face with her, all that he could stammer out was: “Why is there no child?Wo ist das Kind? Warum? Warum?”
Robin prepared herself for her child with her only power: a stubborn cataleptic calm, conceiving herself pregnant before she was; and, strangely aware of some lost land in herself, she took to going out; wandering the countryside; to train travel, to other cities, alone and engrossed. Once, not having returned for three days, and Felix nearly beside himself with terror, she walked in late at night and said that she had been halfway to Berlin.
Suddenly she took the Catholic vow. She came into the church silently. The prayers of the suppliants had not ceased nor had anyone been broken of their meditation. Then, as if some inscrutable wish for salvation, something yet more monstrously unfulfilled than they had suffered, had thrown a shadow, they regarded her, to see her going softly forward and down, a tall girl with the body of a boy.
Many churches saw her:St. Julien le Pauvre, the church ofSt. Germain des Prés, Ste. Clothilde. Even on the cold tiles of the Russian church, in which there is no pew, she knelt alone, lost and conspicuous, her broad shoulders above her neighbours, her feet large and as earthly as the feet of a monk.
She strayed into therue Picpus, into the gardens of the convent ofL’Adoration Perpétuelle. She talked to the nuns and they, feeling that they were looking at someone who would never be able to ask for, or receive, mercy, blessed her in their hearts and gave her a sprig of rose from the bush. They showed her where Jean Valjean had kept his rakes, and where the bright little ladies of thepensioncame to quilt their covers; and Robin smiled, taking the spray, and looked down at the tomb of Lafayette and thought her unpeopled thoughts. Kneeling in the chapel, which was never without a nun going over her beads, Robin, trying to bring her mind to this abrupt necessity, found herself worrying about her height. Was she still growing?
She tried to think of the consequence to which her son was to be born and dedicated. She thought of the Emperor Francis Joseph. There was something commensurate in the heavy body with the weight in her mind, where reason was inexact with lack of necessity. She wandered to thoughts of women, women that she had come to connect with women. Strangely enough these were women in history, Louise de la Vallière, Catherine of Russia, Madame de Maintenon, Catherine de’ Medici, and two women out of literature, Anna Karenina and Catherine Heathcliff; and now there was this woman Austria. She prayed, and her prayer was monstrous because in it there was no margin left for damnation or forgiveness, for praise or for blame—those who cannot conceive a bargain cannot be saved or damned. She could not offer herself up; she only told of herself in a preoccupation that was its own predicament.
Leaning her childish face and full chin on the shelf of theprie-dieu, her eyes fixed, she laughed, out of some hidden capacity, some lost subterranean humour; as it ceased, she leaned still further forward in a swoon, waking and yet heavy, like one in sleep.
When Felix returned that evening Robin was dozing in a chair, one hand under her cheek and one arm fallen. A book was lying on the floor beneath her hand. The book was the memoirs of the Marquis de Sade; a line was underscored:Et lui rendit pendant sa captivité les milles services qu’un amour dévoué est seul capable de rendre, and suddenly into his mind came the question: “What is wrong?”
She awoke but did not move. He came and took her by the arm and lifted her toward him. She put her hand against his chest and pushed him, she looked frightened, she opened her mouth but no words came. He stepped back, he tried to speak, but they moved aside from each other saying nothing.
That night she was taken with pains. She began to curse loudly, a thing that Felix was totally unprepared for; with the most foolish gestures he tried to make her comfortable.
“Go to hell!” she cried. She moved slowly, bent away from him, chair by chair; she was drunk—her hair was swinging in her eyes.
Amid loud and frantic cries of affirmation and despair Robin was delivered. Shuddering in the double pains of birth and fury, cursing like a sailor, she rose up on her elbow in her bloody gown, looking about her in the bed as if she had lost something. “Oh, for Christ’s sake, for Christ’s sake!” she kept crying like a child who has walked into the commencement of a horror.
A week out of bed she was lost, as if she had done something irreparable, as if this act had caught her attention for the first time.
One night, Felix, having come in unheard, found her standing in the centre of the floor holding the child high in her hand as if she were about to dash it down, but she brought it down gently.
The child was small, a boy, and sad. It slept too much in a quivering palsy of nerves; it made few voluntary movements; it whimpered.
Robin took to wandering again, to intermittent travel from which she came back hours, days later, disinterested. People were uneasy when she spoke to them; confronted with a catastrophe that had yet no beginning.
Felix had each day the sorrow born with him; for the rest, he pretended that he noticed nothing. Robin was almost never home; he did not know how to inquire for her. Sometimes coming into a café he would creep out again because she stood before the bar—sometimes laughing, but more often silent, her head bent over her glass, her hair swinging; and about her people of every sort.
One night, coming home about three, he found her in the darkness, standing, back against the window, in the pod of the curtain, her chin so thrust forward that the muscles in her neck stood out. As he came toward her she said in a fury, “I didn’t want him!” Raising her hand she struck him across the face.
He stepped away; he dropped his monocle and caught at it swinging; he took his breath backward. He waited a whole second, trying to appear casual. “You didn’t want him,” he said. He bent down pretending to disentangle his ribbon. “It seems I could not accomplish that.”
“Why not be secret about him?” she said. “Why talk?”
Felix turned his body without moving his feet. “What shall we do?”
She grinned, but it was not a smile. “I’ll get out,” she said. She took up her cloak; she always carried it dragging. She looked about her, about the room, as if she were seeing it for the first time.
