The Magus, Magician, or Juggler, the caster of the dice and mountebank in the world of vulgar trickery. This is the colportage interpretation, and it has the same correspondence with the real symbolical meaning that the use of the Tarot in fortune-telling has with its mystic construction according to the secret science of symbolism…
On the table in front of the Magus are the symbols of the four Tarot suits, signifying the elements of natural life, which lie like counters before the adept, and he adapts them as he wills. Beneath are roses and lilies, the flos campi and lilium convallium, changed into garden flowers, to show the culture of aspiration.
Un débauché de profession est rarement un homme pitoyable.
I was born in 1927, the only child of middle-class parents, both English, and themselves born in the grotesquely elongated shadow, which they never rose sufficiently above history to leave, of that monstrous dwarf Queen Victoria. I was sent to a public school, I wasted two years doing my national service, I went to Oxford; and there I began to discover I was not the person I wanted to be.
I had long before made the discovery that I lacked the parents and ancestors I needed. My father was, through being the right age at the right time rather than through any great professional talent, a brigadier; and my mother was the very model of a would-be major general’s wife. That is, she never argued with him and always behaved as if he were listening in the next room, even when he was thousands of miles away. I saw very little of my father during the war, and in his long absences I used to build up a more or less immaculate conception of him, which he generally—a bad but appropriate pun—shattered within the first forty-eight hours of his leave.
Like all men not really up to their jobs, he was a stickler for externals and petty quotidian things; and in lieu of an intellect he had accumulated an armory of capitalized key words like Discipline and Tradition and Responsibility. If I ever dared—I seldom did—to argue with him he would produce one of these totem words and cosh me with it, as no doubt in similar circumstances he coshed his subalterns. If one still refused to lie down and die, he lost, or loosed, his temper. His temper was like a violent red dog, and he always had it close to hand.
The wishful tradition is that our family came over from France after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes—noble Huguenots remotely allied to Honoré d'Urfe, author of the seventeenth-century bestseller L’Astrée. Certainly—if one excludes another equally unsubstantiated link with Tom Durfey, Charles II’s scribbling friend—no other of my ancestors showed any artistic leanings whatever; generation after generation of captains, clergymen, sailors, squirelings, with only a uniform lack of distinction and a marked penchant for gambling, and losing, to characterize them. My grandfather had four Sons, two of whom died in the First World War; the third took an unsavory way of paying off his atavism (gambling debts) and disappeared to America. He was never referred to as still existing by my father, a youngest brother who had all the characteristics that eldest are supposed to possess; and I have not the least idea whether he is still alive, or even whether I have unknown cousins on the other side of the Atlantic.
During my last years at school I realized that what was really wrong with my parents was that they had nothing but a blanket contempt for the sort of life I wanted to lead. I was “good” at English, I had poems printed pseudonymously in the school magazine, I thought D. H. Lawrence the greatest human being of the century; my parents had certainly never read Lawrence, and had probably never heard of him except in connection with Lady Chatterley’s Lover. There were things, a certain emotional gentleness in my mother, an occasional euphoric jolliness in my father, I could have borne more of; but always I liked in them the things they didn’t want to be liked for. By the time I was eighteen and Hitler was dead they had become mere providers, for whom I had to exhibit a token gratitude, but for whom I couldn’t feel much else.
I led two lives. At school I got a small reputation as a wartime aesthete and cynic. But I had to join the regiment—Tradition and Sacrifice pressganged me into that. I insisted, and luckily the headmaster of my school backed me, that I wanted to go to university afterwards. I went on leading a double life in the Army, queasily playing at being Brigadier “Blazer” Urfe’s son in public, and nervously reading Penguin New Writing and poetry pamphlets in private. As soon as I could, I got myself demobilized.
I went to Oxford in 1948. In my second year at Magdalen, soon after a long vacation during which I hardly saw them, my father had to fly out to India. He took my mother with him. Their plane crashed, a high-octane pyre, in a thunderstorm some forty miles east of Karachi. After the first shock I felt an almost immediate sense of relief, of freedom. My only other close relation, my mother’s brother, farmed in Rhodesia, so I now had no family to trammel what I regarded as my real self. I may have been weak on filial charity, but I was strong on the discipline in vogue.
At least, along with a group of fellow odd men out at Magdalen, I thought I was strong in the discipline. We formed a small club called Les Hommes Révoltés, drank very dry sherry, and (as a protest against those shabby dufflecoated last years of the forties) wore dark gray suits and black ties for our meetings; we argued about essence and existence and called a certain kind of inconsequential behavior existentialist. Less enlightened people would have called it capricious or just plain selfish; but we didn’t realize that the heroes, or anti-heroes, of the French existentialist novels we read were not supposed to be realistic. We tried to imitate them, mistaking metaphorical descriptions of complex modes of feeling for straightforward prescriptions of behavior. We duly felt the right anguishes. Most of us, true to the eternal dandyism of Oxford, simply wanted to look different. In our club, we did.
I acquired expensive habits and affected manners. I got a third-class degree and a first-class illusion that I was a poet. But nothing could have been less poetic than my pseudo-aristocratic, seeingthrough-all boredom with life in general and with making a living in particular. I was too green to know that all cynicism masks a failure to cope—an impotence, in short; and that to despise all effort is the greatest effort of all. But I did absorb a small dose of one permanently useful thing, Oxford’s greatest gift to civilized life: Socratic honesty. It showed me, very intermittently, that it is not enough to revolt against one’s past. One day I was outrageously bitter among some friends about the Army; back in my own rooms later it suddenly struck me that just because I said with impunity things that would have apoplexed my dead father, I was still no less under his influence. The truth was that I was not a cynic by nature; only by revolt. I had got away from what I hated, but I hadn’t found where I loved, and so I pretended there was nowhere to love.
Handsomely equipped to fail, I went out into the world. My father hadn’t kept Financial Prudence among his armory of essential words; he ran a ridiculously large account at Ladbroke’s and his mess bills always reached staggering proportions, because he liked to be popular and in place of charm had to dispense alcohol. What remained of his money when the lawyers and taxmen had had their cuts yielded not nearly enough for me to live on. But every kind of job I looked at—the Foreign Service, the Civil, the Colonial, the banks, commerce, advertising—was transpierceable at a glance. I went to several interviews, and since I didn’t feel obliged to show the eager enthusiasm our world expects from the young executive, I was successful at none.
In the end, like countless generations of Oxford men before me, I answered an advertisement in the Times Educational Supplement. I went to the place, a minor public school in East Anglia, I was interviewed, I was offered the post. I learnt later that there were only two other applicants, both Redbrick, and term was beginning in three days.
The mass-produced middle-class boys I had to teach were bad enough; the claustrophobic little town was a nightmare; but the really intolerable thing was the common room. It became almost a relief to go into class. Boredom, the numbing annual predictability of life, hung over the staff like a cloud. And it was real boredom, not my modish ennui. From it flowed cant, hypocrisy and the impotent rage of the old who know they have failed and the young who suspect that they will fail. The senior masters stood like gallows sermons; with some of them one had a sort of vertigo, a glimpse of the bottomless pit of human futility… or so I began to feel during my second term.
I could not spend my life crossing such a Sahara; and the more I felt it the more I felt also that the smug, petrified school was a toy model of the entire country and that to quit the one and not the other would be ridiculous. There was also a girl I was tired of.
My resignation was accepted with resignation. The headmaster briskly supposed from my vague references to a personal restlessness that I wanted to go to America or the Dominions.
“I haven’t decided yet, Headmaster.”
“I think we might have made a good teacher of you, Urfe. And you might have made something of us, you know. But it’s too late flow… '
“I’m afraid so.”
“I don’t know if I approve of all this wandering off abroad. My advice is, don’t go. However… vous l'avez voulu, Georges Danton. Vous l'avez voulu.”
The misquotation was typical.
It poured with rain the day I left. But I was filled with excitement, a strange exuberant sense of taking wing. I didn’t know where I was going, but I knew what I needed. I needed a new land, a new race, a new language; and, although I couldn’t have put it into words then, I needed a new mystery.
I heard that the British Council were recruiting staff, so in early August I went along to Davies Street and was interviewed by an eager lady with a culture-ridden mind and a very upperclass voice and vocabulary. It was frightfully important, she told me, as if in confidence, that “we” were represented abroad by the right type; but it was an awful bore, all the posts had to be advertised and the candidates chosen by interview, and anyway they were having to cut down on overseas personnel—actually. She came to the point: the only jobs available were teaching English in foreign schools—or did that sound too ghastly?
I said it did.
In the last week of August, half as a joke, I advertised: the traditional insertion. I had a number of replies to my curt offer to go anywhere and do anything. Apart from the pamphlets reminding me that I was God’s, there were three charming letters from cultured and alert swindlers. And there was one that mentioned unusual and remunerative work in Tangiers—could I speak Italian?—but my answer went unanswered.
September loomed: I began to feel desperate. I saw myself cornered, driven back in despair to the dreaded Educational Supplement and those endless pale gray lists of endless pale gray jobs. So one morning I returned to Davies Street.
I asked if they had any teaching jobs in the Mediterranean area, and the woman with the frightful intensifiers went off to fetch a file. I sat under a puce and tomato Matthew Smith in the waiting room and began to see myself in Madrid, in Rome, or Marseilles, or Barcelona… even Lisbon. It would be different abroad; there would he no common room, and I would write poetry. She returned. All the good things had gone, she was terribly afraid. But there were these. She handed me a sheet about a school in Milan. I shook my head. She approved.
“Well actually then there’s only this. We’ve just advertised it.” She handed me a clipping.
THE LORD BYRON SCHOOL, PHRAXOS
The Lord Byron School, Phraxos, Greece, requires in early October an assistant master to teach English. Candidates must be single and must have a degree in English. A knowledge of Modern Greek is not essential. The salary is worth about £600 per annum, and is fully convertible. Two-year contract, renewable. Fares paid at the beginning and end of contract.
It was an information sheet that longwindedly amplified the advertisement. Phraxos was an island in the Aegean about eighty miles from Athens. The Lord Byron was “one of the most famous boarding schools in Greece, run on English public-school lines"—whence the name. It appeared to have every facility a school should have. One had to give a maximum of five lessons a day.
“The school’s terribly well spoken of. And the island’s simply heavenly.”
“You’ve been there?”
She was about thirty, a born spinster, with a lack of sexuality so total that her smart clothes and too heavy makeup made her pathetic; like an unsuccessful geisha. She hadn’t been there, but everybody said so. I reread the advertisement.
“Why’ve they left it so late?”
“Well, we understand they did appoint another man. Not through us. But there’s been some awful mess-up.” I looked again at the information sheet. “We haven’t actually recruited for them before. We’re only doing it out of courtesy now, as a matter of fact.” She gave me a patient smile; her front teeth were much too big. I asked, in my best Oxford voice, if I might take her out to lunch.
When I got home, I filled in the form she had brought to the restaurant, and went straight out and posted it. That same evening, by a curious neatness of fate, I met Alison.
I suppose I’d had a good deal of sex for my age; at any rate, devoted a good deal to it. Girls, or a certain kind of girl, liked me; I had a car—not so common among undergraduates in those days—and I had some money. I wasn’t ugly; and even more important, I had my loneliness, which, as every cad knows, is a deadly weapon with women. My “technique” was to make a show of unpredictability, cynicism and indifference. Then, like a conjurer with his white rabbit, I produced the solitary heart.
I didn’t collect conquests; but by the time I left Oxford I was a dozen girls away from virginity. I found my sexual success and the apparently ephemeral nature of love equally pleasing. It was like being good at golf, but despising the game. One was covered all round, both when one played and when one didn’t. I contrived most of my affaires in the vacations, away from Oxford, since the new term meant that I could conveniently leave the scene of the crime. There were sometimes a few tedious weeks of letters, but I soon put the solitary heart away, “assumed responsibility with my total being” and showed the Chesterfieldian mask instead. I became as neat at ending liaisons as at starting them.
This sounds, and was, calculating, but it was caused less by a true coldness than by my dandyish belief in the importance of the life style. I mistook the feeling of relief that dropping a girl always brought for a love of freedom. Perhaps the one thing in my favor was that I lied very little; I was always careful to make sure that the current victim knew, before she took her clothes off, the difference between coupling and marrying.
But then in S—things became complicated. I started to take the daughter of one of the older masters out. She was pretty in a stock English way, as province-hating as myself, and she seemed rather passionate, but I belatedly realized she was passionate for a purpose. I was to marry her. I began to be sick of the way a mere bodily need threatened to distort my life. There were even one or two evenings when I felt myself near surrendering to Janet, a fundamentally silly girl I knew I didn’t love and would never love. Our parting scene, an infinitely sour all-night of nagging and weeping in the car beside the July sea, haunted me. Fortunately I knew, and she knew I knew, that she was not pregnant. I came to London with the firm determination to stay away from women for a while.
The Russell Square flat below the one I had rented had been empty through most of August. But then one Sunday I heard movements, doors slammed, and there was music. I passed a couple of uninteresting-looking girls on the stairs on the Monday; heard them talking, all their short a’s flattened into ugly short a’s, as I went on down. They were Australians. Then came the evening of the day I had lunch with Miss Spencer-Haigh; a Friday.
About six, there was a knock on the door, and the stockier of the two girls I had seen was standing there.
“Oh hi. I’m Margaret. From below.” I took her outstretched hand. “Gled to know you. We’re heving ourselves a bottle pardy. Like to come along?”
“Oh. Well actually…
“It’ll be noisy up here.”
It was the usual thing, an invitation to kill complaint. I hesitated, then shrugged.
“All right. Thanks.”
“Well thet’s good. Eight?” She began to go downstairs, but she called back. “You hev a girl-friend you’d like to bring?”
“Not just now.”
“We’ll fix you up. Hi.”
And she was gone. I wished then that I hadn’t accepted.
So I went down when I could tell a lot of people had already arrived, when the ugly girls—they always arrive first—would, I hoped, be disposed of. The door was open. I went in through a little hall and stood in the doorway of the living room, holding my bottle of Algerian burgundy ready to present. I tried to discover in the crowded room one of the two girls I had seen before. Loud male Australian voices; a man in a kilt, and several West Indians. It didn’t look my sort of party, and I was within five seconds of slipping back out. Then someone arrived and stood in the hall behind me.
It was a girl of about my own age, carrying a heavy suitcase, with a small rucksack on her shoulders. She was wearing a whitish old creased mackintosh, and she had the sort of tan that only weeks in hot sun can give. Her long hair was not quite blonde, but bleached almost to that color. It looked odd, because the urchin cut was the fashion; girls like boys, not girls like girls; and there was something German, Danish, about her—waif-like, yet perversely or immorally so. She kept back from the open doorway, beckoned me. Her smile was very thin, very insincere, and very curt.
“Could you find Maggie and ask her to come out?”
She nodded. I forced my way through the packed room and eventually caught sight of Margaret in the kitchen.
“Hi there! You made it.”
“Someone wants to see you outside. A girl with a suitcase.”
“Oh no!” She turned to a woman behind her. I sensed trouble. She hesitated, then put down the quart beer bottle she was opening. I followed her plump shoulders back through the crowd.
“Alison! You said next week.”
“I know, Maggie. I spent all my money.” Her voice was faintly Australian. “It doesn’t matter. I feel like a party. Is Pete back?”
“No.” Her voice dropped, half warning. “But Charlie and Bill are.”
“Oh merde.” She looked outraged. “I must have a bath.”
“Charlie’s filled it to cool the beer. It’s stecked to the brim.”
The girl with the tan sagged. I broke in.
“Use mine. Upstairs.”
“Yes? Alison, this is…”
“Would you mind? I’ve just come from Paris.” I noticed she had two voices; one almost Australian, one almost English.
“Of course. I’ll take you up.”
“I must go and get some things first.” As soon as she went into the room there was a shout.
“Hey, Allie! Where you been, girl?”
Two or three of the Australian men gathered round her. She kissed them all briefly. In a minute Margaret, one of those fat girls who mother thin girls, pushed them away. Alison reappeared with the clothes she wanted, and we went up.
“Oh Jesus,” she said. “Australians.”
“Where’ve you been?”
“All over. France. Spain.”
We went into the flat.
“I’ll just clean the spiders out of the bath. Have a drink. Over there.”
When I came back, she was standing with a glass of Scotch in her hand. She smiled again, but it was an effort; shut off almost at once. I helped her take off her mackintosh. She was wearing a French perfume so dark it was almost carbolic, and her primrose shirt was dirty.
“You live downstairs?”
“Uh huh. Share.”
She raised her glass in silent toast. She had very wide-apart gray eyes, the only innocent things in a corrupt face, as if circumstances, not nature, had forced her to be hard. To fend for herself, yet to seem to need defending. And her voice, only very slightly Australian, yet not English, veered between harshness, faint nasal rancidity, and a strange salty directness. She was bizarre, a kind of human oxymoron.
“Are you alone? At the party?”
“Would you keep with me this evening?”
“Come back in about twenty minutes?”
“I’d rather you came back.”
We exchanged wary smiles. I went back to the party.
Margaret came up. I think she’d been waiting. “I’ve a nice English girl enxious to meet you, Nicholas.”
“I’m afraid your friend’s jumped the gun.”
She looked round, and pulled me out into the little hall.
“This is difficult to explain. But Alison—well, we’re second cousins, and she’s engaged to my brother. A lot of my brother’s friends are here tonight.”
“She’s been very mixed up.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“It’s just that I don’t want a roughhouse. We hed one once before.” I looked blank. “People grow jealous on other people’s behalf?”
“I shan’t start anything.”
Someone called her from inside. She tried to feel sure of me, but couldn’t, and apparently decided she couldn’t do anything about it. “Fair deal. But please remember. Will you?”
“If you insist.”
She gave me a veteran’s look, then a nod, not a very happy one, and went away. I waited for about twenty minutes, near the door, and then I slipped out and went back up to my own flat. I rang the bell. There was a long pause, then there was a call behind the door.
“Who is it?”
The door opened. She had her hair up, and a towel wrapped round her; very brown shoulders, very brown legs.
“I’ve been soaking. Boy, it was good.” She went quickly back into the bathroom. I shouted through the door.
“I’ve been warned off you.”
“She says she doesn’t want a roughhouse.”
“Fucking cow. She’s my cousin.”
“Studying sociology. London University.” There was a pause. “Thinks she knows it all.”
“She tells me you’re engaged.”
“Isn’t it crazy? You go away and you think people will have changed and they’re just the same.”
“What does that mean?”
“Wait a minute.”
There was a long pause.
“Here I am.” The door opened and she came out into the living room. She was wearing a very simple white dress, and her hair was down again. She had no makeup, and looked ten times prettier.
She gave me a little bitten-in grin. “Je vous plais?”
“Very much.” Her look was so direct I found it disconcerting. “We go down?”
“Just one finger?”
I filled her glass again, and with more than one finger. Watching the whisky fall, she said, “I don’t know why I’m frightened. Why am I frightened?”
She turned away. “I don’t know. Maggie. The boys. The dear old diggers.”
“Oh God. It was so stupid. There was a nice Israeli boy, you see, and we were just kissing. It was a party. That was all. But Charlie told Pete, and they just picked a quarrel, and… oh God. You know. He-men.”
Downstairs I lost her for a time. A group formed round her. I went and got a drink and passed it over someone’s shoulder; talk about Cannes, about Collioure and Valencia. Jazz had started in the back room and I went into the doorway to watch. Outside the window, past the dark dancers, were dusk trees, a pale amber sky. I had a sharp sense of alienation from everyone around me. A girl with spectacles, myopic eyes in an insipidly pretty face, one of those soulful-intellectual creatures born to be preyed on and exploited by artistic phonies, smiled coyly from the other side of the room. She was standing alone and I guessed that she was the “nice English girl” Margaret had picked for me. Her lipstick was too red, and she was as familiar as a species of bird. I turned away from her as from a cliff-edge, and went and sat on the floor by a bookshelf. There I pretended to read a paperback.
Alison knelt beside me. “I’m sloshed. That whisky. Hey, have some of this.” It was gin. She sat beside me. “Well?” I thought of that white-faced English girl with the red smudged mouth. At least this girl was alive; brown, crude, but alive.
“I’m so glad you returned tonight.”
“Yes?” She sipped her gin and gave me a small gray look.
“Ever read this?”
“Let’s cut corners. To hell with literature. You’re clever and I’m beautiful. Now let’s talk about what we really are.”
The gray eyes teased; or dared.
“He’s a pilot.” She mentioned a famous airline. “We live together. Off and on. That’s all.”
“He’s doing a conversion course. In the States.” She turned and gave me that incongruously sincere look. “I’m free. And I’m going to stay free.” It wasn’t clear whether she was talking about her fiancé or for my benefit; or whether freedom was her pose or her truth.
“What do you do?”
“Things. Reception mostly.”
“Anything.” She wrinkled her nose. “I’ve applied for a new job. Air hostess. That’s why I went off polishing French and Spanish these last weeks.”
“Can I take you out tomorrow?”
A heavy Australian came and leant on a door opposite. “Oh Charlie,” she cried across the room. “He’s just lent me his bath. It’s nothing.”
Charlie nodded his head slowly, then pointed an admonitory stubby finger. He pushed himself off the doorjamb and went unsteadily away.
She turned over her hand and looked at the palm.
“Did you spend two and a half years in a Jap prisoner-of-war camp?”
There was a silence.
“Australians are boors, and Englishmen are prigs.”
“I make fun of him because he’s in love with me and he likes it. But no one else ever makes fun of him. If I’m around.”
There was a silence.
“No. About you.”
Gradually—I was offended at having been taught a lesson in the art of not condescending—she made me talk about myself. She did it by asking blunt questions, and by brushing aside empty answers. I began to talk about being a brigadier’s son, about loneliness, and for once mostly not to glamorize myself but simply to explain. I discovered two things about A]ison: that behind her bluntness she was an expert coaxer, a handler of men, a sexual diplomat, and that her attraction lay as much in her candor as in her having a pretty body, an interesting face, and knowing it. She had a very un-English ability to suddenly flash out some truth, some seriousness, some quick surge of interest. I fell silent. I knew she was watching me. After a moment I looked at her. She had a shy, thoughtful expression; a new self.
“Alison, I like you.”
“I think I like you. You’ve got a nice mouth.”
“You’re the first Australian girl I’ve ever met.”
All the lights except one dim one had long ago been put out, and there were the usual surrendered couples on all available furniture and floor space. The party had paired off. Maggie seemed to have disappeared, and Charlie lay fast asleep on the bedroom floor. We danced. We began close, and became closer. I kissed her hair, and then her neck, and she pressed my hand, and moved a little closer still.
“Shall we go upstairs?”
“You go first. I’ll come in five minutes.” She slipped away. I went up. Ten minutes passed, and then she was in the doorway, a faintly apprehensive smile on her face. She stood there in her white dress, small, innocent-corrupt, coarse-fine, an expert novice.
She came in, I shut the door, and we were kissing at once, for a minute, two minutes, pressed back against the door in the darkness. There were steps outside, and a sharp double rap. Alison put her hand over my mouth. Another double rap; and then another. Hesitation, heartbeats. The footsteps went away.
“Come on,” she said. “Come on, come on.”
It was late the next morning when I woke. She was still asleep, with her creole-brown back turned to me. I went and made some coffee and took it into the bedroom. She was awake then, staring at me over the top of the bedclothes. It was a long expressionless look that rejected my smile and my greeting and ended abruptly in her turning and pulling the bedclothes over her head. She began to cry. I sat beside her and tried rather amateurishly to comfort her, but she kept the sheet pulled tight over her head; so I gave up patting and making noises and went back to my coffee. After a while she sat up and asked for a cigarette. And then if I would lend her a shirt. She wouldn’t look me in the eyes. She pulled on the shirt, went to the bathroom, and brushed me aside with a shake of her hair when she came and got back into bed again. I sat at the foot of the bed and watched her drink her coffee.
“I’m a whore. Do you know how many men I’ve slept with the last two months?”
She didn’t smile.
“If I’d slept with fifty I’d just be an honest professional.”
“Have some more coffee.”
“Half an hour after I first saw you last night I thought, if I was really vicious I’d get into bed with him.”
“Thank you very much.”
“I could tell about you from the way you talked.”
“You’re the affaire de peau type. You’re already thinking, how the hell am I going to get rid of this stupid Australian slut.”
“I don’t blame you.”
“I was sloshed,” she said. “So tired.”
A possibility occurred to me. “Catholic?”
She gave me a long look, then shook her head and shut her eyes.
“I’m sorry. You’re nice. You’re terribly nice in bed. Only now what?”
“I’m not used to this.”
“I know, I know. I’m impossible.”
“It’s not a crime. You’re just proving you can’t marry this chap.”
“What I’m proving is that I can’t marry.”
“That’s absurd. Good God, at your age.”
“I’m twenty-three. How old are you?”
“Don’t you begin to feel things about yourself you know are you? Are going to be you forever? That’s what I feel. I’m going to be a whore forever.”
“I tell you what Pete’s doing right now. You know, he writes and tells me. 'I took a piece out last Friday and we had a wuzzamaroo.'”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means 'and you sleep with anyone you like, too.” She stared out of the window. “We lived together, all this spring. You know, we get on, we’re like brother and sister when we’re out of bed.” She gave me a slanting look through the cigarette smoke. “You don’t know what it’s like waking up with a man you didn’t even know this time yesterday. It’s losing something. Not just what all girls lose.”
“Or gaining something.”
“God, what can we gain. Tell me.”
“Did I tell you I love your mouth?”
She stubbed the cigarette out and sat back.
“Do you know why I cried just now? Because I’m going to marry him. As soon as he comes back, I’m going to marry him. Because he’s all I deserve.” She sat leaning back against the wall. The too large shirt, a small female boy with a swollen, hurt face, staring at me, staring at the bedcover, in our silence. “I’m a nympho.”
“It’s just a phase. You’re unhappy.”
“I’m unhappy when I stop and think. When I wake up and see what I am.”
“Thousands of girls do it.”
“I’m not thousands of girls. I’m me.” She slipped the shirt over her head, then retreated under the bedclothes. “What’s your real name? Your surname?”
“Urfe. U, R, F, E.”
“Mine’s Kelly. Was your dad really a brigadier?”
She gave a timid mock salute, then reached out a brown arm and took my hand. I sat down beside her.
“Don’t you think I’m a tramp?”
Perhaps then, as I was looking at her, so close, I had my choice. I could have said what I was thinking: Yes, you are a tramp, and even worse, you exploit your tramphood, and I wish I’d taken your sisterin-law-to-be’s advice. Perhaps if I had been farther away from her, on the other side of the room, in any situation where I could have avoided her eyes, I could have been decisively brutal. But those gray, searching, always candid eyes, by their begging me not to lie, made me lie.
“I like you. Really very much.”
“Come back to bed and hold me. Nothing else. Just hold me.”
I got into bed and held her. Then for the first time in my life I made love to a woman in tears.
She was in tears more than once that first Saturday. She went down to see Maggie about five and came back with red eyes. Maggie had told her to get out. Half an hour later Ann, the other girl in the flat, one of those unfortunate women whose faces fall absolutely flat from nostrils to chin, came up. Maggie had gone out and wanted Alison to remove all her things. So we went down and brought them up. I had a talk with Ann. In her quiet, rather prim way she showed more sympathy for Alison than I was expecting; Maggie was evidently and aggressively blind to her brother’s faults.
For days, afraid of Maggie, who for some reason stood in her mind as a hated but still potent monolith of solid Australian virtue on the blasted moor of English decadence, Alison did not go out except at night. I went and bought food, and we talked and slept and made love and danced and cooked meals at all hours, sous les toits, as remote from ordinary time as we were from the dull London world outside the window.
Alison was always female; she never, like so many English girls, betrayed her gender. She wasn’t beautiful, she very often wasn’t even pretty. But she had a fashionably thin boyish figure, she had a contemporary dress sense, she had a conscious way of walking, and her sum was extraordinarily more than her parts. I would sit in the car and watch her walking down the street towards me, pause, cross the road; and she looked wonderful. But then when she was close, beside me, there so often seemed to be something rather shallow, something spoilt-child, in her prettiness. Even close to her, I was always being wrong-footed. She would be ugly one moment, and then some movement, look, angle of her face, made ugliness impossible.
When she went out she used to wear a lot of eye shadow, which married with the sulky way' she sometimes held her mouth to give her a characteristic bruised look; a look that subtly made one want to bruise her more. Men were always aware of her, in the street, in restaurants, in pubs; and she knew it. I used to watch them sliding their eyes at her as she passed. She was one of those rare, even among already pretty, women that are born with a natural aura of sexuality: always in their lives it will be the relationships with men, it will be how men react, that matters. And even the tamest sense it.
There was a simpler Alison, when the mascara was off; she had not been typical of herself, that first evening; but still always a little unpredictable, ambiguous. One never knew when the more sophisticated, bruised-hard persona would reappear. She would give herself violently; then yawn at the wrongest moment. She would spend all one day clearing up the fiat, cooking, ironing, then pass the next three or four bohemianly on the floor in front of the fire, reading Lear, women’s magazines, a detective story, Hemingway—not all at the same time, but bits of all in the same afternoon. She liked doing things, and only then finding a reason for doing them.
One day she came back with an expensive fountain pen.
“But you shouldn’t.”
“It’s okay. I stole it.”
“I steal everything. Didn’t you realize?”
“I never steal from small shops. Only the big stores. They ask for it. Don’t look so shocked.”
“I’m not.” But I was. I stood holding the pen gingerly. She grinned.
“It’s just a hobby.”
“Six months in Holloway wouldn’t be so funny.”
She had poured herself a whisky. “Sante'. I hate big stores. And not just capitalists. Pommy capitalists. Two birds with one steal. Oh, come on, sport, smile.” She put the pen in my pocket. “There. Now you’re a cassowary after the crime.”
“I need a Scotch.”
Holding the bottle, I remembered she had “bought” that as well. I looked at her. She nodded.
She stood beside me as I poured. “Nicholas, you know why you take things too seriously? Because you take yourself too seriously.” She gave me an odd little smile, half tender, half mocking, and went away to peel potatoes. And I knew that in some obscure way I had offended her; and myself.
One night I heard her say a name in her sleep.
“Who’s Michel?” I asked the next morning.
“Someone I want to forget.”
But she talked about everything else; about her English-born mother, genteel but dominating; about her father, a stationmaster who had died of cancer four years before.
“That’s why I’ve got this crazy between voice. It’s Mum and Dad living out their battles again every time I open my mouth. I suppose it’s why I hate Australia and I love Australia and I couldn’t ever be happy there and yet I’m always feeling homesick. Does that make sense?”
She was always asking me if she made sense.
“I went to see the old family in Wales. Mum’s brother. Jesus. Enough to make the wallabies weep.”
But she found me very English, very fascinating. Partly it was because I was “cultured,” a word she often used. Pete had always “honked” at her if she went to galleries or concerts. She mimicked him: “What’s wrong with the boozer, girl?”
One day she said, “You don’t know how nice Pete is. Besides being a bastard. I always know what he wants, I always know what he thinks, and what he means when he says anything. And you, I don’t know anything. I offend you and I don’t know why. I please you and I don’t know why. It’s because you’re English. You couldn’t ever understand that.”
She had finished high school in Australia, and had even had a year doing languages at Sydney University. But then she had met Pete, and it “got complicated.” She’d had an abortion and come to England.
“Did he make you have the abortion?”
She was sitting on my knees.
“He never knew.”
“It could have been someone else’s. I wasn’t sure.”
“You poor kid.”
“I knew if it was Pete’s he wouldn’t want it. And if it wasn’t his he Wouldn’t have it. So.”
“I didn’t want a baby. It would have got in the way.” But she added more gently, “Yes, I was.”
A silence, a small shrug.
I couldn’t see her face. We sat in silence, close and warm, both aware that we were close and aware that we were embarrassed by the implications of this talk about children. In our age it is not sex that raises its ugly head, but love.
One evening we went to see Carne’s old film Quai des Brumes. She was crying when we came out and she began to cry again when we were in bed. She sensed my disapproval.
“You’re not me. You can’t feel like I feel.”
“I can feel.”
“No you can’t. You just choose not to feel or something, and everything’s fine.”
“It’s not fine. It’s just not so bad.”
“That film made me feel what I feel about everything. There isn’t any meaning. You try and try to be happy and then something chance happens and it’s all gone. It’s because we don’t believe in a life after death.”
“Not don’t. Can’t.”
“Every time you go out and I’m not with you I think you may die. I think about dying every day. Every time I have you, I think this is one in the eye for death. You know, you’ve got a lot of money and the shops are going to shut in an hour. It’s sick, but you’ve got to spend. Does that make sense?”
“Of course. The bomb.”
She lay smoking.
“It’s not the bomb. It’s us.”
She didn’t fall for the solitary heart; she had a nose for emotional blackmail. She thought it must be nice to be totally alone in the world, to have no family ties. When I was going on one day in the car about not having any close friends—using my favorite metaphor: the cage of glass between me and the rest of the world—she just laughed. “You like it,” she said. “You say you’re isolated, boyo, but you really think you’re different.” She broke my hurt silence by saying, too late, “You are different.”
She shrugged. “Marry someone. Marry me.”
She said it as if she had suggested I try an aspirin for a headache. I kept my eyes on the road.
“You’re going to marry Pete.”
“And you wouldn’t marry me because I’m a whore and a colonial.”
“I wish you wouldn’t use that word.”
“And you wish I wouldn’t use that word.”
Always we edged away from the brink of the future. We talked about a future, about living in a cottage, where I should write, about buying a jeep and crossing Australia. “When we’re in Alice Springs…” became a sort of joke—in never-never land.
One day drifted and melted into another. I knew the affaire was like no other I had been through. Apart from anything else it was so much happier physically. Out of bed I felt I was teaching her, anglicizing her accent, polishing off her roughnesses, her provincialisms; in bed she did the teaching. We knew this reciprocity without being able, perhaps because we were both single children, to analyze it. We both had something to give and to gain… and at the same time a physical common ground, the same appetites, the same tastes, the same freedom from inhibition. She was teaching me other things, besides the art of love; but that is how I thought of it at the time.
I remember one day when we were standing in one of the rooms at the Tate. Alison was leaning slightly against me, holding my hand, looking in her childish sweet-sucking way at a Renoir. I suddenly had a feeling that we were one body, one person, even there; that if she had disappeared it would have been as if I had lost half of myself. A terrible deathlike feeling, which anyone less cerebral and self-absorbed than I was then would have realized was simply love. I thought it was desire. I drove her straight home and tore her clothes off.
Another day, in Jermyn Street, we ran into Billy Whyte, an Old Etonian I had known quite well at Magdalen; he’d been one of the Hommes Révoltés. He was pleasant enough, not in the least snobbish—Etonians very seldom are—but he carried with him, perhaps in spite of himself, an unsloughable air of high caste, of constant contact with the nicest best people, of impeccable upper-class taste in facial exPression, clothes, vocabulary. We went off to an oyster bar; he’d just heard the first Colchesters of the season were in. Alison said very little, but I was embarrassed by her, by her accent, by the difference between her and one or two debs who were sitting near us. She left us for a moment when Billy poured the last of the Muscadet.
“Nice girl, dear boy.”
“Oh…” I shrugged. “You know.”
“Cheaper than central heating.”
But I knew what he was thinking.
Alison was very silent after we left him. We were driving up to Hampstead to see a film. I glanced at her sullen face.
“Sometimes you sound so mean, you upper-class Poms.”
“I’m not upper-class. I’m middle-class.”
“Upper, middle—God, who cares.”
I drove some way before she spoke again.
“You treated me as if I didn’t really belong to you.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“As if I’m a bloody abo.”
“In case my pants fell down or something.”
“It’s so difficult to explain.”
“Not to me, sport. Not to me.”
One day she said, “I’ve got to go for my interview tomorrow.”
“Do you want to go?”
“Do you want me to go?”
“It doesn’t mean anything. You haven’t got to make up your mind.”
“It’ll do me good if I get accepted. Just to know I’m accepted.”
She changed the subject; and I could have refused to change the subject. But I didn’t.
Then, the very next day, I too had a letter about an interview. Alison’s took place—she thought she had done well. Three days later she got a letter saying that she had been accepted for training, to start in October.
I had my interview, with a board of urbane culture-organizers. She met me outside and we went and had an awkward meal, like two strangers, in an Italian restaurant. She had a gray, tired face, and her cheeks looked baggy. I asked her what she’d been doing while I was away.
“Writing a letter.”
“What do you think I said?”
There was a difficult pause. I knew what she wanted me to say, but I couldn’t say it. I felt as a sleepwalker must feel when he wakes up at the end of the roof parapet. I wasn’t ready for marriage, for settling down. I wasn’t psychologically close enough to her; something I couldn’t define, obscure, monstrous, lay between us, and this obscure monstrous thing emanated from her, not from me.
“Some of their flights go via Athens. If you’re in Greece we can meet. Maybe you’ll be in London. Anyway.”
We began to plan how we would live if I didn’t get the job in Greece.
But I did. A letter came, saying my name had been selected to be forwarded to the School Board in Athens. This was “virtually a formality.” I should be expected in Greece about the beginning of October.
I showed Alison the letter as soon as I had climbed the stairs back to the fiat, and watched her read it. I was looking for regret, but I couldn’t see it. She kissed me.
“I told you.”
“Let’s celebrate. Let’s go out in the country.”
I let her carry me away. She wouldn’t take it seriously, and I was too much of a coward to stop and think why I was secretly hurt by her refusing to take it seriously. So we went out into the country, and when we came back we went to see a film and later went dancing in Soho; and still she wouldn’t take it seriously. But then, late, after love, we couldn’t sleep, and we had to take it seriously.
“Alison, what am I going to do tomorrow?”
“You’re going to accept.”
“Do you want me to accept?”
“Not all over again.”
We were lying on our backs, and I could see her eyes were open. Somewhere down below little leaves in front of a lamppost cast nervous shadows across our ceiling.
“If I say what I feel about you, will you…”
“I know what you feel.”
And it was there: an accusing silence.
I reached out and touched her bare stomach. She pushed my hand away, but held it. “You feel, I feel, what’s the good. It’s what we feel. What you feel is what I feel. I’m a woman.”
I was frightened; and calculated my answer.
“Would you marry me if I asked you?”
“You can’t say it like that.”
“I’d marry you tomorrow if I thought you really needed me. Or wanted me.”
“Oh Nicko, Nicko.” Rain lashed the windowpanes. She beat my hand on the bed between us. There was a long silence.
“I’ve just got to get out of this country.”
She didn’t answer; more silence, and then she spoke.
“Pete’s coming back to London next week.”
“What will he do?”
“Don’t worry. He knows.”
“How do you know he knows?”
“I wrote to him.”
“Has he answered?”
She breathed out. “No strings.”
“Do you want to go back to him?”
She turned on her elbow and made me turn my head, so that our faces were very close together.
“Ask me to marry you.”
“Will you marry me?”
“No.” She turned away.
“Why did you do that?”
“To get it over. I’m going to be an air hostess, and you’re going to Greece. You’re free.”
“And you’re free.”
“If it makes you happier—I’m free.”
The rain came in sudden great swathes across the treetops and hit the windows and the roof; like spring rain, out of season. The bedroom air seemed full of unspoken words, unformulated guilts, a vicious silence, like the moments before a bridge collapses. We lay side by side, untouching, effigies on a bed turned tomb; sickeningly afraid to say what we really thought. In the end she spoke, in a voice that tried to be normal, but sounded harsh.
“I don’t want to hurt you and the more I… want you, the more I shall. And I don’t want you to hurt me and the more you don’t want me the more you will.” She got out of bed for a moment. When she came back she said, “We’ve decided?”
We said no more. Soon, too soon, I thought, she went to sleep.
In the morning she was determinedly gay. I telephoned the Council. I went to receive Miss Spencer-Haigh’s congratulations and briefings, and took her out for a second and—I prayed—last lunch.
What Alison was not to know—since I hardly realized it myself—was that I had been deceiving her with another woman during the latter part of September. The woman was Greece. Even if I had failed the board I should have gone there. I never studied Greek at school, and my knowledge of modern Greece began and ended with Byron’s death at Missolonghi. Yet it needed only the seed of the idea of Greece, that morning in the British Council. It was as if someone had hit on a brilliant solution when all seemed lost. Greece—why hadn’t I thought of it before? It sounded so good: “I’m going to Greece.” I knew no one—this was long before the new Medes, the tourists, invaded—who had been there. I got hold of all the books I could find on the country. It astounded me how little I knew about it. I read and read; and I was like a medieval king, I had fallen in love with the picture long before I saw the reality.
It seemed almost a secondary thing, by the time I left, that I wanted to escape from England. I thought of Alison only in terms of my going to Greece. When I loved her, I thought of being there with her; when I didn’t, then I was there without her. She had no chance.
I received a cable from the School Board confirming my appointment, and then by post a contract to sign and a courteous letter in atrocious English from my new headmaster. Miss Spencer-Haigh produced the name and address in Northumberland of a man who had been at the school the year before. He hadn’t been appointed by the British Council, so she could tell me nothing about him. I wrote a letter, but that was unanswered. Ten days remained before I was due to go.
Things became very difficult with Alison. I had to give up the flat in Russell Square and we spent three frustrating days looking for somewhere for her to live. Eventually we found a large studio-room off Baker Street. The move, packing things, upset us both. I didn’t have to go until October 8th, but Alison started work on the 1st, and the need to get up early, to introduce order into our life, was too much for us. We had two dreadful rows. The first one she started, and stoked, and built up to a whitehot outpouring of contempt for men, and me in particular. I was a snob, a prig, a twopenny-halfpenny Don Juan—and so on. The next day—she had been icily mute at breakfast—when I went in the evening to meet her, she was not there. I waited an hour, then I went home. She wasn’t there, either. I telephoned: no air-hostess trainees had been kept late. I waited, getting angrier and angrier, until eleven o'clock, and then she came in. She went to the bathroom, took her coat off, put on the milk she always had before bed, and said not a word.
“Where the hell have you been?”
“I’m not going to answer any questions.”
She stood over the stove in the kitchen recess. She had insisted on a cheap room. I loathed the cooking-sleeping-everything in one room; the shared bathroom; the having to hiss and whisper.
“I know where you’ve been.”
“I’m not interested.”
“You’ve been with Pete.”
“All right. I’ve been with Pete.” She gave me a furious dark look. “So?”
“You could have waited till Thursday.”
“Why should I?”
Then I lost my temper. I dragged up everything I could remember that might hurt her. She didn’t say anything, but undressed and got into bed, and lay with her face turned to the wall. She began to cry. In the silence I kept remembering, with intense relief, that I should soon be free of all this. It was not that I believed my own vicious accusations; but I still hated her for having made me make them. In the end I sat beside her and watched the tears trickle out of her swollen eyes.
“I waited hours for you.”
“I went to the cinema. I haven’t seen Pete.”
“Why lie about it?”
“Because you can’t trust me. As if I’d do that.”
“This is such a lousy way to end.”
“I could have killed myself tonight. If I’d had the courage. I’d have thrown myself under the train. I stood there and thought of doing it.”
“I’ll get you a whisky.” I came back with it and gave it to her. “I wish to God you’d live with someone. Isn’t there another air hostess who’d—”
“I’m never going to live with another woman again.”
“Are you going back to Pete?”
She gave me an angry look.
“Are you trying to tell me I shouldn’t?”
She sank back and stared at the wall.
“I’d be back with him now… if I could stand the idea.” For the first time she gave a faint smile. The whisky was beginning to work. “It’s like those Hogarth pictures. Love a la mode. Five weeks later.”
“Are we friends again?”
“We can’t ever be friends again.”
“If it hadn’t been you, I’d have walked out this evening.”
“If it hadn’t been you I wouldn’t have come back.”
She held out her glass for more whisky. I kissed her wrist, and went and got the bottle.
“You know what I thought today?” She said it across the room.
“If I killed myself, you’d be pleased. You’d be able to go round saying, she killed herself because of me. I think that would always keep me from suicide. Not letting some lousy slit like you get the credit.”
“That’s not fair.”
“Then I thought I could do it if I wrote a note first explaining why I did it.” She eyed me, still hostile. “Look in my handbag. The shorthand pad.” I got it out. “Look at the back.”
There were two pages scrawled in her big handwriting.
“When did you write this?”
I don’t want to live any more, it said. I spend most of my life not wanting to live. The only place I am happy is here where we’re being taught, and I have to think of something else, or reading books, or in the cinema. Or in bed. I’m only happy when I forget I exist. When just my eyes or my ears or my skin exist. I can’t remember having been happy for two or three years. Since the abortion. All I can remember is forcing myself sometimes to look happy so if I catch sight of my face in the mirror I might kid myself for a moment I really am happy.
There were two more sentences heavily crossed out. I looked up into her gray eyes, still watching me.
“You can’t mean this.”
“I wrote it today in coffee-time. If I’d known how to quietly kill myself in the canteen I’d have done it.”
“It’s… well, hysterical.”
“I feel hysterical.” It was almost a shout.
“And histrionic. You wrote it for me to see.”
There was a long pause. She kept her eyes shut.
“Not just for you to see.”
And then she cried again, but this time, in my arms. I tried to reason with her. I made promises; I would postpone the journey to Greece, I would turn down the job—a hundred things that I didn’t mean and she knew I didn’t mean, but finally took as a placebo.
In the morning I persuaded her to ring up and say that she wasn’t well, and we spent the day out in the country.
The next morning, my last but two, came a postcard with a Northumberland postmark. It was from Mitford, the man who had been on Phraxos, to say that he would be in London for a few days, if I wanted to meet him.
I rang him up on the Wednesday at the Army and Navy Club and asked him out to lunch. He was two or three years older than myself, tanned, with blue staring eyes in a narrow head. He had a dark young-officer moustache, which he kept on touching, and he wore a dark-blue blazer, with a regimental tie. He reeked mufti; and almost at once we started a guerrilla war of prestige and anti-prestige. He had been parachuted into Greece during the German Occupation, and he was very glib with his Xan’s and his Paddy’s and the Christian names of all the other well-known condottieri of the time. He had tried hard to acquire the triune personality of the philhellefle in fashion—gentleman, scholar, thug—but he spoke with a secondhand accent and the clipped, sparse prepsehoolisms of a Viscount Montgomery. He was dogmatic, unbrooking, lost off the battlefield. I managed to keep my end up, over pink gins; I told him my war had consisted of two years’ ardent longing for demobilization. It was absurd. I wanted information from him, not antipathy; soin the end I made an effort, confessed I was a Regular Army officer’s son and asked him what the island looked like.
He nodded at the food-stand on the bar. “There’s the island.” He pointed with his cigarette. “That’s what the locals call it.” He said some word in Greek. “The Pasty. Shape, old boy. Central ridge. Here’s your school and your village in this corner. All the rest of this north side and the entire south side deserted. That’s the lie of the land.”
“Best in Greece, actually.”
“Discipline?” He stiffened his hand karate fashion.
“Usual stuff.” He preened his moustache in the mirror behind the bar; mentioned the names of two or three books.
I asked him about life outside the school.
“Isn’t any. Island’s damn beautiful, if you like that sort of thing. Birds and the bees, all that caper.”
“There’s a village, isn’t there?”
He smiled grimly. “Old boy, your Greek village isn’t like an English village. Masters’ wives. Half a dozen officials. Odd pater and mater on a visit.” He raised his neck, as if his shirt collar was too tight. It was a tic; made him feel authoritative. “A few villas. But they’re all boarded up for ten months of the year.”
“You’re not exactly selling the place to me.”