For three or four months the people of the quarter asked for her in vain. Where she had gone no one knew. When she was seen again in the quarter, it was with Nora Flood. She did not explain where she had been: she was unable or unwilling to give an account of herself. The doctor said: “In America, that’s where Nora lives. I brought her into the world and I should know.”Night Watch
The strangest “salon” in America was Nora’s. Her house was couched in the centre of a mass of tangled grass and weeds. Before it fell into Nora’s hands the property had been in the same family two hundred years. It had its own burial ground, and a decaying chapel in which stood in tens and tens mouldering psalm books, laid down some fifty years gone in a flurry of forgiveness and absolution.
It was the “paupers” salon for poets, radicals, beggars, artists, and people in love; for Catholics, Protestants, Brahmins, dabblers in black magic and medicine; all these could be seen sitting about her oak table before the huge fire, Nora listening, her hand on her hound, the firelight throwing her shadow and his high against the wall. Of all that ranting, roaring crew, she alone stood out. The equilibrium of her nature, savage and refined, gave her bridled skull a look of compassion. She was broad and tall, and though her skin was the skin of a child, there could be seen coming, early in her life, the design that was to be the weather-beaten grain of her face, that wood in the work; the tree coming forward in her, an undocumented record of time.
She was known instantly as a Westerner. Looking at her, foreigners remembered stories they had heard of covered wagons; animals going down to drink; children’s heads, just as far as the eyes, looking in fright out of small windows, where in the dark another race crouched in ambush; with heavy hems the women becoming large, flattening the fields where they walked; God so ponderous in their minds that they could stamp out the world with him in seven days.
At these incredible meetings one felt that early American history was being re-enacted. The Drummer Boy, Fort Sumter, Lincoln, Booth, all somehow came to mind; Whigs and Tories were in the air; bunting and its stripes and stars, the swarm increasing slowly and accurately on the hive of blue; Boston tea tragedies, carbines, and the sound of a boy’s wild calling; Puritan feet, long upright in the grave, striking the earth again, walking up and out of their custom; the calk of prayers thrust in the heart. And in the midst of this, Nora.
By temperament Nora was an early Christian; she believed the word. There is a gap in “world pain” through which the singular falls continually and forever; a body falling in observable space, deprived of the privacy of disappearance; as if privacy, moving relentlessly away, by the very sustaining power of its withdrawal kept the body eternally moving downward, but in one place, and perpetually before the eye. Such a singular was Nora. There was some derangement in her equilibrium that kept her immune from her own descent.
Nora had the face of all people who love the people—a face that would be evil when she found out that to love without criticism is to be betrayed. Nora robbed herself for everyone; incapable of giving herself warning, she was continually turning about to find herself diminished. Wandering people the world over found her profitable in that she could be sold for a price forever, for she carried her betrayal money in her own pocket.
Those who love everything are despised by everything, as those who love a city, in its profoundest sense, become the shame of that city, thedétraqués, the paupers; their good is incommunicable, outwitted, being the rudiment of a life that has developed, as in man’s body are found evidences of lost needs. This condition had struck even into Nora’s house; it spoke in her guests, in her ruined gardens where she had been wax in every work of nature.
Whenever she was met, at the opera, at a play, sitting alone and apart, the programme face down on her knee, one would discover in her eyes, large, protruding and clear, that mirrorless look of polished metals which report not so much the object as the movement of the object. As the surface of a gun’s barrel, reflecting a scene, will add to the image the portent of its construction, so her eyes contracted and fortified the play before her in her own unconscious terms. One sensed in the way she held her head that her ears were recording Wagner or Scarlatti, Chopin, Palestrina, or the lighter songs of the Viennese school, in a smaller but more intense orchestration.
And she was the only woman of the last century who could go up a hill with the Seventh Day Adventists and confound the seventh day—with a muscle in her heart so passionate that she made the seventh day immediate. Her fellow worshippers believed in that day and the end of the world out of a bewildered entanglement with the six days preceding it; Nora believed for the beauty of that day alone. She was by fate one of those people who are born unprovided for, except in the provision of herself.
One missed in her a sense of humour. Her smile was quick and definite, but disengaged. She chuckled now and again at a joke, but it was the amused grim chuckle of a person who looks up to discover that they have coincided with the needs of nature in a bird.
Cynicism, laughter, the second husk into which the shucked man crawls, she seemed to know little or nothing about. She was one of those deviations by which man thinks to reconstruct himself.
To “confess” to her was an act even more secret than the communication provided by a priest. There was no ignominy in her; she recorded without reproach or accusation, being shorn of self-reproach or self-accusation. This drew people to her and frightened them; they could neither insult nor hold anything against her, though it embittered them to have to take back injustice that in her found no foothold. In court she would have been impossible; no one would have been hanged, reproached or forgiven because no one would have been “accused.” The world and its history were to Nora like a ship in a bottle; she herself was outside and unidentified, endlessly embroiled in a preoccupation without a problem.
Then she met Robin. The Denckman circus, which she kept in touch with even when she was not working with it (some of its people were visitors to her house), came into New York in the fall of 1923. Nora went alone. She came into the circle of the ring, taking her place in the front row.
Clowns in red, white and yellow, with the traditional smears on their faces, were rolling over the sawdust as if they were in the belly of a great mother where there was yet room to play. A black horse, standing on trembling hind legs that shook in apprehension of the raised front hooves, his beautiful ribboned head pointed down and toward the trainer’s whip, pranced slowly, the foreshanks flickering to the whip. Tiny dogs ran about trying to look like horses, then in came the elephants.
A girl sitting beside Nora took out a cigarette and lit it; her hands shook and Nora turned to look at her; she looked at her suddenly because the animals, going around and around the ring, all but climbed over at that point. They did not seem to see the girl, but as their dusty eyes moved past, the orbit of their light seemed to turn on her. At that moment Nora turned.