“It’s remote. Let’s face it, bloody remote. And you’d find the people in the villas pretty damn dull, I can tell you. There’s one that you might say isn’t, but I don’t suppose you’ll meet him.”
“Actually, we had a row and I told him pretty effing quick what I thought of him.”
“What was it all about?”
“Bastard collaborated during the war. That was really at the root of it.” He exhaled smoke. “No—you’ll have to put up with the other beaks if you want chat.”
“They speak English?”
“Most of 'em speak Frog. There’s the Greek chap who teaches English with you. Cocky little bastard. Gave him a black eye one day.”
“You’ve really prepared the ground for me.”
He laughed. “Got to keep 'em down, you know.” He felt his mask had slipped a little. “Your peasant, especially your Cretan peasant, salt of the earth. Wonderful chaps. Believe me. I know.”
I asked him why he’d left. He became incoherent.
“Writing a book, actually. Wartime experiences and all that. See my publisher.”
There was something forlorn about him; I could imagine him briskly dashing about like a destructive Boy Scout, blowing up bridges and wearing picturesque offbeat uniforms; but he had to live in this dull new welfare world, like a stranded archosaur. He went hurriedly on.
“You’ll piss blood for England. It’ll be worse for you. With no Greek. And you’ll drink. Everyone does. You have to.” He talked about retsina and aretsinato, raki and ouzo—and then about women. “The girls in Athens are strictly O.O.B. Unless you want the pox.”
“No talent on the island?”
“Nix, old boy. Women are about the ugliest in the Aegean. And anyway—village honor. Makes that caper highly dangerous. Shouldn’t advise it. Discovered that somewhere else once.” He gave me a curt grin, with the appropriate hooded look in his eyes; T. E. Lawrence run totally to seed.
I drove him back towards his club. It was a bronchial midafternoon, already darkening, the people, the traffic, everything fish-gray. I asked him why he hadn’t stayed in the Army.
“Too damn orthodox, old boy. Specially in peacetime.”
I guessed he had been rejected for a permanent commission; there was something obscurely wild and unstable about him under the officer’s-mess mannerisms.
We came to where he wanted to be dropped off.
“Think I’ll do?”
His look was doubtful. “Treat 'em tough. It’s the only way. Never let 'em get you down. They did the chap before me, you know. Never met him, but apparently he went bonkers. Couldn’t control the boys.”
He got out of the car.
“Well, all the best, old man.” He grinned. “And listen.” He had his band on the doorhandle. “Beware of the waiting room.”
He closed the door at once, as if he had rehearsed that moment. I opened it quickly and leaned out to call after him. “The what?”
He turned, but only to give a sharp wave. The Trafalgar Square crowd swallowed him up. I couldn’t get the smile on his face out of my mind. It secreted an omission; something he’d saved up, a mysterious last word. Waiting room, waiting room, waiting room; it went round in my head all that evening.
I picked up Alison and we went to the garage that was going to sell the car for me. I’d offered it to her some time before, but she had refused.
“If I had it I’d always think of you.”
“Then have it.”
“I don’t want to think of you. And I couldn’t stand anyone else sitting where you are,”
“Will you take whatever I get for it? It won’t be much.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“I don’t want anything.”
But I knew she wanted a scooter. I could leave a check with Towards a scooter on a card, and I thought she would take that, when I had gone.
It was curious how quiet that last evening was; as if I had already left, and we were two ghosts talking to each other. We arranged what we should do in the morning. She didn’t want to come and see me off at Victoria; we would have breakfast as usual, she would go, it was cleanest and simplest that way. We arranged our future. As soon as she could she would try to get herself to Athens. If that was impossible, I might fly back to England at Christmas. We might meet halfway somewhere—Rome, Germany.
“Alice Springs,” she said.
In the night we lay awake, knowing each other awake, yet afraid to talk. I felt her hand feel out for mine. We lay for a while without talking. Then she spoke.
“If I said I’d wait?” I was silent. “I think I could wait. That’s what I mean.”
“You’re always saying 'I know.' But it doesn’t answer anything.”
“I know.” She pinched my hand. “Suppose I say, yes, wait, in a year’s time I shall know. All th time you’ll be waiting, waiting.”
“I wouldn’t mind.”
“But it’s mad. It’s like putting a girl in a convent till you’re ready to marry her. And then deciding you don’t want to marry her. We have to be free. We haven’t got a choice.""Don’t get upset. Please don’t get upset.”
“We’ve got to see how things go.”
There was a silence.
“I was thinking of coming back here tomorrow night. That’s all.”
“I’ll write. Every day.”
“It’s a sort of test, really. We’ll see how mucil we miss each other.”
“I know what it’s like when people go away. It’s agony for a week, then painful for a week, then you begin to forget, and then it seems as if it never happened, it happened to someone else, and you start shrugging. You say, dingo it’s life, that’s the way things are. Stupid things like that. As if you haven’t really lost something forever.”
“I shan’t forget. I shan’t ever forget.”
“You will. And I will.”
“We’ve got to go on living. However sad it is.”
After a long time she said, “I don’t think you know what sadness is.”
We overslept in the morning. I had deliberately set the alarm late, to make a rush, not to leave time for tears. Alison ate her breakfast standing up. We talked about absurd things: cutting the milk order, where I would be at lunchtime, where a library ticket I had lost might be. And then she put down her coffeecup and we were standing at the door. I saw her face, as if it was still not too late, all a bad dream, her gray eyes searching mine, her small puffy cheeks. There were tears forming in her eyes, and she opened her mouth to say something. But then she leant forward, desperately, clumsily, kissed me so swiftly that I hardly felt her mouth, and was gone. Her camel-hair coat disappeared down the stairs. She didn’t look back. I went to the window, and saw her walking fast across the street, the pale coat, the straw-colored hair almost the same color as the coat, a movement of her hand to her handbag, her blowing her nose; not once did she look back. She broke into a sort of run. I opened the window and leant out and watched until she disappeared around the corner at the end of the street into Marylebone Road. And not even then, at the very end, did she look back.
I turned to the room, washed up the breakfast things, made the bed; then I sat at the table and wrote out a check for fifty pounds, and a little note.
Alison darling, please believe that if it was to be anyone, it would have been you; that I'vr really been far sadder than I could show, if we were not both to go mad. Please wear the earrings. Please take this money and buy a scooter and go where we used to go—or do what you want with it. Please look after yourself. Oh God, if only I was worth waiting for… Nicholas
It was supposed to sound spontaneous, but I had been composing it on and off for days. I put the check and the note in an envelope, and set it on the mantelpiece with the little box containing the pair of jet earrings we had seen in a closed antique-shop one day. Then I shaved, and went out to get a taxi.
The thing I felt most clearly, when the first corner was turned, was that I had escaped. Obscurer, but no less strong, was the feeling that she loved me more than I loved her, and that consequently I had in some indefinable way won. So on top of the excitement of the voyage into the unknown, the taking wing again, I had an agreeable feeling of emotional triumph. A dry feeling; but I liked things dry. I went towards Victoria as a hungry man goes towards a good dinner after a couple of glasses of Manzanilla. I began to sing, and it was not a brave attempt to hide my grief but a revoltingly unclouded desire to sing.
Five days later I was standing on Hymettus, looking down over the great complex of Athens-Piraeus, cities and suburbs, houses split like a miffion dice over the Attic plain. South stretched the pure blue late-summer sea, pale pumice-colored islands, and beyond them the serene mountains of the Peloponnesus stood away over the horizon in a magnificent arrested flow of land and water. Serene, superb, majestic: I tried for adjectives less used, but anything else seemed slick and underweight. I could see for eighty miles, and all pure, all noble, luminous, immense, all as it always had been.
It was like a journey into space. I was standing on Mars, knee-deep in thyme, under a sky that seemed never to have known dust or cloud. I looked down at my pale London hands. Even they seemed changed, nauseatingly alien, things I should long ago have disowned.
When that ultimate Mediterranean light fell on the world around me, I could see it was supremely beautiful; but when it touched me, I felt it was hostile. It seemed to corrode, not cleanse. It was like being at the beginning of an interrogation under arc lights; already I could see the table with straps through the open doorway, already my old self began to know that it wouldn’t be able to hold out. It was partly the terror, the stripping-to-essentials, of love; because I fell head over heels, totally and forever in love with the Greek landscape from the moment I arrived. But with the love came a contradictory, almost irritating, feeling of impotence and inferiority, as if Greece were a woman so sensually provocative that I must fall physically and desperately in love with her, and at the same time so calmly aristocratic that I should never be able to approach her.
None of the books I had read explained this sinister-fascinating, this Circe-like quality of Greece; the quality that makes it unique. In England we live in a very muted, calm, domesticated relationship with what remains of our natural landscape and its soft northern light; in Greece landscape and light are so beautiful, so all-present, so intense, so wild, that the relationship is immediately love-hatred, one of passion. It took me many months to understand this, and many years to accept it.
Later that day I was standing at the window of a room in the luxury hotel to which the bored young man who received me at the British Council had directed me. I had just written a letter to Alison, but already she seemed far away, not in distance, not in time, but in some dimension for which there is no name. Reality, perhaps. I looked down over Constitution Square, the central meeting-place of Athens, over knots of strolling people, white shirts, dark glasses, bare brown arms. A sibilant murmur rose from the crowds sitting at the café tables. It was as hot as a hot English July day, and the sky was still perfectly clear. By craning out and looking east I could see Hymettus, where I had stood that morning, its whole sunset-facing slope an intense soft violet-pink, like a cyclamen. In the other direction, over the clutter of roofs, lay the massive black silhouette of the Acropolis. It was too real, too exactly as imagined, to be true. But I felt as gladly and expectantly disorientated, as happily and alertly alone, as Alice in Wonderland.
Phraxos lay eight dazzling hours in a small steamer south of Athens, about six miles off the mainland of the Peloponnesus and in the center of a landscape as memorable as itself: to the north and west, a great flexed arm of mountains, in whose crook the island stood; to the east a distant gently peaked archipelago; to the south the soft blue desert of the Aegean stretching away to Crete. Phraxos was beautiful. There was no other adjective; it was not just pretty, picturesque, charming—it was simply and effortlessly beautiful. It took my breath away when I first saw it, floating under Venus like a majestic black whale in an amethyst evening sea, and it still takes my breath away when I shut my eyes now and remember it. Its beauty was rare even in the Aegean, because its hills were covered with pine trees, Mediterranean pines as light as greenfinch feathers. Nine-tenths of the island was uninhabited and uncultivated: nothing but pines, coves, Silence, sea. Herded into one corner, the northwest, lay a spectacular agglomeration of snow-white houses around a couple of small harbors.
But there were two eyesores, visible long before we landed. One was an obese Greek-Edwardian hotel near the larger of the two harbors, as at home on Phraxos as a hansom cab in a Doric temple. The other, equally at odds with the landscape, stood on the outskirts of the Village and dwarfed the cottages around it: a dauntingly long building several stories high and reminiscent, in spite of its ornate Corn- than facade, of a factory—a likeness more than just visually apt, as I was to discover.
But the Lord Byron School, the Hotel Philadelphia and the village apart, the body of the island, all thirty square miles of it, was virgin. There were some silvery olive orchards and a few patches of terrace cultivation on the steep slopes of the north coast, but the rest was primeval pine forest. There were no antiquities. The ancient Greeks never much liked the taste of cistern water.
This lack of open water meant also that there were no wild animals and few birds on the island. Its distinguishing characteristic, away from the village, was silence. Out on the hills one might pass a goatherd and his winter (in summer there was no grazing) flock of bronzebelled goats, or a bowed peasant woman carrying a huge faggot, or a resin-gatherer; but one very rarely did. It was the world before the machine, almost before man, and what small events happened, the passage of a shrike, the discovery of a new path, a glimpse of a distant caique far below, took on an unaccountable significance, as if they were isolated, framed, magnified by solitude. It was the least eerie, the most un-Nordic solitude in the world. Fear had never touched the island. If it was haunted, it was by nymphs, not monsters.
I was forced to go frequently for walks to escape the claustrophobic ambience of the Lord Byron School. To begin with, there was something pleasantly absurd about teaching in a boarding school (run on supposedly Eton-Harrow lines) only a look north from where Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon. Certainly the masters, victims of a country with only two universities, were academically of a far higher standard than Mitford had suggested, and in themselves the boys were no better and no worse than boys the world over. But they were ruthlessly pragmatic about English. They cared nothing for literature, and everything for science. If I tried to do their eponym’s poetry with them, they yawned; if I did the English names for the parts of a car, I had trouble getting them out of the class at lesson’s end; and often they would bring me American scientific textbooks full of terms that were just as much Greek to me as the expectant faces waiting for a simple paraphrase.
Both boys and masters loathed the island, and regarded it as a sort of self-imposed penal settlement where one came to work, work, work. I had imagined something far sleepier than an English school, and instead it was far tougher. The crowning irony of all was that this obsessive industry, this molelike blindness to their natural environment, was what was considered to be so typically English about the school. Perhaps to Greeks, made blasé by living among the most beautiful landscapes in the world, there was nothing discordant in being cooped up in such a system; but it drove me mad with irritation.
One or two of the masters spoke some English, and several French, but I found little in common with them. The only one I could tolerate was Demetriades, the other teacher of English, and that was solely because he spoke and understood the language so much better than anyone else. With him I could rise out of Basic.
He took me round the village kapheneia and tavernas, and I got a taste for Greek food and Greek folk music. But there was always something mournful about the place in daylight. There were so many villas boarded up; there were so few people in the alley streets; one had always to go to the same two better-class tavernas for a meal, and one met the same old faces, a stale Levantine provincial society that belonged more to the world of the Ottoman Empire, Baizac in a fez, than to the 1950’s. I had to agree with Mitford. It was desperately dull. I tried one or two of the fishermen’s wineshops. They were jollier, but I felt they felt I was slumming; and my Greek never began to cope with the island dialect they spoke.
I made inquiries about the man Mitford had had a row with, but no one seemed to have heard of either him or it; or, for that matter, of the “waiting room.” Mitford had evidently spent a lot of time in the village; and made himself unpopular with other masters besides Demetriades; there was a heavy aftermath of anglophobia, aggravated by the political situation at that time, which I had to suffer.
Soon I took to the hills. None of the other masters ever stirred an inch farther than they needed to, and the boys were not allowed beyond the chevaux de frise of the high-walled school grounds except on Sundays, and then only for the half-mile along the coast road to the village. The hills were always intoxicatingly clean and light and remote. With no company but my own boredom, I began for the first time in my life to look at nature, and to regret that I knew its Ianguage as little as I knew Greek. I became aware of stones, birds, flowers, land, in a new way, and the walking, swimming, the magnificent climate, the absence of all traffic—ground or air, for there wasn’t a single car on the island, there being no roads outside the village, and airplanes passed over not once a month—these things made me feel healthier than I had ever felt before. I began to get some sort of harmony between body and mind; or so it seemed. It was an illusion.
There had been a letter from Alison waiting for me when I arrived at the school. It was very brief. She must have written it at work the day I left London.
I love you, you can’t understand what that means because you’ve never loved anyone yourself. It’s what I’ve been trying to make you see this last week. All I want to say is that one day, when you do fall in love, remember today. Remember I kissed you and walked out of the room. Remember I walked all the way down the street and never once looked back. I knew you were watching. Remember I did all this and I love you. If you forget everything else about me, please remember this. I walked down that street and I never looked back and I love you. I love you. I love you so much that I shall hate you forever for today.
Another letter came from her the next day. It contained nothing but my check torn in two and a scribble on the back of one half: No thanks. And two days later there was a third letter, full of enthusiasm for some film she had been to see, almost a chatty letter. But at the end she wrote: Forget the first letter I sent you. I was so upset. It’s all over now. I won’t be old-fashioned again.
Of course I wrote back, if not every day, two or three times a week; long letters full of self-excuse and seff-justification until one day she wrote Please don’t go on so about you and me. Tell me about things, about the island, the school. I know what you are. So be what you are. When you write about things I can think I’m with you, seeing them with you. And don’t be offended. Forgiving’s forgetting.
Imperceptibly information took the place of emotion in our letters. She wrote to me about her work, a girl she had become friendly with, about minor domestic things, films, books. I wrote about the school and the island, as she asked. One day there was a photo of her in her uniform. She’d had her hair cut short and it was tucked back under her fore-and-aft cap. She was smiling, but the uniform and the smile combined gave her an insincere, professional look; she had become, the photo sharply warned me, a stranger, someone not the someone I liked to remember; the private, the uniquely my, Alison. And then the letters became once-weekly. The physical ache I had felt for her during the first weeks seemed to disappear; there were still times when I knew I wanted her very much, and would have given anything to have her in bed beside me. But they were moments of sexual frustration, not regretted love. One day I thought: if I wasn’t on this island I should be dropping this girl. The writing of the letters had become as often as not more of a chore than a pleasure, and I didn’t hurry back to my room after dinner to write them—I scribbled them off hurriedly in class and got a boy to run down to the gate at the last minute to give them to the school postman.
At half-term I went with Demetriades to Athens. He wanted to take me to his favorite brothel, in a suburb. He assured me the girls were clean. I hesitated, then .—isn’t it a poet’s, to say nothing of a cynic’s, moral duty to be immoral?—I went. When we came out of it, it was raining, and the shadowing wet leaves on the lower branches of a eucalyptus, caught under a light in the entrance, made me remember our bedroom in Russell Square. But Alison and London were gone, dead, exorcized; I had cut them away from my life. I decided I would write a letter to Alison that night, to say that I didn’t want to hear from her again. I was too drunk by the time we got back to the hotel, and I don’t know what I would have said. Perhaps, that I had proved beyond doubt that I was not worth waiting for; perhaps that she bored me; perhaps that I was lonelier than ever—and wanted to stay that way. As it was, I sent her a postcard telling her nothing; and on the last day I went back to the brothel alone. But the Lebanese nymphet I coveted was taken and I didn’t fancy the others.
December came, and we were still writing letters. I knew she was hiding things from me. Her life, as she described it, was too simple and manless to be true. When the final letter came, I was not surprised. What I hadn’t expected was how bitter I should feel, and how betrayed. It was less a sexual jealousy of the man than an envy of Alison; moments of tenderness and togetherness, moments when the otherness of the other disappeared flooded back through my mind for days afterwards, like sequences from some cheap romantic film that I certainly didn’t want to remember, but did; and there was the read and reread letter; and that such things could be ended so, by two hundred stale, worn words.
I can’t go on any more. I’m so terribly terribly sorry if this hurts you. Please believe that I’m sorry, please don’t be angry with me for knowing you will be hurt. I can see you saying, I’m not hurt.
I got so terribly lonely and depressed. I haven’t told you how much, I can’t tell you how much. Those first days I kept up such a brave front at work, and then at home I collapsed.
I’m sleeping with Pete again when he’s in London. It started two weeks ago. Please please believe me that I wouldn’t be if I thought… you know. I know you know. I don’t feel about him as I used to do, and don’t begin to feel about him as I felt about you, you can’t be jealous.
It’s just that he’s so uncomplicated, he stops me thinking, he stops me being lonely, I’ve sunk back into all the old Australians-in-London thing again. We may marry. I don’t know.
It’s terrible. I still want to write to you, and you to me. I keep on remembering.
You will be different for me. Always. That very first letter I wrote the day you left. If you could only understand.
I wrote a letter in reply to say that I had been expecting her letter, that she was perfectly free. But I tore it up. I realized that if anything might hurt her, silence would. I wanted to hurt her.
I was hopelessly unhappy in those last few days before the Christmas holidays. I began to loathe the school irrationally; the way it worked and the way it was planted, blind and prisonlike, in the heart of the divine landscape. When Alison’s letters stopped, I was also increasingly isolated in a more conventional way. The outer world, England, London, became absurdly and sometimes terrifyingly unreal. The two or three Oxford friends I had kept up a spasmodic correspondence with sank beneath the horizon. I used to hear the B.B.C. Overseas Service from time to time, but the news broadcasts seemed to come from the moon, and concerned situations and a society I no longer belonged to, while the newspapers from England became more and more like their own One hundred years ago today features. The whole island seemed to feel this exile from contemporary reality. The harbor quays were always crowded for hours before the daily boat from Athens appeared on the northeastern horizon; even though people knew that it would stop for only a few minutes, that probably not five passengers would get off, or five get on, they had to watch. It was as if we were all convicts still hoping faintly for a reprieve.
Yet the island was so beautiful. Near Christmas the weather became wild and cold. Enormous seas of pounding Antwerp blue roared on the shingle of the school beaches. The mountains on the mainland took snow, and magnificent white shoulders out of Hokusai stood west and north across the angry water. The hills became even barer, even more silent. I often started off on a walk out of sheer boredom, but there were always new solitudes, new places. Yet in the end this unflawed natural world became intimidating. I seemed to have no place in it, I could not use it and I was not made for it. I was a townsman; and I was rootless. I rejected my own age, yet could not sink back into an older. So I ended like Sciron, a mid-air man.
The Christmas holidays came. I went off to travel around the Peloponnesus. I had to be alone, to give myself a snatch of life away from the school. If Alison had been free, I would have flown back to England to meet her. I had thoughts of resigning; but then that seemed a retreat, another failure, and I told myself that things would be better once spring began. So I had Christmas alone in Sparta and I saw the New Year in alone in Pyrgos. I had a day in Athens before I caught the boat back to Phraxos, and visited the brothel again.
I thought very little about Alison, but I felt about her; that is, I tried to erase her, and failed. I had days when I thought I could stay celibate for the rest of my life—monastic days; and days when I ached for a conversable girl. The island women were of Albanian stock, dour and sallow-faced, and about as seducible as a Free Church congregation. Much more tempting were some of the boys, possessors of an olive grace and a sharp individuality that made them very different from their stereotyped English private school equivalents—those uniformed pink termites out of the Arnold mould. I had Gidelike moments, but they were not reciprocated, because nowhere is pederasty more abominated than in bourgeois Greece; there at least Arnold would have felt thoroughly at home. Besides, I wasn’t queer; I simply understood (nailing a lie in my own education) how being queer might have its consolations. It was not only the solitude—it was Greece. It made conventional English notions of what was moral and immoral ridiculous; whether or not I did the socially unforgivable seemed in itself merely a matter of appetite, like smoking or not smoking a new brand of cigarette—as trivial as that, from a moral point of view. Goodness and beauty may be separable in the north, but not in Greece. Between skin and skin there is only light.
And there was my poetry. I had begun to write poems about the island, about Greece, that seemed to me philosophically profound and technically exciting. I dreamt more and more of literary success. I spent hours staring at the wall of my room, imagining reviews, letters written to me by celebrated fellow poets, fame and praise and still more fame. I did not at that time know Emily Dickinson’s great definition, her Publication is not the business of poets; being a poet is all, being known as a poet is nothing. The onanistic literary picture of myself I caressed up out of reality began to dominate my life. The school became a convenient scapegoat—how could one compose flawless verse if one was surrounded by futile routine?
But then, one bleak March Sunday, the scales dropped from my eyes. I read the Greek poems and saw them for what they were; undergraduate pieces, without rhythm, without structure, their banalities of perception clumsily concealed under an impasto of lush rhetoric. In horror I turned to other poems I had written—at Oxford, in S—. They were no better; even worse. The truth rushed down on me like a burying avalanche. I was not a poet.
I felt no consolation in this knowledge, but only a red anger that evolution could allow such sensitivity and such inadequacy to co-exist in the same mind. In one ego, my ego, screaming like a hare caught in a gin. Taking all the poems I had ever written, page by slow page, I tore each one into tiny fragments, till my fingers ached and the basket overflowed.
Then I went for a walk in the hills, even though it was very cold and began to pour with rain. The whole world had finally declared itself against me. Here was something I could not shrug off, an absolute condemnation. One aspect of even my worst experiences had always been that they were fuel, ore; finally utilizable, not all waste and suffering. Poetry had always seemed something I could turn to in need; an emergency exit, a life buoy, as well as a justification. Now I was in the sea, and the life buoy had sunk, like lead. It was an effort not to cry tears of self-pity. My face set into a stiff fierce mask, like that of an acroterion. I walked for hours and I was in hell.
One kind of person is engaged in society without realizing it; another kind engages in society by controlling it. The one is a gear, a cog, and the other an engineer, a driver. But a person who has opted out has only his ability to express his disengagement between his existence and nothingness. Not cogito, but scribo, pingo, ergo sum. For days after I felt myself filled with nothingness; with something more than the old physical and social loneliness—a metaphysical sense of being marooned. It was something almost tangible, like cancer or tuberculosis.
Then one day not a week later it was tangible. I woke up one morning and found I had two small sores. I had been half expecting them. In late February I had gone to Athens, and paid another visit to the house in Kephisia. I knew I had taken a risk. At the time it hadn’t seemed to matter.
For a day I was too shocked to act. There were two doctors in the village: one active, who had the school in his practice, and one, a taciturn old Rumanian, who though semi-retired still took a few patients. The school doctor was in and out of the common room continually. I couldn’t go to him. So I went to see Dr. Patarescu.
He looked at the sores, and then at me, and shrugged.
“Félicitations,” he said.
“On va voir ça a Athènes. Je vous donnerai une adresse. C'est bien a Athênes que vous l'avez attrape', oui?” I nodded. “Les poules ià-bas. Infectes. Seulement les fous qui s'y laissent prendre.”
He had an old yellow face and pince-nez; a malicious smile. My questions amused him. The chances were I could be cured; I was not contagious but I must have no sex; he could have treated me if he had the right drug, benzathine penicillin, but he could not get it. He had heard one could get it at a certain private clinic in Athens, but I would have to pay through the nose; it would be eight weeks before we could be sure it had worked. He answered all my questions drily; all he could offer was the ancient arsenic and bismuth treatment, and I must in any case have a laboratory test first. He had long ago been drained of all sympathy for humanity, and he watched me with tortoise eyes as I put down the fee.
I stood in his doorway, still foolishly trying for his sympathy.
“Je suis maudit.”
He shrugged, and showed me out, totally indifferent, a sere notifier of what is.
It was too horrible. There was still a week to the end of term, and I thought of leaving at once and going back to England. Yet I couldn’t bear the idea of London, and there was a sort of anonymity in Greece, if not on the island. I didn’t really trust Dr. Patarescu; one or two of the older masters were his cronies and I knew they often saw him for whist. I searched every smile, every word spoken to me, for a reference to what had happened; and I thought that the very next day I saw in various eyes a certain dry amusement. One morning during break the headmaster said, “Cheer up, kyrios Urfe, or we shall say the beauties of Greece have made you sad.” I thought this was a direct reference; and the smiles that greeted the remark seemed to me to be more than it merited. Within three days of seeing the doctor I decided that everyone knew about my disease; even the boys. Every time they whispered I heard the word “syphilis.”
Suddenly, in that same terrible week, the Greek spring was with us. In only two days, it seemed, the earth was covered with anemones, orchids, asphodels, wild gladioli; for once there were birds everywhere, on migration. Undulating lines of storks croaked overhead, the sky was blue, pure, the boys sang, and even the sternest masters smiled. The world around me took wing, and I was stuck to the ground; a Catullus without talent forced to inhabit a land that was Lesbia without mercy. I had hideous nights, in one of which I wrote a long letter to Alison, trying to explain what had happened to me, how I remembered what she had said in her letter in the canteen, how now I could believe her; how I loathed myself. Even then I managed to sound resentful, for my leaving her began to seem like the last and the worst of my bad gambles. I might have been married to her; at least I should have had a companion in the desert. I did not post the letter, but again and again, night after night, I thought of suicide. It seemed to me that death had marked my family down, right back to those two uncles I had never known, one killed at Ypres and the other at Passchendaele; then my parents. All violent, pointless deaths, lost gambles. I was worse off than even Alison was; she hated life, I hated myself. I had created nothing, I belonged to nothingness, to the néant, and it seemed to me that my own death was the only thing left that I could create; and still, even then, I thought it might accuse everyone who had ever known me. It would validate all my cynicism, it would prove all my solitary selfishness; it would stand, and be remembered, as a final dark victory.
The day before term ended I felt the balance tip. I knew what to do. The gatekeeper at the school had an old twelve-bore, which he had once offered to lend me if I wanted to go shooting in the hills. I went to him and asked him to let me have it. He was delighted and loaded my pocket with cartridges; the pine forests were full of birds.
I walked up a galley behind the school, climbed to a small saddle, and went into the trees. I was soon in shadow. To the north, across the water, the golden mainland still lay in the sun. The air was very light, warm, the sky of an intense luminous blue. A long way away, above me, I could hear the bells of a flock of goats being brought back to the village for the night. I walked for some time. It was like looking for a place to relieve oneself in; I had to be sure I couldn’t be observed. At last I found a rocky hollow.
I put a cartridge in the gun, and sat on the ground, against the stem of a pine tree. All around me blue grape-hyacinths pushed through the pine needles. I reversed the gun and looked down the barrel, into the black o of my nonexistence. I calculated the angle at which I should have to hold my head. I held the barrel against my right eye, turned my head so that the shot would mash like black lightning through the brain and blast the back wall of my skull off. I reached for the trigger—this was all testing, all rehearsing—and found it difficult to reach. In straining forward, I thought I might have to twist my head at the last moment and botch the job, so I searched around and found a dead branch that I could fit between the guard and the trigger. I took the cartridge out and fitted the stick in, and then sat with the gun between my knees, the soles of my shoes on the stick, the right barrel an inch from my eye. There was a click as the hammer fell. It was simple. I reloaded the cartridge.
From the hills behind came the solitary voice of a girl. She must have been bringing down the goats, and she was singing wildly, at the limit of her uninhibited voice, without any recognizable melody, in Turkish-Moslem intervals. It sounded disembodied, of place, not person. I remembered having heard a similar voice, perhaps this same girl’s, singing one day on the hill behind the school. It had drifted down into the classroom, and the boys had begun to giggle. But now it seemed intensely mysterious, welling out of a solitude and suffering that made mine trivial and absurd. It held me under a spell. I sat with the gun across my knees, unable to move while the sound floated down through the evening air. I don’t know how long she sang for, but the sky darkened, the sea paled to a nacreous gray. Over the mountains there were pinkish bars of high cloud in the still strong light from the set sun. All the land and the sea held light, as if light was warmth, and did not fade as soon as the source was removed. But the voice dwindled towards the village; then died into silence.
I raised the gun again until the barrel was pointing at me. The stick projected, waiting for my feet to jerk down. The air was very silent. Many miles away I heard the siren of the Athens boat, approaching the island. But it was like something outside a vacuum. Death was now.
I did nothing. I waited. The afterglow, the palest yellow, then a luminous pale green, then a limpid stained-glass blue, held in the sky over the sea of mountains to the west. I waited, I waited, I heard the siren closer, I waited for the will, the black moment, to come to raise my feet and kick down, and I could not. All the time I felt I was being watched, that I was not alone, that I was putting on an act for the benefit of someone, that this action could be done only if it was spontaneous, pure, isolated—and moral. Because more and more it crept through my mind with the chill spring night that I was trying to commit not a moral action, but a fundamentally aesthetic one; to do something that would end my life sensationally, significantly, consistently. It was a Mercutio death I was looking for, not a real one. A death to be remembered, not the true death of a true suicide, the death obliterate.
And the voice; the light; the sky.
It began to grow dark, the siren of the receding Athens boat sounded, and I still sat smoking, with the gun by my side. I re-evaluated myself. I saw that I was from now on, forever, contemptible. I had been, and remained, intensely depressed, but I had also been, and always would be, intensely false; in existentialist terms, unauthentic. I knew I would never kill myself, I knew I would always want to go on living with myself, however hollow I became, however diseased.
I raised the gun and fired it blindly into the sky. The crash shook me. There was an echo, some falling twigs. Then the heavy well of silence.
“Did you shoot anything?” asked the old man at the gate.
“One shot,” I said. “I missed.”
Years later I saw the gabbia at Piacenza; a harsh black canary cage strung high up the side of the towering campanile, in which prisoners were left to starve to death and rot in full view of the town below. And looking up at it I remembered that winter in Greece, that gabbia I had constructed for myself out of light, solitude and selfdelusions. To write poetry and to commit suicide, apparently so contradictory, had really been the same, attempts at escape. And my feelings, at the end of that wretched term, were those of a man who knows he is in a cage, exposed to the jeers of all his old ambitions until he dies.
But I went to Athens, to the address the village doctor gave me. I was given a Kahn test and Dr. Patarescu’s diagnosis was confirmed. The ten days’ treatment was very expensive; most of the drugs had been smuggled into Greece, or stolen, and I was at the receiving end of a Third Man network. The smooth young American-trained doctor told me not to worry; the prognosis was excellent. At the end of the Easter holidays, when I returned to the island, I found a card from Alison. It was a garishly colored thing with a kangaroo on it balloonsaying “Thought I’d forgot?” My twenty-sixth birthday had taken place while I was in Athens. The postmark was Amsterdam. There was no message. It was simply signed Alison. I threw it into the wastepaper basket. But that evening, I took it out again.
To get through the anxious wait for the secondary stage not to develop, I began quietly to rape the island. I swam and swam, I walked and walked, I went out every day. The weather rapidly became hot, and during the heat of the afternoon the school slept. Then I used to take off into the pine forest. I always went over the central crest to the south side of the island if I could, away from the village and the school. There, was absolute solitude: three hidden cottages at one small bay, a few tiny chapels lost among the green downward sea of pines and deserted except on their saint’s days, and one almost invisible villa, which was in any case empty. The rest was sublimely peaceful, as potential as a clean canvas, a site for myths. It was as if the island was split into dark and light; so that the teaching timetable, which made it difficult to go far except at weekends or by getting up very early (school began at half-past seven) became as irksome as a short tether.
I did not think about the future. In spite of what the doctor at the clinic had said I felt certain that the cure would fail. The pattern of destiny seemed pretty clear: down and down, and down.
But then the mysteries began.
Irrités de ce premier crime, les monstres ne s'en tinrent pas là; ils l'étendirent ensuite nve, a plat ventre sur une grande table, ils allumèrent des cierges, us placèrent l'image de notre sauveur a sa tête et osèrent consommer sur les reins de cette malheureuse le plus redoutable de nos mystères.
This was the first event.
It was a Sunday in late May, blue as a bird’s wing, fresh, hot, in mint condition. I climbed up the goatpaths to the island’s ridge-back, from where the green froth of the pine tops rolled southwards two miles down to the coast. The sea was a pure veronica blue, stretching like a silk carpet across to the shadowy wall of mountains on the mainland to the west. These mountains reverberated away south, fifty or sixty miles right down to the horizon, under the totally uncontaminated sky. It was a blue world, vast and stupendously manless, and as always when I stood on the central ridge of the island and saw it, I forgot most of my troubles. I walked along the central ridge, westwards, between the two great views north and south. Lizards flashed up the pine trunks like living emerald necklaces. There were thyme and rosemary and other herbs, and bushes with flowers like dandelions dipped in sky, a wild, lambent blue.
After a while I came to a place where the ridge fell away south in a small near-precipitous bluff. I always used to sit on the brink there to smoke a cigarette and survey the immense expanse of sea and mountains. Almost as soon as I sat down, that Sunday, I saw that something in the view had changed. Below me, halfway along the south coast of the island, there was the bay with the three small cottages. From this bay the coast ran on westwards in a series of low headlands and hidden coves. Immediately to the west of the bay with the cottages the ground rose steeply into a little cliff that ran inland some hundreds of yards, a crumbled and creviced reddish wall; as if it was some fortification for the solitary villa that lay on the headland beyond. All I knew of this villa was that it belonged to a presumably Well-to-do Athenian, who used it only in high summer. Because of an intervening rise in the pine forest, one could see no more than the flat roof of the place from the central ridge.
But now a thin wisp of pale smoke curled up from the roof. It was no longer deserted. My first feeling was one of resentment, a Crusoelike resentment, since the solitude of the south side of the island must now be spoilt and I had come to feel possessive about it. It was my secret province and no one else’s—I permitted the poor fishermen in the three cottages—no one else risen beyond peasanthood had any right to it. For all that I was curious, and I chose a path that I knew led down to a cove the other side of Bourani, the name of the headland the villa stood on.
The sea and a strip of bleached stones finally shone through the pines. I came to the edge of them. It was a large open cove, a stretch of shingle, the sea as clear as glass, walled by two headlands. On the left and steeper, the eastward one, Bourani, lay the villa hidden in the trees, which grew more thickly there than anywhere else on the island. It was a beach I had been to before two or three times, and it gave, like many of the island beaches, the lovely illusion that one was the very first man that had ever stood on it, that had ever had eyes, that had ever existed, the very first man. There was no sign of anyone from the villa. I installed myself at the more open westward end of the beach, I swam, I ate my lunch of bread, olives and zouzoukakia, fragrant cold meatballs, and I saw no one.
Sometime in the early afternoon I walked down the burning shingle to the villa end of the cove. There was a minute white chapel set back among the trees. Through a crack in the door I saw an overturned chair, an empty candlestand, and a row of naively painted ikons on a small screen. A tarnished paper-gilt cross was pinned on the door. On the back of it someone had scrawled Agios Demetrios—Saint James. I went back to the beach. It ended in a fall of rocks which mounted rather forbiddingly into dense scrub and trees. For the first time I noticed some barbed wire, twenty or thirty feet from the foot of this slope; the fence turned up into the trees, isolating the headland. An old woman could have got through the rusty strands without difficulty, but it was the first barbed wire I had seen on the island, and I didn’t like it. It insulted the solitude.
I was staring up at the hot, heavy slope of trees, when I had the sensation that I was not alone. I was being looked at. I searched the trees in front of me. There was nothing. I walked a little nearer the rocks above which the wire fence ran through the scrub.
A shock. Something gleamed behind the first rock. It was a blue rubber foot-fin. Just beyond it, partially in the thin clear shadow of another rock, was the other fin, and a towel. I looked round again. I moved the towel with my foot. A book had been left beneath. I recognized it at once by the cover design: one of the commonest paperback anthologies of modern English verse, which I had myself in my room back at the school. It was so unexpected that I remained staring stupidly down with the idea that it was in fact my own copy, stolen. I picked it up to see.
It was not mine. The owner had not written his or her name inside, but there were several little slips of plain white paper, neatly cut. The first one I turned to marked a page where four lines had been underscored in red ink; from “Little Gidding.”
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
The last three lines had an additional mark vertically beside them. I looked up to the dense bank of trees again before I turned to the next little slip of paper. That, and all the other slips, were at pages where there were images or references concerning islands or the sea. There must have been about a dozen of them. Later, that night, I rediscovered a few passages in my own copy.
Each in his little bed conceived of islands
. . .
Where love was innocent, being far from cities.
Those two lines from Auden had been marked, and the two intervening ones not. There were several from Ezra Pound.
Come, or the stellar tide will slip away.
Eastward avoid the hour of its decline,
Now! for the needle trembles in my soul!
And this one—
Yet must thou sail after knowledge
Knowing less than drugged beasts. phthengometha thasson.
The sun beat down on my back. The sun-wind, the breeze that blows almost every summer day in the Aegean, sent little waves curling like lazy whips along the shingle. Nothing appeared, everything waited. For the second time that day I felt like Robinson Crusoe.
I put the book back beneath the towel, and faced the hill in a rather self-conscious way, convinced by now that I was indeed being watched. I bent down and picked up the towel and the book and put them on top of the rock with the fins, where they would be easier to find if someone came looking for them. Not out of kindness, but to justify my curiosity to the hidden eyes. The towel had a trace of feminine perfume on it; suntan oil.
I went back to where my own clothes were and watched out of the corner of my eye along the beach. After a time I withdrew to the shade of the pine trees behind the beach. The white spot on the rock gleamed in the sun. I lay back and went to sleep. It can’t have been for long. But when I woke up and looked down the beach, the things had gone. The girl, for I’d decided it was a girl, had done her retrieving unseen. I dressed and walked down to the place.
The normal path back to the school was from the middle of the bay. At this end I could see another small path that led up away from the beach where the wire turned. It was steep, and the undergrowth inside the fence was too dense to see through. Small pink heads of wild gladioli flopped out of the shadows, and some warbler in the thickest of the bushes reeled out a resonant, stuttering song. It must have been singing only a few feet from me, with a sobbing intensity, like a nightingale, but much more brokenly. A warning or a luring bird? I couldn’t decide, though it was difficult not to think of it as meaningful. It scolded, fluted, screeched, jugjugged, entranced.
Suddenly, a clear bell sounded from some way beyond the undergrowth. The bird stopped singing, and I climbed on. The bell sounded again, three times. It was evidently calling people to some meal, English tea, or perhaps a child was playing with it. After a while the ground leveled out on the back of the headland, and the trees thinned a little, though the undergrowth kept on as thickly as ever.
Then there was a gate, chained and painted. But the paint was peeling, the chain rusty, and a well-worn way had been forced through the wire by the right-hand gatepost. A wide, grassy track led along the headland, seawards and slightly downhill, but it curved between the trees and revealed nothing of the house. I listened for a minute, but there was no sound of voices. Down the hill the bird began to sing again.
Then I saw it. I went through the gap. It was two or three trees in, rusty, barely legible, roughly nailed high up the trunk of a pine, in the sort of position one sees Trespassers will be prosecuted notices in England. But this notice said, in dull red letters on a white background, SALLE D'ATTENTE. It looked as if years ago it had been taken from some French railway station; some ancient student joke. Enamel had come off and cancerous patches of rusty metal showed through. At one end were what looked like several old bullet holes. It was Mitford’s warning: Beware of the waiting room.
I stood on the grassy track, in two minds whether to go on to the house, caught between curiosity and fear of being snubbed. I guessed immediately that this was the villa of the collaborationist he had quarreled with; but I had pictured a shifty, rat-faced Greek Laval rather than someone cultured enough to read, or have guests who could read, Eliot and Auden in the original. I stood so long that I became impatient with my indecision, and forced myself to turn away. I went back through the gap and followed the track up towards the central ridge. It soon petered out into a goatpath, but one that had been recently used, because there were overturned stones that showed earth-red among the sun-bleached grays. When I reached the central ridge, I looked back. From that particular point the house was invisible, but I knew where it lay. The sea and the mountains floated in the steady evening sunshine. It was all peace, elements and void, golden air and mute blue distances, like a Claude; and as I wound down the steep schoolward paths, the northern side of the island seemed oppressed and banal in comparison.
The next morning after breakfast I crossed over to Demetriades’s table. He had been in the village the previous evening and I hadn’t bothered to wait up until he returned. Demetriades was small, very plump, frog-faced, a corfiot with a pathological dislike of sunshine and the rural. He grumbled incessantly about the “disgusting” provincial life we had to lead on the island. In Athens he lived by night, indulging in his two hobbies, whoring and eating. He spent all his money on these two pursuits and on his clothes, and he ought to have looked sallow and oily and corrupt, but he was always pink and immaculate. His hero in history was Casanova. He lacked the Boswellian charm, to say nothing of the genius, of the Italian, but he was in his alternately gay and lugubrious way better company than Mitford had suggested. And at least he was not a hypocrite. He had the charm of all people who believe implicitly in themselves, that of integration.
I took him out into the garden. His nickname was Méli—honey—for which he was a glutton.
“Méli, what do you know about the man over at Bourani?”
“You’ve met him?”
“Ai!” He shouted petulantly at a boy who was carving a word on an almond tree. The Casanova persona was confined strictly to his private life; in class he was a martinet.
“You don’t know his name?”
“Conchis.” He pronounced the ch hard—the ch of loch.
“Mitford said he had a row with him. A quarrel with him.”
“He was telling lies. He was always telling lies.”
“Maybe. But he must have met him.”
“Po po.” Po po is Greek for “Tell that to the marines.” “That man never sees anyone. Never. Ask the other professors.”
“Ech…” He shrugged. “Many old stories. I don’t know them.”
“It is not interesting.”
We walked down a cobbled path. Méli disliked silence, and in a moment he began to tell me what he knew about Conchis.
“He worked for the Germans in the war. He never comes to the village. The villagers would kill him with stones. So would I, if I saw him.”
I grinned. “Why?”
“Because he is rich and he lives on a desert island like this when he could be in Paris…” he waved his pink right hand in rapid small circles, a favorite gesture. It was his own deepest ambition—an apartment overlooking the Seine, containing a room with no windows and various other peculiar features.
“Does he speak English?”
“I suppose. But why are you so interested?”
“I’m not. I just saw the house.”
The bell for second school rang through the orchards and paths against the high white walls of the school grounds. On the way back to class I invited Méli to have dinner with me in the village the next day.
The leading estiatoras of the village, a great walrus of a man called Sarantopoulos, knew more about Conchis. He came and had a glass of wine with us while we ate the meal he’d cooked. It was true that Conchis was a recluse and never came to the village, but that he had been a collaborationist was a lie. He had been made mayor by the Germans during the Occupation, and had in fact done his best for the villagers. If he was not popular now, it was because he ordered most of his provisions from Athens. He launched out on a long story. The island dialect was difficult, even for Greeks, and I couldn’t understand a word. He leant earnestly across the table. Demetriades looked bored and nodded complacently at the pauses.
“What’s he say, Méli?”
“Nothing. A war story. Nothing at all.”
Sarantopoulos suddenly looked past us. He said something to Demetriades, and stood up. I turned. In the door stood a tall, mournful-looking islander. He went to a table in the far corner, the islanders’ corner, of the long bare room. I saw Sarantopoulos put his hand on the man’s shoulder. The man stared at us doubtfully, then gave in and allowed himself to be led to our table.
“He is the agoyatis of Mr. Conchis.”
“The how much?”
“He has a donkey. He takes the mail and the food to Bourani.”
“What’s his name?” His name was Hermes. I had become far too used to hearing not conspicuously brilliant boys called Socrates and Aristotle, and to addressing the ill-favored old woman who did my room out as Aphrodite, to smile. The donkey driver sat down and rather grudgingly accepted a small tumbler of retsina. He fingered his koumbologi, his amber patience beads. He had a bad eye, fixed, with a sinister pallor. From him Méli, who was much more interested in eating his lobster, extracted a little information.
What did Mr. Conchis do? He lived alone—yes, alone—with a housekeeper, and he cultivated his garden, quite literally, it seemed. He read. He had many books. He had a piano. He spoke many languages. The agoyatis did not know which—all, he thought. Where did he go in winter? Sometimes he went to Athens, and to other countries. Which? The man did not know. He knew nothing about Mitford visiting Bourani. No one ever visited.
“Ask him if he thinks I might visit Mr. Conchis.”
No; it was impossible.
Our curiosity was perfectly natural, in Greece—it was his reserve that was strange. He might have been picked for his sullenness. He stood up to go.
“Are you sure he hasn’t got a harem of pretty girls hidden there?” said Méli. The agoyatis raised his blue chin and eyebrows in a silent no, then turned contemptuously away.
“What a villager!” Having muttered the worst insult in the Greek language at his back, Méli touched my wrist moistly. “My dear fellow, did I ever tell you about the way two men and two ladies I once met on Mykonos made love?”
“Yes. But never mind.”
I felt oddly disappointed. And it was not only because it was the third time I had heard precisely how that acrobatic quartet achieved congress.
Back at the school I picked up, during the rest of the week, a little more. Only two of the masters had been at the school before the war. They had both met Conchis once or twice then, but not since the school had restarted in 1949. One said he was a retired musician. The other had found him a very cynical man, an atheist. But they both agreed that Conchis was a man who cherished his privacy. In the war the Germans had forced him to live in the village. They had one day captured some andarte—resistance fighters—from the mainland and ordered him to execute them. He had refused and had been put before a firing squad with a number of the villagers. But by a miracle he had not been killed outright, and was saved. This was evidently the story Sarantopoulos had told us. In the opinion of many of the villagers, and naturally of all those who’d had relatives massacred in the German reprisal, he should have done what they ordered. But that was all past. He had been wrong, but to the honor of Greece. However, he had never set foot in the village again.