The great cage for the lions had been set up, and the lions were walking up and out of their small strong boxes into the arena. Ponderous and furred they came, their tails laid down across the floor, dragging and heavy, making the air seem full of withheld strength. Then as one powerful lioness came to the turn of the bars, exactly opposite the girl, she turned her furious great head with its yellow eyes afire and went down, her paws thrust through the bars and, as she regarded the girl, as if a river were falling behind impassable heat, her eyes flowed in tears that never reached the surface. At that the girl rose straight up. Nora took her hand. “Let’s get out of here!” the girl said, and still holding her hand Nora took her out.
In the lobby Nora said, “My name is Nora Flood,” and she waited. After a pause the girl said, “I’m Robin Vote.” She looked about her distractedly. “I don’t want to be here.” But it was all she said; she did not explain where she wished to be.
She stayed with Nora until the mid-winter. Two spirits were working in her, love and anonymity. Yet they were so “haunted” of each other that separation was impossible.
Nora closed her house. They travelled from Munich, Vienna and Budapest into Paris. Robin told only a little of her life, but she kept repeating in one way or another her wish for a home, as if she were afraid she would be lost again, as if she were aware, without conscious knowledge, that she belonged to Nora, and that if Nora did not make it permanent by her own strength, she would forget.
Nora bought an apartment in therue du Cherche-Midi. Robin had chosen it. Looking from the long windows one saw a fountain figure, a tall granite woman bending forward with lifted head; one hand was held over the pelvic round as if to warn a child who goes incautiously.
In the passage of their lives together every object in the garden, every item in the house, every word they spoke, attested to their mutual love, the combining of their humours. There were circus chairs, wooden horses bought from a ring of an old merry-go-round, venetian chandeliers from the Flea Fair, stage-drops from Munich, cherubim from Vienna, ecclesiastical hangings from Rome, a spinet from England, and a miscellaneous collection of music boxes from many countries; such was the museum of their encounter, as Felix’s hearsay house had been testimony of the age when his father had lived with his mother.
When the time came that Nora was alone most of the night and part of the day, she suffered from the personality of the house, the punishment of those who collect their lives together. Unconsciously at first, she went about disturbing nothing; then she became aware that her soft and careful movements were the outcome of an unreasoning fear—if she disarranged anything Robin might become confused—might lose the scent of home.
Love becomes the deposit of the heart, analogous in all degrees to the “findings” in a tomb. As in one will be charted the taken place of the body, the raiment, the utensils necessary to its other life, so in the heart of the lover will be traced, as an indelible shadow, that which he loves. In Nora’s heart lay the fossil of Robin, intaglio of her identity, and about it for its maintenance ran Nora’s blood. Thus the body of Robin could never be unloved, corrupt or put away. Robin was now beyond timely changes, except in the blood that animated her. That she could be spilled of this fixed the walking image of Robin in appalling apprehension on Nora’s mind—Robin alone, crossing streets, in danger. Her mind became so transfixed that, by the agency of her fear, Robin seemed enormous and polarized, all catastrophes ran toward her, the magnetized predicament; and crying out, Nora would wake from sleep, going back through the tide of dreams into which her anxiety had thrown her, taking the body of Robin down with her into it, as the ground things take the corpse, with minute persistence, down into the earth, leaving a pattern of it on the grass, as if they stitched as they descended.
Yes now, when they were alone and happy, apart from the world in their appreciation of the world, there entered with Robin a company unaware. Sometimes it rang clear in the songs she sang, sometimes Italian, sometimes French or German, songs of the people, debased and haunting, songs that Nora had never heard before, or that she had never heard in company with Robin. When the cadence changed, when it was repeated on a lower key, she knew that Robin was singing of a life that she herself had no part in; snatches of harmony as tell-tale as the possessions of a traveller from a foreign land; songs like a practised whore who turns away from no one but the one who loves her. Sometimes Nora would sing them after Robin, with the trepidation of a foreigner repeating words in an unknown tongue, uncertain of what they may mean. Sometimes unable to endure the melody that told so much and so little, she would interrupt Robin with a question. Yet more distressing would be the moment when, after a pause, the song would be taken up again from an inner room where Robin, unseen, gave back an echo of her unknown life more nearly tuned to its origin. Often the song would stop altogether, until unthinking, just as she was leaving the house, Robin would break out again in anticipation, changing the sound from a reminiscence to an expectation.
Yet sometimes, going about the house, in passing each other, they would fall into an agonized embrace, looking into each other’s face, their two heads in their four hands, so strained together that the space that divided them seemed to be thrusting them apart. Sometimes in these moments of insurmountable grief Robin would make some movement, use a peculiar turn of phrase not habitual to her, innocent of the betrayal, by which Nora was informed that Robin had come from a world to which she would return. To keep her (in Robin there was this tragic longing to be kept, knowing herself astray) Nora knew now that there was no way but death. In death Robin would belong to her. Death went with them, together and alone; and with the torment and catastrophe, thoughts of resurrection, the second duel.
Looking out into the fading sun of the winter sky, against which a little tower rose just outside the bedroom window, Nora would tabulate by the sounds of Robin dressing the exact progress of her toilet; chimes of cosmetic bottles and cream jars; the faint perfume of hair heated under the electric curlers; seeing in her mind the changing direction taken by the curls that hung on Robin’s forehead, turning back from the low crown to fall in upward curves to the nape of the neck, the flat uncurved back head that spoke of some awful silence. Half narcoticized by the sounds and the knowledge that this was in preparation for departure, Nora spoke to herself: “In the resurrection, when we come up looking backward at each other, I shall know you only of all that company. My ear shall turn in the socket of my head; my eyeballs loosened where I am the whirlwind about that cashed expense, my foot stubborn on the cast of your grave.” In the doorway Robin stood. “Don’t wait for me,” she said.
In the years that they lived together, the departures of Robin became slowly increasing rhythm. At first Nora went with Robin; but as time passed, realizing that a growing tension was in Robin, unable to endure the knowledge that she was in the way or forgotten, seeing Robin go from table to table, from drink to drink, from person to person, realizing that if she herself were not there Robin might return to her as the one who, out of all the turbulent night, had not been lived through, Nora stayed at home, lying awake or sleeping. Robin’s absence, as the night drew on, became a physical removal, insupportable and irreparable. As an amputated hand cannot be disowned because it is experiencing a futurity, of which the victim is its forebear, so Robin was an amputation that Nora could not renounce. As the wrist longs, so her heart longed, and dressing she would go out into the night that she might be “beside herself,” skirting the café in which she could catch a glimpse of Robin.
Once out in the open Robin walked in a formless meditation, her hands thrust into the sleeves of her coat, directing her steps toward that night life that was a known measure between Nora and the cafés. Her meditations, during this walk, were a part of the pleasure she expected to find when the walk came to an end. It was this exact distance that kept the two ends of her life—Nora and the cafés—from forming a monster with two heads.
Her thoughts were in themselves a form of locomotion. She walked with raised head, seeming to look at every passer-by, yet her gaze was anchored in anticipation and regret. A look of anger, intense and hurried, shadowed her face and drew her mouth down as she neared her company; yet as her eyes moved over the façades of the buildings, searching for the sculptured head that both she and Nora loved (a Greek head with shocked protruding eyeballs, for which the tragic mouth seemed to pour forth tears), a quiet joy radiated from her own eyes; for this head was remembrance of Nora and her love, making the anticipation of the people she was to meet set and melancholy. So, without knowing she would do so, she took the turn that brought her into this particular street. If she was diverted, as was sometimes the case, by the interposition of a company of soldiers, a wedding or a funeral, then by her agitation she seemed a part of the function to the persons she stumbled against, as a moth by his very entanglement with the heat that shall be his extinction is associated with flame as a component part of its function. It was this characteristic that saved her from being asked too sharply “where” she was going; pedestrians who had it on the point of their tongues, seeing her rapt and confused, turned instead to look at each other.
The doctor, seeing Nora out walking alone, said to himself, as the tall black-caped figure passed ahead of him under the lamps, “There goes the dismantled—Love has fallen off her wall. A religious woman,” he thought to himself, “without the joy and safety of the Catholic faith, which at a pinch covers up the spots on the wall when the family portraits take a slide; take that safety from a woman,” he said to himself, quickening his step to follow her, “and love gets loose and into the rafters. She sees her everywhere,” he added, glancing at Nora as she passed into the dark. “Out looking for what she’s afraid to find—Robin. There goes mother of mischief, running about, trying to get the world home.”
Looking at every couple as they passed, into every carriage and car, up to the lighted windows of the houses, trying to discover not Robin any longer, but traces of Robin, influences in her life (and those which were yet to be betrayed), Nora watched every moving figure for some gesture that might turn up in the movements made by Robin; avoiding the quarter where she knew her to be, where by her own movements the waiters, the people on the terraces, might know that she had a part in Robin’s life.
Returning home, the interminable night would begin. Listening to the faint sounds from the street, every murmur from the garden, an unevolved and tiny hum that spoke of the progressive growth of noise that would be Robin coming home, Nora lay and beat her pillow without force, unable to cry, her legs drawn up. At times she would get up and walk, to make something in her life outside more quickly over, to bring Robin back by the very velocity of the beating of her heart. And walking in vain, suddenly she would sit down on one of the circus chairs that stood by the long window overlooking the garden, bend forward, putting her hands between her legs, and begin to cry, “Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God!” repeated so often that it had the effect of all words spoken in vain. She nodded and awoke again and began to cry before she opened her eyes, and went back to the bed and fell into a dream which she recognized; though in the finality of this version she knew that the dream had not been “well dreamt” before. Where the dream had been incalculable, it was now completed with the entry of Robin.
Nora dreamed that she was standing at the top of a house, that is, the last floor but one—this was her grandmother’s room—an expansive, decaying splendour; yet somehow, though set with all the belongings of her grandmother, was as bereft as the nest of a bird which will not return. Portraits of her great-uncle, Llewellyn, who died in the Civil War, faded pale carpets, curtains that resembled columns from their time in stillness—a plume and an ink well—the ink faded into the quill; standing, Nora looked down into the body of the house, as if from a scaffold, where now Robin had entered the dream, lying among a company below. Nora said to herself, “The dream will not be dreamed again.” A disc of light, which seemed to come from someone or thing standing behind her and which was yet a shadow, shed a faintly luminous glow upon the upturned still face of Robin, who had the smile of an “only survivor,” a smile which fear had married to the bone.
From round about her in anguish Nora heard her own voice saying, “Come up, this is Grandmother’s room,” yet knowing it was impossible because the room was taboo. The louder she cried out the farther away went the floor below, as if Robin and she, in their extremity, were a pair of opera glasses turned to the wrong end, diminishing in their painful love; a speed that ran away with the two ends of the building, stretching her apart.
This dream that now had all its parts had still the former quality of never really having been her grandmother’s room. She herself did not seem to be there in person, nor able to give an invitation. She had wanted to put her hands on something in this room to prove it; the dream had never permitted her to do so. This chamber that had never been her grandmother’s, which was, on the contrary, the absolute opposite of any known room her grandmother had ever moved or lived in, was nevertheless saturated with the lost presence of her grandmother, who seemed in the continual process of leaving it. The architecture of dream had rebuilt her everlasting and continuous, flowing away in a long gown of soft folds and chin laces, the pinched gatherings that composed the train taking an upward line over the back and hips in a curve that not only bent age but fear of bent age demands.