Then I discovered something small, but anomalous. I asked several people besides Demetriades, who had been at the school only a year, whether Leverrier, Mitford’s predecessor, or Mitford himself had ever spoken about meeting Conchis. The answer was always no—understandably enough, it seemed, in Leverrier’s case, because he was very reserved, “too serious” as one master put it, tapping his head. It so happened that the last person I asked, over coffee in his room, was the biology master. Karazoglou said in his aromatic broken French that he was sure Leverrier had never been there, as he would have told him. He’d known Leverrier rather better than the other masters; they had shared a common interest in botany. He rummaged about in a chest of drawers, and then produced a box of sheets of paper with dried flowers that Leverrier had collected and mounted. There were lengthy notes in an admirably clear handwriting and a highly technical vocabulary, and here and there professional-looking sketches in India ink and watercolor. As I sorted uninterestedly through the box I dropped one of the pages of dried flowers, to which was attached a sheet of paper with additional notes. This sheet slipped from the clip that was holding it. On the back was the beginning of a letter, which had been crossed out, but was still legible. It was dated June 6, 1951, two years before. Dear Mr. Conchis, I am much afraid that since the extraordinary… and then it stopped.
I didn’t say anything to Karazoglou, who had noticed nothing; but I then and there decided to visit Mr. Conchis.
I cannot say why I became so suddenly so curious about him. Partly it was for lack of anything else to be curious about, the usual island obsession with trivialities; partly it was that one cryptic phrase from Mitford and the discovery about Leverrier; partly, perhaps mostly, a peculiar feeling that I had a sort of right to visit. My two predecessors had both met this unmeetable man, and not wanted to talk about it; in some way I felt I had a turn coming, too.
I did one other thing that week. I wrote a letter to Alison. I sent it inside an envelope addressed to Ann in the flat below in Russell Square, asking her to post it on to wherever Alison was living. I said almost nothing in the letter; only that I’d thought about her once or twice, that I had discovered what the “waiting room” meant; and that she was to write back only if she really wanted to, I’d quite understand if she didn’t.
I knew that on the island one was driven back into the past. There was so much space, so much silence, so few meetings that one too easily saw out of the present and then the past seemed ten times closer than it was. It was likely that Alison hadn’t given me a thought for weeks, and that she had had half a dozen more affaires. So I posted the letter rather as one throws a message in a bottle into the sea. Not as a joke, perhaps, but almost; yet with a kind of ashamed hope.
The absence of the usually unfailing sun-wind made the next Saturday oppressively hot. The cicadas had begun. They racketed in a ragged chorus, never quite finding a common beat, rasping one’s nerves, but finally so familiar that when one day they stopped in a rare shower of rain, the silence was like an explosion. They completely changed the character of the pine forest. Now it was live and multitudinous, an audible, invisible hive of energy, with all its pure solitude gone, for besides the tzitzikia the air throbbed, whined, hummed with carmine-winged grasshoppers, locusts, huge hornets, bees, midges, bots and ten thousand other anonymous insects. In some places there were nagging clouds of black flies, so that I climbed through the trees like a new Orestes, cursing and slapping.
I came to the ridge again. The sea was a pearly turquoise, the far mountains ash-blue in the windless heat. I could see the shimmering green crown of pine trees around Bourani. It was about noon when I came through the trees out onto the shingle of the beach with the chapel. It was deserted. I searched among the rocks, but there was nothing, and I didn’t feel watched. I had a swim, then lunch, black bread and ochra and fried squid. A long way south a plump caique thudded past towing a line of six little lamp-boats, like a mallard with ducklings. Its bow wave made a thin dark miraging ripple on the creamy blue surface of the sea, and that was all that remained of civilization when the boats had disappeared behind the western headland. There was the infinitesimal lap of the transparent blue water on the stones, the waiting trees, the myriad dynamos of the insects, and the enormous landscape of silence. I dozed under the thin shade of a pine, in the agelessness, the absolute dissociation of wild Greece.
The sun moved, came on me, and made me erotic. I thought of Alison, of sex things we had done together. I wished she was beside me, naked. We would have made love against the pine needles, then swum, then made love again. I was filled with a dry sadness, a mixture of remembering and knowing; remembering what was and what might have been and knowing it was all past, at the same time knowing, or beginning to know, that other things were happily past—at least some of my illusions about myself, and then the syphilis, for there were no signs that it was going to come back. I felt physically very well. What was going to become of my life I didn’t know; but lying there that day by the sea it didn’t seem to matter much. To be was enough. I felt myself in suspension, waiting without fear for some impulse to drive me on. I turned on my stomach and made love to the memory of Alison, like an animal, without guilt or shame, a mere machine for sensation spreadeagled on the earth. Then I ran across the burning stones into the sea.
I climbed the path by the wire and the undergrowth, passed round the peeling gate, the mysterious sign, and stood in the grassy track. It ran level, curved and dipped a little, emerged from the trees. The house, dazzlingly white where the afternoon sun touched it, stood with its shadowed back to me. It had been built on the seaward side of a small cottage that had evidently existed before it. It was square, with a fiat roof and a colonnade of slender arches running round the south and east sides. Above the colonnade was a terrace. I could see the open French windows of a first-floor room giving access to it. To the east and back of the house there were lines of swordplants and small clumps of bushes with vivid scarlet and yellow flowers. In front, southwards and seawards, there was a stretch of gravel and then the ground fell away abruptly down to the sea. At both corners of the gravel stood palm trees, in neat whitewashed rings of stones. The pines had been thinned to clear the view.
The house abashed me. It was too reminiscent of the Côte d'Azur, too un-Greek. It stood, white and opulent, like Swiss snow, and made me feel sticky-palmed and uncouth.
I walked up the small flight of steps to the red-tiled side-colonnade. There was a closed door with an iron knocker cast in the shape of a dolphin. The windows beside it were heavily shuttered. I knocked on the door; the knocks barked sharply over stone floors. But no one came. The house and I stood silently in a sea of insect sound. Along the colonnade to the corner of the southern front of the house; there the colonnade was wider and the arches more open. Standing in the deep shade, I looked out over the treetops and the sea to the languishing ash-lilac mountains. Surprise at the beauty of the view seen through the slender arches, and a déjà vu feeling of having stood in the same place before; something in that particular proportion of the arches, something in that particular contrast of shade and burning landscape outside—I couldn’t say.
There were two old cane chairs in the middle of the colonnade, and a table covered in a blue and white folk-weave cloth, on which were two cups and saucers and two large plates covered in muslin. By the wall stood a rattan couch with cushions; and hanging from a bracket by the open French windows was a small brightly polished bell with a faded maroon tassel hanging from the clapper.
I noticed the twoness of the tea table, and stood by the corner, embarrassed, aware of a trite English desire to sneak away. Then, without warning, a figure appeared in the doorway.
It was Conchis.
Before anything else, I knew I was expected. He saw me without surprise, with a small smile, almost a grimace, on his face.
He was nearly completely bald, brown as old leather, short and spare, a man whose age was impossible to tell; perhaps sixty, perhaps seventy; dressed in a navy-blue shirt, knee-length shorts, and a pair of salt-stained gymshoes. The most striking thing about him was the intensity of his eyes; very dark brown, staring, with a simian penetration emphasized by the remarkably clear whites; eyes that seemed not quite human.
He raised his left hand briefly in a kind of silent salutation, then strode to the corner of the colonnade, leaving me with my formed words unspoken, and called back to the cottage.
I heard a faint wail of answer.
“You…” I began, as he turned.
But he raised his left hand again, this time to silence me; took my arm and led me to the edge of the colonnade. He had an authority, an abrupt decisiveness, that caught me off-balance. He surveyed the landscape, then me. The sweet saffronlike smell of some flowers that grew below, at the edge of the gravel, wafted up into the shade.
“I chose well?”
His English sounded perfect.
“Wonderfully. But you must let me—”
Once again his arm, brown and corded, swept silencingly towards the sea and the mountains and the south, as if I might not have properly appreciated it. I looked sideways at him. He was obviously a man who rarely smiled. There was something masklike, emotionpurged, about his face. Deep furrows ran from beside his nose to the corners of his mouth; they suggested experience, command, impatience with fools. He was slightly mad, no doubt harmlessly so, but mad. I had an idea that he thought I was someone else. He kept his apelike eyes on me. The silence and the stare were alarming, and faintly comic, as if he was trying to hypnotize a bird.
Suddenly he gave a curious little rapid shake of the head; quizzical, rhetorical, not expecting an answer. Then he changed, as if what had happened between us till then was a joke, a charade, that had been rehearsed and gone according to plan, but could now be ended. And I was completely off-balance again. He wasn’t mad after all. He even smiled, and the ape eyes became almost squirrel eyes.
He turned back to the table. “Let us have tea.”
“I only came for a glass of water. This is…
“You came here to meet me. Please. Life is short.”
I sat down. The second place was mine. An old woman appeared, in black, a black gray with age, her face as lined as an Indian squaw’s. She was incongruously carrying a tray with an elegant silver teapot, a kettle, a bowl of sugar, a saucer with sliced lemon.
“This is my housekeeper. Maria.”
He spoke to her in very precise Greek, and I heard my own name and the name of the school. The old woman bobbed at me, her eyes on the ground, unsmiling, and then unloaded her tray. Conchis plucked the muslin away from one of the plates with the quick aplomb of a conjurer. I saw cucumber sandwiches. He poured the tea, and indicated the lemon.
“How do you know who I am, Mr. Conchis?”
“Anglicize my name. I prefer the ch soft.” He sipped his tea. “If you interrogate Hermes, Zeus will know.”
“I’m afraid my colleague was tactless.”
“You no doubt found out all about me.”
“I found out very little. But that makes this even kinder of you.”
He looked out to sea. “There is a poem of the Tang dynasty.” He sounded the precious little glottal stop. “Here at the frontier, there are falling leaves. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups on my table.”
I smiled. “Always?”
“I saw you last Sunday.”
“They were your things down there?”
He bowed his head. “And I also saw you this afternoon.”
“I hope I haven’t kept you from your beach.”
“Not at all. My private beach is down there.” He pointed over the gravel. “But I always like a beach to myself. And I presume the same of you. Now. Eat the sandwiches.”
He poured me more tea. It had huge torn leaves and a tarry China fragrance. On the other plate were kourabiêdes, conical buttercakes rolled in icing sugar. I’d forgotten what a delicious meal tea could be; and sitting there I felt invaded by the envy of the man who lives in an institution, and has to put up with the institution meals and institution everything else, for the rich private life of the established. I remembered having tea with one of my tutors, an old bachelor don at Magdalen; and the same envy for his rooms, his books, his calm, precise, ticking peace.
I bit into my first kourabiè, and gave an appreciative nod.
“You are not the first English person to have admired Maria’s cooking.”
“Mitford?” His eyes fixed me sharply again. “I met him in London.”
He poured more tea. “How did you like Captain Mitford?”
“Not my type.”
“He told you about me?”
“Not at all. That is…” his eyes flicked at me. “He just said you’d had a row.”
“Captain Mitford made me ashamed to have English blood.”
Till then I had felt I was beginning to get his measure; first of all, his English, though excellent, was somehow not contemporary, more that of someone who hadn’t been in England for many years; and then his whole appearance was foreign. He had a bizarre family resemblance to Picasso; saurian as well as simian, decades of living in the sun, the quintessential Mediterranean man, who had discarded everything that lay between him and his vitality. A monkey-glander, essence of queen bees; and intense by choice and exercise as much as by nature. He was plainly not a dandy about clothes; but there are other sorts of narcissism.
“I didn’t realize you were English.”
“I spent the first nineteen years of my life in England. Now I have Greek nationality and my mother’s name. My mother was Greek.”
“You go back to England?”
“Never.” He jumped swiftly on. “Do you like my house? I designed and built it myself.”
I looked around. “I envy you.”
“And I envy you.”
“Not much to envy.”
“You have the one thing that matters. You have all your discoveries before you.” His face was without the offensively avuncular smile that usually accompanies such trite statements; and something intent about the look he gave me made it clear he did not think it trite; that it did not carry its usual meaning. He stood up. “Well. Now I will leave you for a few minutes. Then we shall have a look round.” I stood up with him, but he gestured me down again. “Finish the cakes. Maria will be honored. Please.”
He walked into the sunlight at the edge of the colonnade, stretched his arms and fingers, and with another gesture to me to help myself passed back inside the room. From where I was sitting I could see one end of a cretonne-covered sofa, a table with a bowl of milky flowers on it. The wall behind was covered by bookshelves, from the ceiling to the floor. I stole another kourabiè. The sun was beginning to float down on the mountains, and the sea glittered lazily at the foot of their ashy, opaque shadows. Then there was an unannounced shock of antique sound, a rapid arpeggio, far too real to come from a radio or record. I stood up, wondering what new surprise I was being presented with.
There was a moment’s silence, perhaps to leave me guessing. Then came the quiet plangent sound of a harpsichord. I hesitated, then decided that two could play the independence game, and sat down again. He played quickly, and then tranquilly; once or twice he stopped and retook a phrase. The old woman came and silently cleared away, without once looking at me, even when I pointed at the few cakes left and praised them in my stilted Greek; the hermit master evidently liked silent servants. The music came clearly out of the room, and flowed around me and out through the colonnade into the light. He broke off, repeated a passage, and then stopped as abruptly as he had begun. A door closed, there was a silence. Five minutes passed, then ten. The sun crept towards me over the red tiles.
I felt I ought to have gone in earlier; that now I had put him in a huff. But he appeared in the doorway, speaking.
“I have not driven you away.”
“Not at all. It was Bach?”
“You play very well.”
“Once, I could play. Never mind. Come.” His jerkiness was pathological; as if he wanted to get rid not only of me, but of time itself.
I stood up. “I hope I shall hear you play again.”
He made a little bow, refusing the invitation to invite. “I hope you will.”
“One gets so starved of music here.”
“Only of music?” He went on before I could answer. “Come now. Prospero will show you his domaine.”
As we went down the steps to the gravel I said, “Prospero had a daughter.”
“Prospero had many things.” He turned a look on me. “And not all young and beautiful, Mr. Urfe.”
“You live alone here?”
“What some would call alone. What others would not.”
He stared ahead as he said it; whether to mystify me once more or because there was no more to be said to a stranger, I couldn’t tell.
He walked rapidly on, alertly, incessantly pointing things out. He showed me around his little vegetable-garden terrace: his cucumbers, his almonds, his loquats, his pistachios. From the far edge of the terrace I could see down to where I had been lying only an hour or two before.
“I haven’t heard it called that before.”
“Albanian.” He tapped his nose. “Snout. Because of the cliff over there.”
“Not very poetic for such a lovely beach.”
“The Albanians were pirates. Not poets. Their word for this cape was Bourani. Two hundred years ago it was their slang word for gourd. Also for skull.” He moved away. “Death and water.”
As I walked behind him, I said, “I wondered about the sign by the gate. Salle d'attente.”
“The German soldiers put it there. They requisitioned Bourani during the war.”
“But why that?”
“I think they had been stationed in Paris. They found it dull being garrisoned here.” He turned and saw me smile. “Precisely. One must be grateful for the smallest grain of humor from the Germans. I should not like the responsibility of destroying such a rare plant.”
“Do you know Germany?”
“It is not possible to know Germany. Only to endure it.”
“Bach? Isn’t he reasonably endurable?”
He stopped. “I do not judge countries by their geniuses. I judge them by their racial characteristics. The ancient Greeks could laugh at themselves. The Romans could not. That is why France is a civilized society and Spain is not. That is why I forgive the Jews and the Anglo-Saxons their countless vices. And why I should thank God, if I believed in God, that I have no German blood.”
It seemed odd that a man so penetrated by dryness should hold such views. But we had come to an arbor of bougainvillea and morning-glory at the end of the kitchen-garden terrace, set back and obliquely. He gestured me in. In the shadows, in front of an outcrop of rock, stood a pedestal. On it was a bronze manikin with a grotesquely enormous erect phallus. Its hands were flung up as well, as if to frighten children; and on its face it had a manic-satyric grin. It was only eighteen inches or so high, yet it emitted a distinct primitive terror.
“You know what it is?” He was standing close behind me.
“A Priapus. In classical times every garden and orchard had one. To frighten away thieves and bring fertility. It should be made of pear wood.”
“Where did you find it?”
“I had it made. Come.” He said “come” as Greeks prod their donkeys; as if, it later struck me, I was a potential employee who had to be shown briefly around the works.
We went back towards the house. A narrow path zigzagged steeply down from in front of the colonnade to the shore. There was a small cove there, not fifty yards across at its cuffed mouth. He had built a miniature jetty, and a small green and rose-pink boat, an open island boat with an engine fitted, was tied up alongside. At one end of the beach I could see a small cave, drums of kerosene. And there was a little pump-house, with a pipe running back up the cliff.
“Would you like to swim?”
We were standing on the jetty.
“I left my trunks at the house.”
“A costume is not necessary.” His eyes were those of a chess-player who has made a good move. I remembered a joke of Demetriades’s about English bottoms; and the Priapus. Perhaps this was the explanation; Conchis was simply an old queer.
“I don’t think I will.”
“As you please.”
We moved back to the strip of shingle and sat on a large balk of timber that had been dragged up away from the water.
I lit a cigarette and looked at him; tried to determine him. I was in something not unlike a mild state of shock. It was not only the fact that this man who spoke English so fluently, who was seemingly cultured, cosmopolitan, had come to “my” desert island, had sprung almost overnight from the barren earth, like some weird plant. It was not even that his manner was so strange. But I knew that there must really be some mystery about the previous year, some deliberate and inexplicable suppression on Mitford’s part. Second meanings hung in the air; ambiguities, unexpectednesses.
“How did you first come to this place, Mr. Conchis?”
“Will you forgive me if I ask you not to ask me questions?”
And that was that; I bit my lip. If anyone else had been there I should have had to laugh.
Shadows began to fall across the water from the pines on the bluff to our right, and there was peace, absolute peace over the world, the insects stilled, and the water like a mirror. He sat in silence, sitting with his hands on his knees, apparently engaged in deep-breathing exercises. Not only his age but everything about him was difficult to tell. Outwardly he seemed to have very little interest in me, yet he watched me; even when he was looking away, he watched me; and he waited. Right from the beginning I had this: he was indifferent to me, yet he watched and he waited. So we sat there in the silence as if we knew each other well and had no need merely to talk; and as a matter of fact it seemed in a way to suit the stillness of the day. It was an unnatural, but not an embarrassing, silence.
Suddenly he moved. His eyes had flicked up to the top of the small cliff to our left. I looked around. There was nothing. I glanced back at him.
I watched his profiled face. Was he mad? Was he making fun of me? But he stared expressionlessly out to sea. I tried to make conversation again.
“I gather you’ve met both my predecessors.”
His head turned on me with a snakelike swiftness, accusingly, but he said nothing. I prompted. “Leverrier?”
“Who told you this?”
For some reason he was terrified about what we might have said of him behind his back. I explained about the sheet of notepaper, and he relaxed a little.
“He was not happy here. On Phraxos.”
“So Mitford told me.”
“Mitford?” Again the accusing stare.
“I suppose he heard gossip at the school.”
He searched my eyes, then nodded, but not very convincedly. I smiled at him, and he gave me the trace of a wary smile back. We were playing obscure psychological chess again. I apparently had the advantage, but I didn’t know why.
Unexpectedly, from the invisible house above, came the sound of the bell. It rang twice; then after a moment, three times; then twice again. It clearly had a meaning, and it gave a voice to the peculiar state of tension that seemed to pervade both the place and its owner, and which clashed so oddly with the enormous peace of the landscape. Conchis stood at once.
“I must go. And you have a long walk.”
We set off back up the cliff hill. Halfway up, where the steep path broadened, there was a small cast-iron seat. Conchis, who had set a quickish pace, sat down gratefully on it. He was breathing hard; so was I. He patted his heart. I put on a look of concern, but he shrugged.
“When you grow old. The annunciation in reverse.” He grimaced. “Not to be.”
We sat in silence and got our breaths back. I watched the yellowing sky through the delicate fenestrations in the pines. The sky in the west was hazy. A few evening wisps of cloud were curled high, tranced over the stillness of the world.
Then out of the blue he said quietly, “Are you elect?”
“Do you feel chosen by anything?”
“John Leverrier felt chosen by God.”
“I don’t believe in God. And I certainly don’t feel chosen.”
“I think you may be.”
I smiled dubiously. “Thank you.”
“It is not meant as a compliment. Hazard makes you elect. You cannot elect yourself.”
“I’m afraid you have me out of my depth.”
He put his hand momentarily on my shoulder, as if to reassure me; to say it did not matter. Then he stood and climbed the rest of the hill. At last we were on the gravel by the side colonnade. He stopped.
“Thank you very much indeed.” I tried to get him to return my smile, to confess that he had been pulling my leg; but his masklike face was drained of humor.
“I make two requests of you. One is that you tell no one over there that you have met me. This is because of certain events that happened during the war.”
“I’ve heard about that.”
“What have you heard?”
“There are many versions of the story. But never mind now. For them I am a recluse. No one ever sees me. You understand?”
“Of course. I shan’t tell anyone.”
I knew what the next request would be: not to visit him again.
“My second request is that you come here next weekend. And stay Saturday and Sunday nights. That is, if you do not mind the walking back early on Monday morning.”
“Thank you. Thank you very much. I’d love to.”
“I think we have many things to discover.”
“'We shall not cease from exploration'?”
“You read that in the book on the beach?”
“Didn’t you leave it for me to read?”
He looked down. “Well. Yes. It was left. And you read it.”
“I had a feeling someone was watching me. It was you?”
His dark brown eyes burnt up into mine; he took a long moment to reply. The faintest ghost of a smile.
“Do you feel that you are being watched now?”
And once again his eyes flicked past my shoulders, as if he could see something some way inside the trees. I looked round. The pines were empty. I looked back at him; a joke? He was still smiling, a small dry smile.
“I merely wondered, Mr. Urfe.” He held out his hand. “If for some reason you cannot come, leave a message at Sarantopoulos’s for Hermes. It will get here the next day.”
“I’ve enjoyed meeting you very much.”
“Good. I am delighted. Till Saturday.”
After fifty yards I turned and looked back. He was still standing there, master of his domaine. I waved and he raised both his arms in an outlandish hieratic gesture, one foot slightly advanced, as if in some kind of primitive blessing. When I looked back again, just before the trees hid the house, he had disappeared.
Whatever else he was he was not like anyone else I had ever met. Something more than mere loneliness, mere senile fantasies and quirks, burnt in his striking eyes, in that abrupt, probing then dropping conversation, in those sudden oblique looks at nothing. But I certainly didn’t think, as I went into the trees, that I should have the apparent answer within another hundred yards.
Long before I came up to the gate out of Bourani, I saw something whitish lying in the gap. At first I thought it was a handkerchief, but when I stooped to pick it up I saw it was a cream-colored glove; and of all gloves, an elbow-length woman’s glove. Inside the wrist was a yellowish label, with the words Mireille, gantiêre embroidered on it in blue silk. The label, like the glove, seemed unreasonably old, something from the bottom of a long-stored trunk. I smelt it, and there it was, that same scent as on the towel the week before—musky, old-fashioned like sandalwood. When Conchis had said that he’d been down on Moutsa the week before, it had been this one fact, the sweet womanish perfume, that had puzzled me.
Now I began to understand why he might not want unexpected visits, or gossip. Why he should want to risk his secret with me, perhaps, next week, let me know it, I couldn’t imagine; what the lady was doing out in Ascot gloves, I couldn’t imagine; and who she was, I couldn’t imagine. She might be a mistress, but she might equally well be a daughter, a wife, a sister—perhaps someone weakminded, perhaps someone elderly. It flashed through my mind that it was someone who was allowed out in the grounds of Bourani and down at Moutsa only on pain of keeping herself concealed. She would have seen me the week before; and this time, have heard my arrival and tried to catch a glimpse of me—that explained the old man’s quick looks past me, and perhaps some of his nervous strangeness. He knew she was “out"; it explained the second place at the tea table, and the mysterious bell.
I turned around, half expecting to hear a giggle, a rather inane giggle; and then as I looked at the thick shadowy scrub near the gate, and remembered the grim reference to Prospero, a more sinister explanation came to me. Not weakmindedness, but some terrible disfigurement. Not all young and beautiful, Mr. Urfe. I felt, for the first time on the island, a small cold shiver of solitary-place fear.
The sun was getting low and night comes with near tropical speed in Greece. I didn’t want to have to negotiate the steep northside paths in darkness. So I hung the glove neatly over the center of the top bar of the gate and went on quickly. Half an hour later the charming hypothesis occurred to me that Conchis was a transvestite. After a while I began, for the first time in months, to sing.
I told no one, not even Méli, about my visit to Conchis, but I spent many hours conjecturing about the mysterious third person in the house. I decided that a weakminded wife was the most likely answer; it would explain the seclusion, the taciturn servants.
I tried to make up my mind about Conchis too. I was far from sure that he was not just a homosexual; that would explain Mitford’s inadequate warning, though not very flatteringly to me. The old man’s nervous intensity, that jerking from one place to another, one subject to another, his jaunty walk, the gnomic answers and mystifications, the weird ffinging-up of his arms when I left—all his mannerisms suggested, were calculated to suggest, that he wanted to seem younger and more vital than he was.
There remained the peculiar business of the poetry book, which he must have had ready to puzzle me. I had been swimming a long time that first Sunday, far out in the bay, and he could easily have slipped the things onto the Bourani end of the beach while I was in the water. But it seemed an oddly devious means of introduction. Then what did my “being elect” mean—our “having much to discover"? In itself it could mean nothing; in regard to him it could mean only that he was mad. And Some would say I lived alone: I remembered the scarcely concealed contempt with which he had said that.
I found a large-scale map of the island in the school library. The boundaries of the Bourani estate were marked. I saw it was bigger, especially to the east, than I had realized: six or seven hectares, some fifteen acres. Again and again I thought of it, perched on its lonely promontory, during the weary hours of plodding through Eckersley’s purgatorial English Course. I enjoyed conversation classes, I enjoyed doing more advanced work with what was known as the Philologic Sixth, a small group of eighteen-year-old duds who were doing languages only because they were hopeless at science, but the endless business of “drilling” the beginners bored me into stone. What am I doing? I am raising my arm. What is he doing? He is raising his arm. What are they doing? They are raising their arms. Have they raised their arms? They have raised their arms.
It was like being a champion at tennis, and condemned to play with rabbits, as well as having always to get their wretched balls out of the net for them. I would look out of the window at the blue sky and the cypresses and the sea, and pray for the day’s end, when I could retire to the masters’ wing, lie back on my bed and sip an ouzo. Bourani seemed greenly remote from all that; so far, and yet so near; its small mysteries, which grew smaller as the week passed, no more than an added tang in its other promise of civilized pleasure.
This time he was waiting for me at the table. I dumped my dufflebag by the wall and he called for Maria to bring the tea. He was much less eccentric, perhaps because he had transparently determined to pump me. We talked about the school, about Oxford, my family, about teaching English to foreigners, about why I had come to Greece. Though he kept asking questions, I still felt that he had no real interest in what I was saying. What interested him was something else, some specificness I exhibited, some category I filled. I was not interesting in myself, but only as an example. I tried once or twice to reverse our roles, but he again made it clear that he did not want to talk about himself. I said nothing about the glove.
Only once did he seem really surprised. He had asked me about my unusual name.
“French. My ancestors were Huguenots.”
“There’s a writer called Honoré d'Urfé—”
He gave me a swift look. “He is an ancestor of yours?”
“It’s just a family tradition. No one’s ever traced it. As far as I know.” Poor old d'Urfé; I had used him before to suggest centuries of high culture lay in my blood. Conchis’s smile was genuinely warm, almost radiant, and I smiled back. “That makes a difference?”
“It is amusing.”
“It’s probably all rubbish.”
“No, no, I believe it. And have you read L'Astree?”
“For my pains. Terrible bore.”
“Oui, un peu fade. Mais pa.s tout a fait sans charmes.” Impeccable accent; he could not stop smiling. “So you speak French.”
“Not very well.”
“I have a direct link with le grand siècle at my table.”
But I didn’t mind his thinking it; his sudden flattering benignity. He stood up.
“Now. In your honor. Today I will play Rameau.”
He led the way into the room, which ran the whole width of the house. Books lined three walls. At one end there was a green-glazed tile stove under a mantelpiece on which stood two bronzes, one a modern one. Above them was a life-size reproduction of a Modigliani, a fine portrait of a somber woman in black against a glaucous green background.
He sat me in an armchair, sorted through some scores, found the one he wanted; began to play, short, chirrupy little pieces, then some elaborately ornamented courantes and passacaglias. I didn’t much like them, but I realized he played with some mastery. He might be pretentious in other ways, but he was not posing at the keyboard. He stopped abruptly, in midpiece, as if a light had fused; pretention began again.
“Very nice.” I determined to stamp out the French flu before it spread. “I’ve been admiring that.” I nodded at the reproduction.
“Yes?” We went and stood in front of it. “My mother.”
For a moment I thought he was joking.
“In name. In reality, it is his mother. It was always his mother.” I looked at the woman’s eyes; they hadn’t the usual fishlike pallor of Modigliani eyes. They stared, they watched, they were simian. I also looked at the painted surface. With a delayed shock I realized I was not looking at a reproduction.
“Good Lord. It must be worth a fortune.”
“No doubt.” He spoke without looking at me. “You must not think that because I live simply here I am poor. I am very rich.” He said it as if “very rich” was a nationality; as perhaps it is. I stared at the picture again. I think it was the first time I had seen a really valuable modern picture hanging in a private house. “It cost me… nothing. And that was charity. I should like to say that I recognized his genius. But I did not. No one did. Not even the clever Mr. Zborowski.”
“You knew him?”
“Modigliani? I met him. Many times. I knew Max Jacob, who was a friend of his. That was in the last year of his life. He was quite famous by then. One of the sights of Montparnasse.”
I stole a look at Conchis as he gazed up at the picture; he had, by no other logic than that of cultural snobbery, gained a whole new dimension of social respectability for me, and I began to feel much less sure of his eccentricity and his phoniness, of my own superiority in the matter of what life was really about.
“You must wish you bought more from him.”
“You still own them?”
“Of course. Only a bankrupt would sell beautiful paintings. They are in my other houses.” I stored away that plural; one day I would mimic it to someone.
“Where are your… other houses?”
“Do you like this?” He touched the bronze of a young man beneath the Modigliani. “This is a maquette by Rodin. My other houses. Well. In France. In the Lebanon. In America. I have business interests all over the world.” He turned to the other characteristically skeletal bronze. “And this is by the Italian sculptor Giacometti.”
I looked at it, then at him. “I’m staggered. Here on Phraxos.”
“If you have many valuable paintings, as I have—I will show you two more upstairs later—you make a decision. You treat them as what they are—squares of painted canvas. Or you treat them as you would treat gold ingots. You put bars on your windows, you lie awake at night worrying. There.” He indicated the bronzes. “If you want, steal them. I shall tell the police, but you may get away with them. The only thing you will not do is make me worry.”
“They’re safe from me.”
“And on Greek islands, no thieves. But I do not like everyone to know they are here.”
“This picture is interesting. It was omitted from the only catalogue raisonné of his work I have seen. You see also it is not signed. However—it would not be difficult to authenticate. I will show you. Take the corner.”
He moved the Rodin to one side and we lifted the frame down. He tilted it for me to see. On the back were the first few lines of a sketch for another painting, then scrawled across the lower half of the untreated canvas were some illegible words with numbers beside them, added up at the bottom, by the stretcher.
“Debts. That one there.” Toto. “Toto was the Algerian he bought his hashish from.” He pointed: Zbo. “Zborowski.”
I stared down at those careless, drunken scrawls; felt the immediacy of the man, and the terrible but necessary alienation of genius from ordinariness. A man who would touch you for ten francs; and go home and paint what would one day be worth ten million. Conchis watched me.
“This is the side the museums never show.”
“He would say the same of us. With much more reason.”
I helped him put the frame back.
Then he made me look at the windows. They were rather small and narrow, arched, each one with a center pillar and a capital of carved marble.
“These come from Monemvasia. I found them built into a cottage. So I bought the cottage.”
“Like an American.”
He did not smile. “They are Venetian. Of the fifteenth century.” He turned to the bookshelves and pulled down an art book. “Here.” I looked over his shoulder and saw Fra Angelico’s famous Annunciation; and at once knew why the colonnade outside had seemed so familiar. There was even the same white-edged floor of red tiles.
“Now what else can I show you? My harpsichord is very rare. It is one of the original Pleyels. Not in fashion. But very beautiful.” He stroked its shining black top, as if it were a cat. There was a music stand on the far side, by the wall. It seemed an unnecessary thing to have with a harpsichord.
“You play some other instrument, Mr. Conchis?”
He looked at it, shook his head. “No. It has sentimental value.” But he sounded quite unsentimental.
He looked at his watch. “Now, I must leave you for some time. I have letters to write. You will find newspapers and magazines over there. Or books—take what you want. You will excuse me? Your room is upstairs… if you wish?”
“No, this is fine. Thank you.”
He went; and I stared again at the Modigliani, caressed the Rodin, surveyed the room. I felt rather like a man who has knocked on a cottage door and found himself in a palace; vaguely foolish. I took a pile of the French and American magazines that lay on a table in the corner and went out under the colonnade. After a while I did something else I hadn’t done for several months. I began to rough out a poem.
From this skull-rock strange golden roots throw
Ikons and incidents; the man in the mask
Manipulates. I am the fool that falls
And never learns to wait and watch,
Icarus eternally damned, the dupe of time…
He suggested we look over the rest of the house.
A door led into a bare, ugly hall. There was a dining room, which he said he never used, on the north side of the house, and another room which resembled nothing so much as a secondhand-book shop; a chaos of books—shelves of books, stacks of books, piles of magazines and newspapers, and one large and evidently newly arrived parcel that lay unopened on a desk by the window.
He turned to me with a pair of calipers in his hand.
“I am interested in anthropology. May I measure your skull?” He took my permission for granted, and I bent my head. As he gently pinched my head, he said, “You like books?”
He seemed to have forgotten, but perhaps he hadn’t, that I had read English at Oxford.
“What do you read?” He wrote down my measurements in a little notebook.
“Oh… novels mainly. Poetry. And criticism.”
“I have not a single novel here.”
“The novel is no longer an art form.”
“Why do you smile?”
“It was a sort of joke when I was at Oxford. If you didn’t know what to say at a party, you used to ask a question like that.”
“’do you think the novel is exhausted as an art form?' No serious answer was expected.”
“I see. It was not serious.”
“Not at all.” I looked at the notebook. “Are my measurements interesting?”
“No.” He dismissed that. “Well—I am serious. The novel is dead. As dead as alchemy.” He cut out with his hands, with the calipers, dismissing that as well. “I realized that one day before the war. Do you know what I did? I burnt every novel I possessed. Dickens. Cervantes. Dostoievsky. Flaubert. All the great and all the small. I even burnt something I wrote myself when I was too young to know better. I burnt them out there. It took me all day. The sky took their smoke, the earth their ashes. It was a fumigation. I have been happier and healthier ever since.” I remembered my own small destroying and thought, grand gestures are splendid—if you can afford them. He picked up a book and slapped the dust off it. “Why should I struggle through hundreds of pages of fabrication to reach half a dozen very little truths?”
“Fun!” He pounced on the word. “Words are for truth. For facts. Not fiction.”
“For this.” A life of Franklin Roosevelt. “This.” A French paperback on astrophysics. “This. Look at this.” It was an old pamphlet—An Alarme for Sinners, Containing the Last Words of the Murderer Robert Foulkes, 1679. “There, take that and read it over the weekend. See if it is not more real than all the historical novels you have ever read.”
His bedroom extended almost the seaward width of the house, like the music room below. At one end was a bed—a double bed, I noticed—and a huge wardrobe; at the other, a closed door led through into what must have been a very small room, a dressing room perhaps. Near that door stood a strange-looking table, the top of which he lifted. It was (I had to be told) a clavichord. The center of the room was fitted out as a kind of sitting room and study. There was another tiled stove, and a desk littered with the papers he must have been working on, and two armchairs upholstered in pale brown to match a chaise longue. In one corner there was a triangular cabinet full of pale blue and green Isnik ware. Flooded with evening light, it was altogether a more homely room than the one downstairs, and by contrast pleasantly free of books.
But its tone was really set by its two paintings: both nudes, girls in sunlit interiors, pinks, reds, greens, honeys, ambers; all light, warmth, glowing like yellow fires with life, humanity, domesticity, sexuality, Mediterraneity.
“You know him?” I shook my head. “Bonnard. He painted them both five or six years before he died.” I stood in front of them. He said, behind me, “These, I paid for.”
“They were worth it.”
“Sunlight. A naked girl. A chair. A towel, a bidet. A tiled floor. A little dog. And he gives the whole of existence a reason.”
I stared at the one on the left, not the one he had inventoried. It showed a girl by a sunlit window with her back turned, apparently drying her loins and watching herself in the mirror at the same time. I was remembering Alison, Alison wandering about the flat naked, singing, like a child. It was an unforgettable painting; it set a dense golden halo of light round the most trivial of moments, so that the moment, and all such moments, could never be completely trivial again.
Conchis moved out on the terrace, and I followed him. By the westward of the two French doors stood a small Moorish ivory-inlaid table. It carried a bowl of flowers set, as if votively, before a photograph.
It was a large picture in an old-fashioned silver frame, with the photographer’s name stamped floridly in gold across the bottom corner—a London address. A girl in an Edwardian dress stood by a vase of roses on an improbable Corinthian pedestal, while painted foliage drooped sentimentally across the background. It was one of those old photographs whose dark chocolate shadows are balanced by the creamy richness of the light surfaces; of a period when women had bosoms, not breasts. The young girl in the picture had a massed pile of light hair, and a sharp waist, and that plump softness of skin and slightly heavy Gibson-girl handsomeness of feature that the age so much admired.
Conchis had stopped and saw me give it a lingering glance. “She was once my fiancée.”
I looked again. “You never married her?”
The girl looked absurdly historical, standing by her pompous vase in front of the faded, painted grove.
“She looks English.”
“Yes.” He paused, surveying her. “Yes, she was English.”
I looked at him. “What was your English name, Mr. Conchis?”
He smiled one of his rare smiles; like a monkey’s paw flashing out of a cage. “I have forgotten.”
“You never married at all?”
He remained looking down at the photograph, then slowly shook his head.
A table stood in the southeast corner of the parapeted L-shaped terrace. It was already laid with a cloth, presumably for dinner. We looked over the trees at the breathtaking view, the vast dome of light over land and sea. The mountains of the Peloponnesus had turned a violet-blue, and Venus hung in the pale green sky like a white lamp, with the steady soft brilliance of gaslight. The photo stood in the doorway, placed rather in the way children put dolls in a window to let them look out.
He sat against the parapet with his back to the view.
“You have a girl. You are engaged?” In my turn I shook my head. “You must find life here very frustrating.”
“I was warned.” Some embarrassing proposition haunted the air.
“You have no girl. You have no family. You have no friends here. You are very alone.”
“Loneliness has its advantages.” I looked at him. “Hasn’t it?”
“I am lonely here. Not elsewhere.” He added, “And not even here.”
I looked out to sea. “Well there is a girl, but…”
“I can’t explain.”
“Is she English?”
I thought of the Bonnard; that was the reality; such moments; not what one could tell. I smiled at him.
“May I ask you what you asked me last week? No questions?”
We sat in silence then, that same peculiar silence he had imposed on the beach the Saturday before. At last he turned to the sea and spoke again.
“Greece is like a mirror. It makes you suffer. Then you learn.”
“To live alone?”
“To live. With things as they are. A Swiss came to live here—many years ago now—in an isolated ruined cottage at the far end of the island. Over there, under Aquila. A man of my age now. He had spent all his life assembling watches and reading about Greece. He had even taught himself classical Greek. He repaired the cottage himself, cleared the cisterns, and made some terraces. His passion became—you cannot guess—goats. He kept one, then two. Then a small flock of them. They slept in the same room as he did. Always exquisite. Always combed and brushed, since he was Swiss. He used to call here sometimes in spring and we would have the utmost difficulty in keeping his seraglio out of the house. He learnt to make excellent cheeses—they fetched good prices in Athens. But he was absolutely alone. No one ever wrote to him. Visited him. Totally alone. And I believe the happiest man I have ever met.”
“What happened to him?”
“He died in 1937. A stroke. They did not discover him till a fortnight later. By then all his goats were dead too. It was winter, so you see the door was fastened.”
His eyes on mine, Conchis grimaced, as if he found death a joker. His skin clung very close to his skull. Only the eyes lived. I had the strange impression that he wanted me to believe he was death; that at any moment the leathery old skin and the eyes would fall, and I should find myself the guest of a skeleton.
Later we went back indoors. There were three other rooms on the north side of the first floor. One room he showed me only a glimpse of, a lumber room. I saw crates piled high, and some furniture with dustcovers on. Then there was a bathroom, and beside the bathroom, a small bedroom. The bed was made, and I saw my dufflebag lying on it. I had fully expected one locked room, the woman-of-the-glove’s room. Then I thought that she lived in the cottage—Maria looked after her, perhaps; or perhaps this room that was to be mine for the weekend was normally hers.
He handed me the seventeenth-century pamphlet, which I had left on a table on the landing.
“I usually have an aperitif downstairs in about half an hour. I will see you then?”
“I must tell you something.”
“You have heard some disagreeable things about me?”
“I only know one story about you and that seems very much to your credit.”
“I told you last week.”
“I have a feeling that you have heard something else. From Captain Mitford?”
“Absolutely nothing. I assure you.”
He was standing in the doorway, giving me his intensest look. He seemed to gather strength; to decide that the mystery must be cleared up; then spoke.
“I am psychic.”
The house seemed full of silence; and suddenly everything that had happened earlier led to this.
“I’m afraid I’m not psychic. At all.”
We seemed drowned in dusk; two men staring at each other. I could hear a clock ticking in his room.
“That is unimportant.” He moved away. “In half an hour?”
“Of course. But why did you tell me that?”
He turned to a small table by the door, and struck a match to light the oil lamp, and then carefully adjusted it. In the doorway he stopped a moment.
“In half an hour?” he said again.
Then he went down the passage and across the landing into his room. I heard his door shut. The house was very still. I had a sensation that I couldn’t define; except that it was new.
The bed was a cheap iron one. Besides a second table, a carpet, and an armchair, there was only an old, locked cassone, of a kind to be found in every cottage on the island. It was the least likely millionaire’s spare room imaginable. The walls were bare except for a photograph of a number of village men standing in front of a house—the house. I could make out a younger Conchis in the center, wearing a straw hat and shorts, and there was one woman, a peasant woman, though not Maria, because she was Maria’s age in the photo and it was plainly twenty or thirty years old. I held up the lamp and turned the picture round to see if there was anything written on the back. But the only thing there was a fragile gecko, which clung splayfooted to the wall and watched me with cloudy eyes. Geckos like seldom-used rooms.
On the table by the head of the bed there was a flat shell to serve as an ashtray, and three books; a collection of ghost stories, an old Bible and a large thin volume entitled The Beauties of Nature. The ghost stories purported to be true, “authenticated by at least two reliable witnesses.” The list of contents—Borley Rectory, The Isle of Man Polecat, No. 18 Dennington Road, The Man with the Limp—reminded me of being ill at boarding school. I opened The Beauties of Nature. The nature was all female, and the beauty all pectoral. There were long shots of breasts, shots of breasts of every material from every angle, and against all sorts of background, closer and closer, until the final picture was of nothing but breast, with one dark and much larger than natural nipple staring from the center of the glossy page. It was much too obsessive to be erotic.
I picked up the lamp and went into the bathroom. It was well fitted out, with a formidable medicine chest. I looked for some sign of a woman’s occupation, and found none. There was running water, but it was cold and salt; for men only.
I went back to my room and lay on the bed. The sky in the open window was a pale night blue and one or two first faint northerly stars blinked over the trees. Outside, the crickets chirped monotonously, with a Webern-like inconsistency yet precision of rhythm. I heard small noises from the cottage below my window, and I could smell cooking. In the house was a great stillness.
I was increasingly baffled by Conchis. At times he was so Germanically dogmatic that I wanted to laugh, to behave in the traditionally xenophobic, continentals-despising way of my race; at times, rather against my will, he impressed me, and not only as a rich man with some enviable works of art in his house. And now he quite definitely frightened me. It was the kind of illogical fear of the supernatural that in others made me sneer; but all along I had felt that I was invited not out of hospitality, but for some other reason. He wanted to use me in some way. I now discounted homosexuality; he had had his chances and ignored them. Beside, the Bonnards, the fiancée, the book of breasts, all discounted it.
Something much more bizarre was afoot. Are you elect… Even here I am not alone… I am psychic… it all pointed to spiritualism, to table tapping. Perhaps the lady of the glove was a medium of some kind. Certainly Conchis hadn’t got the petty-bourgeois gentility and the woolly vocabulary I associated with séance holders; but he was equally certainly not a normal man.
I lit a cigarette, and after a while I smiled. In that small bare room, it seemed not to matter, even if I was a shade scared. The truth was that I was full of a sort of green stir. Conchis was no more than the chance agent, the event that had come at the right time; just as in the old days, I might, after a celibate term at Oxford, have met a girl and begun an affaire with her; I had begun something exciting with him. It seemed linked in a way with my wanting to see Alison again. I wanted to live again.
The house was as quiet as death, as the inside of a skull; but the year was 1953, I was an atheist and an absolute nonbeliever in spiritualism, ghosts and all that mumbo-jumbo. I lay there waiting for the half-hour to pass; and the silence of the house was still, that day, much more a silence of peace than one of fear.
When I went downstairs, the music room was lamplit but empty. There was a tray on the table in front of the stove with a bottle of ouzo, a jug of water, glasses and a bowl of fat blue-black Amphissa olives. I poured out some ouzo and added enough water to make it go milkily opaque. Then, glass in hand, I began a tour of the bookshelves. The books were methodically arranged. There were two entire sections of medical works, mostly in French, and many—they hardly seemed to go with spiritualism—on psychiatry, and another two of scientific books of all kinds; several shelves of philosophical works, and also a fair number of botanical and ornithological books, mostly in English and German; but the great majority of all the rest were autobiographies and biographies. There must have been thousands of them. They appeared to have been collected without any method: Wordsworth, Mae West, Saint-Simon, geniuses, criminals, saints, nonentities. The collection had the eclectic impersonality of a public library.
Behind the harpsichord and under the window there was a low glass cabinet which contained two or three classical pieces. There was a rhyton in the form of a human head, a black-figure kylix on one side, a small red-figure amphora on the other. On top of the cabinet were also three objects: a photo, an eighteenth-century clock and a white-enameled snuffbox. I went behind the music stool to look at the Greek pottery. The painting on the flat inner bowl of the kylix gave me a shock. It involved two satyrs and a woman and was very obscene indeed. Nor were the paintings on the amphora of a kind any museum would dare put on display.
Then I looked closer at the clock. It was mounted in ormolu with an enameled face. In the middle was a rosy little naked cupid; the shaft of the one short hand came through his loins, and the rounded tip at its end made it very clear what it was meant to be. There were no hours marked round the dial, and the whole of the right-hand half was blacked out, with the word Sleep in white upon it. On the other half, enameled in white, were written in neat black script the following faded but still legible words: at six, Exhaustion; at eight, Enchantment; at ten, Erection; at twelve, Ecstasy. The cupid smiled; the clock was not going and his manhood hung permanently askew at eight. I opened the innocent white snuffbox. Beneath the lid was enacted, in Boucheresque eighteenth-century terms, exactly the same scene as some ancient Greek had painted in the kylix two thousand years before.