With this figure of her grandmother who was not entirely her recalled grandmother went one of her childhood, when she had run into her at the corner of the house—the grandmother who, for some unknown reason, was dressed as a man, wearing a billycock and a corked moustache, ridiculous and plump in tight trousers and a red waistcoat, her arms spread saying with a leer of love, “My little sweetheart!”—her grandmother “drawn upon” as a prehistoric ruin is drawn upon, symbolizing her life out of her life, and which now appeared to Nora as something being done to Robin, Robin disfigured and eternalized by the hieroglyphics of sleep and pain.
Waking, she began to walk again, and looking out into the garden in the faint light of dawn, she saw a double shadow falling from the statue, as if it were multiplying, and thinking perhaps this was Robin, she called and was not answered. Standing motionless, straining her eyes, she saw emerge from the darkness the light of Robin’s eyes, the fear in them developing their luminosity until, by the intensity of their double regard, Robin’s eyes and hers met. So they gazed at each other. As if that light had power to bring what was dreaded into the zone of their catastrophe, Nora saw the body of another woman swim up into the statue’s obscurity, with head hung down, that the added eyes might not augment the illumination; her arms about Robin’s neck, her body pressed to Robin’s, her legs slackened in the hang of the embrace.
Unable to turn her eyes away, incapable of speech, experiencing a sensation of evil, complete and dismembering, Nora fell to her knees, so that her eyes were not withdrawn by her volition, but dropped from their orbit by the falling of her body. Her chin on the sill she knelt, thinking, “Now they will not hold together,” feeling that if she turned away from what Robin was doing, the design would break and melt back into Robin alone. She closed her eyes, and at that moment she knew an awful happiness. Robin, like something dormant, was protected, moved out of death’s way by the successive arms of women; but as she closed her eyes, Nora said “Ah!” with the intolerable automatism of the last “Ah!” in a body struck at the moment of its final breath.“The Squatter”
Jenny Petherbridge was a widow, a middle-aged woman who had been married four times. Each husband had wasted away and died; she had been like a squirrel racing a wheel day and night in an endeavour to make them historical; they could not survive it.
She had a beaked head and the body, small, feeble, and ferocious, that somehow made one associate her with Judy; they did not go together. Only severed could any part of her have been called “right.” There was a trembling ardour in her wrists and fingers as if she were suffering from some elaborate denial. She looked old, yet expectant of age; she seemed to be steaming in the vapours of someone else about to die; still she gave off an odour to the mind (for there are purely mental smells that have no reality) of a woman about to beaccouchée.Her body suffered from its fare, laughter and crumbs, abuse and indulgence. But put out a hand to touch her, and her head moved perceptibly with the broken arc of two instincts, recoil and advance, so that the head rocked timidly and aggressively at the same moment, giving her a slightly shuddering and expectant rhythm.
She writhed under the necessity of being unable to wear anything becoming, being one of those panicky little women who, no matter what they put on, look like a child under penance.
She had a fancy for tiny ivory or jade elephants; she said they were luck; she left a trail of tiny elephants wherever she went; and she went hurriedly and gasping.
Her walls, her cupboards, her bureaux, were teeming with second-hand dealings with life. It takes a bold and authentic robber to get first-hand plunder. Someone else’s marriage ring was on her finger; the photograph taken of Robin for Nora sat upon her table. The books in her library were other people’s selections. She lived among her own things like a visitor to a room kept “exactly as it was when—” She tiptoed, even when she went to draw a bath, nervous andandante. She stopped, fluttering and febrile, before every object in her house. She had no sense of humour or peace or rest, and her own quivering uncertainty made even the objects which she pointed out to the company, as, “My virgin from Palma,” or, “The left-hand glove of La Duse,” recede into a distance of uncertainty, so that it was almost impossible for the onlooker to see them at all. When anyone was witty about a contemporary event, she would look perplexed and a little dismayed, as if someone had done something that really should not have been done; therefore her attention had been narrowed down to listening forfaux pas. She frequently talked about something being the “death of her,” and certainly anything could have been had she been the first to suffer it. The words that fell from her mouth seemed to have been lent to her; had she been forced to invent a vocabulary for herself, it would have been a vocabulary of two words, “ah” and “oh.” Hovering, trembling, tip-toeing, she would unwind anecdote after anecdote in a light rapid lisping voice which one always expected to change, to drop and to become the “every day” voice; but it never did. The stories were humorous, well told. She would smile, toss her hands up, widen her eyes; immediately everyone in the room had a certain feeling of something lost, sensing that there was one person who was missing the importance of the moment, who had not heard the story; the teller herself.
She had endless cuttings and scraps from journals and old theatre programmes, haunted theComédie Française,spoke of Molière, Racine andLa Dame aux Camélias. She was generous with money. She made gifts lavishly and spontaneously. She was the worst recipient of presents in the world. She sent bushel baskets of camellias to actresses because she had a passion for the characters they portrayed. The flowers were tied with yards of satin ribbon, and a note accompanied them, effusive and gentle. To men she sent books by the dozen; the general feeling was that she was a well-read woman, though she had read perhaps ten books in her life.
She had a continual rapacity for other people’s facts; absorbing time, she held herself responsible for historic characters. She was avid and disorderly in her heart. She defiled the very meaning of personality in her passion to be a person; somewhere about her was the tension of the accident that made the beast the human endeavour.
She was nervous about the future; it made her indelicate. She was one of the most unimportantly wicked women of her time—because she could not let her time alone, and yet could never be a part of it. She wanted to be the reason for everything and so was the cause of nothing. She had the fluency of tongue and action meted out by divine providence to those who cannot think for themselves. She was master of the over-sweet phrase, the over-tight embrace.
One inevitably thought of her in the act of love emitting floridcommedia dell’ arteejaculations; one should not have thought of her in the act of love at all. She thought of little else, and though always submitting to the act, spoke of and desired the spirit of love; yet was unable to attain it.
No one could intrude upon her because there was no place for intrusion. This inadequacy made her insubordinate—she could not participate in a great love, she could only report it. Since her emotional reactions were without distinction, she had to fall back on the emotions of the past, great loves already lived and related, and over those she seemed to suffer and grow glad.
When she fell in love it was with a perfect fury of accumulated dishonesty; she became instantly a dealer in second-hand and therefore incalculable emotions. As, from the solid archives of usage, she had stolen or appropriated the dignity of speech, so she appropriated the most passionate love that she knew, Nora’s for Robin. She was a “squatter” by instinct.
Jenny knew about Nora immediately; to know Robin ten minutes was to know about Nora. Robin spoke of her in long, rambling, impassioned sentences. It had caught Jenny by the ear—she listened, and both loves seemed to be one and her own. From that moment the catastrophe was inevitable. This was in nineteen hundred and twenty-seven.
At their subsequent engagements, Jenny was always early and Robin late. Perhaps at theAmbassadeurs(Jenny feared meeting Nora). Perhaps dinner in theBois—Jenny had the collective income four dead husbands could afford—Robin would walk in, with the aggressive slide to the foot common to tall people, slurred in its accent by the hipless smoothness of her gait—her hands in her pockets, the trench coat with the belt hanging, scowling and reluctant. Jenny leaning far over the table, Robin far back, her legs thrust under her, to balance the whole backward incline of the body, and Jenny so far forward that she had to catch her small legs in the back rung of the chair, ankle out and toe in, not to pitch forward on the table—thus they presented the two halves of a movement that had, as in sculpture, the beauty and the absurdity of a desire that is in flower but that can have no burgeoning, unable to execute its destiny; a movement that can divulge neither caution nor daring, for the fundamental condition for completion was in neither of them; they were like Greek runners, with lifted feet but without the relief of the final command that would bring the foot down—eternally angry, eternally separated, in a cataleptic frozen gesture of abandon.
The meeting at the opera had not been the first, but Jenny, seeing the doctor in thepromenoir, aware of his passion for gossip, knew she had better make it seem so; as a matter of fact she had met Robin a year previously.
Though Jenny knew her safety lay in secrecy, she could not bear her safety; she wanted to be powerful enough to dare the world—and knowing she was not, the knowledge added to that already great burden of trembling timidity and fury.
On arriving at her house with the doctor and Robin, Jenny found several actresses awaiting her, two gentlemen, and the Marchesa de Spada, a very old rheumatic woman (with an antique spaniel, which suffered from asthma), who believed in the stars. There was talk about fate, and every hand in the room was searched and every destiny turned over and discussed. A little girl (Jenny called her niece, though she was no relation) sat at the far end of the room. She had been playing, but the moment Robin entered she ceased and sat, staring under her long-lashed eyelids at no one else, as if she had become prematurely aware. This was the child Jenny spoke of later when she called on Felix.
The Marchesa remarked that everyone in the room had been going on from interminable sources since the world began and would continue to reappear, but that there was one person who had come to the end of her existence and would return no more. As she spoke she looked slyly at Robin, who was standing by the piano speaking to the child in an undertone; and at the Marchesa’s words Jenny began to tremble slightly, so that every point of her upstanding hair—it stood about her head in a bush, virile and unlovely—quivered. She began to pull herself along the enormous sofa toward the Marchesa, her legs under her, and suddenly she stood up.
“Order the carriages!” she cried. “Immediately! We will go driving; we need a little air!” She turned her back and spoke in agitation. “Yes, yes,” she said, “the carriages! It is so close in here!”
“What carriages?” said the doctor, and he looked from one to the other. “What carriages?” He could hear the maid unlocking the front door, calling out to the coachmen. He could hear the clear ringing sound of wheels drawn close to the curb and the muttered cries of a foreign voice. Robin turned around and said, a malign gentle smile on her mouth, “Now she is in a panic, and we will have to do something.” She put her glass down and stood, her back to the room, her broad shoulders drawn up, and though she was drunk, there was a withdrawal in her movement and a wish to be gone.
“She will dress up now,” she said. She leaned back against the piano, pointing with the hand that held her glass. “Dress up; wait, you will see.” Then she added, thrusting her chin forward so that the cords in her neck stood out: “Dress up in something old.”
The doctor, who was more uncomfortable perhaps than anyone in the room and yet who could not forbear scandal, in order to gossip about the “manifestations of our time” at a later date, made a slight gesture and said, “Hush!” And sure enough, at that moment, Jenny appeared in the doorway to the bedroom, got up in a hoop, a bonnet and a shawl, and stood looking at Robin who was paying no attention to her, deep in conversation with the child. Jenny with the burning interest of a person who is led to believe herself a part of the harmony of a concert to which she is listening, appropriating in some measure its identity, emitted short exclamatory ejaculations.
There were, it turned out, three carriages in all, those open hacks that may still be had in Paris if they are hunted up in time. Jenny had a standing order with them, and when they were not called upon still they circled about her address, like flies about a bowl of cream. The three cabbies were hunched up on their boxes, their coats about their ears, for though it was an early autumn night, it had become very chilly by twelve o’clock. They had been ordered for eleven and had been sitting on their boxes for the past hour.