It was between these two objets that Conchis had chosen, whether with perversion, with humor, or with simple bad taste, I couldn’t decide, to place another photo of the Edwardian girl, his dead fiancée.
She looked out of the oval silver frame with alert, smiling eyes. Her splendidly white skin and fine neck were shown off by a square décolletage, messy swathes of lace tied over her bosom by what seemed a white shoelace. By one armpit was a floppy black bow. She looked very young, as if she was wearing her first evening dress; and in this photo she looked less heavy featured; rather piquant, a touch of mischief, almost as if she rather enjoyed being queen of a cabinet of curiosa.
A door closed upstairs, and I turned away. The eyes of the Modigliani seemed to glare at me severely, so I sneaked out under the colonnade, where a minute later Conchis joined me. He had changed into a pair of pale trousers and a dark cotton coat. He stood silhouetted in the soft light that flowed out of the room and silently toasted me. The mountains were just visible, dusky and black, like waves of charcoal, the sky beyond still not quite drained of afterglow. But overhead—I was standing on the steps down to the gravel—the stars were out. They sparkled less fierily than they do in England; tranquilly, as if they were immersed in limpid oil.
“Thank you for the bedside books.”
“If you see anything more interesting on the shelves, take it up. Please.”
There was a strange call from the dark trees to the east of the house. I had heard it in the evenings at the school, and at first thought it made by some moronic village boy. It was very high pitched, repeated at regular intervals. Kew. Kew. Kew. Like a melancholy transmigrated bus conductor.
“There is my friend,” said Conchis. For an absurd and alarming moment I thought he must mean the woman of the glove. I saw her flitting through the island trees in her Ascot gloves, forever searching for Kew. The call came again, eery and stupid, from the night behind us. Conchis counted five slowly, and the call came as he raised his hand. Then five again, and again it came.
“What is it?”
“Otus scops. The scops owl. It is very small. Not twenty centimeters. Like this.”
“I saw you had some books on birds.”
“Ornithology interests me.”
“And you have studied medicine.”
“I studied medicine. Many years ago.”
“And never practiced?”
“Only on myself.”
Far out to sea to the west I saw the bright lights of the Athens boat. On Saturday nights it went on south down to Kythera. But instead of relating Bourani to the ordinary world, the distant ship seemed only to emphasize its hiddenness, its secrecy. I took the plunge.
“What did you mean by saying that you were psychic?”
“What did you think I meant?”
“That’s what I think.”
I could just make out his face in the light from the doorway. He could see more of mine, because I had swung round and sat against a column.
“You haven’t really answered my question.”
“Your first reaction is the characteristic one of your contrasuggestible century: to disbelieve, to disprove. I see this very clearly underneath your politeness. You are like a porcupine. When that animal has its spines erect, it cannot eat. If you do not eat, you will starve. And your prickles will die with the rest of your body.”
I swilled the last of the ouzo round in my glass. “Isn’t it your century too?”
“I have lived a great deal in other centuries.”
The owl called again, at monotonously regular intervals. I stared out into the darkness of the pines.
“Then…” I shrugged.
“I cannot escape my human life span. So there is only one way I could have lived in other centuries.”
I was silent. “I give up.”
“Not give up. Look up. What do you see?”
“And what else? That you know are there. Though they are not visible.”
I turned to look at him. He sat, a black shadow. I felt a chill run down my spine. Not at the supernatural, but at the now proven realization that I was with a madman. He took the thought out of my mind.
“I am mad?”
“No. Neither mad nor mistaken.”
“You… travel to other worlds?”
“Yes. I travel to other worlds.”
I put the glass down and pulled out a cigarette; lit it before speaking.
“In the flesh?”
“If you can tell me where the flesh ends and the mind begins, I will answer that.”
“You um… you have some evidence of this?”
“Ample evidence.” He allowed a moment to pass. “For those with the intelligence to see it.”
“This is what you meant by election and being psychic?”
I was silent. I was thinking that I must make up my mind what course of action to take. I sensed a sort of inherent hostility to him in myself, which rose from beyond anything that had passed between us; a subconscious resistance of water against oil.
I decided to pursue a course of polite scepticism.
“You do this… traveling by, I don’t know, something like telepathy?”
But before he could answer there was a soft slap of footsteps round the colonnade. Maria stood and bobbed.
“Sas efcharistoume, Maria. Dinner is served,” said Conchis.
We stood and went in to the music room. As we put our glasses on the tray he said, “There are things that words cannot explain.”
I looked down. “At Oxford we are taught to assume that if words can’t explain, nothing else is likely to.”
“Very well.” He smiled. “May I call you Nicholas now?”
“Of course. Please.”
He poured a drop of ouzo into our glasses. We raised and clinked them.
“Eis 'ygeia sas, Nicholas.”
But I had a strong suspicion even then that he was drinking to something other than my health.
The table in the corner of the terrace glittered, an unexpectedly opulent island of glass and silver in the darkness. It was lit by one tall lamp with a dark shade; the light flowed downwards, concentrated on the white cloth, and was then reflected up, lighting our faces strangely, Caravaggio fashion, against the surrounding darkness.
The meal was excellent. We ate small fish cooked in wine, a delicious chicken, herb-flavored cheese and a honey-and-curd flan made, according to Conchis, from a medieval Turkish recipe. The wine we drank had a trace of resin, as if the vineyard had merely been beside a pine forest, and was nothing like the harsh turpentine-tasting rotgut I sometimes drank in the village. We ate largely in silence. He evidently preferred this. If we talked, it was of the food. He ate slowly, and very little, but I left Maria nothing to take away.
When we had finished, Maria brought Turkish coffee in a brass pot and took the lamp, which was beginning to attract too many insects. She replaced it by a single candle. The flame rose untrembling in the still air; now and again a persistent insect would fly around, in, around and away. I lit my cigarette, and sat like Conchis, half-turned towards the sea and the south. He did not want to talk, and I was content to wait.
Suddenly there were footsteps below on the gravel. They were going away from the house towards the sea. At first I took them for Maria’s, though it seemed strange that she should be going down to the beach at that time. But a second later I knew that they could not, or could no more plausibly than the glove, be hers.
They were light, rapid, quiet steps, as if the person was trying to make as little noise as possible. They might even have belonged to a child. I was sitting away from the parapet, and could see nothing below. I glanced at Conchis. He was staring out into the darkness as if the sound was perfectly normal. I shifted unobtrusively, to crane a look over the parapet. But the steps had passed away into silence. With alarming speed a large moth dashed at the candle, repeatedly and frantically, as if attached to it by elastic cord. Conchis leant forward and snuffed the flame.
“You do not mind sitting in darkness?”
“Not at all.”
It occurred to me that it might after all have really been a child, from one of the cottages at the bay to the east; someone who had come to help Maria. I was just about to ask when Conchis spoke.
“I should tell you how I came here.”
“It must have been a marvelous site to find.”
“Of course. But I am not talking of architecture.” He sat staring out to sea, his face like a death mask, emotionless. “I came to Phraxos looking for a house to rent. A house for a summer. I did not like the village. I do not like coasts that face north. On my last day I had a boatman take me round the island. For pleasure. By chance he landed me for a swim at Moutsa down there. By chance he said there was an old cottage up here. By chance I came up. The cottage was crumbled walls. A litter of stones choked with thorn-ivy. It was very hot. About four o'clock on the afternoon of April the eighteenth, 1929.”
He paused, as if the memory of that year had stopped him; and to prepare me for a new facet of himself; a new shift.
“There were many more trees then. One could not see the sea. I stood in the little clearing round the ruined walls. I had immediately the sensation that I was expected. Something had been waiting there all my life. I stood there, and I knew who waited, who expected. It was myself. I was here and this house was here, you and I and this evening were here, and they had always been here, like reflections of my own coming. It was like a dream. I had been walking towards a closed door, and by a sudden magic its impenetrable wood became glass, through which I saw myself coming from the other direction, the future. I speak in analogies. You understand?”
I nodded, cautious, not concerned with understanding; because underlying everything he did I had come to detect an air of stage management, of the planned and rehearsed. He did not tell me of his coming to Bourani as a man tells something that chances to occur to him, but far more as a dramatist tells an anecdote where the play requires. He went on.
“I knew at once that I must live here. I could not go beyond. It was only here that my past would merge into my future. So I stayed. I am here tonight. And you are here tonight.”
In the darkness he was looking sideways at me. I said nothing for a moment; there had seemed to be some special emphasis on the last sentence.
“Is this also what you meant by being psychic?”
“It is what I mean by being fortunate. There comes a time in each life like a point of fulcrum. At that time you must accept yourself. It is not any more what you will become. It is what you are and always will be. You are too young to know this. You are still becoming. Not being.”
“Not perhaps. For certain.”
“What happens if one doesn’t recognize the… point of fulcrum?” But I was thinking, I have had it already—the silence in the trees, the siren of the Athens boat, the black mouth of the shotgun barrels.
“You will be like the many. Only the few recognize this moment. And act on it.”
“The elect. The chosen by hazard.” I heard his chair creak. “Look over there. The lamp fishermen.” Away at the far feet of the mountains there was a thin dust of ruby lights in the deepest shadows. I didn’t know whether he meant simply, look; or that the lamps were in some way symbolic of the elect.
“You’re very tantalizing sometimes, Mr. Conchis.”
“I am prepared to be less so.”
“I wish you would be.”
He was silent again.
“Suppose that what I might tell you should mean more to your life than the mere listening?”
“I hope it would.”
“I do not want politeness. Politeness always conceals a refusal to face other kinds of reality. I am going to say something about you that may shock you. I know something about you that you do not know yourself.” He paused, again as if to let me prepare myself. “You too are psychic, Nicholas. You are sure you are not. I know that.”
“Well, I’m not. Really.” I waited, then said, “But I’d certainly like to know what makes you think I am.”
“I have been shown.”
“I prefer not to say.”
“But you must. I don’t even know what you really mean by the word. If you merely mean some sort of intuitive intelligence, then I hope I am psychic. But I thought you meant something else.”
Again silence, as if he wanted me to hear the sharpness in my own voice. “You are treating this as if I have accused you of some crime. Of some weakness.”
“I’m sorry. Look, Mr. Conchis, I just know that I am not psychic. I’ve never had a psychical experience in my life.” I added, naïvely, “Anyway, I’m an atheist.”
His voice was gentle and dry. “If a person is intelligent, then of course he is either an agnostic or an atheist. Just as he is a physical coward. They are automatic definitions of high intelligence. But I am not talking about God. I am talking about science.” I said nothing. His voice became much drier. “Very well. I accept that you believe that you are…” he mimicked my emphasis “… not psychic.”
“You can’t refuse to tell me what you promised now.”
“I wanted only to warn you.”
“Excuse me for one minute.”
He disappeared into his bedroom. I got up and went to the corner of the parapet, from where I could see in three directions. All around the house lay the silent pine trees, dim in the starlight. Absolute peace. High and very far to the north I could just hear a plane, only the third or fourth I had heard at night since coming to the island. I thcught of an Alison on it, moving down the aisle with a trolley of drinks. Like the ship the faint drone accentuated, rather than diminished, the remoteness of Bourani. I had an acute sense of the absence of Alison, of the probably permanent loss of her; I could imagine her beside me, her hand in mine; and she was human warmth, normality, standard to go by. I had always seen myself as potentially a sort of protector of her; and for the first time, that evening at Bourani, I saw that perhaps she had been, or could have been, a protector of me.
A few seconds later Conchis returned. He went to the parapet, and breathed deeply. The sky and the sea and the stars, half the universe, stretched out before us. I could still just hear the plane. I lit a cigarette, as Alison, at such a moment, would have lit a cigarette.
“I think we should be more comfortable in the lounging chairs.”
I helped him pull the two long wicker chairs from the far end of the terrace. Then we both put our feet up and lay back, so that we looked into the stars. And at once I could smell it on the tied-on headcushion—that same elusive, old-fashioned perfume of the towel, of the glove. I was sure it did not belong to Conchis or old Maria. I should have smelt it by then. There was a woman, and she often used this chair.
“It will take me a long time to define what I mean. It will take me the story of my life.”
“I’ve spent the last seven months among people who can speak only the most rudimentary English.”
“My French is better than my English now. But no matter. Comprendre, c'est tout.”
“Who said that?”
“An English novelist.”
“He should not have said it. Fiction is the worst form of connection.”
I smiled in the darkness. There was silence. The stars gave signals. He began.
“I told you my father was English. But his business, importing tobacco and currants, lay mainly in the Levant. One of his competitors was a Greek living in London. In 1892 this Greek had tragic news. His eldest brother and his wife had been killed in an earthquake over the mountains there on the other side of the Peloponnesus. Three children survived. The two youngest, two boys, were sent out to South America, to a third brother. And the eldest child, a girl of seventeen, was brought to London to keep house for her uncle, my father’s competitor. He had long been a widower. She had the prettiness that is characteristic of Greek women who have some Italian blood. My father met her. He was much older, but quite good-looking, I suppose, and he spoke some demotic Greek. There were business interests which could be profitably merged. In short, they married . and I exist.
“The first thing I remember clearly is my mother’s singing. She always sang, whether she was happy or sad. She could sing classical music quite well, and play the piano, but it was the Greek folk tunes I remember best. Those she always sang when she was sad. I remember her telling me—much later in life—of that standing on a distant hillside and seeing the ochre dust float slowly up into the azure sky. When the news about her parents came, she was filled with a black hatred of Greece. She wanted to leave it then, never to return. Like so many Greeks. And like so many Greeks she never accepted her exile. That is the cost of being born in the most beautiful and the most cruel country in the world.
“My mother sang—and music was the most important thing in my life, from as far back as I can remember. I was something of a child prodigy. I gave my first concert at the age of nine, and people were very kind. But I was a bad pupil at all the other subjects at school. I was not stupid, but I was very lazy. I knew only one obligation: to play the piano well. Duty largely consists of pretending that the trivial is critical. And I was never accomplished at that.
“I was fortunate, I had a very remarkable music teacher—Charles Victor Bruneau. He had many of the traditional faults of his kind. Vain of his methods and vain of his pupils. A sarcastic agony if one was not talented, and a painstaking angel if one was. But he was a very learned man musicologically. In those days that meant he was rarissima avis. Most executants then wanted only to express themselves. And so they developed accomplishments like enormous velocity and great skill at expressive rubato. No one today plays like that. Or could play like it, even if they wanted to. The Rosenthals and Godowskys are gone forever. But Bruneau was far in advance of his time and there are still many Haydn and Mozart sonatas I can hear only as he played them.
“However, his most remarkable acquirement—I speak of before 1914—was the then almost unknown one of being as good a harpsichordist as a pianist. I first came under him at a period in his life when he was abandoning the piano. You know the harpsichord requires a very different finger technique from the piano. It is not easy to change. He dreamed of a school of harpsichord players who were trained as early as possible as pure harpsichordists. And not, as he used to say, des pianistes en costume de bal masqué.
“When I was fifteen, I had what we would call today a nervous breakdown. Bruneau had been driving me too hard. I never had the least interest in games. I was a day boy, I had permission to concentrate on music. I never made any real friends at school. Perhaps because I was taken for a Jew. But the doctor said that when I recovered I would have to practice less and go out more often. I made a face. My father came back one day with an expensive book on birds. I could hardly tell the commonest birds apart, had never thought of doing so. But my father’s was an inspired guess. Lying in bed, looking at the stiff poses in the pictures, I began to want to see the living reality—and the only reality to begin with for me was the singing that I heard through my sickroom window. I came to birds through sound. Suddenly even the chirping of sparrows seemed mysterious. And the singing of birds I had heard a thousand times, thrushes, blackbirds in our garden, I heard as if I had never heard them before. Later in my life—ça sera pour un autre jour—birds led me into a very unusual experience.
“You see the child I was. Lazy, lonely, yes, very lonely. What is that word? A sissy. Talented in music, and in nothing else. And I was an only child, spoilt by my parents. As I entered my fourth luster, it became evident that I was not going to fulfill my early promise. Bruneau saw it first, and then I did. Though we tacitly agreed not to tell my parents, it was difficult for me to accept. Sixteen is a bad age at which to know one will never be a genius. But by then I was in love.
“I first saw Lily when she was fourteen, and I was a year older, soon after my breakdown. We lived in St. John’s Wood. In one of those small white mansions for successful merchants. You know them? A semi-circular drive. A portico. At the back was a long garden, at the end of it a little orchard, some six or seven overgrown apple and pear trees. Unkempt, but very green. Ombreux. I had a private 'house' under a lime tree. One day—June, a noble blue day, burning, clear, as they are here in Greece—I was reading a life of Chopin. I remember that exactly. You know at my age you recall the first twenty years far better than the second—or the third. I was reading and no doubt seeing myself as Chopin, and I had my new book on birds beside me. It is 1910.
“Suddenly I hear a noise on the other side of the brick wall which separates the garden of the next house from ours. This house is empty, so I am surprised. And then… a head appears. Cautiously. Like a mouse. It is the head of a young girl. I am half hidden in my bower, I am the last thing she sees, so I have time to examine her. Her head is in sunshine, a mass of pale blonde hair that falls behind her and out of sight. The sun is to the south, so that it is caught in her hair, in a cloud of light. I see her shadowed face, her dark eyes and her small half-opened inquisitive mouth. She is grave, timid, yet determined to be daring. She sees me. She stares at me for a moment in her shocked haze of light. She seems more erect, like a bird. I stand up in the entrance of my bower, still in shadow. We do not speak or smile. All the unspoken mysteries of puberty tremble in the air. I do not know why I cannot speak… and then a voice called. Li-ly! Li-ly!
“The spell was broken. And all my past was broken, too. Do you know that image from Seferis—'The broken pomegranate is full of stars'? It was like that. She disappeared, I sat down again, but to read was impossible. I went to the wall near the house, and heard a man’s voice, and silver female voices that faded through a door.
“I was in a morbid state. But that first meeting, that mysterious… how shall I say, message from her light, from her light to my shadow, haunted me for weeks.
“Her parents moved into the house next door. I met Lily face to face. And there was some bridge between us. It was not all my imagination, this something came from her as well as from me—a joint umbilical cord, something we dared not speak of, of course, yet which we both knew was there.
“She was very like me in many ordinary ways. She too had few friends in London. And the final touch to this faiiy story was that she too was musical. Not very strikingly gifted, but musical. Her father was a peculiar man, Irish, with private means, and with a passion for music. He played the flute very well. Of course he had to meet Bruneau, who sometimes came to our house, and through Bruneau he met Dolmetsch, who interested him in the recorder. Another forgotten instrument in those days. I remember so well Lily playing her first solo on a flat-sounding descant recorder made by Dolmetsch and bought for her by her father.
“Our two families grew very close. I accompanied Lily, we sometimes played duets, sometimes her father would join us, sometimes the two mothers would sing. We discovered a whole new continent of music. The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, Arbeau, Frescobaldi, Froberger—in those years people suddenly realized that there had been music before 1700.”
He paused. I wanted to light a cigarette, but more than that I wanted not to distract him, his reaching back. So I held the cigarette between my fingers, and waited.
“Lily. She had, yes, I suppose a Botticelli beauty, long fair hair, gray-violet eyes. But that makes her sound too pale, too Pre-Raphaelite. She had something that is gone from the world, from the female world. A sweetness without sentimentality, a limpidity without naïvety. She was so easy to hurt, to tease. And when she teased, it was like a caress. I make her sound too colorless to you. Of course, in those days, what we young men looked for was not so much the body as the soul. Lily was a very pretty girl. But it was her soul that was sans pareil.
“No obstacles except those of propriety were ever put between us. I said just now that we were very alike in interests and tastes. But we were opposites in temperament. Lily was always so very selfcontrolled, patient, helping. I was temperamental. Moody. And very selfish. I never saw her hurt anyone or anything. But if I wanted something I wanted it at once. Lily used to disgust me with myself. I used to think of my Greek blood as ’dark' blood. Almost Negro blood.
“And then too I soon began to love her physically. Whereas she loved me, or treated me, more as a brother. Of course we knew we were going to marry; we promised ourselves to each other when she was only sixteen. But I was hardly ever allowed to kiss her. You cannot imagine this. To be so close to a girl and yet so rarely be able to caress her. My desires were very innocent. I had all the usual notions of the time about the nobility of chastity. But I was not completely English.
“There was o Pappous—my grandfather—really my mother’s uncle. He had become a naturalized Englishman, but he never carried his anglophilia to the point of being puritan, or even respectable. He was not, I think, a very wicked old man. What I knew of him corrupted me far less than the false ideas I conceived. I always spoke with him in Greek, and as you perhaps realize Greek is a naturally sensual and uneuphemistic language. I surreptitiously read certain books I found on his shelves. I saw La Vie Parisienne. I came one day on a folder full of tinted engravings. And so I began to have erotic daydreams. The demure Lily in her straw hat, a hat I could describe to you now, still, as well as if I had it here in front of me, the crown swathed in a pale tulle the color of a summer haze… in a long-sleeved, high-necked, pink-and-white striped blouse… a dark blue hobble skirt, beside whom I walked across Regent’s Park in the spring of 1914. The entranced girl I stood behind in the gallery at Covent Garden in June, nearly fainting in the heat—such a summer, that year—to hear Chaliapin in Prince Igor… Lily—she became in my mind at night the abandoned young prostitute. I thought I was very abnormal to have created this second Lily from the real one. I was bitterly ashamed again of my Greek blood. Yet possessed by it. I blamed everything on that, and my mother suffered, poor woman. My father’s family had already humiliated her enough, without her own son joining in.
“I was ashamed then. I am proud now to have Greek and Italian and English blood and even some Celtic blood. One of my father’s grandmothers was a Scotswoman. I am European. That is all that matters to me. But in 1914 I wanted to be purely English so as to be able to offer myself untainted to Lily.
“You know, of course, that something far more monstrous than my adolescent Arabian Night was being imagined in the young mind of twentieth-century Europe. I was just eighteen. The war began. They were unreal, the first days of that war. So much peace and plenty, for so long a time. Unconsciously, in the Jungian collective id, perhaps everyone wanted a change, a purge. A holocaust. But it appeared to us unpolitical citizens a matter of pride, of purely military pride. Something which the Regular Army and His Majesty’s invincible Navy would settle. There was no conscription, no feeling, in my world, of necessity to volunteer. It never crossed my mind that I might one day have to fight. Moltke, Bülow, Foch, Haig, French—the names meant nothing. But then came the somber coup d'archet of Mons and Le Cateau. That was totally new. The efficiency of the Germans, the horror stories about the Prussian Guards, the Belgian outrages, the black shock of the casualty lists. Kitchener. The Million Army. And then in September the battle of the Marne—that was no longer cricket. Eight hundred thousand—imagine them drawn up down there on the sea—eight hundred thousand candles all blown out in one gigantic breath.
“December came. The 'flappers’ and the 'nuts’ had disappeared. My father told me one evening that neither he nor my mother would think the worse of me if I did not go. I had started at the Royal College of Music, and the atmosphere there was at first hostile to volunteering. The war had nothing to do with art or artists. I remember my parents and Lily’s discussing the war. They agreed it was inhuman. But my father’s conversation with me became strained. He became a special constable, a member of the local emergency committee. Then the son of his head clerk was killed in action. He told us that one silent dinner-time, and left my mother and me alone immediately afterwards. Nothing was said, but everything was plain. One day soon afterwards, Lily and I stood and watched a contingent of troops marching through the streets on their way to Victoria. It was wet after rain, the pavements shining. They were going to France, and someone beside us said they were volunteers. I watched their singing faces in the yellow of the gaslamps. The cheering people around us. The smell of wet serge. They were drunk, marchers and watchers, exalted out of themselves, their faces set in the rictus of certainty. Medieval in their certainty. I had not then heard the famous phrase. But this was le consentement frémissant a la guerre.
“They are mad, I said to Lily. She did not seem to hear me. But when they had gone she turned and said, If I was going to die tomorrow I should be mad. It stunned me. We went home in silence. And all the way she hummed, I now—but could not then—believe without malice, a song of the day.”
He paused, then half sung it:
We shall miss you, we shall kiss you,
But we think you ought to go.
“I felt like a small boy beside her. Once again I blamed my miserable Greek blood. It had made me a coward as well as a lecher. I see, when I look back, that indeed it had. Because I was less a true coward, a calculating coward, than someone so innocent, or so Greek, that he could not see what the war had to do with him. Social responsibility has never been a Greek characteristic.
“When we reached our houses, Lily kissed my cheek and ran in. I understood. She could not apologize, but she could still pity. I spent a night and a day and a second night in agony. The next day I saw Lily and told her I was going to volunteer. All the blood left her cheeks. Then she burst into tears and threw herself into my arms. So did my mother when I told her. But hers was a purer grief.
“I was passed fit, accepted. I was a hero. Lily’s father presented me with an old pistol he had. My father opened champagne. And then when I got to my room, and sat on my bed with the pistol in my hands, I cried. Not from fear—for the sheer nobility of what I was doing. I had never felt public-spirited before. And I also thought that I had conquered that Greek half of me. I was fully English at last.
“I was pushed into the 13th London Rifles—Princess Louise’s Kensington Regiment. There I became two people—one who watched and one who tried to forget that the other watched. We were trained less to kill than to be killed. Taught to advance at two-pace intervals—against guns that fired two hundred and fifty bullets a minute. The Germans and the French did the same. No doubt we should have objected if we had ever seriously thought about action. But the current myth at that time maintained that the volunteers were to be used only for guard and communication duties. The regulars and reservists were the fighting troops. Besides, every week we were told that because of its enormous cost the war could not last another month.”
I heard him move in his chair. In the silence that followed I waited for him to continue. But he said nothing. The stars shimmered in their dustless glittering clouds; the terrace was like a stage beneath them.
“A glass of brandy?”
“I hope you’re not going to stop.”
“Let us have some brandy.”
He stood up and lit the candle. Then he disappeared.
I lay in my chair and stared up at the stars. 1914 and 1953 were eons apart; 1914 was on a planet circling one of the furthest faintest stars. The vast stretch, the pace of time.
Then they came again, those footsteps. This time, they approached. It was the same rapid walk. But it was much too warm for rapid walking. Someone wanted to reach the house urgently, and without being seen. I got quickly to the parapet.
I was just in time to glimpse a pale shape at the far end of the house move up the steps and under the colonnade. I could not see well, my eyes had been dazzled, after the darkness, by the candle. But it was not Maria; a whiteness, a flowing whiteness, a long coat or a dressing gown—I had only a second’s sight, but I knew it was a woman and I knew it was not an old woman. I suspected, too, that I had been meant to see her. Because if one wanted to get into the house unheard, one wouldn’t cross the gravel, but approach the house from the rear, or the far side.
There was a sound from the bedroom and Conchis appeared in the lamplit doorway, carrying a tray with a bottle and two glasses. I waited till he had set it by the candle.
“You know someone has just come in downstairs.”
He betrayed not the least surprise. He uncorked the bottle and carefully poured the brandy. “A man or a woman?”
“Ah.” He handed me my brandy. “This is made at the monastery of Arkadion in Crete.” He snuffed the candle and went back to his chair. I remained standing.
“You did say you lived alone.”
“I said that I liked to give the islanders the impression that I lived alone.”
The dryness in his voice made me feel that I was being very naïve. The woman was simply his mistress, whom for some reason he did not want me to meet; or perhaps who did not want to meet me. I went and sat down on the lounging chair.
“I’m being tactless. Forgive me.”
“Not tactless. Perhaps a little lacking in imagination.”
“I thought perhaps I was meant to notice what obviously I’m not meant to notice.”
“Noticing is not a matter of choice, Nicholas. But explaining is.”
“Do you like the brandy?”
“It always reminds me of Armagnac. Now. Shall I continue?”
As he began to speak again I smelt the night air, I felt the hard concrete under my feet, I touched a piece of chalk in my pocket. But a strong feeling persisted, when I swung my feet off the ground and lay back, that something was trying to slip between me and reality.
“I found myself in France a little more than six weeks after I enlisted. I had no aptitude with the rifle. I could not even bayonet an effigy of Kaiser Bill convincingly. But I was considered ’sharp' and they also discovered that I could run quite fast. So I was selected as company runner.
“My training company commander was a Regular Army officer of thirty or so. His name was Captain Montague. He had broken his leg sometime before and so had been unfit for active service till then. A kind of phosphorescent pale elegance about his face. A delicate, gallant moustache. He was one of the most supremely stupid men I have ever met. He taught me a great deal.
“Before our training was finished, he received an urgent posting to France. That same day he told me, as if he were giving me a magnificent present, that he thought he could pull strings and have me posted with him. Only a man as blank as he would have failed to see the hollowness of my enthusiasm. But unfortunately he had grown fond of me.
“He had a brain capable of only one idea at a time. With him it was the offensive a outrance—the headlong attack. Foch’s great contribution to the human race. 'The force of the shock is the mass,' he used to say—'the force of the mass is the impulsion and the force of the impulsion is the morale. High morale, high impulsion, high shock—victory!' Thump on the table—'Victory!' He made us all learn it by heart. At bayonet drill. Vic-tor-ree! Poor fool.
“I spent a last two days with my parents and Lily. She and I swore undying love. The idea of heroic sacrifice had contaminated her, as it had contaminated my father. My mother said nothing, except an old Greek proverb: A dead man cannot be brave. I remembered that later.
“We went straight to the front. One of the company commanders had died of pneumonia, and it was his place Montague had to take. This was early in 1915. It sleeted and rained incessantly. We spent long hours in stationary trains in railway sidings, in gray towns under grayer skies. One knew the troops who had been in action. The ones who sang their way to death, the new recruits, were the dupes of the romance of war. But the others were dupes of the reality of war, of the ultimate Totentanz. Like those sad old men and women who haunt every casino, they knew the wheel must always win in the end. But they could not force themselves to leave.
“We spent a few days on maneuvers. And then one day Montague addressed the company. We were going into battle, a new sort of battle, one in which victory was certain. One that was going to bring us to Berlin in a month. The night of the next day we entrained. The train stopped somewhere in the middle of a flat plain and we marched eastwards. Dikes and willows in the darkness. Endless drizzle. It crept down the columns that the place we were to attack was a village called Neuve Chapelle. And that the Germans were to receive something revolutionary. A giant gun. A mass attack by the new airplanes.
“After a while we turned into a field, thick with mud, and were marched up to some farm buildings. Two hours’ rest before taking up position for the attack. No one can have slept. It was very cold, and fires were forbidden. My real self began to appear, I began to be afraid. But I told myself that if I was ever to be really frightened, I should have known it before then. This is what I had willed to execute. That is how war corrupts us. It plays on our pride in our own free will.
“Before dawn we filed forward slowly, many stops, to the assault positions. I overheard Montague talking with a staff officer. The entire First Army, Haig’s, was engaged, with the Second in support. And there seemed to me a safety, a kind of warmth in such numbers. But then we entered the trenches. The terrible trenches, with their stench of the urinal. And then the first shells fell near us. I was so innocent that in spite of our so-called training, of all the propaganda, I had never really been able to believe that someone might want to kill me. We were told to halt and stand against the walls. The shells hissed, whined, crashed. Then silence. Then a splatter of falling clods. And shivering, I awoke from my long sleep.
“I think the first thing I saw was the isolation of each. It is not the state of war that isolates. It is well known, it brings people together. But the battlefield—that is something different. Because that is when the real enemy, death, appears. I no longer saw any warmth in numbers. I saw only Thanatos in them, my death. And just as much in my own comrades, in Montague, as in the invisible Germans.
“The madness of it, Nicholas. Standing in holes in the ground, thousands of men, English, Scots, Indians, French, Germans, one March morning—and what for? If there is a hell, then it is that. Not flames, not pitchforks. But a place without the possibility of reason, like Neuve Chapelle that day.
“A reluctant light began to spread over the eastern sky. The drizzle stopped. A trill of song from somewhere outside the trench. I recognized a hedge sparrow, the last voice from the other world. We moved forward again some way and into the assault trenches—the Rifle Brigade was to form the second wave of the attack. The German trenches were less than two hundred yards ahead, with our front trench only a hundred yards from theirs. Montague looked at his watch. He raised his hand. There was complete silence. His hand fell. For some ten seconds nothing happened. Then, from far behind us, there was a gigantic drum-roll, a thousand tympani. A pause. And then the whole world ahead exploded. Everyone ducked. A shaking of earth, sky, mind, all. You cannot imagine what the first few minutes of that bombardment were like. It was the first massive artillery barrage of the war, the heaviest ever delivered.
“A runner came from the front trenches, down the communicating trench. His face and uniform were streaked with red. Montague asked if he was hit. He said everyone in the front trenches was splashed with blood from the German trenches. They were so close. If only they could have stopped to think how close .
“After half an hour the barrage was moving over the village. Montague, at the periscope, cried, 'They’re up!' And then—'The Boches are done for!' He leapt onto the parapet and waved to all of us around him to look over the edge of the trench. A hundred yards ahead a long line of men trotted slowly across the scarred earth towards some shattered trees and broken walls. A few isolated shots. A man fell. Then stood up and ran on. He had simply tripped. The men about me began to shout as the line reached the first houses and a cheer came back. A red light soared up, and then we in our turn advanced. It was difficult to walk. And as we went forward, fear was driven out by horror. Not a shot was fired at us. But the ground became increasingly hideous. Nameless things, pink, white, red, mud-bespattered, still with rags of gray or khaki. We crossed our own front trench and traversed the no-man’s-land. When we came to the German trenches there was nothing to see. Everything had been buried or blown out of them. There we halted for a moment, lying down in the craters, almost in peace. To the north the firing was very intense. The Cameronians had been caught on the wire. In twenty minutes they lost every officer except one. And four-fifths of their men were killed.
“Figures appeared between the wrecked cottages ahead, their hands high. Some of them being held up by friends. They were the first prisoners. Many of them were yellow with lyddite. Yellow men out of the white curtain of light. One walked straight towards me, lurching, with his head tilted, as if in a dream, and fell straight into a deep crater. A moment later he reappeared, crawling up over the edge, then slowly standing. Lurching forward again. Other prisoners came weeping. One vomited blood in front of us, and collapsed.
“Then we were running towards the village. We came into what must have been once a street. Desolation. Rubble, fragments of plastered wall, broken rafters, the yellow splashes of lyddite everywhere. The drizzle that had started again gleaming on the stones. On the skin of corpses. Many Germans had been caught in the houses. In one minute I saw a summary of the whole butcher’s shop of war. The blood, the gaping holes, the bone sticking out of flesh, the stench of burst intestines—I am telling you this only because the effect on me, a boy who had never seen even a peacefully dead body before that day, was one I should never have predicted. It was not nausea and terror. I saw several men being sick, but I was not. It was an intense new conviction. Nothing could justify this. It was a thousand times better that England should be a Prussian colony. One reads that such scenes give the green soldier nothing but a mad lust to kill in his turn. But I had exactly the contrary feeling. I had a mad lust not to be killed.”
He stood up.
“I have a test for you.”
He went into his bedroom, returned almost at once with the oil lamp that had been on the table when we had dinner. In the white pool of light he put what he had brought. I saw a die, a shaker, a saucer, and a pillbox. I looked up at him on the other side of the table, at his severe eyes on mine.
“I am going to explain to you why we went to war. Why mankind always goes to war. It is not social or political. It is not countries that go to war, but men. It is like salt. Once one has been to war, one has salt for the rest of one’s life. Do you understand?”
“So in my perfect republic it would be simple. There would be a test for all young people at the age of twenty-one. They would go to a hospital where they would throw a die. One of the six numbers would mean death. If they threw that they would be painlessly killed. No mess. No bestial cruelty. No destruction of innocent onlookers. But one clinical throw of the die.”
“Certainly an improvement on war.”
“You think so?”
“You are sure?”
“You said you never saw action in the last war?”
He took the pillbox, and shook out, of all things, six large molars; yellowish, two or three with old fillings.
“These were issued to certain German troops during the last war, for use if they were interrogated.” He placed one of the teeth on the saucer, then with a small downward jab of the shaker crushed it; it was brittle, like a liqueur chocolate. But the odor of the colorless liquid was of bitter almonds, acrid and terrifying. He hastily removed the saucer at arm’s length to the far corner of the terrace; then returned.
“Precisely. Hydrocyanic acid.” He picked up the die, and showed me six sides.
I smiled. “You want me to throw?”
“I offer you an entire war in one second.”
“Supposing I don’t want it?”
“Think. In a minute from now you could be saying, I risked death. I threw for life, and I won life. It is a very wonderful feeling. To have survived.”
“Wouldn’t a corpse be rather embarrassing for you?” I was still smiling, but it was wearing thin.
“Not at all. I could easily prove it was suicide.” He stared at me, and his eyes went through me like a trident through a fish. With ninety-nine persons out of a hundred, I would have known it was a bluff; but he was different, and a nervousness had hold of me before I could resist it.
“But less fallible. These pills work within a few seconds.”
“I don’t want to play.”
“Then you are a coward, my friend.” He leant back and watched me.
“I thought you believed brave men were fools.”
“Because they persist in rolling the die again and again. But a young man who will not risk his life even once is both a fool and a coward.”
And he had me. It was absurd, but I could not let my bluff be called.
I reached for the shaker.
“Wait.” He leant forward, and put his hand on my wrist; then placed a tooth by my side. “I am not playing at make-believe. You must swear to me that if the number is six you will take the pill.” His face was totally serious. I felt myself wanting to swallow.
“By all that is most sacred to you.”
I hesitated, shrugged, and said, “By all that is most sacred to me.”
He held out the die and I put it in the shaker. I shook it loosely and quickly and threw the die. It ran over the cloth, hit the brass base of the lamp, rebounded, wavered, fell.
It was a six.
Conchis was absolutely motionless, watching me. I knew at once that I was never, never going to pick up the pill. I could not look at him. Perhaps fifteen seconds passed. Then I smiled, looked at him and shook my head.
He reached out again, his eyes still on me, took the tooth beside me, put it in his mouth and bit it and swallowed the liquid. I went red. Still watching me, he reached out, and put the die in the shaker, and threw it. It was a six. Then again. And again it was a six. He spat out the empty shell of the tooth.
“What you have just decided is precisely what I decided that morning forty years ago at Neuve Chapelle. You have behaved exactly as any intelligent human being should behave. I congratulate you.”
“But what you said? The perfect republic?”
“All perfect republics are perfect nonsense. The craving to risk death is our last great perversion. We come from night, we go into night. Why live in night?”
“But the die was loaded.”
“Patriotism, propaganda, professional honor, esprit de corps—what are all those things? Cogged dice. There is just one small difference, Nicholas. On the other table these are real.” He put the remaining teeth back in the box. “Not just ratafia in colored plastic.”
He turned out the lamp.
“The middle six hours of that day we passed in waiting. The Germans hardly shelled us at all. They had been bombarded to their knees. The obvious thing would have been to attack at once. But it takes a very brilliant general, a Napoleon, to see the obvious.
“About three o'clock the Ghurkas came alongside us and we were told an attack on the Aubers Ridge was to be launched. We were to be the first line. Just before half-past three we fixed bayonets. I was beside Captain Montague, as usual. I think he knew only one thing about himself. That he was fearless, ready to swallow the acid. He kept looking along the lines of men beside him. He scorned the use of a periscope, and stood and poked his head over the parapet. The Germans still seemed stunned.
“We began to walk forward. Montague and the sergeant major called incessantly, keeping us in line. We had to cross a cratered ploughfield to a hedge of poplars, and then, across another small field, lay our objective, a bridge. I suppose we had gone about half the distance we had to cover, and then we broke into a trot and some of the men began to shout. The Germans seemed to stop firing altogether. Montague called triumphantly. 'On, lads! Victoree!'
“They were the last words he ever spoke. It was a trap. Five or six machine guns scythed us like grass. Montague spun round and fell at my feet. He lay on his back, staring up at me, one eye gone. I collapsed beside him. The air was nothing but bullets. I pressed my face right into the mud, I was urinating, certain that at any moment I should be killed. Someone came beside me. It was the sergeant major. Some of the men were firing back, but blindly. In despair. The sergeant major, I do not know why, began dragging Montague’s corpse backwards. Feebly, I tried to help. We slipped down into a small crater. The back of Montague’s head had been blown away, but his face still wore an idiot’s grin, as if he were laughing in his sleep, mouth wide open. A face I have never forgotten. The last smile of a stage of evolution.
“The firing stopped. Then, like a flock of frightened sheep, everyone who survived began to run back towards the village. I as well. I had lost even the will to be a coward. Many were shot in the back as they ran, and I was one of the few who reached the trench we had started from unhurt—alive, even. We were no sooner there than the shelling began. Our own shells. Owing to the bad weather conditions, the artillery were shooting blind. Or perhaps still according to some plan established days before. Such irony is not a by-product of war. But typical of it.
“A wounded lieutenant was now in command. He crouched beside me, with a great gash across his cheek. His eyes burned dully. He was no longer a nice upright young Englishman, but a neolithic man. Cornered, uncomprehending, in a sullen rage. Perhaps we all looked like that. The longer one survived the more unreal it was.
“More troops came up with us, and a colonel came round. Aubers Ridge must be captured. We had to have the bridge by nightfall. But I had meanwhile had time to think.
“I saw that this cataclysm must be an expiation for some barbarous crime of civilization, some terrible human lie. What the lie was, I had too little knowledge of history or science to know then. I know now it was our believing that we were fulfilling some end, serving some plan—that all would come out well in the end, because there was some great plan over all. Instead of the reality. There is no plan. All is hazard. And the only thing that will preserve us is ourselves.”
He was silent; I could just make out his face, his staring to sea, as if Neuve Chapelle was out there, gray mud and hell, visible.
“We attacked again. I should have liked simply to disobey orders and stay in the trench. But of course cowards were treated as deserters, and shot. So I clambered up with the rest when the order came. A sergeant shouted at us to run. Exactly the same thing happened as earlier that afternoon. There was a little firing from the Germans, just enough to bait the trap. But I knew that there were half a dozen eyes watching down their machine guns. My one hope was that they would be truly German. That is, methodical, and not open fire until the same point as before.
“We came to within fifty yards of that point. Two or three bullets richocheted close by. I clasped my heart, dropped my rifle, staggered. Just in front of me I had seen a large shell-crater, an old one. I stumbled, fell and rolled over the edge of it. I heard the cry 'Keep on!' I lay with my feet in a pool of water, and waited. A few seconds later there was the violent unleashing of death I had expected. Someone leapt in the other side of the shell-hole. He must have been a Catholic, because he was gabbling Ave’s. Then there was another scuffle and I heard him go in a falling of bits of mud. I drew my feet out of the water. But I did not open my eyes until the firing had stopped.
“I was not alone in that shell hole. Half in, half out of the water opposite me was a grayish mass. A German corpse, long dead, half eaten by rats. Its stomach gaped, and it lay like a woman with a stillborn child beside it. And it smelt… it smelt as you can imagine.
“I stayed in that crater all night. I accustomed myself to the mephitic stench. It grew cold, and I thought I had a fever. But I made up my mind not to move until the battle was over. I was without shame. I even hoped the Germans would overrun our positions and so allow me to give myself up as a prisoner.
“Fever. But what I thought was fever was the fire of existence, the passion to exist. I know that now. A delirium vivens. I do not mean to defend myself. All deliria are more or less antisocial, and I speak clinically, not philosophically. But I possessed that night an almost total recall of physical sensations. And these recalls, of even the simplest and least sublime things, a glass of water, the smell of frying bacon, seemed to me to surpass or at least equal the memories of the greatest art, the noblest music, even my tenderest moments with Lily. I experienced the very opposite of what the German and French metaphysicians of our century have assured us is the truth: that all that is other is hostile to the individual. To me all that is other seemed exquisite. Even that corpse, even the squealing rats. To be able to experience, never mind that it was cold and hunger and nausea, was a miracle. Try to imagine that one day you discover you have a sixth, a till then unimagined new sense—something not comprehended in feeling, seeing, the conventional five. But a far profounder sense, the source from which all others spring. The word 'being' no longer passive and descriptive, but active… almost imperative.
“Before the night was ended I knew that I had had what religious people would call a conversion. A light in heaven indeed shone on me, for there were constant star shells. But I had no sense of God. Only of having leapt a lifetime in one night.”
He was silent for a moment. I wished there was someone beside me, an Alison, some friend, who could savor and share the living darkness, the stars, the terraces, the voice. But they would have had to pass through all those last months with me. I had the comforting sense that this terrace, this strange story-telling and meeting, was my reward. The passion to exist: I forgave myself my failure to die.
“I am trying to describe to you what happened to me, what I was. Not what I should have been. Not the rights and wrongs of conscientious objection. I beg you to remember that.
“Before dawn there was another German bombardment. They attacked at first light, their generals having made exactly the same mistake as ours the day before. They suffered even heavier casualties. They got past my crater and to the trenches we had attacked from, but they were driven back again almost at once. All I knew of this was the noise. And the foot of a German soldier. He used my shoulder for a support while he was firing.
“Night fell again. There was war to the south, but our sector was quiet. The battle was over. Our casualties were some thirteen thousand killed—thirteen thousand minds, memories, loves, sensations, worlds, universes—because the human mind is more a universe than the universe itself—and all for a few hundred yards of useless mud.
“At midnight I crawled back to the village on my stomach. I was afraid I might be shot by a startled sentry. But the place was manned by corpses, and I was in the middle of a desert of the dead. I found my way down a communication trench. There, too, only silence and corpses. Then a little further on I heard English voices ahead, and called out. It was a party of stretcher-bearers, passing round for a final ascertaining that only the dead remained. I said I had been knocked out by a shell blast.
“They did not doubt my story. Stranger things had happened. From them I learnt where what was left of my battalion was. I had no plan, nothing but the instinct of a child to return to its home. But as the Spanish say, a drowning man soon learns to swim. I knew I must be officially dead. That if I ran away, at least no one would be running after me. By dawn I was ten miles behind the lines. I had a little money and French had always been the lingua franca of my home. I found peasants who sheltered and fed me that next day. The next night I marched again, over the fields, always westward, across the Artois towards Boulogne.
“A week later, traveling always like this, like the émigrés in the 1790’s, I arrived there. It was full of soldiers, and of military police, and I was near despair. Of course it was impossible to board a returning troop-ship without papers. I thought of presenting myself at the docks and saying that my pocket had been picked… but I lacked the impudence to carry it off. Then one day fate was kind to me. She gave me an opportunity to pick pockets myself. I met a soldier from the Rifle Brigade who was very drunk, and I made him drunker. I caught the leave ship while he, poor man, was still snoring in a room above an estaminet near the station.
“And then my real troubles began. But I have talked enough.”
There was silence. The crickets chirped. Some night bird, high overhead, croaked primevally in the stars.
“What happened when you got home?”
“It is late.”
He lit the lamp. As he straightened up from adjusting the wick, he stared at me.
“You are not ashamed to be the guest of a traitor to his country?”
“I don’t think you were a traitor to the human race.”
We moved towards his bedroom windows.
“The human race is unimportant. It is the self that must not be betrayed.”
“I suppose one could say that Hitler didn’t betray his self.”
“You are right. He did not. But millions of Germans did betray their selves. That was the tragedy. Not that one man had the courage to be evil. But that millions had not the courage to be good.”
He led the way through to my room, and lit the lamp there for me.
“Good night, Nicholas.”