Jenny, cold with dread lest Robin should get into one of the other carriages with a tall slightly surprised English girl, seated herself in the farthest corner of the foremostfiacreand called, “Here, here,” leaving the rest of the guests to dispose of themselves. The child, Sylvia, sat across from her, the ragged gray rug held in two clenched hands. There was a great deal of chattering and laughter when to her horror Jenny saw that Robin was moving toward the second carriage in which the English girl had already seated herself. “Ah, no, no!” Jenny cried, and began beating the upholstery, sending up a cloud of dust. “Come here,” she said in an anguished voice, as if it were the end of her life. “Come here with me, both of you,” she added in a lowered and choking tone; and assisted by the doctor, Robin got in, the young Englishwoman, to Jenny’s consternation, taking the seat by her side.
Doctor O’Connor now turned to the driver and called out:“Écoute, mon gosse, va comme si trente-six diables étaient accrochés à tes fesses!”Then waving his hand in a gesture of abandon, he added: “Where to but the woods, the sweet woods of Paris!Fais le tour du Bois!” he shouted, and slowly the three carriages, horse behind horse, moved out into theChamps Elysées.
Jenny, with nothing to protect her against the night but her long Spanish shawl, which looked ridiculous over her flimsy hoop and bodice, a rug over her knees, had sunk back with collapsed shoulders. With darting, incredible swiftness, her eyes went from one girl to the other, while the doctor, wondering how he had managed to get himself into the carriage which held three women and a child, listened to the faint laughter from the carriages behind, feeling, as he listened, a twinge of occult misery. “Ah!” he said under his breath. “Just the girl that God forgot.” Saying which, he seemed to be precipitated into the halls of justice, where he had suffered twenty-four hours. “Oh, God help us,” he said, speaking aloud, at which the child turned slightly on her seat, her head, with large intelligent eyes directed toward him, which, had he noticed, would have silenced him instantly (for the doctor had a mother’s reverence for childhood). “What manner of man is it that has to adopt his brother’s children to make a mother of himself, and sleeps with his brother’s wife to get him a future—it’s enough to bring down the black curse of Kerry.”
“What?” said Jenny in a loud voice, hoping to effect a break in the whispered conversation between Robin and the English girl. The doctor turned up his coat collar.
“I was saying, madame, that by his own peculiar perversity God has made me a liar—”
“What, what is that you say?” demanded Jenny, her eyes still fixed on Robin so that her question seemed to be directed rather to that corner of the carriage than to the doctor.
“You see before you, madame,” he said, “one who was created in anxiety. My father, Lord rest his soul, had no happiness of me from the beginning. When I joined the army he relented a little because he had a suspicion that possibly in that fracas which occasionally puts a son on the list of ‘not much left since,’ I might be damaged. After all, he had no desire to see my ways corrected with a round of buckshot. He came in to me early in the dawn as I lay in my bed to say that he forgave me and that indeed he hoped to be forgiven; that he had never understood, but that he had, by much thought, by heavy reading, come back with love in his hand, that he was sorry, that he came to say so, that he hoped I could conduct myself like a soldier. For a moment he seemed to realize my terrible predicament: to be shot for man’s meat, but to go down like a girl, crying in the night for her mother. So I got up in bed on my knees and crawled to the foot where he stood, and cast my arms about him and said, ‘No matter what you have done or thought, you were right, and there’s nothing in my heart but love for you and respect.’”
Jenny had shrunk into her rug and was not listening. Her eyes followed every movement of Robin’s hand, which was laid now on the child’s hand, now stroking her hair, the child smiling up into the trees.
“Oh,” said the doctor, “for the love of God!”
Jenny began to cry slowly, the tears wet, warm, and sudden in the odd misery of her face. It made the doctor sad, with that unhappy yet pleasantly regrettable discomfort on which he usually launched his better meditations.
He remarked, and why he did not know, that by weeping she appeared like a single personality who, by multiplying her tears, brought herself into the position of one who is seen twenty times in twenty mirrors—still only one, but many times distressed. Jenny began to weep outright. As the initial soft weeping had not caught Robin’s attention, now Jenny used the increase and the catching in her throat to attract her, with the same insistent fury one feels when trying to attract a person in a crowded room. The weeping became as accurate as the monotonous underplay in a score, in spite of the incapacity of her heart. The doctor, sitting now a little slumped forward, said in an almost professional voice (they were now long past the pond and the park and were circling back again toward the lower parts of town), “Love of woman for woman, what insane passion for unmitigated anguish and motherhood brought that into the mind?”
“Oh, oh,” she said, “look at her!” She abruptly made a gesture toward Robin and the girl, as if they were no longer present, as if they were a vista passing out of view with the movement of the horses. “Look, she brings love down to a level!” She hoped that Robin would hear.
“Ah!” he said. “Love, that terrible thing!”
She began to beat the cushions with her doubled fist. “What could you know about it? Men never know anything about it, why should they? But a woman should know—they are finer, more sacred; my love is sacred and my love is great!”
“Shut up,” Robin said, putting her hand on her knee. “Shut up, you don’t know what you are talking about. You talk all the time and you never know anything. It’s such an awful weakness with you. Identifying yourself with God!” She was smiling, and the English girl, breathing very quickly, lit a cigarette. The child remained speechless, as she had been for the duration of the drive, her head turned as if fixed, looking at Robin and trying to hold her slight legs, that did not reach the floor, from shaking with the shaking of the carriage.
Then Jenny struck Robin, scratching and tearing in hysteria, striking, clutching and crying. Slowly the blood began to run down Robin’s cheeks, and as Jenny struck repeatedly Robin began to go forward as if brought to the movement by the very blows themselves, as if she had no will, sinking down in the small carriage, her knees on the floor, her head forward as her arm moved upward in a gesture of defence; and as she sank, Jenny also, as if compelled to conclude the movement of the first blow, almost as something seen in retarded action, leaned forward and over, so that when the whole of the gesture was completed, Robin’s hands were covered by Jenny’s slight and bending breast, caught in between the bosom and the knees. And suddenly the child flung herself down on the seat, face outward, and said in a voice not suitable for a child because it was controlled with terror: “Let me go! Let me go! Let me go!”