“Good night. And…”
But his hand was up, silencing me and what he must have guessed were to be my thanks. Then he was gone.
When I came back from the bathroom, I looked at my watch. It was a quarter to one. I undressed and turned out the lamp, then stood a moment by the open window. There was a vague smell of drains in the still air, of a cesspool somewhere. I got into bed, and lay thinking about Conchis.
He seemed a more human person, a much more human person, than he had before; yet there was a kind of professionalism, an air of having rehearsed the narrative, or at any rate, of having told it before—to Leverrier and Mitford?—that took away a little from the frankness and impact of the confession. I knew that I must be getting close to his real purpose in inviting me. For some reason he wanted me to hear these things, to be impressed by them. They were not casual reminiscings. That was why the good night had followed so abruptly on the end of the story-telling; he had wanted to create a feeling of to-be-continued; to leave me in doubt about him, speculating.
And then there were the footsteps, a whole tangle of unrelated ikons and incidents, the photo on the curiosa cabinet, oblique looks, Alison, the little girl called Lily with her head in sunlight
I was about to go to sleep.
At first hallucinatorily faint, impossible to pinpoint, it began. I thought it must be coming through the walls from a gramophone in Conchs’s bedroom. I sat up, put my ear to the wall, listened. And then I leapt out of bed and went to the window. It was coming from outside, from somewhere far to the north, well up in the hills a mile or more away. There was no light, no sound except the crickets nearby. Only, beyond, this faintest sound of men, a lot of men, singing. I thought—fishermen. But why should they be in the hills? Then shepherds—but shepherds are solitaries.
It grew imperceptibly clearer, as if on a gust of wind—but there was no wind—swelling, then fading away. I thought for an incredible moment that I caught something familiar in the sound—but it couldn’t be. And it sank away, almost to complete silence.
And then—unimaginable the strangeness of it, the shock of it—the sound swelled again and I knew beyond doubt what was being sung up there. It was “Tipperary.” Whether it was the distance, whether the record, because it must have been a record, had been deliberately slowed—there seemed to be some tonal distortion as well—I couldn’t tell, but the song came with a dreamlike slowness, almost as if it was being sung out of the stars and had had to cross all that night and space to reach me.
I went to the door of my room and opened it. I had some idea that the record player must be in Conchis’s room. Somehow he had had the sound relayed to a speaker, or speakers, in the hills—perhaps that was what was in the little room, relaying equipment, a generator. But there was absolute silence in the house. I closed the door and leant back against it. The voices and the song washed dimly down out of the night, through the pine forest, over the house and out to sea. Suddenly the humor, the absurd, tender, touching incongruity of the whole thing, made me smile. I realized that it must be some elaborate joke of Conchis’s, mounted for my exclusive benefit. There was no need to rush about trying to discover how it was done. I should find that out in the morning. Meanwhile, I was to enjoy it. I went back to the window.
The voices had become very dim, barely audible; but something else had grown penetratingly strong. It was the cesspool smell I had noticed earlier. Now it was an atrocious stench that infested the windless air, a nauseating compound of decomposing flesh and excrement, so revolting that I had to hold my nose and breathe through my mouth.
Below my room there was a narrow passage between the cottage and the house. I craned down, trying to see what it was, because the source of the smell seemed so close. It was clear to me that the smell was connected with the singing. I remembered that corpse in the shell hole.
The sound faded, went completely. After a few minutes, the smell too was fainter. I stood another ten or fifteen minutes, straining eyes and ears for the faintest sound or movement. But there was none. And there was no sound inside the house. No creeping up the stairs, no doors gently closed, nothing. The crickets chirped, the stars pulsed, the experience was wiped clean. I sniffed at the window. The foul odor still lingered, but under the normal antiseptic smell of the pines and the sea, not over it.
Soon it was as if I had imagined everything. I lay awake for at least another hour. Nothing more happened; and no hypothesis made sense.
I had entered the domaine.
Someone was knocking at the door. Through the shadowy air of the open window, the burning sky. A fly crawled across the wall above the bed. I looked at my watch. It was half-past ten. I went to the door, and heard the slap of Maria’s slippers going downstairs.
In the glaring light, the racket of cicadas, the events of the night seemed in some way fictional; as if I must have been slightly drugged. But my mind didn’t seem fuzzled; I felt fit and clearheaded. I dressed and shaved and went down to breakfast under the colonnade. The taciturn Maria appeared with coffee.
“O kyrios?” I asked.
“Ephage. Eine epano.” Has eaten; is upstairs. Like the villagers, with foreigners she made no attempt to speak more comprehensibly, but uttered her usual fast slur of vowel sounds.
I had my breakfast and carried the tray back along the side colonnade and down the steps to the open door of her cottage. The front room was fitted out as a kitchen. With its old calendars, its lurid cardboard ikons, its bunches of herbs and shallots and its bluepainted meatsafe hanging from the ceiling, it was like any other cottage living-kitchen of Phraxos. Only the utensils were rather more ambitious, and the stove larger. I went in and put the tray on the table.
Maria appeared out of the back room; I glimpsed a large brass bed, more ikons, photographs. A shadow of a smile creased her mouth; but it was circumstantial, not genuine. It would have been difficult enough in English to ask questions without appearing to be prying; in my Greek it was impossible. I hesitated a moment, then saw her face, as blank as the door behind her, and gave up.
I went through the passage between house and cottage to the vegetable garden. On the western side of the house a shuttered window corresponded to the door at the end of Conchis’s bedroom. It appeared as if there was something more than a cupboard there. Then I looked up at the north-facing back of the house, at my own room. It was easy to hide behind the rear wall of the cottage, but the ground was hard and bare; showed nothing. I strolled on into the arbor. The little Priapus threw up his arms at me, jeering his pagan smile at my English face.
Ten minutes later I was down on the private beach. The water, blue and green glass, was for a moment cold, then deliciously cool; I swam out between the steep rocks to the open sea. After a hundred yards or so I could see behind me the whole cliffed extent of the headland, and the house. I could even see Conchis, who was sitting where we had sat on the terrace the night before, apparently reading. After a while he stood up, and I waved. He raised both his arms in his peculiar hieratic way, a way in which I knew now that there was something deliberately, not fortuitously, symbolic. The dark figure on the raised white terrace; legate of the sun facing the sun; the most ancient royal power. He appeared, wished to appear, to survey, to bless, to command; dominus and domaine. And once again I thought of Prospero; even if he had not said it first, I should have thought of it then. I dived, but the salt stung my eyes and I surfaced. Conchis had turned away—to talk with Ariel, who put records on; or with Caliban, who carried a bucket of rotting entrails; or perhaps with… but I turned on my back. It was ridiculous to build so much on the sound of quick footsteps, the merest glimpse of a white shape.
When I got back to the beach ten minutes later he was sitting on the balk. As I came out of the water he stood and said, “We will take the boat and go to Petrocaravi.” Petrocaravi, the “ship of stone,” was a deserted islet half a mile off the tip of Phraxos. He was dressed in swimming shorts and a garish red-and-white water-polo player’s cap, and in his hand he had the blue rubber flippers and a pair of underwater masks and snorkels. I followed his brown old back over the hot stones.
“Petrocaravi is very interesting underwater. You will see.”
“I find Bourani very interesting above water.” I had come up beside him. “I heard voices in the night.”
“Voices?” But he showed no surprise.
“The ipcord. I’ve never had an experience quite like it. An extraordinary idea.” He didn’t answer, but stepped down into the boat and opened the engine housing. I untied the painter from its iron ring in the concrete, then squatted on the jetty and watched him fiddle inside the hatch. “I suppose you have speakers in the trees.”
“I heard nothing.”
I teased the painter through my hand, and smiled. “But you know I heard something.”
He looked up at me. “Because you tell me so.”
“You’re not saying, how extraordinary, voices, what voices. That would be the normal reaction, wouldn’t it?” He gestured rather curtly to me to get aboard. I stepped down and sat on the thwart opposite to him. “I only wanted to thank you for organizing a unique experience for me.”
“I organized nothing.”
“I find it hard to believe that.”
We remained staring at each other. The red-and-white skullcap above the monkey eyes gave him the air of a performing chimpanzee. And there stood the sun, the sea, the boat, so many unambiguous things, around us. I still smiled; but he wouldn’t smile back. It was as if I had committed a faux pas by referring to the singing. He stooped to fit the starting handle.
“Here, let me do that.” I took the handle. “The last thing I want to do is to offend you. I won’t mention it again.”
I bent to turn the handle. Suddenly his hand was on my shoulder. “I am not offended, Nicholas. I do not ask you to believe. All I ask you is to pretend to believe. Just pretend to believe. It will be easier.”
It was strange. By that one gesture and a small shift in expression and tone of voice, he resolved the tension between us. I knew on the one hand that he was playing some kind of trick on me; a trick like the one with the loaded die. On the other, I felt that he had after all taken a sort of liking for me. I thought, as I heaved at the engine, if he wants me to seem his dupe, I’ll seem his dupe; but not be his dupe.
We headed out of the cove. It was difficult to talk with the engine going, and I stared down through fifty or sixty feet of water to patches of pale rock starred black with sea urchins. On Conchis’s left side were two puckered scars. They were both back and front, obviously bullet wounds; and there was another old wound high on his right arm. I guessed that they came from the execution during the second War. Sitting there steering he looked ascetic, Ghandi-like; but as we approached Petrocaravi, he stood up and steered the tiller expertly against his dark thigh. Years of sunlight had tanned him to the same mahogany brown as the island fishermen.
The rocks were gigantic boulders of conglomerate, monstrous in their barren strangeness, much larger now we were close to them than I had ever realized from the island. We anchored about fifty yards away. He handed me a mask and snorkel. At that time they were unobtainable in Greece, and I had never used them before.
I followed the slow, pausing thresh of his feet over a petrified landscape of immense blocks of stone, among which drifted and hovered shoals of fish. There were flat fish, silvered, aldermanic; slim, darting fish; Bosch-like fish that peered foully out of crevices; minute poised fish of electric blue, fluttering red-and-black fish, slinking azure-and-green fish. He showed me an underwater grotto, a light-shafted nave of pale blue shadows, where the large wrasse floated as if in a trance. On the far side of the islet the rocks plunged precipitously away into a mesmeric blind dark blue. Conchis raised his head above the surface.
“I am going back to fetch the boat. Stay here.”
I swam on. A shoal of several hundred golden-gray fish followed me. I turned, they turned. I swam on, they followed, truly Greek in their obsessive curiosity. Then I lay over a great slab of rock which warmed the water almost to bath heat. The shadow of the boat fell across it. Conchis led me a little way to a deep fissure between two boulders, and there suspended a piece of white cloth on the end of a line. I hung like a bird in the water overhead, watching for the Octopus he was trying to entice. Soon a sinuous tentacle slipped out and groped the bait, then other swift tentacles, and he began skillfully to coax the octopus up; I had tried this myself and knew it was not nearly as simple as the village boys made it seem. The octopus came reluctantly but inevitably, slow-whirling, flesh of drowned sailors, its suckered arms stretching, reaching, searching. Conchis suddenly gaffed it into the boat, slashed its sac with a knife, turned it inside out in a moment. I levered myself aboard.
“I have caught a thousand in this place. Tonight another will move into that same hole. And he will let himself be caught as easily.”
“You notice reality is not necessary. Even the octopus prefers the ideal.” A piece of old white sheeting, from which he had torn his “bait,” lay beside him. I remembered it was Sunday morning; the time for sermons and parables. He looked up from the puddle of sepia.
“Well, how do you like the world below?”
“Fantastic. Like a dream.”
“Like humanity. But in the vocabulary of millions of years ago.” He threw the octopus under the thwart. “Do you think that has a life after death?”
I looked down at the viscid mess and up to meet his dry smile. The red-and-white skullcap had tilted slightly. Now he looked like Picasso imitating Ghandi imitating a buccaneer. He let in the clutch lever and we moved forward. I thought of the Maine, of Neuve Chapelle; and shook my head. He nodded, and raised the white sheeting. His even teeth gleamed falsely, vividly in the intense sunlight. Stupidity is lethal, he implied; and look at me, I have survived.
We had lunch, a simple Greek meal of goat’s-milk cheese and greenpepper salad with eggs, under the colonnade. The cicadas rasped in the surrounding pines, the heat hammered down outside the cool arches. All the time we talked of the undersea world. For him it was like a gigantic acrostic, an alchemist’s shop where each object had a mysterious value, an inner history that had to be deduced, unraveled, guessed at. He made natural history sound and feel like something central and poetic; not an activity for Scout masters and a butt for Punch jokes.
The meal ended, and he stood up. He was going upstairs for his siesta. We would meet again at tea.
“What will you do?”
I opened the old copy of Time magazine I had beside me. Carefully inside lay his seventeenth-century pamphlet.
“You have not read it yet?” He seemed surprised.
“I intend to now.”
“Good. It is rare.”
He raised his hand and went in. I crossed the gravel and started idly off through the trees to the east. The ground rose slightly then dipped; after a hundred yards or so a shallow outcrop of rocks hid the house. Before me lay a deep gulley choked with oleanders and thorny scrub, which descended precipitously down to the private beach. I sat back against a pine trunk and became lost in the pamphlet. It contained the posthumous confessions and letters and prayers of a Robert Foulkes, vicar of Stanton Lacy in Shropshire. Although a scholar, and married with two sons, in 1677 he had got a young girl with child, and then murdered the child; for which he was condemned to death.
He wrote the fine muscular pre-Dryden English of the mid-seventeenth century. He had mounted to the top of impiety, even though he had known that the minister is the people’s Looking-glass. Crush the cockatrice he groaned from his death cell. I am dead in law—but of the girl he denied that he had attempted to vitiate her at Nine years old; for upon the word of a dying man, both her Eyes did see, and her Hands did act in all that was done.
The pamphlet was some forty pages long, and it took me half an hour to read. I skipped the prayers, but it was as Conchis had said, far more real than any historical novel—more moving, more evocative, more human. I lay back and stared up through the intricate branches into the sky. It seemed strange, to have that old pamphlet by me, that tiny piece of a long-past England that had found its way to this Greek island, these pine trees, this pagan earth. I closed my eyes and watched the sheets of warm color that came as I relaxed or increased the tension of the lids. Then I slept.
When I woke, I looked at my watch without raising my head. Forty minutes had passed. After a few minutes more of dozing I sat up.
He was there, standing in the dark ink-green shadow under a dense carob tree seventy or eighty yards away on the other side of the gulley, at the same level as myself. I leapt to my feet, not knowing whether to call out, to applaud, to be frightened, to laugh, too astounded to do anything but stand and stare. The man was costumed completely in black, in a high-crowned hat, a cloak, a kind of skirted dress, black stockings. He had long hair, a square collar of white lace at the neck, and two white bands. Black shoes with pewter buckles. He stood there in the shadows, posed, a Rembrandt, disturbingly authentic and yet enormously out of place—a heavy, solemn man with a reddish face. Robert Foulkes.
I looked round, half expecting to see Conchis somewhere behind me. But there was no one. I looked back at the figure, which had not moved, which continued to stare at me from the shade through the sunlight over the gulley. And then another figure appeared from behind the carob. It was a whitefaced girl of about fourteen or fifteen, in a long dark brown dress. I could make out a sort of closefitting purple cap on the back of her head. Her hair was long. She came beside him, and she also stared at me. She was much shorter than he was, barely to his ribs. We must have stood, the three of us, staring at each other for nearly half a minute. Then I raised my arm, with a smile on my face. There was no response. I moved ten yards or so forward, out into the sunlight, as far as I could, to the edge of the gulley.
“Good day,” I called in Greek. “What are you doing?” And then again: “Ti kanete?”
But they made not the least reply. They stood and stared at me—the man with a vague anger, it seemed, the girl expressionlessly. A flaw of the sun-wind blew a brown banner, some part of the back of her dress, out sideways. I thought, it’s Henry James. The old man’s discovered that the screw could take another turn. And then, his breathtaking impudence. I remembered the conversation about the novel. Words are for facts. Not fiction.
I looked around again, towards the house; Conchis must declare himself now. But he did not. There was myself, with an increasingly foolish smile on my face—and there were the two of them in their green shadow. The girl moved a little closer to the man, who put his hand ponderously, patriarchally, on her shoulder. They seemed to be waiting for me to do something. Words were no use. I had to get close to them. I looked up the gulley. It was uncrossable for at least a hundred yards, but then my side appeared to slope more easily to the gulley floor. Making a gesture of explanation, I started up the hill. I looked back again and again at the silent pair under the tree. They turned and watched me until a shoulder on their side of the small ravine hid them from view. I broke into a run.
The gulley was finally crossable, though it was a tough scramble up the far side through some disagreeably sharp-thorned bushes. Once through them I was able to run again. The carob came into sight below. There was nothing there. In a few seconds—it had been perhaps a minute in all since I had lost sight of them—I was standing under the tree, on an unrevealing carpet of shriveled seedpods. I looked across to where I had slept. The small gray and red-edged squares of the pamphlet and Time lay on the pale carpet of needles. I went well beyond the carob until I came to strands of wire running through the trees, at the edge of the inland bluff, the eastern limit of Bourani. The three cottages lay innocently below among their little orchard of olives. In a kind of panic I walked back to the carob and along the east side of the gulley to the top of the cliff that overlooked the private beach. There was more scrub there, but not enough for anyone to hide, unless they lay flat. And I could not imagine that choleric-looking man lying down flat, in hiding.
Then from the house I heard the bell. It rang three times. I looked at my watch—teatime. The bell rang again; quick, quick, slow, and I realized it was sounding the syllables of my name. I shouted—"Coming!” My voice echoed, lonely, ridiculous. I began to walk back.
I ought, I suppose, to have felt frightened. But I wasn’t. Apart from anything else I was too intrigued and too bewildered. Both the man and the wheyfaced girl had looked remarkably English; and whatever nationality they really were, I knew they didn’t live on the island. So I had to presume that they had been specially brought; had been standing by, hiding somewhere, waiting for me to read the Foulkes pamphlet. I had made it easy by falling asleep, and at the edge of the gulley. But that had been pure chance. And how could Conchis have such people standing by? And where had they disappeared to?
For a few moments I had let my mind plunge into darkness, into a world where the experience of all my life was disproved and ghosts existed. But there was something far too unalloyedly physical about all these supposedly “psychic” experiences. Besides, “apparitions” obviously carry least conviction in bright daylight. It was almost as if I was intended to see that they were not really super- natural; and there was Conchis’s cryptic, doubt-sowing advice that it would be easier if I pretended to believe. Why easier? More amusing, more polite, perhaps; but “easier” suggested that I had to pass through some ordeal.
I stood there in the trees, absolutely at a loss; and then smiled. I had somehow landed myself in the center of an extraordinary old man’s fantasies. That was clear. Why he should hold them, why he should so strangely realize them, and above all, why he should have chosen me to be his solitary audience of one, remained a total mystery. But I knew I had become involved in something too uniquely bizarre to miss, or to spoil, through lack of patience or humor.
I picked up Time and the pamphlet. Then, as I looked back at the dark, inscrutable carob tree, I did feel a faint touch of fear. But it was a fear of the inexplicable, the unknown; not of the supernatural.
As I walked across the gravel to the colonnade, where I could see Conchis was already sitting, his back to me, I decided on a course of action—or rather, of reaction.
He turned. “A good siesta?”
“Yes thank you.”
“You have read the pamphlet?”
“You’re right. it is more fascinating than any historical novel.” He kept a face impeccably proof to my ironic undertone. “Thank you very much.” I put the pamphlet on the table.
Calmly, in my silence, he began to pour me tea.
He had already had his own and he went away to play the harpsichord for twenty minutes. As I listened to him I thought. The incidents seemed designed to deceive all the senses. Last night’s had covered smell and hearing; this afternoon’s, and that glimpsed figure of yesterday, sight. Taste seemed irrelevant—but touch… how on earth could he expect me even to pretend to believe that what I might touch was “psychic"? And then what on earth—appropriately, on earth—had these tricks to do with “traveling to other worlds"? Only one thing was clear; his anxiety about how much I might have heard from Mitford and Leverrier was now explained. He had practiced his strange illusionisms on them; and sworn them to secrecy.
When he came out he took me off to water his vegetables. The water had to be drawn up out of one of a battery of long-necked cisterns behind the cottage, and when we had done that and fed the plants we sat on a seat by the Priapus arbor, with the unusual smell, in summer Greece, of verdant wet earth all around us. He did his deep-breathing exercises; evidently, like so much else in his life, ritual; then smiled at me and jumped back twenty-four hours.
“Now tell me about this girl.” It was a command, not a question, or rather a refusal to believe I could refuse again.
“There’s nothing really to tell.”
“She turned you down.”
“No. Or not at the beginning. I turned her down.”
“And now you wish… ?”
“It’s all over. It’s all too late.”
“You sound like Adonis. Have you been gored?”
There was a silence. I took the step; something that had nagged me ever since I had discovered he was a doctor; and also to shock his old man’s mocking of my young man’s fatalism.
“As a matter of fact I have.” He looked sharply at me. “By syphilis. I managed to get it early this year in Athens.” Still he observed me. “It’s all right. I think I’m cured.”
“Who diagnosed it?”
“The man in the village. Patarescu.”
“Tell me the symptoms.”
“The clinic in Athens confirmed his diagnosis.”
“No doubt.” His voice was dry, so dry that my mind leapt to what he hinted at. “Now tell me the symptoms.”
In the end he got them out of me; in every detail.
“As I thought. You had soft sore.”
“Chancroid. Ulcus molle. A very common disease in the Mediterranean. Unpleasant, but harmless. The best cure is frequent soap and water.”
“Then why the hell…”
He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together in the ubiquitous Greek gesture for money, for money and corruption; I suddenly felt like Candide.
“Have you paid?”
“Yes. For this special penicillin.”
“You can do nothing.”
“I can damn well sue the clinic.”
“You have no proof that you did not have syphilis.”
“You mean Patarescu—”
“I mean nothing. He acted with perfect medical correctness. A test is always advisable.” It was almost as if he were on their side. He shrugged gently: what was, was.
“He could have warned me.”
“Perhaps he thought it more important to warn you against venery than venality.”
I hit my thigh with my clenched fist. “Christ.”
We fell silent. In me battled a flood of relief at being reprieved and anger at such vile deception. At last Conchis spoke again.
“Even if it had been syphilis—why could you not return to this girl you love?”
“Really—it’s too complicated.”
“Then it is usual. Not unusual.”
Slowly, disconnectedly, prompted by him, I told him a bit about Alison; remembering his frankness the night before, produced some of my own. Once again I felt no real sympathy coming from him; simply his obsessive and inexplicable curiosity. I told him I had recently written a letter.
“And if she does not answer?”
I shrugged. “She doesn’t.”
“You think of her, you want to see her—you must write again.” I smiled then, briefly, at his energy. “You are leaving it to hazard. We no more have to leave everything to hazard than we have to drown in the sea.” He shook my shoulder. “Swim!”
“It’s not swimming. It’s knowing in which direction to swim.”
“Towards the girl. She sees through you, you say, she understands you. That is good.”
I was silent. A primrose and black butterfly, a swallowtail, hovered over the bougainvillea around the Priapus arbor, found no honey, and glided away through the trees. I scuffed the gravel. “I suppose I don’t know what love is, really. If it isn’t all sex. And I don’t even really care a damn any more, anyway.”
“My dear young man, you are a disaster. So defeated. So pessimistic.”
“I was rather ambitious once. I ought to have been blind as well. Then perhaps I wouldn’t feel defeated.” I looked at him. “It’s not all me. It’s in the age. In all my generation. We all feel the same.”
“In the greatest age of enlightenment in the history of this earth? When we have destroyed more darkness in this last fifty years than in the last five million?”
“As at Neuve Chapelle? Hiroshima?”
“But you and I! We live, we are this wonderful age. We are not destroyed. We did not even destroy.”
“No man is an island.”
“Pah. Rubbish. Every one of us is an island. If it were not so we should go mad at once. Between these islands are ships, airplanes, telephones, television—what you will. But they remain islands. Islands that can sink or disappear forever. You are an island that has not sunk. You cannot be such a pessimist. It is not possible.”
“It seems possible.”
“Come with me.” He stood up, as if time was vital. “Come. I will show you the innermost secret of life. Come.” He walked quickly round to the colonnade. I followed him upstairs. There he pushed me out onto the terrace.
“Go and sit at the table. With your back to the sun.”
In a minute he appeared, carrying something heavy draped in a white towel. He put it carefully on the center of the table. Then he paused, made sure I was looking, before gravely he removed the cloth. It was a stone head, whether of a man or a woman it was difficult to say. The nose had been broken short. The hair was done in a fillet, with two side-pieces. But the power of the fragment was in the face. It was set in a triumphant smile, a smile that would have been smug if it had not been so full of the purest metaphysical good humor. The eyes were faintly Oriental, long, and as I saw, for Conchis put a hand over the mouth, also smiling. The mouth was beautifully modeled, timelessly intelligent and timelessly amused.
“That is the truth. Not the hammer and sickle. Not the stars and stripes. Not the cross. Not the sun. Not gold. Not yin and yang. But the smile.”
“It’s Cycladic, isn’t it?”
“Never mind what it is. Look at it. Look into its eyes.”
He was right. The little sunlit thing had some numen—or not so much a divinity, as a having known divinity—in it; of being ultimately certain. But as I looked, I began to feel something else.
“There’s something implacable in that smile.”
“Implacable?” He came behind my chair and looked down over my head. “It is the truth. Truth is implacable. But the nature and meaning of this truth is not.”
“Tell me where it came from.”
“From Didyma in Asia Minor.”
“How old is it?”
“The sixth or seventh century before Christ.”
He sat on the parapet, his arms folded.
“I wonder if it would have that smile if it knew of Belsen.”
“Because they died, we know we still live. Because a star explodes and a thousand worlds like ours die, we know this world is. That is the smile: that what might not be, is.” A long silence. Then he said, “When I die, I shall have this by my bedside. It is the last face I want to see.”
The little head watched our watching; bland, certain, and almost maliciously inscrutable. It flashed on me that it was also the smile that Conchis sometimes wore; as if he sat before the head and practiced it. At the same time I realized exactly what I disliked about it. It was above all the smile of dramatic irony, of those who have privileged information. I looked back up at Conchis’s face; and knew I was right.
A starry darkness over the house, the forest, the sea; the dinner cleared away, the lamp extinguished. I lay back in the long chair. He let the night silently envelop and possess us; time fall away; then began to draw me back down the decades.
“April, 1915. I returned without trouble to England. I did not know what I should do. Except that I had in some way to justify myself. At nineteen one is not content simply to do things. They have to be justified as well. My mother fainted when she saw me. For the first and last time in my life I saw my father in tears. Until that moment of confrontation I had determined that I would tell the truth. That I could not deceive them. Yet before them, I could not do anything but deceive. Perhaps it was pure cowardice, it is not for me to say. But there are some truths too cruel, before the faces one has to announce them to, to be told. So I said that I had been lucky in a draw for leave, and that now Montague was dead I was to rejoin my original battalion. A madness to deceive. Not economically, but with the utmost luxury. I invented a new battle of Neuve Chapelle, as if the original had not been bad enough. I even told them I had been recommended for a commission. At first fortune was on my side. Two days after I returned, official notification came that I was missing, believed killed in action. Such mistakes occurred frequently enough for my parents to suspect nothing. The letter was joyously torn up.
“And Lily. Perhaps that waiting before the knowledge came that I was safe had made her see more clearly her real feelings for me. Whatever it was, I could no longer complain that she treated me more like a brother than a lover. You know, Nicholas, that whatever miseries the Great War brought it destroyed a great deal that was unhealthy between the sexes. For the first time for a century women discovered that man wanted something more human from them than a nunlike chastity, a bien pensant idealism. I do not mean that Lily suddenly lost all reserve. Or gave herself to me. But she gave as much to me as she could. The time I spent alone with her… those hours allowed me to gather strength to go on with my deception. At the same time as they made it more terrible. Again and again I was possessed by a desire to tell her all, and before justice caught up with me. Every time I returned home I expected to find the police waiting. My father outraged. And worst of all, Lily’s eyes on mine. But when I was with her I refused to talk about the war. She misinterpreted my nervousness. It touched her deeply and brought out all her gentleness. Her warmth. I sucked on her love like a leech. A very sensual leech. She had become a very beautiful young woman.
“One day we went for a walk in woods to the north of London—near Barnet, I think, I no longer recall the name, except that they were in those days very pretty and lonely woods for a place so near London.
“We lay on the ground and kissed. Perhaps you smile. That we only lay on the ground and kissed. You young people can lend your bodies now, play with them, give them as we could not. But remember that you have paid a price: that of a world rich in mystery and delicate emotion. It is not only species of animal that die out. But whole species of feeling. And if you are wise you will never pity the past for what it did not know. But pity yourself for what it did.
“That afternoon Lily said she wanted to marry me. To marry by special license, and if necessary without her parents’ permission, so that before I went away again we should have become one in body as we were in—dare I say spirit?—at any rate, in mind. I longed to sleep with her, I longed to be joined to her. But always my dreadful secret lay between us. Like the sword between Tristan and Isolde. So I had to assume, among the flowers, the innocent birds and silent trees, an even falser nobility. How could I refuse her except by saying my death was so probable that I could not allow such a sacrifice? She argued. She cried. She took my faltering, my tortured refusals for something far finer than they really were. At the end of the afternoon, before we left the wood, and with a solemnity and sincerity, a complete dedication of herself that I cannot describe to you because such unconditional promising is another extinct mystery… she said, Whatever happens I shall never marry anyone but you.”
He stopped speaking for a moment, like a man walking who comes to a brink; perhaps it was an artful pause, but it made the stars, the night seem to wait, as if story, narration, history lay imbricated in the nature of things; and the cosmos was for the story, not the story for the cosmos.
“My fortnight’s supposed leave drew to an end. I had no plan, or rather a hundred plans, which is worse than having none at all. There were moments when I considered returning to France. But then I saw ghastly yellow figures staggering like drunkards out of the wall of smoke… I saw the war and the world and why I was in it. I tried to be blind, but I could not.
“I put on my uniform and let my father and mother and Lily see me off at Victoria. They believed I had to report to a camp near Dover. The train was full of soldiers. I once again felt the great current of war, the European deathwish, pulling me along. When the train stopped at some town in Kent I got off. For two or three days I stayed there in a commercial travelers’ hotel. I was hopeless. And purposeless. One could not escape the war. It was all one saw, all one heard. In the end I went back to London to the one person in England where I thought there might be refuge. To my grandfather’s—my great-uncle in fact. I knew he was Greek, that he loved me because I was my mother’s child, and that a Greek will put family above every other consideration. He listened to me. Then he stood up and came to me. I knew what he was going to do. He struck me hard, very hard, so hard that I still feel it, across the face. Then he said, That is what I think.
“I knew very well that when he said that he tacitly meant 'in spite of whatever help I shall give you.' He was furious with me, he poured every insult in the Greek language over my head. But he hid me. Perhaps because I said that even if I returned I should now be shot. The next day he went to see my mother. I think that he may have given her the choice. Of doing her duty as a citizen or as a mother. She came to see me, with a lack of spoken reproach that was worse to me than o Pappous’s anger. I knew what she would suffer when my father heard the truth. She and o Pappous came to a decision. I would have to be smuggled out of England to our family in the Argentine. Fortunately o Pappous had both the money and the necessary relations in the shipping world. The arrangements were made. A date was fixed.
“I lived in his house for three weeks, unable to go out, in such an agony of self-disgust and fear that many times I wanted to give myself up. Above all it was the thought of Lily that tortured me. I had promised to write every day. And of course I could not. What other people thought of me, I did not care. But I was desperate to convince her that I was sane and the world was mad. It may have something to do with intelligence, but I am certain it has nothing to do with knowledge—I mean that there are people who have an instinctive yet perfect moral judgment, who can perform the most complex ethical calculations as Indian peasants can sometimes perform astounding mathematical calculations. In a matter of seconds. Lily was such a person. And I craved her sanction.
“One evening I could stand it no longer. I slipped out of my hiding place and went to St. John’s Wood. It was an evening when I knew Lily went after dinner to a weekly patriotic sewing and knitting circle. In a nearby parish hall. I waited in the road I knew she must take. It was a warm May dusk. I was fortunate. She came alone. Suddenly I stepped out into her path from the gateway where I had been waiting. She went white with shock. She knew something terrible had happened, by my face. As soon as I saw her my love for her overwhelmed me—and what I had planned to say. I cannot remember now what I said. I can remember only walking beside her in the dusk towards Regent’s Park, because we both wanted darkness and to be alone. She would not argue, she would not say anything, she would not look at me for a long time. We found ourselves by that gloomy canal that runs through the north part of the park. On a seat. She began to ask me questions, almost practical questions, about what I was intending to do. Then she began to cry. I was not allowed to comfort her. I had deceived her. That was the unforgivable. Not that I had deserted. But that I had deceived. For a time she stared away from me, down the black canal. Then she put her hand on mine and stopped me talking. Finally she put her arms round me, and still without words. And I felt myself all that was bad in Europe in the arms of all that was good.
“But there was so much misunderstanding between us. It was not that even then I believed myself to have been wrong to run away. But it is possible, even normal, to feel right in front of history and very wrong in front of those one loves. And as for Lily, after a while she began to talk, and I realized that she understood nothing of what I had said about the war. That she saw herself not as I so much wanted, as my angel of forgiveness, but as my angel of salvation. She begged me to go back. She thought I would be spiritually dead until I did. Again and again she used the word ’resurrected.' And again and again, on my side, I wanted to know what would happen to us. And finally she said, this was her judgment, that the price of her love was that I should return to the front—not for her, but for myself. To find my true self again. And that the reality of her love was as it had been in the wood: she should never marry anyone else, whatever happened.
“In the end we were silent. You will have understood. Love is the mystery between two people, not the identity. We were at the opposite poles of humanity. Lily was humanity bound to duty, unable to choose, suffering, at the mercy of social ideals. Humanity both crucified and marching towards the cross. And I was free, I was Peter three times to renounce—determined to survive, whatever the cost. I still see her face. Her face staring, staring into the darkness as if she was trying to gaze herself into another world. It was as if we were locked in a torture chamber. Still in love, yet chained to opposite walls, facing each other for eternity and for eternity unable to touch.
“Of course, as men always will, I tried to extract some hope from her. That she would wait for me, not judge me too quickly… such things. But she stopped me with a look. A look I shall never forget, because it was almost one of hatred, and hatred in her face was like spite in the Virgin Mary’s. It reversed the entire order of nature.
“I walked back beside her, in silence. I said goodbye to her under a streetlamp. By a garden full of lilac trees. We did not touch. Not a single word. Two young faces, suddenly old, facing each other. The moment that endures when all the other noises, objects, all that dull street, have sunk into dust and oblivion. Two white faces. The scent of lilac. And bottomless darkness.”
He paused. There was no emotion in his voice; but I was thinking of Alison, of that last look she had given me.
“And that is all. Four days later I spent a very disagreeable twelve hours crouched in the bilges of a Greek cargo boat in Liverpool docks.”
There was a silence.
“And did you ever see her again?”
A bat squeaked over our heads.
I had to prompt him.
“In the early hours of February the nineteenth, 1916.” I tried to see the expression on his face, but it was too dark. “There was a typhoid epidemic. She was working in a hospital.”
“All past. All under the sea.”
“You make it seem present.”
“I do not wish to make you sad.”
“The scent of lilac.”
“Old man’s sentiment. Forgive me.”
There was a silence between us. He was staring into the night. The bat flitted so low that I saw its silhouette for a brief moment against the Milky Way.
“Is this why you never married?”
“The dead live.”
The blackness of the trees. I listened for footsteps, but none came. A suspension.
“How do they live?”
And yet again he let the silence come, as if the silence would answer my questions better than he could himself; but just when I had decided he would not answer, he spoke.
It was as if he said it not to me, but equally to everything around us; as if she stood listening, in the dark shadows by the doors; as if the telling of his past had reminded him of some great principle he was seeing freshly again. I found myself touched, and touched to silence.
Some time later, he stood up.
“You must leave early in the morning?”
“At six, I’m afraid.”
“I should like you to come next week.”
“If you invite me nothing could keep me away.”
“I shall not see you in the morning. But Maria will have some breakfast ready.”
“I shall never forget this weekend.”
He moved towards the doors to his room.
“Good. I am glad.” But his gladness now sounded merely polite. His peremptoriness had regained command.
“There are so many things I’d like to ask you. Would have liked to ask you.”
He stood at the doors for me to pass, smiled. “The most important questions in life can never be answered by anyone except oneself.”
“I think you know what I mean.”
“But I am trying to show you what I mean.”
He led me through to my room, where he lit the lamp. He stood in the doorway and held out his hand.
“I do not want my life discussed over there.”
“Of course not.”
“I shall see you next Saturday?”
“You will indeed.”
He reached out and gripped my shoulder, as if I needed encouragement, gave me one last piercing stare, then left me alone. I went to the bathroom, closed my door, turned the lamp out. But I didn’t undress. I stood by the window and waited.
For at least twenty minutes there was no sound. Conchis went to the bathroom and back to his room. Then there was silence. It went on so long that I undressed and started to give in to the sleep I could feel coming on me. But the silence was broken. His door opened and closed, quietly, but not secretively, and I heard him going down the stairs. A minute, two minutes passed; then I sat up and swung out of bed.
It was music again, but from downstairs, the harpsichord. It echoed, percussive but dim, through the stone house. For a few moments I felt disappointment. It seemed merely that Conchis was sleepless, or sad, and playing to himself. But then there was a sound that sent me swiftly to the door. I cautiously opened it. The downstairs door must also have been open, because I could hear the clatter of the harpsichord mechanism. But the thing that sent a shiver up my back was the thin, haunted piping of a recorder. I knew it was not on a gramophone; someone was playing it. The music stopped and went on in a brisker six-eight rhythm. The recorder piped solemnly along, made a mistake, then another; though the player was evidently quite skilled, and executed professional-sounding trills and ornaments.
I went out naked onto the landing and looked over the banisters. There was a faint radiance on the floor outside the music room. I was probably meant to listen, not to go down; but this was too much. I pulled on a sweater and trousers and crept down the stairs in my rubber-soled beachshoes. The recorder stopped and I heard the rustle of paper being turned—the music stand. The harpsichord began a long lute-stop passage, a new movement, as gentle as rain, the sounds stealing through the house, mysterious, remote-sounding harmonies. The recorder came in with an adagiolike slowness and gravity, momentarily wobbled off-key, then recovered. I tiptoed to the open door of the music room, but there something held me back—an odd childlike feeling, of misbehaving after bedtime. The door was wide open, but it opened towards the harpsichord, and the edge of one of the bookshelves blocked the view through the crack.
The music came to an end. A chair shifted, my heart raced, Conchis spoke a single indistinguishable word in a low voice. I flattened myself against the wall. There was a rustle. Someone was standing at the door of the music room.
It was a slim girl of about my own height, in her early twenties. In one hand she held a recorder, in the other a small crimson fluebrush for it. She was wearing a wide-collared, blue-and-white-striped dress that left her arms bare. There was a bracelet above one elbow, and the skirt came down narrow-bottomed almost to her ankles. She had a ravishingly pretty face, but completely untanned, without any makeup, and her hair, her outline, the upright way she held herself, everything about her was of forty years before.
I knew I was supposed to be looking at Lily. It was unmistakably the same girl as in the photographs; especially that on the cabinet of cuiiosa. The Botticelli face; gray-violet eyes. The eyes especially were beautiful; very large, their ovals faintly twisted, a cool doe’s eyes, almond eyes, giving a natural mystery to a face otherwise so regular that it risked perfection. Perfectly beautiful faces are always boring.
She saw me at once. I stood rooted to the stone floor. For a moment she seemed as surprised as I was. Then she looked swiftly, secretly with her large eyes back to where Conchis must have been sitting at the harpsichord, and then again at me. She raised the fluebrush to her lips, shook it, forbidding me to move, to say anything, and she smiled. It was like some genre picture—The Secret. The Admonition. But her smile was strange—as if she was sharing a secret with me, that this was an illusion that we must both keep up. There was something about her mouth, calm and amused, that was at the same time enigmatic and debunking; pretending and admitting the pretense. She flashed another look back at Conchis, then leant forward and lightly pushed my arm with the tip of the brush, as if to say, Go away.
The whole business can’t have taken more than five seconds. The door was closed, and I was standing in darkness and an eddy of sandalwood. I think if it had been a ghost, if the girl had been transparent and headless, I might have been less astonished. She had so clearly implied that of course it was all a charade, but that Conchs must not know it was; that she was in fancy dress for him, not for me.
I went swiftly down the hall to the front door, and eased its bolts open. Then I padded out onto the colonnade. I looked through one of the narrow arched windows and immediately saw Conchs. He had begun to play again. I moved to look for the girl. I was sure that no one could have had time to cross the gravel. But she was not there. I moved round behind his back, until I had seen every part of the room. And she was not there. I thought she might be under the front part of the colonnade, and peered cautiously round the corner. It was empty. The music went on. I stood, undecided. She must have run through the opposite end of the colonnade and round the back of the house. Ducking under the windows and stealing past the open doors, I stared out across the vegetable terrace, then walked around it. I felt sure she must have escaped this way. But there was no sign of anybody. I waited out there for several minutes, and then Conchis stopped playing. Soon the lamp went out and he disappeared. I went back and sat in the darkness on one of the chairs under the colonnade. There was a deep silence. Only the crickets cheeped, like drops of water striking the bottom of a gigantic well. Conjectures flew through my head. The people I had seen, the sounds I had heard, and that vile smell, had been real, not supernatural; what was not real was the absence of any visible machinery—no secret rooms, nowhere to disappear—or of any motive. And this new dimension, this suggestion that the “apparitions” were mounted for Conchs as well as myself, was the most baffling of all.
I sat in the darkness, half hoping that someone, I hoped “Lily,” would appear and explain. I felt once again like a child, like a child who walks into a room and is aware that everyone there knows something about him that he does not. I also felt deceived by Conchis’s sadness. The dead live by love; and they could evidently also live by impersonation.
But I waited most for whoever had acted Lily. I had to know the owner of that young, intelligent, amused, dazzlingly pretty North European face. I wanted to know what she was doing on Phraxos, where she came from, the reality behind all the mystery.
I waited nearly an hour, and nothing happened. No one came, I heard no sounds. In the end I crept back up to my room. But I had a poor night’s sleep. When Maria knocked on the door at half-past five I woke as if I had a hangover.
Yet I enjoyed the walk back to the school. I enjoyed the cool air, the delicate pink sky that turned primrose, then blue, the still-sleeping gray and incorporeal sea, the long slopes of silent pines. In a sense I reentered reality as I walked. The events of the weekend seemed to recede, to become locked away, as if I had dreamt them; and yet as I walked I had the strangest feeling, compounded of the early hour, the absolute solitude, and what had happened, of having entered a myth; a knowledge of what it was like physically, moment by moment, to have been young and ancient, a Ulysses on his way to meet Circe, a Theseus on his journey to Crete, an Oedipus still searching for his destiny. I could not describe it. It was not in the least a literary feeling, but an intensely mysterious present and concrete feeling of excitement, of being in a situation where anything still might happen. As if the world had suddenly, during those last three days, changed from being the discovered to the still undiscovered.
There was a letter for me. The Sunday boat had brought it.
I thought you were dead. I’m on my own again. More or less. I’ve been trying to decide whether I want to see you again—the point is, I could. I come through Athens now. I mean I haven’t decided whether you aren’t such a pig that it’s crazy to get involved with you again. I can’t forget you, even when I’m with much nicer boys than you’ll ever be. Nicko, I’m a little bit drunk and I shall probably tear this up anyway.
Well, I may send a telegram if I can work a few days off at Atheus. If I go on like this you won’t want to meet me. You probably don’t now as it is. When I got your letter I knew you’d just written it because you were bored out there. lsn’t it awful I still have to get boozed to write to you. It’s raining, I’ve got the fire on it’s so bloody cold. It’s dusk, it’s gray it’s so bloody miserable. The wallpaper’s muave or is it mauve hell with green plums. You’d be sick all down it.
Write care of Ann.
Her letter came at the wrongest time. I realized that I didn’t want to share Bourani with anyone. After the first knowledge of the place, and still after the first meeting with Conchis, even as late as the Foulkes incident, I had wanted to talk about it—and to Alison. Now it seemed fortunate that I hadn’t, just as it seemed, though still obscurely, fortunate that I hadn’t lost my head in other ways when I wrote to her.
One doesn’t fall in love in five seconds; but five seconds can set one dreaming of falling in love, especially in a community as unrelievedly masculine as that of the Lord Byron School. The more I thought of that midnight face, the more intelligent and charming it became; and it seemed too to have had a breeding, a fastidiousness, a delicacy, that attracted me as fatally as the local fishermen’s lamps attracted fish on moonless nights. I reminded myself that if Conchs was rich enough to own Modiglianis and Bonnards, he was rich enough to pick the very best in mistresses. I had to presume some sort of sexual relationship between the girl and him—to do otherwise would have been naïve; but for all that there had been something much more daughterly, affectionately protective, than sexual in her glance back at him.
I must have read Alison’s letter a dozen times that Monday, trying to decide what to do about it. I knew it had to be answered, but I came to the conclusion that the longer I left it, the better. To stop its silent nagging I pushed it away in the bottom drawer of my desk; went to bed, thought about Bourani, drifted into various romanticsexual fantasies with that enigmatic figure; and failed entirely, in spite of my tiredness, to go to sleep. The crime of syphilis had made me ban sex from my mind for weeks; now I was not guilty—half an hour with a textbook Conchis had given me to look at had convinced me his diagnosis was right—the libido rose strong. I began to think erotically of Alison again; of the dirty-weekend pleasures of having her in some Athens hotel bedroom; of birds in the hand being worth more than birds in the bush; and with better motives, of her loneliness, her perpetual mixed-up loneliness. The one sentence that had pleased me in her unfastidious and not very delicate letter was the last of all—that simple Write care of Ann. Which denied the gaucheness, the lingering resentment, in all the rest.
I got out of bed and sat in my pajama trousers and wrote a letter, quite a long letter, which I tore up at the first rereading. The second attempt was much shorter and hit off, I thought, the right balance between regretful practicality and yet sufficient affection and desire for her still to want to climb into bed if I got half a chance.
I said I was rather tied up at the school over most weekends; though the half-term holiday was the weekend after next and I might just be in Athens then—but I couldn’t be sure. But if I was, it would be fun to see her.
As soon as I could I got Méli on his own. I had decided that I had to have a confidant at the school. One did not have to attend school meals with the boys over the weekend if one was off duty, and the only master who might have noticed I had been away was Méli himself, but as it happened he’d been in Athens. We sat after lunch on Monday in his room; or rather he sat chubbily at his desk, living up to his nickname, spooning Hymettus honey out of a jar and telling me of the flesh and fleshpots he had bought himself in Athens; and I lay on his bed, only half listening.
“And you, Nicholas, you had a nice weekend?”
“I met Mr. Conchs.”
“You… no, you are joking.”
“You are not to tell the others.”
He raised his hands in protest. “Of course, but how… I can’t believe it.”
I gave him a very expurgated version of the visit the week before, and made Conchis and Bourani as dull as possible.
“He sounds as stupid as I thought. No girls?”
“Not a sign. Not even little boys.”
“Nor even a goat?”
I threw a box of matches at him. Half by desipience, half by proclivity, he had come to live in a world where the only significant leisure activities were coupling and consuming. His batrachian lips pursed into a smile, and he dug again into the honey.
“He’s asked me over next week again. As a matter of fact, Méli, I wondered, if I do two preps for you… would you do my noon to six on Sunday?” Sunday duty was easy work. It meant only that one had to stay inside the school and stroll through the grounds a couple of times.
“Well. Yes. I will see.” He sucked the spoon.
“And tell me what to tell the others, if they ask. I want them to think I’m going somewhere else.”
He thought a minute, waved the spoon, then said, “Tell them you are going to Hydra.”
Hydra was a stop on the way to Athens, though one didn’t have to catch the Athens boat to go there, as there were often caiques doing the run. It had an embryonic artistic colony of sorts; the kind of place I might plausibly choose to go to. “Okay. And you won’t tell anyone?”
He crossed himself. “I am as silent as the… the what is it?”
“Where you ought to be, Méli. The bloody grave.”
I went to the village several times that week, to see if there were any strange faces about. There was no sign of the three people I was looking for, although there were a few strange faces: three or four wives with young children sent out to grass from Athens, and one or two old couples, dehydrated rentiers, who doddered in and out of the mournful lounges of the Hotel Philadelphia.
One evening I felt restless and walked down to the harbor. It was about eleven at night and the place, with its catalpas and its old black cannons of i8zi, was almost deserted. After a Turkish coffee and a nip of brandy in a kapheneion I started to walk back. Some way past the hotel, still on the few hundred yards of concrete “promenade,” I saw a very tall elderly man standing and bending in the middle of the road, apparently looking for something. He looked up as I approached—he was really remarkably tall and strikingly well dressed for Phraxos; evidently one of the summer visitors. He wore a pale fawn suit, a white gardenia in his buttonhole, an oldfashioned white Panama hat with a black band, and he had a small goatee beard. He was holding by its middle a cane with a meerschaum handle, and he looked gravely distressed, as well as naturally grave.
I asked in Greek if he had lost anything.
“Ah pardon… est-ce que vous parlez francais, monsieur?”
I said, yes, I spoke some French.
It seemed he had just lost the ferrule of his stick. He had heard it drop off and roll away. I struck a few matches and searched round, and after a little while found the small brass end.
“Ah, très bien. Mille mercis, monsieur.”
He produced a pocketbook and I thought for a moment he was going to tip me. His face was as gloomy as an El Greco; insufferably bored, decades of boredom, and probably, I decided, insufferably boring. He didn’t tip me, but placed the ferrule carefully inside the wallet, and then politely asked me who I was, and, fulsomely, where I had learnt such excellent French. We exchanged a few sentences. He himself was here for only a day or two. He wasn’t French, he said, but Belgian. He found Phraxos pittoresque, mais mains belle que Délos.
After a few moments more of this platitudinous chat we bowed and went our ways. He expressed a hope that we might meet again during the remaining two days of his stay and have a longer conversation. But I took very good care that we didn’t.
At last Saturday came. I had done the two extra duties during the week to clear my Sunday, and was thoroughly exhausted with the school. As soon as the morning lessons were over and I had snatched a quick lunch I headed towards the village with my bag. Yes I told the old man at the gate—a sure method of propagating the lie—I was off to Hydra for the weekend. As soon as I was out of sight of the school I cut up through the cottages and round the back of the school onto the path to Bourani. But I didn’t go straight there.
I had speculated endlessly during the week about Conchs, and as futilely as endlessly. I thought I could discern two elements in his “game"—one didactic, the other aesthetic. But whether his cunningly mounted fantasies hid ultimately a wisdom or a lunacy I could not decide. On the whole I suspected the latter. Mania made more sense than reason.
I had wondered more and more during the week about the little group of cottages at Agia Varvara, the bay east of Bourani. It was a wide sweep of shingle with a huge row of athanatos, or agaves, whose bizarre twelve-foot candelabra of flowers stood facing the sea. I lay on a thyme-covered slope above the bay, having come quietly through the trees, and watched the cottages below for any sign of unusual life. But a woman in black was the only person I saw. Now I examined it, it seemed an unlikely place for Conchis’s “assistants” to live. It was so open, so easy to watch. After a while I wound my way down to the cottages. A child in a doorway saw me coming through the olives and called, and then the entire populalion of the tiny hamlet appeared—four women and half a dozen children, unmistakably islanders. With the usual peasant hospitality they offered me a little saucer of quince jam and a thimbleful of raki as well as the glass of cistern water I requested. Their men were all away far to the south, fishing. I said I was going to see o kyrios Conchis, and their surprise seemed perfectly genuine. Did he ever visit them? Their heads all went back swiftly together, as if the idea was unheard of. I had to listen to the story of the execution again—at least the oldest woman launched out into a welter of words among which I heard “mayor” and “Germans"; and the children raised their arms like guns.
Maria, then? They saw her, of course? But no, they never saw her. She is not a Phraxiot, one of them said.
Then the music, the songs in the night? They looked at one another. What songs? I was not surprised, Veiy probably they went to bed and woke with the sun.
“And you,” asked the grandmother, “are you a relation of his?” They evidently thought of him as a foreigner.
I said I was a friend. FIe has no friends here, said the old woman, and with a faint hostility in her voice she added, bad men bring bad luck. I said he had guests—a young girl with fair hair, a tall man, a younger girl so high. They had seen them? They had not. Only the grandmother had even been inside Bourani; and that was long before the war. Then they had their way and asked me the usual series of childish but charmingly eager questions about myself, about London, about England.
I got free in the end, after being presented with a sprig of basil, and walked inland along the bluff until I could climb onto the ridge that led to Bourani. For some time three of the barefoot children accompanied me along the seldom-used path. We topped a rocky crest among the pines, and the distant flat roof of the house came into sight over the sea of trees ahead. The children stopped, as if the house was a sign that they should go no further. I turned after a while and they were still wistfully standing there. I waved, but they made no gesture in return.
I went with him and sat in his music room and listened to him play the D minor English suite. All through tea I had waited for some indication on his part that he knew I had seen the girl—as he must have known, for it was obvious that the nocturnal concert had been given to announce her presence. But I intended to follow the same course of action as I had over the earlier incident: to say nothing until he gave me an opening. Not the slightest chink had appeared in our conversation.
Conchis seemed to me, no expert, to play as if there was no barrier between him and the music; no need to “interpret,” to please an audience, to satisfy some inner vanity. He played as I suppose Bach himself would have played—I think at a rather slower tempo than most modern pianists and harpsichordists, though with no loss of rhythm or shape. I sat in the cool, shuttered room and watched the slightly bowed bald head behind the shining black harpsichord. I heard the driving onwardness of Bach, the endless progressions. It was the first time I had heard him play great music, and I was moved as I had been by the Bonnards; moved in a different way, but still moved. The mystery of the old man dwindled, and his humanity rose uppermost. It came to me as I listened that I didn’t want to be anywhere else in the world at that moment, that what I was feeling at that moment justified all I had been through, because all I had been through was my being there. Conchis had spoken of meeting his future, of feeling his life balanced on a fulcrum, when he first came to Bourani. I was experiencing what he meant; a new selfacceptance, a sense that I had to be this mind and this body, its vices and its virtues, and that I had no other chance or choice. It was an awareness of a new kind of potentiality, one very different from my old sense of the word, which had been based on the illusions of ambition. The mess of my life, the seffishnesses and false turnings and the treacheries, all these things could fall into place, they could become a source of construction rather than a source of chaos, and precisely because I had no other choice. It was certainly not a moment of new moral resolve, or anything like it; I suppose our accepting what we are must always inhibit our being what we ought to be; for all that, it felt like a step forward—and upward.
He had finished, was watching me.
“You make words seem shabby things.”
He grimaced, but I could see he was not unpleased, though he tried to hide it by marching me off to give his vegetables their evening watering.
An hour later I was in the little bedroom again. I saw that I had new books by my bedside. There was first a very thin volume in French, a bound pamphlet, anonymous and privately printed, Paris, 1932; it was entitled De la communication intermondiale. I guessed the author easily enough. Then there was a folio: Wild Life in Scandinavia. As with The Beauties of Nature of the week before, the “wild life” turned out to be all female—various Nordic-looking women lying, standing, running, embracing among the fir forests and fjords. There were lesbian nuances I didn’t much like; perhaps because I was beginning to take against the facet in Conchis’s polyhedral character that obviously enjoyed “curious” objects and literature. Of course I was not—at least I told myself I was not—a puritan. I was too young to know that the having to tell myself gave the game away; and that to be uninhibited about one’s own sexual activities is not the same as being unshockable. I was English; ergo, puritan. I went twice through the pictures; they clashed unpleasantly with the still-echoing Bach.
Finally there was another book in French—a sumptuously produced limited edition: Le Masque Français au Dix-hnitième Siècle. This had a little white marker in. Remembering the anthology on the beach, I turned to the page, where there was a passage bracketed. It read:
Aux visiteurs qui pénétraient dans l'enceinte des murs altiers de Saint-Martin s'offrait la vue delectable des bergers et bergères qui, sur les verts gazons et parmi las bosquets, dansaient et chantaient entourés de leurs blancs troupeaux. Ils n'étaient pas toujours habillés des costumes de l'épo qua. Quelquefois us étaient vétus a la romaine ou a la grecque, at ainsi réalisait-on des odes de Théocrite, des bucoliques de Virgile. On parlait méme d'évocations plus scandaleuses, de charmantes nymphes qui las nuits d'été fuyaient au clair de lune d'étranges silhouettes, moitié homme, moitié chèvre…”
At last it began to seem plain. All that happened at Bourani was in the nature of a private masque; and no doubt the passage was a hint to me that I should, both out of politeness and for my own pleasure, not poke my nose behind the scenes. I felt ashamed of the questions I had asked at Agia Varvara.
I washed and, in deference to the slight formality Conchis apparently liked in the evenings, changed into a white shirt and a summer suit. When I came out of my room to go downstairs the door of his bedroom was open. He called me in.
“We will have our ouzo up here this evening.”
He was sitting at his desk, reading a letter he had just written. I waited behind him a moment, looking at the Bonnards again while he addressed the envelope. The door of the little room at the end was ajar. I had a glimpse of clothes, of a press. It was simply a dressing room. By the open doors, Lily’s photograph stared at me from its table.
We went out onto the terrace. There were two tables there, one with the ouzo and glasses on, the other with the dinner things. I saw at once that there were three chairs at the dinner table; and Conchis saw me see.
“We shall have a visitor after dinner.”
“From the village?” But I was smiling, and he was too when he shook his head. It was a magnificent evening, one of those gigantic Greek spans of sky and world fluxed in declining light. The mountains were the gray of a Persian cat’s fur, and the sky like a vast, unfaceted primrose diamond. I remembered noticing, one similar sunset in the village, how every man outside every taverna had turned to face the west, as if they were in a cinema, with the eloquent all-saying sky their screen.
“I read the passage you marked in Le Masque Fran çais.”
“It is only a metaphor. But it may help.”
He handed me an ouzo. We raised glasses.
Coffee was brought and poured, and the lamp moved to the table behind me, so that it shone on Conchis’s face. We were both waiting.
“I hope I shan’t have to forego the rest of your adventures.”
He raised his head, in the Greek way, meaning no. He seemed a little tense, and looked past me at the bedroom door; and I was reminded of that first day. I turned, but there was no one there.
He spoke. “You know who it will be?”
“I didn’t know if I was meant to come in last week or not.”
“You are meant to do as you choose.”
“Except ask questions.”
“Except ask questions.” A thin smile. “Did you read my little pamphlet?”
“Read it carefully.”
“Of course. I look forward to it.”
“Then tomorrow night perhaps we can perform an experiment.”
“On communicating with other worlds?” I didn’t bother to keep a certain scepticism out of my voice.
“Yes. Up there.” The star-heavy sky. “Or across there.” I saw him look down, making the visual analogy, to the black line of mountains to the west.
I risked facetiousness. “Up there—do they speak Greek or English?”
He didn’t answer for nearly fifteen seconds; didn’t smile.
“They speak emotions.”
“Not a very precise language.”
“On the contrary. The most precise. If one can learn it.” He turned to look at me. “Precision of the kind you mean is important in science. It is unimportant in—”
But I never found out what it was unimportant in.
We both heard the footsteps, those same light footsteps I had heard before, on the gravel below, coming as if up from the sea. Conchis looked at me quickly.
“You must not ask questions. That is most important.”
I smiled. “As you wish.”
“Treat her as you would treat an amnesiac.”
“I’m afraid I’ve never met an amnesiac.”
“She lives in the present. She does not remember her personal past—she has no past. If you question her about the past, you will only disturb her. She is very sensitive. She would not want to see you again.
I wanted to say, I like your masque, I shan’t spoil it. I said, “If I don’t understand why, I begin to understand how.”
He shook his head. “You are beginning to understand why. Not how.”
His eyes lingered on me, burning the sentence in; looked aside, at the doors. I turned.
I realized then that the lamp had been put behind me so that it would light her entrance; and it was an entrance to take the breath away.
She was dressed in what must have been the formal evening style of 1915: an indigo silk evening wrap over a slim ivory-colored dress of some shot material that narrowed and ended just above her ankles. Her hair was up, in a sort of Empire fashion. She was smiling and looking at Conchis, though she glanced with a cool interest at me as I stood. Conchis was already on his feet. She looked as stunningly elegant, as poised and assured—because even her slight nervousness seemed professional—as if she had just stepped out of a cabine at Dior. That was indeed my immediate thought: She’s a professional model. And then, the old devil.
The old devil spoke, after first kissing her hand.
“Lily. May I present Mr. Nicholas Urfe. Miss Montgomery.”
She held out her hand, which I took. A cool hand, no pressure. I had touched a ghost. Our eyes met, but hers gave nothing away. I said, “Hello.” But she replied only with a slight inclination, and then turned for Conchis to take off her wrap, which he placed over the back of his own chair.
She had bare shoulders and arms; a heavy gold and ebony bracelet; an enormously long necklace of what looked like sapphires, though I presumed they must be paste, or ultramarines. I guessed her to be about twenty-two or three. But there clung about her something that seemed much older, ten years older, a sort of coolness—not a coldness or indifference, but a limpid aloofness; coolness in the way that one thinks of coolness on a hot summer’s day.
She arranged herself in her chair, folded her hands, then smiled faintly at me.
“It is very warm this evening.”
Her voice was completely English. For some reason I had expected a foreign accent; but I could place this exactly. It was very largely my own—product of boarding school, university, the accent of what a sociologist once called the Dominant Hundred Thousand.
I said, “Isn’t it?”
Conchis said, “Mr. Urfe is the young schoolmaster I mentioned.” His voice had a new tone it it: almost deference.
“Yes. We met last week. That is, we caught a glimpse of each other.” And once again she smiled faintly, but without collusion, at me before looking down.
I saw that gentleness Conchis had prepared me for. But it was a teasing gentleness, because her face, especially her mouth, could not conceal her intelligence. She had a way of looking slightly obliquely at me, as if she knew something I did not—not anything to do with the role she was playing, but about life in general; as if she too had been taking lessons from the stone head. I had expected, perhaps because the image she had presented me with the week before had been more domestic, someone less ambiguous and far less assured.
She opened a small peacock-blue fan she had been holding and began to fan herself. Her skin was very white. She obviously never sunbathed. And then there was a curious little embarrassed pause, as if none of us knew what to say. She broke it, rather like a hostess dutifully encouraging a shy dinner guest.
“Teaching must be a very interesting profession.”
“Not for me. I find it rather dull.”
“All noble and honest things are dull. But someone has to do them.”
“Anyway, I forgive teaching. Since it’s brought me here.” She slipped a look at Conchis, who bowed imperceptibly. He was playing a kind of Talleyrand role. The gallant old fox.
“Maurice has told me that you are not completely happy in your work.” She pronounced Maurice in the French way.
“I don’t know if you know about the school, but—” I paused to give her a chance to answer. She simply shook her head, with a small smile. “I think they make the boys work too hard, you see, and I can’t do anything about it. It’s rather frustrating.”
“Could you not complain?” She gave me an earnest look; beautifully and convincingly earnest. I thought, she must be an actress. Not a model.
So it went on. We must have sat talking for nearly fifteen minutes, in this absurd stilted way. She questioned, I replied. Conchis said very little, leaving the conversation to us. I found myself formalizing my speech, as if I too was pretending to be in a drawing room of forty years before. After all, it was a masque, and I wanted, or after a very short while began to want, to play my part.
I found something a shade patronizing in her attitude, and I interpreted it as an attempt to upstage me; perhaps to test me, to see if I was worth playing against. I thought once or twice that I saw a touch of sardonic amusement in Conchis’s eyes, but I couldn’t be sure. In any case, I found her far too pretty, both in repose and in action (or acting), to care. I thought of myself as a connoisseur of girls’ good looks; and I knew that this was one to judge all others by.
There was a pause, and Conchis spoke.
“Shall I tell you now what happened after I left England?”
“Not if it would bore… Miss Montgomery.”
“No. Please. I like to listen to Maurice.”
He kept watching me, ignoring her.
“Lily always does exactly what I want.”
I glanced at her. “You’re very fortunate, then.”
He did not take his eyes off me. The furrows beside his nose caught shadow, deepening them.
“She is not the real Lily.”
This sudden dropping of the pretense took me, as once again he knew it would, off-balance.
“Well… of course.” I shrugged and smiled. She was staring down at her fan.
“Neither is she anyone impersonating the real Lily.”
“Mr. Conchis… I don’t know what you’re trying to tell me.”
“Not to jump to conclusions.” He gave one of his rare wide smiles. “Now. Where was I? But first I must warn you that this evening I give you not a narrative. But a character.”
I looked at Lily. She seemed to me to be perceptibly hurt, and just as another wild idea was beginning to run through my mind, that she really was an amnesiac, some beautiful amnesiac he had, somehow, literally and metaphorically laid his hands on, she gave me what was beyond any doubt a contemporary look, a look out of role—a quick, questioning glance that flicked from me to Conchis’s averted head and back again. At once I had the impression that we were two actors with the same doubts about the director.
“Buenos Aires. I lived there for nearly four years, until the spring of 1919. I quarreled with my uncle Anastasios, I gave English lessons, I taught the piano. And I felt perpetually in exile from Europe. My father was never to speak or write to me again, but after a while I began to hear from my mother.”
I glanced at Lily, but now, back in role, she was watching Conchis with a politely interested expression on her face. Lamplight became her, infinitely.
“Only one thing of importance happened to me in the Argentine. A friend took me one summer on a tour of the Andean provinces. I learnt about the exploited conditions under which the peons and gauchos had to live. I urgently felt the need to sacrifice myself for the underprivileged. Various things we saw decided me to become a doctor. But the reality of my new career was harsh. The medical faculty at Buenos Aires would not accept me, and I had to work day and night for a year to learn enough science to be enrolled.
“But then the war ended. My father died soon after. Though he never forgave me, or my mother for having helped me both into his world and out of it, he was sufficiently my father to let sleeping dogs lie. So far as I know my disappearance was never discovered by the authorities. My mother was left a sufficient income. The result of all this was that I returned to Europe and settled in Paris with her. We lived in a huge old flat facing the Pantheon, and I began to study medicine seriously. Among the medical students a group formed. We all regarded medicine as a religion, and we called ourselves the Society of Reason. We saw the doctors of the world uniting to form a scientific and ethical elite. We should be in every land and in every government, moral supermen who would eradicate all demagogy, all self-seeking politicians, reaction, chauvinism. We published a manifesto. We held a public meeting in a cinema at Neuilly. But the Communists got to hear of it. They called us Fascists and wrecked the cinema. We tried another meeting in another place. That was attended by a group who called themselves the Militia of Christian Youth—Catholic ultras. Their manners, if not their faces, were identical with those of the Communists. Which was what they termed us. So our grand scheme for utopianizing the world was settled in two scuffles. And heavy bills for damages. I was secretary of the Society of Reason. Nothing could have been less reasonable than my fellow members when it came to paying their share of the bills. No doubt we deserved what we received. Any fool can invent a plan for a more reasonable world. In ten minutes. In five. But to expect people to live reasonably is like asking them to live on paregoric.” He turned to me. “Would you like to read our manifesto, Nicholas?”
“I will go and get it. And fetch the brandy.”
And so, so soon, I was alone with Lily. But before I could phrase the right remark, the question that would show her I saw no reason why in Conchis’s absence she should maintain the pretending to believe, she stood up.
“Shall we walk up and down?”
I walked beside her. She was only an inch or two shorter than myself, and she walked slowly, slimly, with elegance, looking out to sea, avoiding my eyes, as if she now was shy. I looked around. Conchis was out of hearing.
“Have you been here long?”
“I have not been anywhere long.”
“I meant on the island.”
“So did I.”
She gave me a quick look, softened by a little smile. We had gone round the other arm of the terrace, into the shadow cast by the corner of the bedroom wall.
“An excellent return of service, Miss Montgomery.”
“If you play tennis, I must play tennis back.”
“Maurice must have asked you not to question me.”
“Oh come on. In front of him, okay. I mean, good God, we’re both English, aren’t we?”
“That gives us the freedom to be rude to each other?”
“To get to know each other.”
“Perhaps we are not equally interested in… getting to know each other.” She looked away out over the night. I was nettled.
“You do this thing very charmingly. But what exactly is the game?”
“Please.” Her voice was faintly sharp. “I really cannot stand this.” I guessed why she had brought me around into the shadow. I couldn’t see much of her face.
She turned and looked at me and said, in a quiet but fiercely precise voice, “Mr. Urfe.”
I was put in my place.
She went and stood against the parapet at the far end of the terrace, looking towards the central ridge to the north. A breath of listless air from the sea washed behind us.
“Would you shawl me please?”
I hesitated, then turned and went back for the indigo wrap. Conchis was still indoors. I returned and put it around her shoulders, then stood beside her. Without warning she reached her hand sideways and took mine and pressed it, as if to give me courage; and to make me identify her with the original, gentle Lily. She remained staring out across the clearing to the trees.
“Why did you do that?”
“I did not mean to be unkind.”
I mimicked her formal tone. “Can, may I, ask you… where you live here?”
She turned and leant against the edge of the parapet, so that we were facing opposite ways, and came to a decision.
“Over there.” She pointed with her fan.
“That’s the sea. Or are you pointing at thin air?”
“I assure you I live over there.”
An idea struck me. “On a yacht?”
“Curious I’ve never seen your house.”
“I expect you have the wrong kind of sight.”
I could just make out that she had a little smile at the corner of her lips. We were standing very close. The perfume around us.
“I’m being teased.”
“Perhaps you are teasing yourself.”
“I hate being teased.”
She looked at me from the corner of her eyes; a shy malice. “You prefer to tease?”
“Usually. But I don’t mind being teased by someone as pretty and gifted as you are.”
She made a little mock inclination. She had a beautiful neck; the throat of a Nefertiti. The photo in Conchis’s room made her look heavy-chinned, but she wasn’t.
“Then I shall continue to tease you.”
There was silence. Conchis was away far too long for the excuse he had given; I remembered the miserable Janet’s mother, who used to invent elephantine excuses to leave the two of us together in the sitting room, during my year of purgatory in S—.
Her question took me by surprise.
“Do you love Maurice?” She made no attempt to anglicize the French pronunciation, but sounded it with a rather precious exactitude.
“This is only the third time I’ve met him.” She appeared to wait for me to go on. “I’m very grateful for his asking me over here. Especially now.”
She cut short my compliment. “You see, we all love him very much.”
“Who is we?”
“His other visitors and myself.” I could hear the inverted commas. She had turned to face me.
“'Visitor' seems an odd way of putting it.”
“Maurice does not like 'ghost.'”
I smiled. “Or 'actress'?”
Her face betrayed not the least preparedness to concede, to give up her role.
“We are all actors and actresses, Mr. Urfe. You included.”
“Of course. On the stage of the world.”
She smiled and looked down. “Be patient.”
“Willingly. I couldn’t imagine anyone I’d rather be more patient with. Or credulous about.”
Our eyes met. Once again she let the mask slip; for a fraction of a moment; a sincerity that begged.
“Not for me. For Maurice.”
“And for Maurice.”
“I will help.”
“Me? To do what?”
“Then I certainly promise to obey the rules.”
Our eyes still met.
There was a sound from the table. She reached out and took my arm. We turned. Conchis was standing there. As we came towards him, her arm lightly but formally in mine, he gave us both his little interrogatory headshake.
“Mr. Urfe is very understanding.”
“I am glad.”
“All will be well.”
She smiled at me and sat down and remained thoughtfully for a while with her chin resting on her hand. Conchis had poured her a minute glass of crème de menthe, which she sipped. He pointed to an envelope he had put in my place.
“The manifesto. It took me a long time to find. Read it later. There is an anonymous criticism of great force at the end.”
“I still loved, at any rate still practiced, music. I had the big Pleyel harpsichord I use here in our Paris flat. One warm day in spring, it would have been in 1920, I was playing by chance with the windows open, when the bell rang. The maid came in to say that a gentleman had called and wished to speak to me. In fact, the gentleman was already behind the maid. He corrected her—he wanted to listen to me, not speak to me. He was such an extraordinary-looking man that I hardly noticed the extraordinariness of the intrusion. About sixty, extremely tall, faultlessly dressed, a gardenia in his buttonhole…”
I looked sharply at Conchis. He had turned and, as he seemed to like to, was looking out to sea as he spoke. Lily swiftly, discreetly raised her finger to her lips.
“And also—at first sight—excessively morose. There was beneath the archducal dignity something deeply mournful about him. Like the actor Jouvet, but without his sarcasm. Later I was to discover that he was less miserable than he appeared. Almost without words he sat down in an armchair and listened to me play. And when I had finished, almost without words he picked up his hat and his amber-topped stick…”
I grinned. Lily saw my grin, but looked down and refused to share it, as if to ban it.
“… and presented me with his card and asked me to call on him the next week. The card told me that his name was Alphonse de Deukans. He was a count. I duly presented myself at his apartment. It was very large, furnished with the severest elegance. A manservant showed me into a salon. De Deukans rose to greet me. At once he took me, with the minimum of words, through to another room. And there were five or six harpsichords, old ones, splendid ones, all museum pieces, both as musical instruments and as decorative objects. He invited me to try them all, and then he played himself. Not as well as I could then. But very passably. Later he offered me a collation and we sat on Boulard chairs, gravely swallowing marennes and drinking a Moselle that he told me came from his own vineyard. So began the most remarkable friendship of my life.
“I learnt nothing about him for many months, although I saw him often. This was because he had never anything to say about himself or his past. And discouraged every kind of question. All that I could find out was that his family came from Belgium. That he was immensely rich. That he appeared, from choice, to have very few friends. No relations. And that he was, without being a homosexual, a misogynist. All his servants were men, and he never referred to women except with contempt and distaste.
“De, Deukans’s real life was lived not in Paris, but at his great chateau in eastern France. It was built by some peculating surintendant in the late seventeenth century, and set in a park far larger than this island. One saw the slate-blue turrets and white walls from many miles away. And I remember, on my first visit, some months after our first meeting, I was very intimidated. It was an October day, all the cornfields of the Champagne had long been cut. A bluish mist over everything, an autumn smoke. I arrived at Givray-le-Duc in the car that had been sent to fetch me, I was taken up a splendid staircase to my room, or rather my suite of rooms, and then I was invited to go out into the park to meet de Deukans. All his servants were like himself—silent, grave-looking men. There was never laughter around him. Or running feet. No noise, no excitement. But calm and order.
“I followed the servant through a huge formal garden—Lenôtre had laid it out—behind the chateau. Past box-hedges and statuary and over freshly raked gravel, and then down through an arboretum to a small lake. We came out at its edge and on a small point some hundred yards ahead I saw, over the still water and through the October leaves, an Oriental teahouse. The servant bowed and left me to go on my way alone. The path led beside the lake, over a small stream. There was no wind. Mist, silence, a beautiful but rather melancholy calm.
“The teahouse was approached over grass, so de Deukans could not hear me coming. He was seated on a mat staring out over the lake. A willow-covered islet. Ornamental geese that floated on the water as on a silk painting. Though his head was European, his clothes were Japanese. I shall never forget that moment. How shall I say it—that mise en paysage.
“His whole park was arranged to provide him with such décors, such ambiences. There was a little classical temple, a rotunda. An English garden, a Moorish one. But I always think of him sitting there on his tatami in a loose kimono. Grayish-blue, the color of the mist. It was unnatural, of course. But all dandyism and eccentricity is more or less unnatural in a world dominated by the desperate struggle for economic survival.
“Constantly, during that first visit, I was shocked, as a would-be socialist. And ravished, as an homme sensuel. Givray-le-Duc was nothing more or less than a vast museum. There were countless galleries, of paintings, of porcelain, of objets d'art of all kinds. A famous library. A really unsurpassed collection of early keyboard instruments. Clavichords, spinets, virginals, lutes, guitars. One never knew what one would find. A room of Renaissance bronzes. A case of Breguets. A wall of magnificent Rouen and Nevers faience. An armory. A cabinet of Greek and Roman coins. I could inventory all night, for he had devoted all his life to this collecting of collections. The Boulles and Rieseners alone were enough to furnish six châteaux. I suppose only the Heriford Collection could have rivaled it in modern times. Indeed when the Hertford was split up, de Deukans had bought many of the best pieces in the Sackville legacy. Seligmann’s gave him first choice. He collected in order to collect, of course. Art had not then become a branch of the stock market.
“On a later visit he took me to a locked gallery. In it he kept his company of automata—puppets, some almost human in size, that seemed to have stepped, or whirled, out of a Hoffman story. A man who conducted an invisible orchestra. Two soldiers who fought a duel. A prima donna from whose mouth tinkled an aria from La Serva Padrona. A girl who curtseyed to a man who bowed, and then danced a pallid and ghostly minuet with him. But the chief piece was Mirabelle, la Maltresse-Machine. A naked woman who when set in motion lay back in her faded four-poster bed, drew up her knees and then opened them together with her arms. As her human master lay on top of her, the arms closed and held him. But de Deukans cherished her most because she had a device that made it unlikely that she would ever cuckold her owner. Unless one moved a small lever at the back of her head, at a certain pressure her arms would clasp with vicelike strength. And then a stiletto on a strong spring struck upwards through the adulterer’s groin. This repulsive thing had been made in Italy in the early nineteenth century. For the Sultan of Turkey. When de Deukans demonstrated her 'fidelity' he turned and said, 'C'est cc qui en elle est le plus vraisemblable.' 'It is the most lifelike thing about her.”
I looked at Lily covertly. She was staring down at her hands.
“He kept Madame Mirabelle behind locked doors. But in his private chapel he kept an even more—to my mind—obscene object. It was encased in a magnificent early medieval reliquary. It looked much like a withered, dusty sea cucumber. De Deukans called it, without any wish to be humorous, the Holy Member. He knew, of course, that a merely cartilaginous object could not possibly survive so long. There are at least sixteen other Holy Members in Europe. Mostly from mummies, and all equally discredited. But for de Deukans it was simply a collectable, and the religious or indeed human blasphemy it represented had no significance for him. This is true of all collecting. It extinguishes the moral instinct. The object finally possesses the possessor.
“We never discussed religion or politics. He went to mass. But only, I think, because the observance of ritual is a form of the cultivation of beauty. In some ways, perhaps because of the wealth that had always surrounded him, he was an extremely innocent man. Self-denial was incomprehensible to him, unless it formed part of some aesthetic regimen. I stood with him once and watched a line of peasants laboring a turnip field. A Millet brought to life. And his only remark was: It is beautiful that they are they and that we are we. For him even the most painful social confrontations and contrasts, which would have stabbed the conscience of even the vulgarest nouveau riche, were stingless. Without significance except as vignettes, as interesting discords, as pleasurable because vivid examples of the algedonic polarity of existence.
“Altruistic behavior—what he termed le diable en puritain—upset him deeply. For instance, since the age of eighteen I have refused to eat wild birds in any form at table. I would as soon eat human flesh as I would an ortolan, or a wild duck. This to de Deukans was distressing, like a false note in a music manuscript. He could not believe things had been written thus. And yet there I was, in black and white, refusing his pâté d'alouettes and his truffled woodcock.
“But not all his life was to do with the dead. He had an observatory on the roof of his château, and a well-equipped biological laboratory. He never walked out in the park without carrying a small étui of test tubes. To catch spiders. I had known him over a year before I discovered that this was more than another eccentricity. That he was in fact one of the most learned arachnologists of his day. There is even a species named after him: Theridion deukansii. He was delighted that I also knew something of ornithology. And he encouraged me to specialize in what he jokingly called ornithosemantics—the meaning of birdsound.
“He was the most abnormal man I had ever met. And the politest. And the most distant. And certainly the most socially irresponsible. I was twenty-five—your age, Nicholas, which will perhaps tell you more than anything I can say how unable I was to judge him. It is, I think, the most difficult and irritating age of all. Both to be and to behold. One has the intelligence, one is in all ways treated as a grown man. But certain persons reduce one to adolescence, because only experience can understand and assimilate them. In fact de Deukans, by being as he was—certainly not by arguing—raised profound doubts in my philosophy. Doubts he was later to crystallize for me, as I will tell you, in five simple words.
“I saw the faults in his way of life and at the same time found myself enchanted. That is, unable to act rationally. I have forgotten to tell you that he had manuscript after manuscript of unpublished music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A paradise. To sit at one of the magnificent old harpsichords in his musicarium—a long rococo gallery in faded gold and pomona green, always in sunlight, as tranquil as an orchard… such experiences, such happiness, always gives rise to the same problem: of the nature of evil. Why should such complete pleasure be evil? Why did I believe that de Deukans was evil? You will say, Because children were starving while you played in your sunlight. But are we never to have palaces, never to have refined tastes, complex pleasures, never to let the imagination fulfill itself? Even a Marxist world must have some destination, must develop into some higher state, which can only mean a higher pleasure and richer happiness for the human beings in it.
“And so I began to comprehend the selfishness of this solitary man. More and more I came to see that his blindness was a pose and yet his pose was an innocence. That he was a man from a perfect world lost in a very imperfect one. And determined, with a monomania as tragic, if not quite so ludicrous, as Don Quixote’s, to maintain his perfection. But then one day—”
Conchis never finished his sentence. With an electrifying suddenness a horn clamored out of the darkness to the east. I thought immediately of an English hunting horn, but it was bronzier, harsher, more archaic. Lily’s previously wafting fan was frozen, her eyes on Conchis. He was staring out to sea, as if the sound had turned him to stone. As I watched, his eyes closed, almost as if he was silently praying. But prayer was totally foreign to his face.
The horn broke the tense night again. Three notes, the middle the highest. The player was in the trees, somewhere near the place where I had seen Foulkes.
I said to Lily, “What is it?”
She held my eyes for a moment, and strangely. I had an odd feeling that she thought I knew. But then she raised her closed fan to her lips and looked down. The lamplight, the waiting silence. Conchis had not moved or opened his eyes. I let a few seconds pass, then whispered to her.
“What the devil’s happening?”
She lifted her eyes momentarily to mine.
“Apollo has come.”
I smiled, and she smiled back; but my face was full of uncertainty and hers of knowledge. Her mouth was incredibly like that of the stone statue. Again the horn was sounded, but at a higher pitch.
She said, “I am called. I must go.”
We rose together. She held out her hand.
“Where I came from.” Her eyes impressed some hidden significance into mine. Then she began to walk away. I looked quickly at Conchis, still with his oblivious face, and strode after her, stopping her at the door.
“Look, for goodness sake…”
Her eyes were down, avoiding mine. “Please let me pass.”
“Are you coming back?”
Again the horn sounded, more urgently, closer, near the edge of the trees. She looked up at me. A quick oblique look at Conchis’s dark figure. Then for a moment she seemed to drop the pretense. At any rate she dropped her voice.
“Go and watch. Over there.” Her mouth curved unexpectedly into a smile that hovered between mischief and sympathy. “And pretend to believe.” I could have sworn that one of her eyelids fluttered; the ghost of a very contemporary wink. But she was gone so quickly that I was left only the more confused.
I went to the parapet that faced east. The gravel, and then across the. clearing, the trees. I could see nothing unusual. Darkness and stillness. I listened for the sound of her footsteps downstairs, but there was silence there too. Then the sound came again. It echoed faintly from some steep hillside inland, its primitive timbre seeming to wake the landscape and the trees, to summon from some evolutionary sleep. Another long silence. Then suddenly there was a movement in the pines.
A dim figure stood out in the starlight some fifty or sixty yards away. I had an impression of whiteness. Then from beyond the cottage there was a beam of light; not very strong, as a hand-held torch might give. With a shock I realized that the figure was that of an absolutely naked man. He raised the horn he was carrying and again came the call. He was near enough for me to see, with the aid of the weak beam of light, dark pubic hair and the pale scape of his penis. He was tall, well built, well cast to be Apollo. On his head I made out a crown of leaves; the glint of golden leaves, laurel leaves. The light made his skin even paler, so that he stood out like marble against the black trees. He was facing the house, facing me, the horn in his right hand.
Suddenly there was a new sound, even stranger, of a woman or a boy, I couldn’t tell, calling from where the track out of Bourani disappeared into the trees. It was a chanted sound, a triphthong hauntingly prolonged, an echo of the horn’s echo. Eia. Eia. The man dropped his arm and turned and went a pace or two to the north. I saw him raise his yard-long horn, a narrow crescent with a flared end. He called back; and the other call came back at once, so that the echoes of the two calls intermingled. Eia. Eia.
Like the man I was watching the trees to the north, the dark tunnel where the track disappeared.
A running girl appeared; and I thought at first by the apparent whiteness of her skin—the torch did not shift to her—that she was also naked. I thought too, with increasing shock, that it was Lily. If she had gone very quickly round the back of the house… but then I could distinguish a white chiton, and dark hair. A wig? The girl had a slim body, the right height. She ran towards the sea, between Apollo and myself on the terrace. Then a third figure appeared behind her. Another man, running from out of the dark tunnel through the trees. The girl was being chased. I flashed a look round. Conchis sat exactly as before, as if he disapproved sternly of this interruption.
The nymph-girl ran through the beam of light that shone on Apollo and had almost reached the seaward side of the clearing when several things happened. Apollo blew his horn again, but this time it was a single wild note, sustained then abruptly ended. He struck a new pose, his hand pointing at the satyr-man, who stopped at the sound. Simultaneously a much stronger beam shone out from directly underneath me. Someone else was standing under the colonnade. The beam moved, caught up the still running figure of the girl, her white back and her black dishevelled hair and her seemingly near-exhausted legs, as she plunged into the trees. She disappeared. The light went out for two moments. And then, in a brilliant coup de théatre, it went on again, and standing there, exactly in the place where the first girl had disappeared, a place where the ground rose a little, was yet another, the most striking figure of all. It was Lily, but metamorphosed.
She had changed into a long saffron chiton. It had a thin blood-red hem where it ended at the knees. On her feet were black buskins with silver greaves, which gave her a grim gladiatorial look, in strange contrast to her bare shoulders and arms. The skin was unnaturally white, the eyes elongated by black makeup, and her hair was also elongated backwards in a way that was classical yet sinister. Over her shoulders she had a quiver. In her left hand she held a long silver painted bow. Something in her stance, as well as her distorting makeup, was genuinely frightening.
She stood, cold and outraged and ominous for a long second, and then she reached back with her free hand and with a venomous quickness pulled an arrow out of the quiver. But just as she began to fit it to the bow string, the beam tracked like lightning back to the arrested man. He was standing, darker-skinned, in a black chiton, spectacularly terrified, his arms flung back, and his head averted. It was a pose without realism, yet effectively theatrical. The beam swept back to the goddess. She had the bow at full stretch, the horn blew again, the arrow went. I saw it fly, but lost its flight in the abrupt darkness as the torch flicked off again. A moment later it shone on the man. He was clutching the arrow—or an arrow—in his heart. He fell slowly to his knees, swayed a second, then slumped sideways among the stones and thyme. The torch lingered a moment on him, then went out. Apollo stood impassively, surveying, a pale marmoreal shadow, like some divine umpire, president of the arena. The goddess began to walk, a striding huntress walk, towards him, her silver bow slung like a rifle over one shoulder. As she came near, into the diffuse beam of weak light, he held out his hand. They stood like that, facing me, hand in hand, Apollo and his sister, Artemis-Diana. The beam went out. I saw them retreat into the dark penumbra of the trees. Silence. Night. As if nothing had happened.
I looked back at Conchis. He had not moved. I tried to understand. I tried to think what connection there was between the elderly man on the road by the hotel, the “pre-haunting,” and this scene. During the telling I thought I had grasped the point of the caractêre of de Deukans; Conchis had been talking of himself and me; the parallels were too close for it to be anything else. And discouraged every kind of question… how unable I was to judge him… very few friends and no relations… but what had that to do with what had just happened?
Plainly it was meant to be mythical, but it had awakened in me vague memories of Oscar Wilde—the Wilde of Salomé—and of Maeterlinck; something Germanic, fin de siècle, had floated over it all. It was also an attempt at the sort of scandalous evocation mentioned in Le Masque Francais.
There was some very nasty, some very perverse, drift in Conchis’s divertimenti. The naked man. What were they doing now, inside those trees? Because the girl acted one thing for an hour, there was no reason why she shouldn’t act something else, anything else, the next. I remembered wryly that she had said “I am called.” I had given it a spiritualistic significance; but it had a normal other meaning—for actresses.
I felt, irrationally, betrayed; and envious and jealous of those other mysterious young men who had appeared from nowhere to poach in “my” territory; and walked off with the prize. I tried to be objective, content to be a spectator, to let these weird incidents flow past me as one sits in a cinema and lets the film flow past. But even as I thought that, I knew it to be a bad analogy.
I went and stood behind her empty chair.
Conchis didn’t answer. I moved round the table, to where I could see his face. His eyes were open, but his stare to the south was fixed, and for a moment I was frightened. I said urgently, “Mr. Conchis?” and touched his shoulder. He looked up then, for all the world like a man coming out of a trance.
“Are you all right?”
“I fell asleep. I apologize.” He shook his head as if to wake himself up.
“But your eyes were open.”
“A kind of sleep.” He smiled at me, one of his smiles that was intended, flagrantly, to make me wonder what he really meant.
I smiled warily back. “Or a kind of mystification?”
He stood up and took my arm, then walked me silently to the western end of the terrace—probably, I guessed, to give the man with the arrow in his heart time to decamp. He breathed deeply for a moment, facing the distant mountains, his hand on my elbow. Then he said, “I am rich in many things, Nicholas. Richer even in some than I am in money.”
“I realize that.”
“Richer in forgotten powers. In strange desires.” He pressed my elbow lightly, then let go of it. His face was inscrutable, but his tone aroused old suspicions in me. Young men, young women. Perhaps I should soon find myself asked to take part in some kind of orgy, some sexual fantasy; and I knew that if I was faced with it, joining in or not, I might not know what to do—sexually or morally. A double lack of savoir vivre. I was out of my depth; I had a quick self-protective need to be debunking, English. I lit a cigarette; put on a smile and a light voice.
“I saw your 'visitor' meet her boyfriend over there.” There was a long pause; in the shadow his eyes were like black phosphorus. “An uncensored rendezvous with Apollo.” Still he forced me to go on. “I have no program, Mr. Conchis. I don’t know.” More silence. I said rather desperately, “I just feel I’d enjoy it more if I knew what it all meant.”
Then it was as if I had said something that really pleased him. He turned and gave me a smile, took my arm again. We strolled back to the table.
“My dear Nicholas, man has been saying what you have just said for the last ten thousand years. And the one common feature of all those gods he has said it to is that not one of them has ever returned an answer.”
“Gods don’t exist to answer. You do.”
“In this respect treat me as if I did not exist.”
I sneaked a look at his bald, saturnine profile.
I said quietly, “Why me?”
He stopped us. “Why anyone? Why anything?”
I gestured to the east. “All this… just to give me a lesson in theology?”
He was pointing to the sky. “I think we would both agree that any god who created all this just to give us a lesson in theology was gravely lacking in both humor and imagination.” We came to the table and sat down. He left a long pause. “You are perfectly free to return to your school if you wish. Perhaps it would be wiser.”
“And weaker.” I smiled at him. “Your rules.” He eyed me, as if he was half inclined to send me away. I reminded him that he had never finished his story.
“Very well. Let us have a little more brandy first.” I got up and fetched the bottle from beside the lamp and poured some. He sipped it, and then, after a gathering pause, went on.
“I was going to tell you more of him. But no matter now. Let us jump to the climax, To the moment when the gods lost patience with his hubris.
“Whenever I see a photograph of a teeming horde of Chinese peasants, or of some military procession, whenever I see a cheap newspaper crammed with advertisements for mass-produced rubbish. Or the rubbish itself that large stores sell. Whenever I see the horrors of the pax Americana, of civilizations condemned to century after century of mediocrity because of overpopulation and undereducation, I see also de Deukans. Whenever I see lack of space and lack of grace, I think of him. One day, many millennia from now, there will perhaps be a world in which there are only such châteaux, or their equivalents, and such men and women. And instead of their having to grow, like mushrooms, from a putrescent compost of inequality and exploitation, they will come from an evolution as controlled and ordered as de Deukans’s tiny world at Givray-le-Duc. Apollo will reign again. And Dionysus will return to the shadows from which he came.”
Was that it? I saw the Apollo scene in a different light. Conchis was evidently like certain modern poets; he tried to kill ten meanings with one symbol.
“One day one of his servants introduced a girl into the château. De Deukans heard a woman laughing. I do not know how… perhaps an open window, perhaps she was a little drunk. He sent to find out who had dared to bring a real mistress into his world. It was one of the chauffeurs. A man of the machine age. He was dismissed. Soon afterwards de Deukans went to Italy on a visit.
“One night at Givray-le-Duc the majordomo smelt smoke. He went to look. The whole of one wing and the center portion of the château was on fire. Most of the servants were away at their homes in the neighboring villages. The few who were sleeping at the château started to carry buckets of water to the mass of flames. An attempt was made to telephone for the pompiers, but the line had been cut. When they finally arrived, it was too late. Every painting was shriveled, every book ashes, every piece of porcelain twisted and smashed, every coin melted, every exquisite instrument, every piece of furniture, each automaton, even Mirabelle, charred to nothingness. All that was left were parts of the walls and the eternally irreparable.
“I was also abroad at the time, De Deukans was woken somewhere near dawn in his hotel in Florence and told. He went home at once. But they say he turned back before he got to the still smoldering remains. As soon as he was near enough to realize what the fire had done. A fortnight later he was found dead in his bedroom in Paris. He had taken an enormous quantity of drugs. His valet told me that he was found with a smile on his face.
“I returned to France a month after his funeral. My mother was in South America and I did not hear what had happened till my return. One day I was asked to go and see his lawyers. I thought he might have left me a harpsichord. So he had. Indeed, all his surviving harpsichords. And also… but perhaps you have guessed.”
He paused, as if to let me guess, but I said nothing.
“By no means all his fortune, but what was, in those days, to a young man still dependent on his mother, a fortune. At first I could not believe it. I knew that he had liked me, that he had come perhaps to look on me rather as an uncle on a nephew. But so much money. And so much hazard. Because I played one day with opened windows. Because a peasant girl laughed too loud… all hazard. The world began in hazard. And will end in it. Though I should in any case have been rich. My father was hardly poor. When o Pap pous died in 1924 he also left everything to my mother. And he was very far from poor.
But I promised to tell you the words de Deukans also left me, with his money and his memory. No message. But one fragment of Latin. I have never been able to trace its source. It sounds Greek. Ionian or Alexandrian. It was this. Utram bibis?Aquam an undam? Which are you drinking? The water or the wave?”
“He drank the wave?”
“We all drink both. But he meant the question should always be asked. It is not a precept. But a mirror.”