The carriage at this moment drew smartly up into therue du Cherche-Midi. Robin jumped before the carriage stopped, but Jenny was close behind her, following her as far as the garden.
It was not long after this that Nora and Robin separated; a little later Jenny and Robin sailed for America.Watchman,What of the Night?
About three in the morning, Nora knocked at the little glass door of theconcierge’s loge, asking if the doctor was in. In the anger of broken sleep theconciergedirected her to climb six flights, where at the top of the house, to the left, she would find him.
Nora took the stairs slowly. She had not known that the doctor was so poor. Groping her way she rapped, fumbling for the knob. Misery alone would have brought her, though she knew the late hours indulged in by her friend. Hearing his “come in” she opened the door and for one second hesitated, so incredible was the disorder that met her eyes. The room was so small that it was just possible to walk sideways up to the bed; it was as if being condemned to the grave the doctor had decided to occupy it with the utmost abandon.
A pile of medical books, and volumes of a miscellaneous order, reached almost to the ceiling, water-stained and covered with dust. Just above them was a very small barred window, the only ventilation. On a maple dresser, certainly not of European make, lay a rusty pair of forceps, a broken scalpel, half a dozen odd instruments that she could not place, a catheter, some twenty perfume bottles, almost empty, pomades, creams, rouges, powder boxes and puffs. From the half-open drawers of this chiffonier hung laces, ribands, stockings, ladies’ underclothing and an abdominal brace, which gave the impression that the feminine finery had suffered venery. A swill-pail stood at the head of the bed, brimming with abominations. There was something appallingly degraded about the room, like the rooms in brothels, which give even the most innocent a sensation of having been accomplice; yet this room was also muscular, a cross between achambre à coucherand a boxer’s training camp. There is a certain belligerence in a room in which a woman has never set foot; every object seems to be battling its own compression—and there is a metallic odour, as of beaten iron in a smithy.
In the narrow iron bed, with its heavy and dirty linen sheets, lay the doctor in a woman’s flannel nightgown.
The doctor’s head, with its over-large black eyes, its full gun-metal cheeks and chin, was framed in the golden semi-circle of a wig with long pendent curls that touched his shoulders, and falling back against the pillow, turned up the shadowy interior of their cylinders. He was heavily rouged and his lashes painted. It flashed into Nora’s head: “God, children know something they can’t tell; they like Red Riding Hood and the wolf in bed!” But this thought, which was only the sensation of a thought, was of but a second’s duration as she opened the door; in the next, the doctor had snatched the wig from his head, and sinking down in the bed drew the sheets up over his breast. Nora said, as quickly as she could recover herself: “Doctor, I have come to ask you to tell me everything you know about the night.” As she spoke, she wondered why she was so dismayed to have come upon the doctor at the hour when he had evacuated custom and gone back into his dress.
The doctor said, “You see that you can ask me anything,” thus laying aside both their embarrassments.
She said to herself: “Is not the gown the natural raiment of extremity? What nation, what religion, what ghost, what dream, has not worn it—infants, angels, priests, the dead; why should not the doctor, in the grave dilemma of his alchemy, wear his dress?” She thought: “He dresses to lie beside himself, who is so constructed that love, for him, can be only something special; in a room that giving back evidence of his occupancy, is as mauled as the last agony.”
“Have you ever thought of the night?” the doctor inquired with a little irony; he was extremely put out, having expected someone else, though his favourite topic, and one which he talked on whenever he had a chance, was the night.
“Yes,” said Nora, and sat down on the only chair. “I’ve thought of it, but thinking about something you know something about does not help.”
“Have you,” said the doctor, “ever thought of the peculiar polarity of times and times; and of sleep? Sleep the slain white bull? Well, I, Dr. Matthew-Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante-O’Connor, will tell you how the day and the night are related by their division. The very constitution of twilight is a fabulous reconstruction of fear, fear bottom-out and wrong side up. Every day is thought upon and calculated, but the night is not premeditated. The Bible lies the one way, but the night-gown the other. The night, ‘Beware of that dark door!’”
“I used to think,” Nora said, “that people just went to sleep, or if they did not go to sleep that they were themselves, but now”—she lit a cigarette and her hands trembled—“now I see that the night does something to a person’s identity, even when asleep.”
“Ah!” exclaimed the doctor. “Let a man lay himself down in the Great Bed and his ‘identity’ is no longer his own, his ‘trust’ is not with him, and his ‘willingness’ is turned over and is of another permission. His distress is wild and anonymous. He sleeps in a Town of Darkness, member of a secret brotherhood. He neither knows himself nor his outriders; he berserks a fearful dimension and dismounts, miraculously, in bed!
“His heart is tumbling in his chest, a dark place! Though some go into the night as a spoon breaks easy water, others go head foremost against a new connivance; their horns make a dry crying, like the wings of the locust, late come to their shedding.
“Have you thought of the night, now, in other times, in foreign countries—in Paris? When the streets were gall high with things you wouldn’t have done for a dare’s sake, and the way it was then; with the pheasants’ necks and the goslings’ beaks dangling against the hocks of the gallants, and not a pavement in the place, and everything gutters for miles and miles, and a stench to it that plucked you by the nostrils and you were twenty leagues out! The criers telling the price of wine to such effect that the dawn saw good clerks full of piss and vinegar, and blood-letting in side streets where some wild princess in a night-shift of velvet howled under a leech; not to mention the palaces of Nymphenburg echoing back to Vienna with the night trip of late kings letting water into plush cans and fine woodwork! No,” he said, looking at her sharply, “I can see you have not! You should, for the night has been going on for a long time.”