I thought; could not decide which I was drinking.
“What happened to the man who set fire to the house?”
“The law had its revenge.”
“And you went on living in Paris?”
“I still have his apartment. And the instruments he kept there are now in my own château in the Auvergne.”
“Did you discover where his money came from?”
“He had large estates in Belgium. Investments in France and Germany. But the great bulk of his money was in various enterprises in the Congo. Givray-le-Duc, like the Parthenon, was built on a heart of darkness.”
“Is Bourani built on it?”
“Would you leave at once if I said it was?”
“Then you have no right to ask.”
He smiled, as if to tell me not to take him too seriously, and stood up, as if to nip any further argument in the bud. “To bed now. Take your envelope.”
He led the way through to my room, and lit my lamp, and wished me good night. But in his own door he turned and looked back towards me. For once his face showed a moment’s doubt, a glimpse of a lasting uncertainty.
“The water or the wave?”
Then he went.
I waited. I went to the window. I sat on the bed. I lay on the bed. I went to the window again. In the end I began to read the two pamphlets. Both were in French, and the first had evidently once been pinned up; there were holes and rustmarks.
THE SOCIETY FOR REASON
We, doctors and students of the faculties of medicine of the universities of France, declare that we believe:
1. Mankind can progress only by using his reason.
2. The first duty of science is to eradicate unreason, in whatever form, from public and international affairs.
3. Adherence to reason is more important than adherence to any other ethos whatever, whether it be of family, caste, country, race or religion.
4. The only frontier of reason is the human frontier; all other frontiers are signs of unreason.
5. The world can never be better than the countries that constitute it, and the countries can never be better than the individuals that constitute them.
6. It is the duty of all who agree with these statements to join the Society for Reason.
Membership of the Society is obtained by signing the formula below.
1. I promise to give one-tenth of my annual income to the Society for Reason for the furtherance of its aims.
2. I promise to introduce reason at all times and places into my own life.
3. I shall never obey unreason, whatever the consequences; I shall never remain silent or inactive in front of it.
4. I recognize that the doctor is the spearhead of humanity. I shall do my utmost to understand my own physiology and psychology, and to control my life rationally according to those knowledges.
5. I solemnly acknowledge that my first duty is always to reason.
Brother and sister human beings, we appeal to you to join in the struggle against the forces of unreason that caused the blood-dementia of the last decade. Help to make our society powerful in the world against the conspiracies of the priests and the politicians. Our society will one day be the greatest in the history of the human race. Join it now. Be among the first who saw, who joined, who stood!
Across the last paragraph someone a long time before had scrawled the word merde.
Both text and comment, in view of what had happened since 1920, seemed to me pathetic; like two little boys caught fighting at the time of an atomic explosion. We were equally tired, in midcentury, of cold sanity and hot blasphemy; of the overcerebral and of the overfecal; the way out lay somewhere else. Words had lost their power, either for good or for evil; still hung, like a mist, over the reality of action, distorting, misleading, castrating; but at least since Hitler and Hiroshima they were seen to be a mist, a flimsy superstructure.
I listened to the house and the night outside. Silence; and turned to the other, bound, pamphlet. Once again, the cheap browning paper and the old-fashioned type showed it to be unmistakably a genuine prewar relic.
ON COMMUNICATION WITH OTHER WORLDS
To arrive at even the nearest stars man would have to travel for millions of years at the speed of light. Even if we had the means to travel at the speed of light we could not go to, and return from, any other inhabited area of the universe in any one lifetime; nor can we communicate by other scientific means, such as some gigantic heliograph or by radio waves. We are f orever isolated, or so it appears, in our little bubble of time.
How futile all our excitement over airplanes! How stupid this fictional literature by writers like Verne and Wells about the peculiar beings that inhabit other planets!
But it is without doubt that there are other planets round other stars, that life obeys universal norms, and that in the cosmos there are beings who have evolved in the same way and with the same aspirations as ourselves. Are we then condemned never to communicate with them?
Only one method of communication is not dependent on time. Some deny that it exists. But there are many cases, reliably guaranteed by reputable and scientific witnesses, of thoughts being communicated at PRECISELY THE MOMENT they were conceived. Among certain primitive cultures, such as the Lapp, this phenomenon is so frequent, so accepted, that it is used as a matter of everyday convenience, as we in France use the telegraph or telephone.
Not all powers have to be discovered; some have to be regained.
This is the only means we shall ever have of communicating with mankind in other worlds. Sic itur ad astra.
This potential simultaneity of awareness in conscious beings operates as the pantograph does. As the hand draws, the copy is made.
The writer of this pamphlet is not a spiritualist and is not interested in spiritualism. He has for some years been investigating telepathic and other phenomena on the fringe of normal medical science. His interests are purely scientific. He repeats that he does not believe in the “supernatural"; in Rosicrucianism, hermetism, and other such aberrations.
He maintains that already more advanced worlds than our own are trying to communicate with us, and that a whole category of noble and beneficial mental behavior, which appears in our societies as good conscience, humane deeds, artistic inspiration, scientific genius, is really dictated by half-understood telepathic messages from other worlds. He believes that the Muses are not a poetic fiction, but a classical insight into scientific reality we moderns should do well to investigate.
He pleads for more public money and cooperation in research into telepathy and allied phenomena; above all he pleads for more scientists in this field.
Shortly he will publish direct proof of the feasibility of intercommunication between worlds. Watch the Parisian press for an announcement.
I had never had a telepathic experience in my life, and I thought it unlikely I should start with Conchis; and if benevolent gentlemen from other worlds were feeding good deeds and artistic genius into me, they had done it singularly badly—and not only for me, for most of the age I was born into. On the other hand, I began to understand why Conchis had told me I was psychic. It was a sort of softening-up process, in preparation for the no doubt even stranger scene that would take place in the masque that next night… the “experiment.”
The masque, the masque: it fascinated and irritated me, like an obscure poem—more than that, for it was not only obscure in itself, but doubly obscure in why it had even been “written.” During the evening a new theory had occurred to me: that Conchis was trying to recreate some lost world of his own and for some reason I was cast as the jeune premier in it, his younger self. I was well aware that during that day our relationship had changed. I was less a guest; and he was far less a host. A different kind of tension had arisen, mainly because there were things in him that I could not relate (and which he knew and intended I could not); things like the humanity in his playing of Bach, in certain elements in his autobiography, which were spoilt, undermined, by his perversity and malice elsewhere; his aggressive defense of his wealth, the “curious” books and objects that he put in my way—another parallel with de Deukans—and now the myth figures in the night, with all their abnormal undertones.
The more I thought about it, the more I suspected the authenticity of that Belgian count—or at any rate of Conchis’s account of him. He was no more than a stalking-horse for Conchis himself. De Deukans had a symbolic truth, perhaps, but far less than a literal one.
Meanwhile, the masque was letting me down. Silence still reigned. I looked at my watch. Nearly half an hour had passed. I could not sleep. After some hesitation, I crept downstairs and out through the music room under the colonnade. There I made my way round the gravel along the route that Lily must have taken. I walked a little way into the trees in the direction the two had disappeared; then turned back and went down to the beach. The sea lapped slowly, dragging down a few small pebbles now and again, making them rattle drily, though there was no wind, no air. The cliffs and trees and the little boat lay drenched in starlight, in a million indecipherable thoughts from other worlds. The mysterious southern sea, luminous, waited; alive yet empty. I smoked a cigarette, and then climbed back to the fraught house and my bedroom.
I had my breakfast alone again. It was a day of wind, the sky as blue as ever, but the breeze tore boisterously off the sea, typhooning the fronds of the two palms that stood like sentinels in front of the house. Further south, off Cape Matapan, the meltemi, the tough summer gale from the Ionian islands, was blowing.
I went down to the beach. The boat was not there. It confirmed my half-formed theory about the “visitors"—that they were on a yacht in one of the many deserted coves round the west and south sides of the island, or anchored among the group of deserted islets some five miles to the east. I swam out some way to see if Conchis was visible on the terrace. But it was empty. I lay on my back and floated for a while, feeling the cool chop of the waves over my sunwarmed face, thinking of Lily.
Then I looked toward the beach.
She was standing on it, a brilliant figure on the salt-gray shingle, with the ochre of the cliff and the green plants behind her. I began to swim towards the shore, as fast as I could. She moved a few steps along the stones and then stopped and watched me. At last I stood up, dripping, panting, and looked at her. She was about ten yards away, in an exquisitely pretty First World War summer dress. It was striped mussel-blue, white and pink, and she carried a fringed sunshade of the same cloth. She wore the sea wind like a jewel. It caught her dress, moulded it against her body. Every so often she had a little struggle with the sunshade. And all the time fingers of wind teased and skeined her long, silky-blond hair around her neck or across her mouth.
She showed a little moue, half mocking herself, half mocking me as I stood knee-deep in the water. I don’t know why silence descended on us, why we were locked for a strange few moments in a more serious look. It must have been transparently excited on my side. She looked so young, so timidly naughty. She gave an embarrassed yet mischievous smile, as if she should not have been there, had risked impropriety.
“Has Neptune cut your tongue off?”
“You look so ravishing. Like a Renoir.”
She moved a little further away, and twirled her ombrelle. I slipped into my beachshoes and, toweling my back, caught her up.
“I prefer you without the silver bow.”
She raised a finger to her lips, banning the subject, then smiled with a sort of innocent sideways slyness; she had a remarkable gift for creating and diminishing distance by an intonation, a look. She sat down on a low projecting piece of rock that was overshaded by a pine tree, where the precipitous gulley ran down to the shingle; then closed her sunshade and pointed with it to a stone beside her, a little away from her, in the sun, where I was to sit. But I spread my towel on the rock and sat beside her in the shade. I thought how ridiculous it really was to pretend that she was in some way “psychic"; the moist mouth, the down on her bare forearms, a scar above her left wrist, her slim neck, her loose hair, an animated glance she turned to give me.
“You’re the most deliciously pretty girl I’ve ever seen.”
I had meant it; and I had also meant to embarrass her, But she simply widened her smile and stared back at me, and I was the one who eventually looked down.
“Do we still have to… keep to the rules?”
“If you want me to sit with you.”
“Who’s the other girl?”
“What other girl?”
Her innocence was charming; no natural and so false; an irresistible invitation to take nothing seriously.
“When am I going to meet your brother?”
Her prettily lashed eyes flickered modestly down and sideways. I hope you did not venture to think he was really my brother?”
“I ventured to think all sorts of things.”
She sought my meaning, for a moment held my eyes, then bit her lips. For no reason at all I began to feel less jealous.
“Wouldn’t you like to bathe?”
“No. I cannot swim.”
“I could teach you. It’s very easy.”
“Thank you. I do not like sea water.”
Silence. She shifted a pebble with her shoe. It was a pretty buttoned shoe of gray kid over a white silk stocking, but very old-fashioned. The hem of her dress came within three of four inches of her ankles. Her hair blew forward, clouding her face a little. I wanted to brush it back.
“You speak like a Scandinavian sometimes.”
“'I cannot swim.' 'I do not like.'”
“What should I say?”
“I can’t swim. I don’t like.”
She made a little pout, then put on a very creditable foreign accent. “Does it mattair eef I am not Eenglish?”
Then she smiled like the Cheshire Cat; disappearing behind her humor.
“Does it matter if you tell me who you really are?”
“Give me your hand. I will read your fortune. You may sit a little closer, but you must not wet my dress.”
I gave her my hand. She held it tightly by the wrist and traced the palmistry lines with the forefinger of her free hand. I was able to see the shape of her breasts at the bottom of the opening in her dress, very pale skin, the highly caressable beginning of soft curves. It was strange; she managed to suggest that this hackneyed sexgambit—one I had used myself on occasion—was rather daring, mama-defying. Her fingertip ran innocently yet suggestively over my palm. She began to “read.”
“You will have a long life. You will have three children. At about forty years old you will nearly die. You are quite sensitive, but you are also very treacherous. There are… there are many treacheries in your life. Sometimes you betray yourself. Sometimes you betray those who love you.”
“Why do I betray?”
She looked seriously up at me. “The palm says what is. Not why it is.”
“Can I read yours?”
“I have not finished. You will never be rich. Beware of horses, strong drink and old women. You will make love to many girls, but you will love only one, and you will marry her and be very happy.”
“In spite of nearly dying at forty.”
“Because you nearly die at forty. Here is where you nearly die. The happiness line is very, very strong after that.”
She let go of my hand.
“Now can I read yours?”
She hesitated a moment, then put her small hand in mine, and I pretended to read it. I tried to read it quite seriously in one way—the Sherlock Holmes way. But even that great master at detecting in a second Irish maidservants from Brixton with a mania for boating and bullseyes would have been baffled. However, Lily’s hands were very white, very smooth, very unblemished; whatever else she was she was not a maidservant from anywhere.
“You are taking a long time, Mr. Urfe.”
“My name is Nicholas.”
“May I call you Nicholas?”
“If I may call you… ?”
“You may call me Lily, Nicholas. But you may not sit for hours pretending to read my hand.”
“It’s a very difficult hand to read. Very obscure. I can only see one thing clearly.”
“And what is that?”
“It’s extremely nice to look at and to hold.”
She snatched it away. “There. You prove what I said. You are treacherous.”
“Let me have it back. I’ll be serious.” But she shook her head, and put both her hands behind her, and turned, and looked at me with a perfectly done pert Edwardian rebelliousness. A wisp of hair blew across her face; the wind kindled in her clothes a wantonness, bared her throat, so that she suddenly looked very young, absurdly young, seventeen; a world away from an avenging goddess. I remembered what Conchis had said about the original Lily’s gentleness and mischievousness, and I thought how wonderfully well he had cast this Lily—there was, it seemed to me, a natural teasing obliquity in her that couldn’t be acted. Not when she was so close, in daylight; she seemed far less sophisticated than she had on the terrace the night before. All the condescension had disappeared. Impulsively she thrust her hand back out at me. I began to read it.
“I see all the usual things. Long life. Happiness. Children. And then… intelligence. A lot of intelligence. Some heart. And yes—great acting ability, combined with a strong sense of humor. And this line means that you love mystery. But I think the acting’s strongest.”
A little white cloud floated across the sun, casting shadow over the beach. She took her hand away, and stared down at it in her lap.
“I said. A long life.”
“But I am dead. One cannot die twice.”
I touched her arm. “You’re the most living dead person I’ve ever met.”
She did not smile; there was swiftly, too swiftly, something very cold and gray in her eyes, a silent trouble.
“Oh come on. There is a limit.”
“Death is the limit.”
I knew she must be improvising her moods and dialogue with me. The cloud had come; she had brought in death. It was time to call her bluff.
“You still do not understand.”
“Of course I’ll keep up the pretense in front of Maurice.”
“We are in front of Maurice.”
I thought for one mad moment that he had crept up behind us. I even looked round. There was no one; and no place where anyone could have hidden and overheard us.
“Lily—I admire him. I like him. I like this extraordinary masque of his. Very much. And I admire you for being so… faithful? But—”
She said abruptly, “I have no choice.”
This was a new tack. I thought I heard a faint note of regret. That he insisted on her keeping up the pretense at all times? On pain of dismissal, perhaps?
“Everything you say to me and I say to you, he hears, he knows.”
“You have to tell him?” I sounded incredulous.
She nodded, then stared out to sea and I knew that she was not unmasking at all. I began to feel exasperated; foiled.
“Are we talking about telepathy?”
“Telepathy and—” She broke off the sentence, and she shook her head.
“I cannot say any more.”
She opened out her sunshade, as if she was thinking of going away. It had little black tassels that hung from the ends of the ribs.
“Maurice would be angry. He would know.”
I gave an unbelieving sniff. I thought, then said, “Are you his mistress?”
She looked very genuinely shocked. “That is very impertinent. Very rude.” She turned her back on me and I grinned—at her skill, and remembering that naked “brother,” at her nerve.
“I just want to know where I am.”
“That was…” she dropped her voice and the wind almost carried the words away… “completely uncalled-for and most disgusting.”
Suddenly she stood up and began to walk quickly away over the shingle, towards the path that led up to the house. I ran after her and blocked her way. The sun had come out again. She stopped, her eyes down, then she looked up at me, hotly, apparently very near anger.
I said, “I am not disgusting.”
She burst out. “Why must you always know where you are? Why have you no imagination, no humor, no patience? You are like a child who tears a beautiful toy to pieces to see how it is made. You have no imagination… no poetry.” Her eyes stared at me intensely, as if she was going to cry. “That is why you are so treacherous.”
I spread the towel out before her feet, and knelt on it. Then looked up at her. “I beg forgiveness.”
“You make me angry. I want to be your friend and you make it so difficult.” She half turned away. But her voice was softer.
“Difficult to be friends if I can’t really know who you are.”
I sat back on my haunches. With a swift change of mood she lowered her shade and tapped me lightly on the shoulder with it.
“I deserve a knighthood now?”
“You deserve nothing now.”
She turned completely, as if she wanted to laugh; as if the effort of playing this “serious” exchange had exhausted her gravity. She ran, little stumbling steps, her skirt lifted with one hand, towards the jetty. I got up and lit a cigarette, and then went to where she was strolling up and down. There was more wind on the jetty, and she kept on having trouble with her hair; charming trouble. The ends of it floated up in the sunshine, silky wings of living light. In the end I held her closed sunshade for her, and she tried to hold her hair still. Her mood had veered abruptly again. She kept on laughing, fine white teeth catching the sunlight, hopping, swaying back when a wave hit the jetty end and sent up a little spray. Though once or twice she caught my arm, there was no physical coquettishness about her. She seemed absorbed in her game with the wind and the sea. A pretty, rather skittish schoolgirl in a gay striped dress.
I stole looks at the sunshade. It was newly made. I supposed a ghost from 1915 would have been carrying a new sunshade; but somehow I believed it would have been more authentic, though supernaturally less logical, if it had been old and faded.
Then the bell rang, from the house. It was that same ring I had heard the weekend before, in the rhythm of my own name. Lily stood still, and listened. Wind-distorted, the bell rang again.
“Nich-o-las.” She looked mock-grave. “It tolls for thee.”
I looked up through the trees.
“I can’t think why.”
“You must go.”
“Will you come with me?”
“I must wait.” The bell rang again. “You must go.”
I stood undecided. “Why must you wait?”
“Because it did not toll for me.”
“I think we ought to show that we’re friends again.”
She was standing close to me, holding her hair from blowing across her face. She gave me a severe look.
“Mr. Urfe!” She said it exactly as she had the night before. The same chilly over-precise pronunciation. “Are you asking me to commit osculation?”
And it was perfect; a mischievous girl of 1915 poking fun at a feeble Victorian joke; a lovely double remove; the linguistic-dramatic equivalent of some complicated ballet-movement; and she looked absurd and lovely as she did it. She pushed her cheek forward, and I hardly had time to touch it with my lips before she had skipped back. I stood and watched her bent head.
“I’ll be as quick as I can.” I handed her back her sunshade; gave her what I trusted was both a hopelessly attracted and a totally unduped look.
Turning every so often, I climbed up the path. Twice she waved from the jetty. I came over the steep rise and started through the last of the thirmed trees towards the house. I could see Maria standing by the music-room door, at the bell. But I hadn’t taken two steps across the gravel before the world split in half. Or so it seemed.
A figure had appeared on the terrace, not fifty feet away, facing and above me. It was Lily. It couldn’t be her, but it was her. The same hair blew about in the wind; the dress, the sunshade, the figure, the face, everything was the same. She was staring out to sea, over my head, totally ignoring me.
It was a wild, dislocating, disactualizing, shock. Yet I knew within the first few seconds that although I was obviously meant to believe that this was the same girl as the one on the beach, it was not. But it was so like her that it could be only one thing—a twin sister. There were two Lilies in the field. The night before, the nymph, was explained. But I had no time to think. Another figure appeared beside the Lily on the terrace.
It was a man, much too tall to be Conchis. At least, I presumed it was a man; perhaps “Apollo” or “Robera Foulkes"—or even “de Deukans.” I couldn’t see, because the figure was all in black, shrouded in the sun, and wearing the most sinister mask I had ever seen: the head of an enormous black dog, or jackal, with a long muzzle and high pointed ears. They stood there, the possessor and the possessed, looming death and the frail maiden. There was almost immediately, after the first visual shock, something vaguely grotesque about it; it had the overdone macabreness of a horror-magazine illustration. It certainly touched on some terrifying archetype; but it shocked common sense as well as the unconscious.
Again, I had no feeling of the supernatural, no feeling that this was more than another nasty twist in the masque; a black inversion of the scene on the beach. That does not mean I was not frightened. I was, and very frightened; but my fear came from a feeling that anything might happen. That there were no limits in this masque, no normal social laws or conventions.
Two things happened in the moments I stood there. Maria came towards me; and the two figures swiftly withdrew, as if to avoid any chance of her seeing them. Lily’s doppelganger was pulled back imperiously by the black hand on her shoulder. At the very last moment she looked down at me, but her face was expressionless.
I began to run back towards the point on the path where I could see down to the beach. I flung a look over my shoulder. The figures on the terrace had disappeared. I came to the bend from which I could see down, from where, not half a minute before, I had watched the Lily on the beach last wave. The jetty was deserted; that end of the small cove was empty. I ran further down, to the little flat space with the bench, from where I could see almost all the beach arid most of the path up. I waited in vain for the mounting bright dress to appear. I thought, she must be hiding in the little cave, or among the rocks. I turned and began to climb swiftly back towards the house.
Maria was still waiting for me at the edge of the colonnade. She had been joined by a man. I recognized Hermes, the taciturn donkeydriver. He could have been the man in black, he had the right height; but he looked unruffled, a mere bystander. I said quickly in Greek, mia stigmi, one second, and walked indoors past them. Maria was holding out an envelope, but I took no notice. Once inside I raced up the stairs to Conchis’s room. I knocked on the door. No sound. I knocked again. Then I tried the handle. It was locked.
I went back down, and paused in the music room to light a cigarette; and to take a grip on myself.
“Where is Mr. Conchis?”
“Then eine mesa.” He’s not in. Maria raised the envelope again, but I still ignored it.
“Where’s he gone?”
“Ephyge me ti varca.” Gone with the boat.
She didn’t know. I took the envelope. It had Nicholas written on it. Two folded papers.
One was a note from Conchis.
Dear Nicholas, I am obliged to ask you to entertain yourself until this evening. Unexpected business requires my presence urgently in Nauplia. M.C.
The other was a radiogram. There was no telephone or cable line to the island, but the Greek coastguard service ran a small radio station.
It had been sent from Athens the evening before. I assumed that it would explain why Conchis had had to go. But then I had the third shock in three minutes. I saw the name at the end.
It read: BACK NEXT FRIDAY STOP THREE DAYS FREE STOP AIRPORT SIX EVENING STOP PLEASE COME ALISON.
It had been sent on Saturday afternoon. I looked up at Maria and Hermes. Their eyes were blank, simply watching.
“When did you bring this?”
Hermes answered. “Proi proi.” Early that morning.
“Who gave it to you to bring?” It was addressed to the school.
A professor. At Sarantopoulos’s, the last evening.
“Why didn’t you give it to me before?”
He shrugged and looked at Maria, and she shrugged. They seemed to imply that it had been given to Conchis. It was his fault. I read it again.
Hermes asked me if I wanted to send an answer; he was going back to the village. I said, no, no reply.
I stared at Hermes. His wall eye gave little hope. But I demanded, “Have you seen the two young ladies this morning?”
He looked at Maria. She said, Which girls? There are no girls here.
I looked at Hermes again. “You?”
“Ochi.” His head went back.
Maria said, “Ah, katalava, katalava.” She told Hermes I meant the little girls from the cottages. They do not come here, she said to me.
I muttered sarcastically, “Of course.” And left them.
I returned to the beach. All the time I had been watching the place where the path came up. Down there I went straight to the cave. No sign of her. A couple of minutes convinced me that she was not hiding anywhere among the rocks and trees. I looked up the little gulley. It might have been just possible to scramble up it and to get away to the east, but I found it difficult to believe. I climbed up some way to see if she was crouching behind a rock. But there was no one.
Lying in the sun, I tried to clear my mind about the two Lilys. The idea was clear. One twin came close to me, talked to me. She had a scar on her left wrist. The other did the doppelganger effects. I would never get close to her. I would see her on the terrace, in the starlight; but always at a distance. Twins—it was extraordinary, but I had begun to realize enough about Conchis to see that it was predictable. If one was very rich… why not the rarest? Why anything but the strangest and the rarest?
I tried to clear my mind about the Lily I knew, the scar-Lily, and myself. This morning, even last night, she had set out to make herself attractive to me; and if she was really simply Conchis’s mistress, I couldn’t imagine why he should allow it, and so obviously leave us alone together, unless he was much more profoundly perverted than I could bring myself seriously to suspect. In so many ways, it seemed all no more than a game. Lily gave strongly the impression that she was playing with me—amusing herself as much as acting a role at Conchis’s command. But all games, even the most literal, between a man and a woman are implicitly sexual; and I was clearly meant to feel that. If it was her job to seduce me, I should be seduced. I couldn’t do anything about it. I was a sensualist. I wanted to be seduced, to drink the wave.
Then Alison. Her telegram was like grit in the eye when one particularly wants to see clearly. I could guess what had happened. My letter of the Monday before would have arrived on Friday or Saturday in London, she would have been on a flight out of England that day, perhaps feeling fed up, half an hour to kill at Ellenikon—on impulse, a telegram. But it came like an intrusion—of dispensable reality into pleasure, of now artificial duty into instinct. I couldn’t leave the island, I couldn’t waste three days in Athens. I read the wretched thing again. Conchis must have read it too—there was no envelope. Demetriades would have opened it when it was first delivered at the school.
So Conchis would know I was invited to Athens—and would guess that this was the girl I had spoken about, the girl I must “swim towards.” Perhaps that was why he had had to go away. There might be arrangements to cancel for the next weekend. I had assumed that he would invite me again, give me the whole four days of half-term; that Alison would not take my lukewarm offer.
I came to a decision. A physical confrontation, even the proximity that Alison’s coming to the island might represent, was unthinkable. Whatever happened, if I met her, it must be in Athens. If he invited me, I could easily make some excuse and not go. But if he didn’t, then after all I would have Alison to fall back on. I won either way.
The bell rang again for me. It was lunchtime. I collected my things and drunk with the sun, walked heavily up the path. But I was covertly trying to watch in every direction, preternaturally on the alert for events in the masque. As I walked through the windswept trees to the house, I expected some strange new sight to emerge, to see both twins together—I didn’t know. I was wrong. There was nothing. My lunch was laid; one place. Maria did not appear. Under the muslin there was taramasalata, boiled eggs, and a plate of loquats.
By the end of the meal under the windy colonnade I had banned Alison from my mind and was ready for anything that Conchis might now offer. To make things easier, I went through the pine trees to where I had lain and read of Robert Foulkes the Sunday before. I took no book. But lay on my back and shut my eyes.
I was given no time to sleep. I had not been lying there five minutes before I heard a rustle and, simultaneously, smelt the sandalwood perfume. I pretended to be asleep. The rustle came closer. I heard the tiny crepitation of pine needles. Her feet were just behind my head. There was a louder rustle; she had sat down, and very close behind me. I thought she would drop a cone, tickle my nose. But in a very low voice she began to recite, half singing.
A frog he would a-wooing go,
Whether his mother would let him or no.
So off he marched with his nice new hat
And on the way he met with a rat.
And they came to the door of the mouse’s hall,
They gave a loud knock and they gave a loud call.
Pray, Mrs. Mouse, are you within?
Oh yes, Mr. Rat, I’m learning to spin.
Pray, Mrs. Mouse, will you give us some beer?
Young froggy and I are fond of good cheer.
But as they were all a merry-making
The cat and her kittens came tumbling in.
The cat she seized the rat by the crown;
The kittens they pulled the little mouse down.
This put poor frog in a terrible fright,
So he took his new hat and wished them good night.
As froggy was crossing him over a brook,
A lily-white duck gob-gobbled him up.
So that was an end of one, two and three,
All the time I was silent, and kept my eyes closed. She teased the words; I was the frog. A willing frog; the wind blew in the pines above, she said each couplet in her dry-sweet voice. Alter each couplet, she paused. A little silence, the wind. Then the next couplet.
She finished. Without moving, I opened my eyes and looked back. A fiendish green and black face, with protuberant fire-red eyes, glared down at me. I twisted over. She was holding a Chinese carnival mask on a stick, in her left hand. I saw the scar. I grinned, and she lowered the mask to her nose and stared over it at me with taunting eyes.
She had changed into a long-sleeved white blouse and a long gray skirt and her hair was tied back by a black velvet bow. I pushed the mask aside. She was smiling.
“I have come to gobble you up.”
“I haven’t even been a-wooing yet.” She half raised the mask again and looked at me over the top of it with silent incredulity. “Well, I haven’t been a-wooing you yet.”
“You cannot woo me.”
She put her hands round her enskirted knees and leant back and stared up through the branches at the sky. A fine throat. She was wearing absurd black lace-up boots.
“I saw your twin sister this morning.”
“That was very clever. I have no sister.”
“Yes you have. She was standing with a charming young man dressed in black. It was quite a shock. To see him dressed at all.” She looked down, and made no answer. “Where did you hide?”
“I went home.”
“Over there?” I pointed towards the sea.
“Yes. Over there.”
I knew it was no good; she wouldn’t lay down the other mask. I shrugged, smiled at her now rather serious, perceptibly watchful face and reached for my cigarettes. I offered her one, but she shook her head. She watched me strike the match and inhale a couple of times, and then suddenly reached out her hand.
“Have one.” I held out the packet, but she wanted the cigarette in my mouth.
She took the cigarette and pecked out her lips at it in the characteristic way of first smokers; took a little puff, then a bigger one. She coughed and buried her head in her knees, holding out the cigarette for me to take back.
She bowed her head again to cough. I looked at the nape of her neck, her slim shoulders, her total reality.
“Where did you train?”
“Train?” She spoke into her knees.
“Which drama school? RADA?”
She shook her head, then looked up and said, “I have never had a dramatic training.” I had the impression that this was the truth, a remark out of role; and that she sensed that I sensed it, and had to improvise defense. She went on quickly, “As far as I know.”
“Oh of course. You suffer from amnesia.” She was silent, looking straight ahead, as if in two minds about whether to play at being offended or not. She threw me a veiled look, then stared ahead again. I lay on my elbow. “I don’t mind in the least being made a fool of, but I can’t stand every attempt at natural curiosity being treated as bad taste.” I watched the side of her face. We were at right angles to each other. She remained chin on knees, eyes lost in the distance.
I said after a few moments, “You’re trying—very successfully—to captivate me. Why?”
She made no attempt this time to be offended. One realized progress more by omissions than anything else; by pretenses dropped.
She picked up the mask and held it like a yashmak again.
“I am Astarte, mother of mystery.” The piquant gray-violet eyes dilated, and I had to laugh.
I said, very gently, “Buffoon.”
The eyes blazed. “Blasphemy, oh foolish mortal!”
“Sorry, I’m an atheist.”
She put down the mask.
“And a traitor.”
“Why?” I remembered the reference to treachery during the palmreading.
“Astarte knows all.” She looked sideways at me, coolly, changing the mood. The cable from Alison.
There was silence. She kept hugging her knees, looking at the ground in front of her.
“He told you about this girl.”
“You told me.”
“I told you!”
“I was there when you told Maurice.”
“But we were in the garden. You can’t have been.”
She wouldn’t look at me. “She is Australian. You… lived with her as man and wife.”
“He told you, didn’t he?” Silence. “You know what her job is?” She nodded. “Let me hear you say it.”
“She is an air-hostess.”
“What is an air-hostess?”
“She looks after passengers on airplanes.”
“How do you know that? You died in 1916.”
“I asked Maurice.”
“I bet you’re good at chess.”
“I cannot play chess.”
“Why don’t you ask him about your own past?”
“I know I was born in London. We lived in a part of London called St. John’s Wood. Maurice lived in St. John’s Wood too. I studied music, I was in love with Maurice, we became engaged, but then the dreadful war came and he had to go away and I went to nurse and… I caught typhoid.” She was barely pretending this was true; simply reciting her “past,” with a small smile, in order to tease me.
I reached out and caught her hand. At the same time I heard the sound of a boat engine; she heard it as well, but her eyes gave nothing away.
She said in a small, cold voice. “Please let me go.”
“You’re hurting my wrist.”
“Promise not to go.”
There was a pause. She said, “I promise not to go.” I quickly raised her wrist and kissed it before she could react. She gave me an uncertain glance, then pulled her hand away, but not too roughly. She swiveled round and turned her back to me. I picked up a cone.
“I suppose he told you this Australian girl sent me a cable yesterday.” She did not answer. “If you said I could meet you, how shall I put it… officially?… here next weekend, or unofficially somewhere else… in the village? Anywhere. I shouldn’t go.” There was a pause. “I’m trying to be frank. Not treacherous.” Her back was silent. “I haven’t been very happy on Phraxos. Not until I came here, as a matter of fact. I’ve been, well, pretty lonely. I know I don’t love… this other girl… It’s just that she’s been the only person. That’s all.”
“Perhaps to her you seem the only person.”
“There are dozens of other men in her life. Honestly. There’ve been at least three more since I left England.” A runner ant zigzagged neurotically up the white back of her blouse and I reached and fficked it off. She must have felt me do it, but she did not turn. “It was nothing. Just an affaire.”
She didn’t speak for some time. I craned round to see her face. It was pensive. She said, “I know you did not believe what Maurice said last night. But it was true.” She glanced round solemnly at me. “I am not the real Lily. But I am not anyone impersonating the real Lily.”
“Because you’re dead?”
“Yes. I am dead.”
I crouched beside her, tapped her shoulder.
“Now listen. All this is very amusing. But it just doesn’t hold water. First there are several of you. You’ve got a twin sister, and you know it. You do this disappearing trick, and you have this charming line of mystery talk. Period dialogue and mythology and all the rest. But the fact is, there are two things you can’t conceal. You’re intelligent. And you’re as physically real as I am.” I pinched her arm, and she winced. “I don’t know whether you’re doing all this because you love the old man. Because he pays you. Because it amuses you. Because you’re his mistress. I don’t know where you and your sister and your other friends live. I don’t really care, because I think the whole idea’s original, it’s charming to be with you, I like Maurice, I think this is all fun… but don’t let’s take it all so bloody seriously. Play your charade. But for Christ’s sake don’t try to explain it.”
I knew I had called her bluff then; regained the initiative. I stood up behind her and lit a cigarette. She sat, looking down in front of her. After a moment her face went down on her knees. The boat came into the cove; Conchis had returned. I waited, thinking that I ought to have realized that a little force would do the trick. She was silent a long time. Then her shoulders gave a little shake. She was pretending to cry.
“Sorry. No go.”
She stared round. Her eyes were full of very real tears.
I knelt beside her.
She gave a rueful smile and brushed her eyes with the back of her wrist. I put my hand on her shoulder. I could feel the warmth of her skin through the linen; reached in my pocket and found a handkerchief. “Here.” She dabbed at her eyes, and looked at me, with a pleading simplicity.
“I tried. I tried very hard.”
“You’re wonderful… you’ve no idea how strange this experience has been. I mean, beautifully strange. Only, you know, it’s one’s sense of reality. It’s like gravity. One can resist it only so long.”
She handed me back my handkerchief, and we stood up, very close together. I knew I wanted very much to kiss her, to hold her. She looked at me, submissively.
“I want you to say nothing for… ten minutes. A little walk, if you like.”
“Nothing—not a word?”
“I promise. If you—”
But her warning finger was towards my lips. We turned and began to walk up the slope. After a time I took her hand.
I kept my side of the promise as firmly as I kept hold of her hand. She led me up through the trees to a point higher than where I had forced my way over the gulley the week before, to where there was a path across, with some rough-hewn steps. I had to let go of her hand because of the narrowness of the path, but at the top of the other side she waited and held it out for me to take again. We went over a rise and there, on the upper slope of a little hollow, stood a statue. I recognized it at once. It was a copy of the famous Poseidon fished out of the sea near Euboea at the beginning of the century. I had a postcard of it in my room. The superb man stood on a short raised floor of natural rock that had been roughly leveled off, his legs astride, his majestic forearm pointing south to the sea, as inscrutably royal, as mercilessly divine as any artifact in the history of man; a thing as modern as Henry Moore and as old as the rock it stood on. Even then I was still surprised that Conchis had not shown it to me before; I knew a replica like that must have cost a small fortune; and to keep it so casually, so in a corner, unspoken of… again I was reminded of de Deukans; and of that great dramatic skill, the art of timing one’s surprises.
We stood and looked at it. She smiled at my impressed face, then led me to a wooden seat under an almond tree on the slope behind the statue. One could see the distant sea over the treetops, but the statue was invisible to anyone close to the shore. We sat down in the shade. I tried to keep her hand, but she curled her legs up and sat twisted towards me with her arm along the back of the seat. I looked at my watch, then at her. The ten minutes was up; and she had recovered her poise, though like a landscape after rain her face seemed less aloof, forever less dry.
“May I talk?”
“If you want to.”
“You’d rather I didn’t.”
“Sometimes being together is nicer than talking together.”
“I only want to talk because it gives me an excuse to look at you.”
“Why not just look?”
I took up the same position as she had, and we stared at each other along the back of the seat. Her look was so steady, and in a way so newly interested in me, so unmasked, that it made me look down.
“I’m no good at the staring game.”
She shut her eyes then, with a faint smile, and it seemed to me that her face was slightly held out in the dappled shade for me to kiss. I bent forward. But she suddenly opened her eyes; they took the color of the light, were green for a moment too; we stared at each other, poised, very close, and then her hand came out and gently pushed me away.
“For friendship’s sake. Nothing else.” I glanced at the seawardfacing statue. “While his back’s turned.”
“No.” But her long smile was widening. I reached out and snicked a white thread that hung from her sleeve. “Why did you do that?”
“I’m going to put it in a bottle and see if it disappears.”
“And if it does?”
“Then I’ll know you’re a witch.” She turned and looked out to sea, as if there was a less agreeable meaning to things. “What’s your real name?”
“Don’t you like Lily?”
“Good Lord.” She looked. “You’ve just contracted 'not'.” She smiled, and repeated her question, still contracting 'not,' admitting surrender.
“Not much. It’s so Victorian.”
“What’s your sister’s name?”
She was silent. She looked at her hands, then out to sea again; made up her mind with a little sideways look.
“I cried as much because you hadn’t understood. Not because you had. But it’s not your fault.”
“That’s the oddest sister’s name I’ve ever heard.”
She would not look at me; or smile.
'You can’t understand how difficult things are.”
“I owe Maurice so much. I… it’s impossible, I can’t explain. But I owe him everything. So I must go on doing what he wants.”
“And your sister is the same?”
“I can’t lie to him. I don’t mean, I mustn’t. I mean literally—I can’t lie to him.” She sounded miserable, cornered.
“Anyone can lie to anyone. Can’t they?”
“You’ll understand tonight.”
“You’ll understand why I can’t lie to him even if I want to.”
I changed the attack. “Doing what he wants—what does he want?”
“What I’ve been being with you.”
“Mysterious?” She nodded. I sought for the word. “Flirtatious?” She nodded again. I glanced at her downcast face. “So you really don’t like me at all. You just lead me on because he wants you to.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Do you like me?”
A huge bronze maybug boomed round the upper branches of the almond. The statue stood in the sun and eternally commanded the wind and the sea. I watched her face in shadow, hanging a little.
“Yes.” It was very brief; reluctant. “I think so. I mean…” she sounded and looked genuinely shy. I reached out and touched her hand; then leant forward.
“When can I see you again? Not here. Somewhere else.”
She would not look up.
“I’m not allowed outside Bourani.”
“He won’t let you go out?”
She shook her head; I had misunderstood.
“I can’t let myself go out. For the same reason. Not being able to lie.”
“You mean he has some way of forcing the truth out of you?”
“Not forcing. It’s more complicated than that.” She said, but vaguely as if against her will. “I love him. Please don’t force me to explain.” She looked as if she was on the point of tears again. I took her hand and pressed it.
“When shall I see you again?”
“The next time Maurice asks you here.”
“We’re going away next week.”
“Where will you be?”
She got up and moved away down the slope towards the statue into the burning light at the center of the glade. I watched her slim shape for a moment, then joined her. She seemed miserably ill at ease. She sat on the rock pedestal, in the shadow of Poseidon; bent and picked a sprig of oregano and smelt it; would not look up.
“What does it matter? You’re going to Athens.”
I narrowed my eyes and looked down at her blonde head. There was a distinct, too distinct, tinge of jealousy in her voice; of hurtness. I sat down abruptly at her feet and forced her to look me in the eyes. She tried to look away, to look reserved and hurt, but I reached out my hand and turned her cheek back.
“Why do you do that?”
“I smell a rat. A rat about five feet eight—nine?—inches long.”
She smiled, at the joke, not at any bluff being called.
“I didn’t know such monsters existed.”
“Neither did I. Till this afternoon.”
Our eyes watched each other in some peculiar zone between teasing, unbelieving, believing, liking; I realized everything with her was in parentheses. What she was outside those parentheses I was no nearer to knowing.
“We’re being watched. Don’t look round.”
“Where? Who by? Maurice?”
“I always know when he’s watching. I can feel it.”
“You sound as if you owe him nothing but fear at the moment.”
She gave me a troubled look.
“It’s what I’m trying to say. Sometimes he makes me do things—I don’t really want to do.”
“He wants me to do what you said. Make you fall in love with me.”
“Wants you to? In love?” She nodded. “But why, for heaven’s sake? I mean I’m delighted that he does, but—” I was thinking of his advice about Alison. “God, it just doesn’t make sense.”
“He wants to lead you into a… sort of trap.”
“And you’re the bait?”
“Have to be the bait? Can’t say no?” She shook her head. “What is the trap?”
“I can’t tell you.”
I ran my hand over my hair. “I feel as if I’ve been too well spun in a game of blindman’s buff.”
She smiled, but very briefly. She crumbled the oregano leaves between her fingers. “Maurice doesn’t realize how quick you are. And that I can’t really cope this year. I knew as soon as I saw you last night.”
I gripped her knee. “This year?” She gave a little smile of confessed guilt; pushed my hand away.
“Last year it was… easy.”
“Well, well, well. That bastard Mitford.”
“Yes, lie was. What you say.”
“You made him fall in love with you?”
“No! Ugh. I couldn’t. It wasn’t necessary.”
“Tell me now.”
“Tell you what?”
“Your name. Where you come from at home. Who you are.”
She bit her lips as if my fierce interrogation was amusing. “No. I can’t. Not yet.”
“But you must. It’s ridiculous.”
Her eyes flicked back towards the house. “Please don’t look upset. Come and sit beside me. Smile a little. As if we’re just teasing and… flirting.” She put on an insincere smile as if to show me the way. I did as she said. “Now put your arm round my shoulders.” Her eyes were down and she looked embarrassed; she drew an unsentimental breath, as if it was all an ordeal.
“I don’t find this too unpleasant.”
“I do. I hate it.”
“You’ve been hiding it pretty well.”
“You’ve got to kiss me now. Please do it quickly.”
She turned her head rather desperately and closed her eyes. I Looked round at the trees quickly and then kissed her mouth. But it remained tightly held against mine except for one small tremor of response just as she pushed me away.
“I must go now. I’ve told you too much.”
She tipped some dust from her eyelashes with her fingertip; then removed my arm from her shoulders.
“I must go. And I wisif I could meet you outside Bourani. As if everything was normal.” She gave me a strange look, a moment’s gentle, frank smile, and stood up. I caught her hand.
“You have me under your spell. You know that?”
“You have me just as much in your power. If you tell Maurice what I’ve told you… will you seriously, very seriously, promise not to?”
“I promise, very seriously.”
“Don’t worry. Nothing.”
“You will understand tonight.”
Then the wretched bell rang, trisyllabically, for me again. I looked at my watch. It was teatime.
“You must go now as well.”
“To hell with the bell. Unless you come to tea too.”
“No. I must go. I know he’s watching us.”
“He said he would?”
She gave the slightest of nods, then looked urgently at me. “Please, please, if you like me at all, go away now.”
“Where will you go?”
“I shall stay here till you’ve gone.”
“But I’ll see you tonight.”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s not for me to—”
The bell rang peremptorily again.
“I must see you before next weekend.”
“I can’t promise anything.”
“I could meet you here. Not come to the house.”
“No, no. You mustn’t. Please. You must go.” She looked faintly distraught under the false smiles, and pushed me to make me go.
“I’ll come on Tuesday, no, damn, oh God and Wednesday I’ve got duties—tomorrow?”
“Kiss me goodbye.”
She hesitated, then leaning forward rather as she had that morning, she brushed my cheek with her lips; and whispered.
“The weekend after, I promise.”
She freed her hand almost with violence; but her look countermanded it. I went. At the gulley I waved, and she waved back. I said “Yes?” and she gave a minute nod; on the other side, I waved again. Then I saw Conchis.
He was some sixty yards away through the trees. His back to us, he appeared to be watching some bird high in the trees beyond him through binoculars. Alter a moment he lowered them, turned, and made as if he had just seen me. I glanced back. Lily was walking slowly to the east. She looked dejected.
As I walked over the carpet of pine needles to meet him, I decided to be slightly annoyed; and then, when I was close to him, something about his quizzical look made me change tactics. It obviously did not pay at Bourani to look or speak as one felt. I believed, in terms of believing a person’s eyes and voice and gestures, that Lily had not been lying to me—at least in regard to some strain, some tension in her relationship with Conchis; but I knew very well that she could have been lying to me.
“Good afternoon, Nicholas. I must apologize for that sudden absence. There has been a small scare on Wall Street.” Wall Street seemed to be on the other side of the universe; not just of the world. I tried to look concerned.
“I had to go to Nauplia to telephone Geneva.”
“I hope you’re not bankrupt.”
“Only a fool is ever bankrupt. And he is bankrupt forever. You have been with Lily?”
We began to walk back towards the house. I sized him up, and said, “And I’ve met her twin sister.”
He touched the powerful glasses around his neck. “I thought I heard a subalpine warbler. It is very late for them to be still on migration.” It was not exactly a snub, but a sort of conjuring trick: how to make the subject disappear.
“Or rather, seen her twin sister.”
He walked several steps on; I had an idea that he was thinking fast.
“Lily had no sister. Therefore has no sister here.”
“I only meant to say that I’ve been very well entertained in your absence.”
He did not smile, but inclined his head. We said nothing more. I had the distinct feeling that he was a chess master caught between two moves; immensely rapid calculation of combinations. Once he even turned to say something, but changed his mind.
We reached the gravel.
“Did you like my Poseidon?”
“Wonderful. I was going to—”
He put his hand on my arm and stopped me, and looked down, almost as if he was at a loss for words.
“She may be amused. That is what she needs. But not upset. For reasons you of course now realize. I am sorry for all this little mystery we spread around you before.” He pressed my arm, and went on.
“You mean the… amnesia?”
He stopped again; we had just come to the steps.
“Nothing else about her struck you?”
“Lots of things.”
He raised his eyebrows a fraction as if I surprised him, but went up the steps; put his glasses on the old cane couch, and turned back to the tea table. I stood by my chair, and gave him his own interrogative shake of the head.
“This obsessive need to assume disguises. To give herself false motivations. That did not strike you?”
I bit my lips, but his face, as he whisked the muslin covers away, was as straight as a poker.
“I thought that was rather required of her.”
“Required?” He seemed momentarily puzzled, then clear. “You mean that schizophrenia produces these symptoms?”
“Did you not mean that?” He gestured to me to sit. “I am sorry. Perhaps you are not familiar with all this psychiatric jargon.”
“Yes I am. But—”
“I know what schizophrenia is. But you said she did everything… because you wanted it.”
“Of course. As one says such things to a child. To encourage them to obey.”
“But she isn’t a child.”
“I speak metaphorically. As of course I was speaking last night.”
“But she’s very intelligent.”
He gave me a professional look. “The correlation between high intelligence and schizophrenia is well known.”
I ate my sandwich, and then grinned at him.
“Every day I spend here I feel my legs get a little longer. There’s so much pulling on them.”
He looked amazed, even a shade irritated. “I am most certainly not pulling your leg at the moment. Far from it.”
“I think you are. But I don’t mind.”
He pushed his chair away from the table and made a new gesture; pressing his hands to his temples, as if he had been guilty of some terrible mistake. It was right out of character; and I knew he was acting.
“I was so sure that you had understood by now.”
“I think I have.”
He gave me a piercing look I was meant to believe, and didn’t.
“There are personal reasons I cannot go into now why I should—even if I did not love her as a daughter—feel the gravest responsibility for the unfortunate creature you have been with today.” He poured hot water into the silver teapot. “She is one of the principal, the principal reason why I come to Bourani and its isolation. I thought you had realized that by now.”
“Of course I had… in a way.”
“This is the one place where the poor child can roam a little and indulge her fantasies.” I was thinking back fast—what had she said… I owe him so much… I can’t explain… I can’t lie to him. I thought, the cunning little bitch; they’re throwing me backwards and forwards like a ball. I felt annoyed again, and at the same time fascinated. I smiled.
“Are you trying to tell me she’s mad?”
“Mad is a meaningless nonmedical word. She suffers from schizophrenia.”
“So she believes herself to be your long-dead fiancée?”
“I gave her that role. It was deliberately induced. It is quite harmless and she enjoys playing it. It is in some of her other roles that she is not so harmless.”
“Wait.” He disappeared indoors and came back a minute later with a book. “This is a standard textbook on psychiatry.” He searched for a moment. “Allow me to read a passage. 'One of the defining characteristics of schizophrenia is the formation of delusions which may be elaborate and systematic, or bizarre and incongruous.” He looked up at me. “Lily falls into the first category.” He went on reading. “They, these delusions, have in common the same tendency to relate always to the patient; they often incorporate elements of popular prejudice against certain groups of activities; and they take the general form of self-glorification or feelings of persecution. One patient may believe she is Cleopatra, and will expect all around her to conform to her belief, while another may believe that her own family have decided to murder her and will therefore make even their most innocent and sympathetic statements and actions conform to her fundamental delusion.' And here. 'There are frequently large areas of consciousness untouched by the delusion. In all that concerns them, the patient may seem, to an observer who knows the full truth, bewilderingly sensible and logical.”
He took a gold pencil from his pocket, marked the passages he had read and passed the open the book over the table to me. I glanced at the book, then still smiling, at him.
“Thank you.” I put the book down. “Mr. Conchis—her sister?”
He smiled. “Yes, of course, her sister.”
“Yes, yes, and the others. Nicholas—here, Lily is queen. For a month or two we all conform to the needs of her life. Of her happiness.”
And he had that, very rare in him, gentleness, solicitude, which only Lily seemed able to evoke. I realized that I had stopped smiling; I was beginning to lose my sense of total sureness that he was inventing a new explanation of the masque. So I smiled again.
“Do children in England still play that game…” he put his hand over his eyes, at a loss for the word… “cache-cache?”
“Hide-and-seek? Yes, of course.”
“Some hide?” He looked at me to guess the rest.
“And I seek?”
“The hiders must have a seeker. That is the game. A seeker who is not too cruel. Not too observant.”
Once again I was made to feel tactless, and to ask myself why. He had provoked this new explanation.
He went on. “Lily’s real name is Julie Holmes. You must in no circumstance reveal to her that I have told you this.” His eyes bored gravely into me. “Four or five years ago her case attracted a great deal of medical attention. It is one of the best documented in recent psychiatric history.”
“Could I read about it?”
“Not now. It would not help her—and it would be merely to satisfy your curiosity. Which can wait.” He went on. “She was in danger of becoming, like many such very unusual cases, a monster in a psychiatric freak show. That is what I am now trying to guard against.”
“Why exactly are you telling me these things now?”
“It is a decision I took coming back from Nauplia. Nicholas, I made a foolish miscalculation when I invited you here last weekend.”
“Yes. You are—quite simply—more intelligent than I realized. A good deal more so. And too much intelligence can spoil our little… amusements here.”
I had the now familiar feeling that came in conversations at Bourani; of ambiguity; of not knowing quite what statements applied to—in this case, whether to the assumption that Lily really was a schizophrenic or to the assumption that of course I knew that her “schizophrenia” was simply a new hiding place in the masque.
“I’m sorry.” He raised his hand, kind man; I was not to excuse myself. I became the dupe again. “This is why you won’t let her go outside Bourani?”
“Couldn’t she go out… “I looked at the tip of my cigarette… “under supervision?”
“She is, in law, certifiable. And incurable. That is the personal responsibility I have undertaken. To ensure that she never enters an asylum, or a clinic, again.”
“But you let her wander around. She could easily escape.”
He raised his head in sharp contradiction. “Never. Her nurse never leaves her.”
“He is very discreet. It distresses her to have him always by her, especially here, so he keeps well in the background. One day you will see him.”
I thought, yeah, with his jackal-head on. It would not wash; but the extraordinary thing was that I knew, and more than half suspected that Conchis knew that I knew, it would not wash. I hadn’t played chess for years; but I remembered that the better you got, the more it became a game of false sacrifices. He was testing not my powers of belief, but my powers of unbelief; assaying my incredulity. I kept my face innocent.
“This is why you keep her on the yacht?”
“I thought you kept her on a yacht.”
“That is her little secret. Allow her to keep it.”
I smiled. “So this is why my two predecessors came here. And were so quiet about it.”
“John was an excellent… seeker. But Mitford was a disaster. You see, Nicholas, he was totally tricked by Lily. In one of her persecution phases. As usual I, who devote my life to her, became the persecutor. And Mitford attempted one night—in the crudest and most harmful way—to, as he put it, rescue her. Of course her nurse stepped in. There was a most disagreeable fracas. It upset her deeply. If I sometimes seem irritable to you, it is because I am so anxious not to see any repetition of last year.” He raised his hand. “I mean nothing personal. You are very intelligent, and you are a gentleman; they are both qualities that Mitford was without.”
I rubbed my nose. I thought of other awkward questions I could ask, and decided not to ask them; to play the dupe. The constant harping on my intelligence made me as suspicious as a crow. There are three types of intelligent person: the first so intelligent that being called very intelligent must seem natural and obvious; the second sufficiently intelligent to see that he is being flattered, not described; the third so little intelligent that he will believe anything. I knew I belonged to the second kind. I could not absolutely disbelieve Conchis; all he said could—just—be true. I supposed there were still poor little rich psychotics kept out of in’stitutions by their doting relations; but Conchis was the least doting person I had ever met. It didn’t wash, it didn’t wash. There were various things about Lily, looks, emotional non sequiturs, those sudden tears, that in retrospect seemed to confirm his story. They proved nothing. Her schizophrenia apart, though, his new explanation of what went on at Bourani made more sense; a group of idle people, talented and bored international rich, and a man like Conchis and a place like Bourani…
“Well,” he said, “do you believe me?”
“Do I look as if I don’t?”
“We are none of us what we look.”
“You shouldn’t have offered me that suicide pill.”
“You think all my prussic acid is ratafia?”
“I didn’t say that. I’m your guest, Mr. Conchis. Naturally I take your word.”
For a moment, masks seemed to drop on both sides; I was looking at a face totally without humor and he, I suppose, was looking at one without generosity. An at last proclaimed hostility; a clash of wills. We both smiled, and we both knew we smiled to hide a fundamental truth: that we could not trust each other one inch.
“I wish to say two final things, Nicholas. Whether you believe what I have said is comparatively unimportant. But you must believe one thing. Lily is susceptible and very dangerous—both things without realizing it herself. Like a very fine blade, she can easily be hurt—but she can also hurt. She can hurt you, as I know to my cost, because she can deceive you again and again, if you are foolish enough to let her. We have all had to learn to remain completely detached emotionally from her. Because it is on our emotions that she will prey—if we give her the chance.”
I remained staring at the edge of the tablecloth.
“And the second thing?”
“Now we have had this little talk, please let us agree to continue as if we had not had it. I will behave as if I had not told you the secret. And I want you to do the same.”
He stood up and held out his hand, which I shook.
“Now. Do you feel like some hard work?”
“No. But lead me to it.”
He took me to one of the corners of the vegetable garden. Part of the supporting wall had collapsed, and he wanted it built up again, under his supervision. I had to break the dry earth with a pickaxe, shovel it back, lift the heavy stones, arrange them as he directed, packing them with earth, which he watered, his sole contribution apart from giving orders, to bind the wall together again. The wind kept blowing and it was cooler than usual; but I was soon sweating like a pig. I knew the wall must have collapsed sometime back, and I thought it peculiar that a man as rich as Conchis could not afford a few drachmas to hire a man from the village to do it for him. I guessed the real reason: I had to be kept busy, out of the way. All the time since leaving Lily I had listened for the sound of the boat, or a boat. But there had been none. I hadn’t forgotten that I was going to communicate with other worlds that evening; a really complicated episode in the masque was no doubt to be mounted. That was why I was being kept so occupied. And all the time, too, I had Alison’s telegram in my hip-pocket; but the one thing I longed for was to hear from him that I was after all to be his guest over halfterm.
I gave myself a break to have a cigarette. Conchis, in dark blue jumper and shorts, looked sardonically down at me, hand on hips.
“Labor is man’s crowning glory.”
“Not this man’s.”
“I quote Marx.”
I raised my hands. The pickaxe handle had been rough.
“I quote blisters.”
“Never mind. You have earned your passage.”
“Tonight.” He remained staring down at me, as if I amused him; as clowns amuse philosophers; but also a little as if he felt kinder towards me.
“Your telegram was opened when it arrived. I read it. This is… ?”
I nodded curtly. “I shan’t go.”
“Of course you will go.”
“I don’t want to meet her any more. It was only loneliness before.”
He stared down at me. I was sitting against a pine trunk.
“I shall be away next weekend. We shall all be away. Otherwise I should have been very happy to invite you both.”
In spite of being warned, I felt a shock of disappointment, which I tried to hide.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“But if all goes well, we shall be here the week after.”
“In need of a seeker?”
“In need of a seeker.”
He contemplated me; reverted tacitly to Alison.
“A woman is like a keel.”
“There are keels and keels.”
“What you told me of her sounded very admirable. Very much what you should have. What you need.”
I saw that I had been neatly trapped into not asking him why in that case he had set Lily as bait for me. It could always be dismissed as persecution mania.
“It’s really my business, Mr. Conchis. My decision.”
“Of course. You are quite right. Please.” He went briskly away to get some more water, and when he came back I had set to again, expending on the job my sullen annoyance at not being invited. Half an hour later the wall was back to something like its proper shape. I carried the tools to a shed beside the cottage and we went back round the front of the house. Conchis said he was going down to check that the boat was securely moored; I would no doubt want to wash.
“Very well. Thank you.”
I started off, wishing I’d kept my mouth shut, when he said my name. I turned, and he came up to me across the gravel. He gave me a powerful yet oddly paternal look.
“Go to Athens, Nicholas.” He glanced towards the trees to the east. “Guai a chi la tocca.”
I had very little Italian, but I knew what he meant.
He moved away before I could answer; and in an odd way I knew he was saying that she was not for me because she was not for me; not because she was a schizophrenic, or a ghost, or anything else in the masque. It was a sort of ultimate warning-off; but you can’t warn off a man with gambling in his ancestry.
I went down to the jetty. The boat was already tied very carefully and securely; and he had had ten minutes with Lily, I supposed, to find out exactly what had gone on between us.
Lily did not appear before dinner, or after dinner; and I became increasingly impatient. Tense would be a better word. I was tense in expectation of a new “episode,” I was tense in expectation of Lily’s taking part in it, and I was tense in expectation of the difficulties Conchis was putting in the way of my meeting her again. I realized that he had so maneuvered me that I could not risk offending him again about the real machinery behind the “visitors” or about Lily.
The dinner was, for me, uneasily silent. The breeze made the lamp tremble and glow and fade intermittently, and this seemed to increase the general restlessness. Only Conchis seemed calm and at ease.
After the meal had been cleared he poured me a drink from a small carboy-shaped bottle. It was clear, the color of straw.
“Raki. From Chios. It is very strong. I want to intoxicate you a little.”
All through the dinner he had also been pressing me to drink more of the heavy rosé from Antikythera.
“To make me talk?”
“To make you receptive.”
“I read your pamphlet.”
“And thought it was nonsense.”
“No. Difficult to verify.”
“Verification is the only scientific criterion of reality. That does not mean that there may not be realities that are unverifiable.”
“Did you get any response from your pamphlet?”
“A great deal. From the wrong people. From the miserable vultures who prey on the human longing for the solution of final mysteries. The spiritualists, the clairvoyants, the cosmopaths, the summerlanders, the blue-islanders, the apportists—all that galêre.” He looked grim. “They responded.”
“But not other scientists?”
I sipped the raki; it was like fire. Almost pure alcohol.
“But you spoke about having proof.”
“I had proof. But it was not easily communicable. And I later decided that it was better that it was not communicable, except to a few.”
“Who you elect.”
“Whom I elect. This is because mystery has energy. It pours energy into whoever seeks the answer to it. If you disclose the solution to the mystery you are simply depriving the other seekers…” he emphasized the special meaning the word now had for me… “of an important source of energy.”
“No scientific progress?”
“Of course scientific progress. The solution of the physical problems that face man—that is a matter of technology. But I am talking about the general psychological health of the species, man. He needs the existence of mysteries. Not their solution.”
I finished the raki. “This is fantastic stuff.”
He smiled, as if my adjective might be more accurate than I meant; raised the bottle. I nodded.
“One more glass. Then no more. La dive bouteille is also a poison.”
“And the experiment begins?”
“The experience begins. Now I should like you to lie in one of the lounging chairs. Just here.” He pointed behind him. I went and pulled the chair there. “Lie down. There is no hurry. I want you to look at a certain star. Do you know Cygnus? The Swan? That crossshaped constellation directly above?”
I realized that he was not going to take the other chaise longue; and suddenly guessed.
“Is this… hypnosis?”
“Yes, Nicholas. There is no need to be alarmed.”
Lily’s warning: Tonight you will understand. I hesitated, then lay back.
“I’m not. But I don’t think I’m very amenable. Someone tried it at Oxford.”
“We shall see. It is a harmony of wills. Not a contest. Just do as I suggest.”
“All right.” At least I did not have to stare into those naturally mesmeric eyes. I could not back down; but forewarned is forearmed.
“You see the Swan?”
“And to the left a very bright star, one of a very obtuse triangle.”
“Yes.” I drained down the last of the raki in a gulp; almost choked, then felt it flush through my stomach.
“That is a star known as alpha Lyrae. In a minute I shall ask you to watch it closely.” The blue-white star glittered down out of the wind-cleared sky. I looked at Conchis, who was still sitting at the table, but had turned with his back to the sea to face me. I grinned in the darkness.
“I feel I’m on the couch.”
“Good. Now lie back. Contract, then relax your muscles a little. That is why I have given you the raki. It will help. Lily will not appear tonight. So clear your mind of her. Clear your mind of the other girl. Clear your mind of all your perplexities, all your longings. All your worries. I bring you no harm. Nothing but good.”
“Worries. That’s not so easy.” He was silent. “I’ll try.”
“It will help if you look at that star. Do not shift your eyes from it. Lie back.”
I began to stare at the star; moved a little to make myself more comfortable. I felt the cloth of my coat with my hand. The digging had made me tired, I began to guess its real purpose, and it was good to lie back and stare up and wait. There was a long silence, several minutes. I shut my eyes for a while, then opened them. The star seemed to float in its own small sea of space, a minute white sun. I could feel the alcohol, but I was perfectly conscious of everything around me, far too conscious to be amenable.
I was perfectly conscious of the terrace, I was lying on the terrace of a house on an island in Greece, there was wind, I could even hear the faint sound of the waves on the shingle down at Moutsa. Conchis began to speak.
“Now I want you to watch the star, I want you to relax all your muscles. It is very important that you should relax all your muscles. Tense a little. Now relax. Tense… relax. Now watch the star. The name of. the star is alpha Lyrae.”
I thought, my God, he is trying to hypnotize me; and then, I must play by the rules, but I’ll lie doggo and pretend I am hypnotized.
“Are you relaxing yes you are relaxing.” I noted the lack of punctuation. “You are tired so you are relaxing. You are relaxing. You are relaxing. You are watching a star you are watching…” the repetition. I remembered that from before. An insane Welshman from Jesus, after a party. But with him it had developed into a staring game.
“I say you are watching a star a star and you are watching a star. It is that gentle star, white star, gentle star…”
He went on talking, but all the curtness, the abruptness of his ordinary manner had disappeared. It was as if the lulling sound of the sea, the feel of the wind, the texture of my coat, and his voice dropped out of my consciousness. There was a stage when I was myself, looking at the star, still lying on the terrace; I mean aware of lying and watching the star, if not of anything else.
Then came a strange illusion; not that I was looking up, but down into space, as one looks down a well.
Then there was no clearly situated and environmented self; there was the star, not closer but with something of the isolation a telescope gives; not one of a pattern of stars, but itself, floating in the blue-black breath of space, in a kind of void. I remember very clearly this sense, this completely new strange perceiving of the star as a ball of white light both breeding and needing the void around it; of, in retrospect, a related sense that I was exactly the same, suspended in a dark void. I was watching the star and the star was watching me. We were poised, exactly equal weights, if one can think of awareness as a weight, held level in a balance. This seemed to endure and endure, I don’t know how long, two entities equally suspended in a void, equally opposite, devoid of any meaning or feeling. There was no sensation of beauty, of morality, of divinity, of physical geometry; simply the sensation of the situation. As an animal might feel.
Then a rise of tension. I was expecting something. The waiting was a waiting for. I did not know if it would be audible or visible, which sense. But it was trying to come, and I was trying to discover its coming. There seemed to be no more star. Perhaps he had made me close my eyes. The void was all. I remember two words, Conchis must have spoken them: glisten, and listen. There was the glistening, listening void; darkness and expectation. Then there came a wind on my face, a perfectly physical sensation. I tried to face it, it was fresh and warm, but I suddenly realized, with an excited shock, not at anything but the physical strangeness of it, that it was blowing on me from all directions at the same time. I raised my hand, I could feel it. The dark wind, like draft from thousands of invisible fans, blowing in on me. And again this seemed to last for a long time.
At some point it began imperceptibly to change. The wind became light. I don’t think there was any visual awareness of this, it was simply that I knew the wind had become light (perhaps Conchis had told me the wind was light) and this light was intensely pleasing, a kind of mental sunbathing after a long dark winter, an exquisitely agreeable sensation both of being aware of light and attracting it. Of having power to attract and power to receive this light.
From this stage I moved to one where it dawned on me that this was something intensely true and revealing; this being something that drew all this light upon it. I mean it seemed to reveal something deeply significant about being; I was aware of existing, and this being aware of existing became more significant than the light, just as the light had become more significant than the wind. I began to get a sense of progress, that I was transforming, as a fountain in a wind is transformed in shape; an eddy in the water. The wind and the light became mere secondaries, roads to the present state, this state without dimensions or sensations; awareness of pure being. Or perhaps that is a solipsism; it was simply a pure awareness.
That lasted; and then changed, like the other states. This state was being imposed on me from outside, I knew this, I knew that although it did not flow in on me like the wind and the light, it nevertheless flowed, though flowed was not the word. There was no word, it arrived, descended, penetrated from outside. It was not an immanent state, it was a conferred state, a presented state. I was a recipient. But once again there came this strange surprise that the emitters stood all around me. I was not receiving from any one direction, but from all directions. Though once again, direction is too physical a word. I was having feelings that no language based on concrete physical objects, on actual feeling, can describe. I think I was aware of the metaphoricality of what I felt. I knew words were like chains, they held me back; and like walls with holes in them. Reality kept rushing through; and yet I could not get out to fully exist in it. This is interpreting what I struggled to remember feeling; the act of description taints the description.
I had the sense that this was the fundamental reality and that reality had a universal mouth to tell me so; no sense of divinity, of communion, of the brotherhood of man, of anything I had expected before I became suggestible. No pantheism, no humanism. But something much wider, cooler and more abstruse. That reality was endless interaction. No good, no evil; no beauty, no ugliness. No sympathy, no antipathy. But simply interaction. The endless solitude of the one, its total enislement from all else, seemed the same thing as the total interrelationship of the all. All opposites seemed one, because each was indispensable to each. The indifference and the indispensability of all seemed one. I suddenly knew, but in a new hitherto unexperienced sense of knowing, that all else exists.
Knowing, willing, being wise, being good, education, information, classification, knowledge of all kinds, sensibility, sexuality, these things seemed superficial. I had no desire to state or define or analyze this interaction, I simply wished to constitute it—not even “wished to"—I constituted it. I was volitionless. There was no meaning. Only being.
But the fountain changed, the eddy whirled. It seemed at first to be a kind of reversion to the stage of the dark wind breathing in on me from every side, except that there was no wind, the wind had been only a metaphor, and now it was millions, trillions of such consciousnesses of being, countless nuclei of hope suspended in a vast solution of hazard, a pouring out not of photons, but noons, consciousness-of-being particles. An enormous and vertiginous sense of the innumerability of the universe; an innumerability in which transience and unchangingness seemed integral, essential and uncontradictory. I felt like a germ that had landed, like the first penicillin microbe, not only in a culture where it was totally at home, totally nourished; but in a situation in which it was infinitely significant. A condition of acute physical and intellectual pleasure, a floating suspension, a being perfectly adjusted and related; a quintessential arrival. An intercognition.
At the same time a parabola, a fall, an ejaculation; but the transience, the passage, had become an integral part of the knowledge of the experience. The becoming and the being were one.
I think I saw the star again for a while, the star as it simply was, hanging in the sky above, but now in all its being-and-becoming. It was like walking through a door, going all round the world, and then walking through the same door but a different door.
Then darkness. I remember nothing.
Someone had knocked on the door. I was staring at a wall. I was in bed, I was wearing pajamas, my clothes were folded on the chair. It was daylight, very early, the first thin sunlight on the tops of the pines outside. I looked at my watch. Just before six o'clock.
I sat on the edge of the bed. I had a black plunge of shame, of humiliation; of having been naked in front of Conchis, of having been in his power; even worse, others could have seen. Lily. I saw myself lying there and all of them sitting and grinning while Conchis asked me questions and I gave naked answers. But Lily—he must also hypnotize her; this was why she could not lie.
Svengali and Trilby.
Then the mystical experience itself, still so vivid, as clear as a learnt lesson, as the details of a drive in new country, hit me. I saw how it had been done. There would have been some drug, some hallucinogen in the raki. He had suggested these things, these stages of knowledge, he had induced them as I lay there.
The richness of what I remembered; the potential embarrassment of what I could not; the good of it and the evil of it; these two things made me sit for minutes with my head in my hands, torn between resentment and gratitude.
I went and washed, stared at myself in the mirror, went down to the coffee the silent Maria had waiting for me. I knew Conchis would not appear, Maria would say nothing. Nothing was to be explained, everything was planned to keep me in suspense until I came again.
As I walked back through the trees, I tried to assess the experience; why, though it was so beautiful, so intensely real, it seemed also so sinister. It was difficult in that early morning light and landscape to believe that anything on earth was sinister, yet the feeling persisted with me and it was not only one of humiliation. It was one of new danger, of meddling in darker, stranger things than needed to be meddled with. It also made Lily’s emotional fear of Conchis much more convincing than his pseudo-medical pity for her; she might just be schizophrenic, but he was proven a hypnotist. But this was to assume that they were not working together to trick me; and then I began clawing, in a panic of memory, through all my meetings with Conchis, trying to see if he could ever have hypnotized me before, without my being aware of it .
I remembered bitterly that only the afternoon before I had said to Lily that my sense of reality was like gravity. For a while I was like a man in space, whirling through madness. I remembered Conchis’s trancelike state during the Apollo scene. Had he hypnotized me into imagining it all? Had he willed me to go to sleep when I did that afternoon, so conveniently placed for the Foulkes apparition? Had there ever been a man and a girl standing there? Lily even… but I recalled the feel of her skin, of those ungiving lips. I got back to earth. But I was badly shaken.
It was not only the being hypnotized by Conchis that unanchored me; in a subtler but similar way I knew I had been equally hypnotized by Lily. I had always believed, and not only out of cynicism, that a man and a woman could tell in the first ten minutes whether they wanted to go to bed together; and that the time that passed after those first ten minutes represented a tax, which might be worth paying if the article promised to be really enjoyable, but which nine times out of ten became rapidly excessive. It wasn’t only that I foresaw a very steep bill with Lily; she shook my whole theory. She had a certain exhalation of surrender about her, as if she was a door waiting to be pushed open; but it was the darkness beyond that held me. Perhaps it was partly a nostalgia for that extinct Lawrentian woman of the past, the woman inferior to man in everything but that one great power of female dark mystery and beauty: the brilliant, virile male and the dark, swooning female. The essences of the two sexes had become so confused in my androgynous twentieth-century mind that this reversion to a situation where a woman was a woman and I was obliged to be fully a man had all the fascination of an old house after a cramped, anonymous modern flat. I had been enchanted into wanting sex often enough before; but never into wanting love.
All that morning I sat in classes, teaching as if I was still hypnotized, in a dream of hypotheses. Now I saw Conchis as a sort of novelist sans novel, creating with people, not words; now I saw him as a complicated but still very dirty old man; now as a Svengali; now as a genius among practical jokers. But whichever way I saw him I was fascinated, and Lily, Lily with her hair blown sideways, Lily with her tearstained face, Lily at that first moment, in the lamplight, cool ivory… I didn’t try to pretend that I was anything else than almost literally bewitched by Bourani. It was almost a force, like a magnet, drawing me out of the classroom windows, through the blue air to the central ridge, and down there where I so wanted to be. The rows of olive-skinned faces, bent black heads, the smell of chalk dust, an old inkstain that rorschached my desk—they were like things in a mist, real yet unreal; obstacles in limbo.
I was glad, with a simplicity that recalled earliest adolescence, first pash on a girl, that I had the white thread. I put it in an envelope, and I must have looked at it a dozen times that day, between classes, even during classes, as if it was a mascot, a proof, a good omen. After lunch Demetriades came into my room and wanted to know who Alison was; and began being obscene, dreadful stock Greek facetiae about tomatoes and cucumbers, when I refused to tell him anything. I shouted at him to fuck off; had to push him out by force. He was offended and spent the rest of that week avoiding me. I didn’t mind. It kept him out of my way.
After my last lesson I couldn’t resist it. I had to go back to Bourani. I didn’t know what I was going to say, but I had to reenter the domaine. As soon as I saw it, the hive of secrets lying in the last sunshine over the seething pinetops, far below, I was profoundly relieved, as if it might not have been still there; and I was a little more cautious and practical, less inclined to walk in without being invited. The closer I got, the more nefarious I felt, and the more nefarious I became. I began to realize that I didn’t want to be seen; I simply wanted to see them; to know they were there, waiting for me.
I approached at dusk from the east, slipped under the wire, and walked down cautiously past the statue of Poseidon, over the gulley, and through the trees to where I could see the house. Every window at the side was shuttered up. There was no smoke from Maria’s cottage. I worked round to where I could see the front of the house. The French windows under the colonnade were shuttered. So were the ones that led from Conchis’s bedroom onto the terrace. It was clear that no one was there. I walked back through the darkness, feeling depressed, and increasingly resentful that Conchis could spirit his world away like that, deprive me of it, like a callous drugward doctor with some hooked addict.
The next day I wrote a letter to Mitford, telling him that I’d been to Bourani, met Conchis, and begging him to come clean on his own experience there. I sent it to the address in Northumberland.
I also saw Karazoglou again, and tried to coax more information out of him about Leverrier. He was obviously quite sure that Levertier had never met Conchis. He remembered one new thing: that Leverrier had been a Catholic; he had used to go to mass in Athens. And he said more or less the same as Conchis. Il avait toujours rair un peu triste, il ne s'est jamais habitué a la vie ici. Yet Conchis had also said that he had made an excellent “seeker.”
I got Leverrier’s address in England out of the school bursar, but then decided not to write; I had it at hand if I needed it.
I also did a little research on Artemis. She was Apollo’s sister in mythology; protectress of virgins and patroness of hunters. The saffron dress, the buskins and the silver bow (the crescent new moon) constituted her standard uniform in classical poetry. Though she seemed permanently trigger-happy where amorous young men were concerned I could find no mention of her being helped by her brother. She was “an element in the ancient matriarchal cult of the Triple Moon-goddess, linked with Astarte in Syria and Isis in Egypt.” Isis, I noted, was often accompanied by the dogheaded Anubis, guardian of the underworld, who later became Cerberus.
Fascinating. But it explained nothing.
On Tuesday and Wednesday prep duties kept me at the school. On Thursday I went over to Bourani again; nothing had changed. It was as deserted as it had been on Monday.
I went up to the house, tried the shutters, roamed the grounds, went down to the private beach, from which the boat was gone. I sat for half an hour in the darkness under the colonnade; and thought, among other things, of Conchis’s foolishness in leaving the Modigliani and Bonnards like that, in such a deserted house. My mind traveled up to the Bonnards, and grasshoppered from them to Alison. That night there was a special midnight boat to take the boys and masters back to Athens for the half-term holiday. It meant sitting up all night dozing in an armchair in the scruffy first-class saloon, but it gave one all Friday in Athens.
A minute later I was walking fast down the path towards the gate. But even then, as I came to the trees, I looked back and hoped, with one thousandth of a hope, that someone might be beckoning me back.
But no one was; so I set out for my faute de mieux.
Athens was dust and drought, ochre and drab. Even the palm trees looked exhausted; all the humanity in human beings had retreated behind dark skins and even darker glasses. At two in the afternoon city and citizens gave up; the streets were empty, abandoned to indolence and heat. I lay slumped behind shutters on a bed in the Piraeus hotel, and dozed fitfully. The city was doubly too much for me. After Bourani, the descent back into the age, the machinery, the stress, was completely disorientating.
The afternoon dragged out its listless hours. The closer I came to meeting Alison, the more muddle-motived I grew. I knew that if I was in Athens at all, it was mainly out of spite. Six days before it had not been too difficult to think of her as something that could be used if nothing better turned up; but two hours before changed my meanness into guilt. In any case, I no longer wanted sex with her. It was unthinkable—not because of her, but because of Lily. I wanted neither to deceive Alison nor to get involved with her; and it seemed to me that there was only one pretext that would do what I required: make her sorry for me and make her keep at arm’s length.
At five I got up, had a shower, and caught a taxi out to the airport. I sat on a bench opposite the long reception counter, then moved away; finding, to my irritation, that I was increasingly nervous. Several other air hostesses passed quickly—hard, trim, professionally pretty, mechanically sexy; more in love with looking attractive than being it. Six came, six fifteen. I goaded myself to walk up to the counter. There was a girl there in the tight uniform, with flashing white teeth and dark brown eyes whose innuendoes seemed put on with the rest of her lavish makeup.
“I’m supposed to be meeting one of your girls. Alison Kelly.”
“Allie? Her flight’s in. She’ll be changing.” She picked up a telephone, dialed a number, gleamed her teeth at me. Her accent was impeccable; and American. “Allie? Your date’s here. If you don’t come rightaway he’s taking me instead.” She held out the receiver. “She wants to speak to you.”
“Tell her I’ll wait. Not to hurry.”
“He’s shy.” Alison must have said something, because the girl smiled. She put the phone down.
“She’ll be right across.”
“What did she say then?”
“She said you’re not shy, it’s just your technique.”
She gave me what was meant to be a coolly audacious look between her long black eyelashes, then turned to deal with two women who had mercifully appeared at the other end of her section of the counter. I escaped and went and stood near the entrance. When I had first lived on the island, Athens, the city life, had seemed like a normalizing influence, as desirable as it was still familiar. Now I realized that it began to frighten me, that I loathed it; the slick exchange at the desk, its blatant implications of sex, confracepted excitement, the next stereotyped thrill. I came from another planet.
A minute or two later Alison appeared through the door. Her hair was short, too short, she was wearing a white dress, and immediately we were on the wrong foot, because I knew she had worn it to remind me of our first meeting. Her skin was paler than I remembered. She took off her dark glasses when she saw me and I could see she was tired, her most bruised. Pretty enough body, pretty enough clothes, a good walk, the same old wounded face and truth-seeking eyes. Alison might launch ten ships in me; but Lily launched a thousand. She came and stood and we gave each other a little smile.
“Sorry. Late as usual.”
She spoke as if we had last met the week before. But it didn’t work. The nine months stood like a sieve between us, through which words came, but none of the emotions.
“Shall we go?”
I took the airline bag she was carrying and led her out to a taxi. Inside we sat in opposite corners and looked at each other again. She smiled.
“I thought you wouldn’t come.”
“I didn’t know where to send my refusal.”
“I was cunning.”
She looked out of the window, waved to a man in uniform. She looked older to me, overexperienced by travel; needing to be known all over again, and I hadn’t the energy.
“I’ve got you a room overlooking the port.”
“They’re so bloody stuffy in Greek hotels. You know.”
“Toujours the done thing.” She gave me a brief ironic look from her gray eyes, then covered up. “It’s fun. Vive the done thing.” I nearly made my prepared speech, but it annoyed me that she assumed I hadn’t changed. was still slave to English convention; it even annoyed me that she felt she had to cover up.
“You don’t like it.”
“Not used to it.”
She held out her hand and I took it and we pressed fingers. Then she reached out and took off my dark glasses.
“You look devastatingly handsome now. Do you know that? You’re so brown. Dried in the sun, sort of beginning to be ravaged. Jesus, when you’re forty.”
I remembered Lily’s prophecy, I remembered—that evening I never forgot—Lily. I smiled, but I looked down and let go of her hand to get a cigarette. I knew what her flattery meant; the invitation extended.
“Alison, I’m in a sort of weird situation.”
It knocked all the false lightness out of her. She looked straight ahead.
“No.” She flashed a look at me. “I’ve changed, I don’t know how one begins to explain things.”
“But you wish to God I’d kept away.”
“No, I’m… glad you’ve come.” She glanced at me suspiciously again. “Really.”
She was silent for a few moments. We moved out onto the coast road.
“I’m through with Pete.”
“I forgot.” But I knew she hadn’t.
“Was he fed up?”
“And I’ve been through with everyone else since I’ve been through with him.” She kept staring out of the window. “Sorry. I ought to have started with the small talk.”
“No. I mean… you know.”
She slid another look at me; hurt and trying not to be hurt. She made an effort. “I’m living with Ann again. Only since last week. Back in the old flat. Maggie’s gone home.”
“I liked Ann.”
“Yes, she’s nice.”
There was a long silence as we drove down past Phaleron. She stared out of the window and after a minute reached into her white handbag and took out her dark glasses. I knew why, I could see the lines of wet light round her eyes. I didn’t touch her, take her hand, but I talked about the difference between the Piraeus and Athens, how the former was more picturesque, more Greek, and I thought she’d like it better. I had really chosen the Piraeus because of the small, but horrifying, possibility of running into Conchis and Lily. The thought of her cool, amused and probably contemptuous eyes if such a thing happened sent shivers down my spine. There was something about Alison’s manner and appearance; if a man was with her, he went to bed with her. And as I talked, I wondered how we were going to survive the next three days.
I tipped the boy and he left the room. She went to the window and looked down across the broad white quay, the slow crowds of evening strollers, the busy port. I stood behind her. After a moment’s swift calculation I put my arm around her and at once she leant against me.
“I hate cities. I hate airplanes. I want to live in a cottage in Ireland.”
“Somewhere I’ve never been.”
I could feel the warmth, the willingness to surrender, of her body. At any moment she would turn her face and I would have to kiss her.
“Alison, I… don’t quite know how to break the news.” I took my arm away, and stood closer to the window, so that she could not see my face. “I caught a disease two or three months ago. Well… syphilis.” I turned and she gave me a look—concern and shock and incredulity. “I’m all right now, but… you know. I can’t possibly…”
“You went to a…” I nodded. The incredulity became credulity.
“You had your revenge.”
She came and put her arms round me. “Oh Nicko, Nicko.”
I said over her head, “I’m not meant to have oral or closer contact for at least another month. I didn’t know what to do. I ought never to have written. This was never really on.”
She let go of me and went and sat on the bed. I saw I had got myself into a new corner; she now thought that this satisfactorily explained our awkwardness till then. She gave me a kind, gentle little smile.
“Tell me all about it.”
I walked round and round the room, telling her about Patarescu and the clinic, about the poetry, even about the venture at suicide, about everything except Bourani. After a while she lay back on the bed, smoking, and I was unexpectedly filled with a pleasure in duplicity, with that pleasure, I imagined, Conchis felt when he was with me. In the end I sat on the end of bed. She lay staring up at the ceiling.
“Can I tell you about Pete now?”
I half listened, playing my part, and suddenly began to enjoy being with her again; not particularly with Alison, but being in this hotel bedroom, hearing the murmur of the evening crowds below, the sound of sirens, the smell of the tired Aegean. I felt no attraction and no tenderness for her; no real interest in the stormy break-up of her long relationship with the boor of an Australian pilot; simply the complex, ambiguous sadness of the darkening room. The light had drained out of the sky, it became rapid dusk. All the treacheries of modern love seemed beautiful, and I had my great secret, safe, locked away. It was Greece again, the Alexandrian Greece of Cavafy: there were only degrees of aesthetic pleasure; of beauty in decadence. Morality was a North European lie.
There was a long silence.
She said, “Where are we, Nicko?”
“How do you mean?”
She was leaning on her elbow, staring at me, but I wouldn’t look round at her.
“Now I know—of course…” She shrugged. “But I didn’t come to be your old chum.”
I put my head in my hands.
“Alison, I’m sick of women, sick of love, sick of sex, sick of everything. I don’t know what I want. I should never have asked you to come.” She looked down, seemingly tacitly to agree. “The fact is… well, I suppose I have a sort of nostalgia for a sister at the moment. If you say fuck that—I understand. I have no right not to understand.”
“All right.” She looked up again. “Sister. But one day you’ll be cured.”
“I don’t know. I just don’t know.” I looked suitably distraught. “Look—please go away, curse me, anything, but I’m a dead man at the moment.” I went to the window. “It’s all my fault. I can’t ask you to spend three days with a dead man.”
“A dead man I once loved.”
A long silence crept between us. But then she briskly sat up and got off the bed; went and switched on the light and combed her hair. She produced the jet earrings I had left that last day in London and put them on; then lipstick. I thought of Lily, of lips without lipstick; coolness, mystery, elegance. It seemed almost marvelous, to be so without desire; at last in my life, to be able to be so faithful.
By an unhappy irony the way to the restaurant I took her to lay through the redlight area of the Piraeus. Bars, multilingual neon signs, photos of strippers and belly dancers, sailors in lounging groups, glimpses through bead curtains of Lautrec-like interiors, women in lines along the padded benches. The streets were thronged with pimps and tarts, barrowboys selling pistachios and sunflower pips, chestnut sellers, pasty sellers, lottery-ticket hawkers. Doormen invited us in, men slid up with wallets of watches, packets of Lucky Strikes and Camels, shoddy souvenirs. And every ten yards someone whistled at Alison.
We walked in silence. I had a vision of Lily walking through that street, and silencing everything, purifying everything; not provoking and adding to the vulgarity. Alison had a set face, and we started to walk quickly to get out of the place; but I thought I could see in her walk a touch of that old amoral sexuality, that quality she could not help offering and other men, noticing.
Yet I had chosen the Piraeus; and I even chose that road to the restaurant.
When we got to Spiro’s, she said, too brightly. “Well, brother Nicholas, what are you going to do with me?”
’do you want to call it off?”
She twirled her glass of ouzo.
“I asked first.”
“No. Now you.”
“We could do something. Go somewhere you haven’t seen.” To my relief she’d already told me that she had spent a day in Athens earlier that summer; had done the sights.
“I don’t want to do a tourist thing. Think of something no one else ever does. Somewhere we shall be fairly alone.” She added quickly, “Because of my job. I hate people.”
“How’s your walking?”
“I’d love to. Where?”
“Well, there’s Parnassus. Apparently it’s a very easy climb. Just a long walk. We could hire a car. Go on to Delphi afterwards.”
“Parnassus?” She frowned, unable to quite place it.
“Where the muses dash about. The mountain.”
“Oh, Nicholas!” A flash of her old self; the headlong willingness to go.
Our barbounia came and we started eating. She suddenly became overvivacious, overexcited by the idea of climbing Parnassus, and she drank glass for glass of retsina with me; did everything that Lily would never have done; then called, in her characteristic way, her own bluff.
“I know I’m trying too hard. But you make me like that.”
“Alison, if only you—”
“Nicko, listen. Last week I was in my old room in the flat. The first night. And I could hear footsteps. Upstairs. And I cried. Just as I cried in the taxi today. Just as I could cry now but I’m not going to.” She smiled, a little twisted smile. “I could even cry because we keep using each other’s names.”
“We never did. We were so close we didn’t have to. But what I’m trying to say is… all right. But please be kind to me. Don’t always sit so in judgment on everything I say, everything I do.” She stared at me and forced me to look her in the eyes. “I can’t help being what I am.” I nodded, looked sorry and touched her hand to mollify her. The one thing I did not want was a row; emotion, the past, this eternal reattachment to the past.
After a moment she bit her mouth and the small grins we exchanged then were the first honest looks since we had met.
I said good night to her outside her room. She kissed me on the cheek, and I pressed her shoulders as if, really, it was a far, far better thing that I did then than woman could easily imagine.
By half-past eight we were on the road. We drove over the wide mountains to Thebes, where Alison bought herself some stronger shoes and a pair of jeans. The sun was shining, there was a wind, the road empty of traffic, and the old Pontiac I had hired the night before still had some guts in its engine. Everything interested Alison—the people, the country, the bits in my 1909 Baedeker about the places we passed. Her mixture of enthusiasm and ignorance, which I remembered so well from London, didn’t really irritate me any more. It seemed part of her energy, her candor; her companionability. But I had, so to speak, to be irritated; so I seized on her buoyancy, her ability to bob up from the worst disappointments. I thought she ought to have been more subdued, and much sadder.
She asked me at one point whether I had discovered any more about the waiting room; but eyes on the road, I said, no, it was just a villa. What Mitford had meant was a mystery; and then I slid the conversation off onto something else.
We drove fast down the wide green valley between Thebes and Livadia, with its cornfields and melon patches. But near the latter place a large flock of sheep straggled across the road and I had to slow down to a stop. We got out to watch them. There was a boy of fourteen, in ragged clothes and grotesquely large army boots. He had his sister, a dark-eyed little girl of six or seven, with him. Alison produced some airline barley sugar. But the little girl was shy and hid behind her brother’s back. Alison squatted in her dark green sleeveless dress ten feet away, holding out the sweet, coaxing. The sheep bells tinkled all around us, the girl stared at her, and I grew restless.
“How do I ask her to come and take it?”
I spoke to the little girl in Greek. She didn’t understand, but her brother decided we were trustworthy and urged her forward.
“Why is she so frightened?”
“She’s so sweet.”
Alison put a piece of barley sugar in her own mouth and then held out another to the child, who, pushed by her brother, went slowly forwards. As she reached timidly for the barley sugar Alison caught her hand and made her sit beside her; unwrapped the sweet. The brother came and knelt by them, trying to get the child to thank us. But she sat gravely sucking. Alison put her arm round her and stroked her cheeks.
“I shouldn’t do that. She’s probably got lice.”
“I know she’s probably got lice.”
She didn’t look up at me or stop caressing the child. But a second later the little girl winced. Alison bent back and looked down her neck. “Look at this, oh, look at this.” It was a small boil, scratched and inflamed, on the child’s shoulder. “Bring my bag.” I went and got it and watched her poke back the dress and rub cream on the sore place, and then without warning dab some on the child’s nose. The little girl rubbed the spot of white cream with a dirty finger; and suddenly, like a crocus bursting out of winter earth, she looked up at Alison and smiled.
“Can’t we give them some money?”
“They’re not beggars. They’d refuse it anyway.”
She fished in her bag and produced a small note, and held it out to the boy and pointed to him and the girl. They were to share it. The boy hesitated, then took it.
“Please take a photo.”
I went impatiently to the car, got her camera, and took a photo. The boy insisted that we take his address; he wanted a copy, to remember us.
We started back for the car with the little girl beside us. Now she seemed unable to stop smiling—that beaming smile all Greek peasant children have hidden behind their solemn shyness. Alison bent and kissed her, and as we drove off, turned and waved. And waved again. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her bright face turn to me, then take in my expression. She settled back.
“Sorry. I didn’t realize we were in such a hurry.”
I shrugged; and didn’t argue.
I knew exactly what she had been trying to tell me; perhaps not all of it had been put on for me; but some of it had. We drove for a mile or two in silence. She said nothing until we got to Livadia. We had to talk then, because there was food to buy.
It should have cast a shadow over the day. But it didn’t, perhaps because it was a beautiful day and the landscape we came into one of the greatest in the world; what we were doing began to loom, like the precipitous blue shadow of Parnassus itself, over what we were.
We wound up the high hills and glens and had a picnic lunch in a meadow dense with clover and broom and wild bees. Afterwards we passed the crossroads where Oedipus is reputed to have killed his father. We stopped and stood among the sere thistles by a dry stone wall; an anonymous upland place, exorcized by solitude. All the way in the car up to Arachova, prompted by Alison, I talked about my own father, and perhaps for the first time in my life without bitterness or blame; rather in the way that Conchis talked about his life. And then as I glanced sideways at Alison, who was against the door, half-turned towards me, it came to me that she was the only person in the world that I could have been talking like that to; that without noticing it I had slipped back into something of our old relationship… too close to need each other’s names. I looked back to the road, but her eyes were still on me, and I had to speak.
“A penny for them.”
“How well you look.”
“You haven’t been listening.”
“Yes I have.”
“Staring at me. It makes me nervous.”
“Can’t sisters look at their brothers?”
She sat back obediently against the seat, and craned up at the colossal gray cliffs we were winding under.
“Just a walk.”
“I know. I’m having second thoughts.”
“For me or for you?”
“Mainly for you.”
“We’ll see who drops first.”
Arachova was a picturesque shoulder of pink and terracotta houses, a mountain village perched high over the Delphi valley. I made an inquiry and was sent to a cottage near the church. An old woman came to the door; beyond her in the shadows stood a carpet-loom, a dark red carpet half-finished on it. A few minutes’ talk with her confirmed what the mountain had made obvious.
Alison looked at me. “What’s she say?”
“She says it’s about six hours’ walk. Hard walk.”
“But that’s fine. It’s what Baedeker says. One must be there at sundown.” I looked up at the huge gray mountainside. The old woman unhooked a key from behind the door. “What’s she saying?”
“There’s some kind of hut up there.”
“Then what are we worrying about?”
“She says it will be damn cold.” But it was difficult to believe, in the blazing midday heat. Alison put her hands on her hips.
“You promised me an adventure, I want an adventure.”
I looked at the old woman and then back at Alison. She whisked her dark glasses off and gave me a hard, sideways, tough-woman’s stare; and although it was half-joking I could see the hint of suspicion in her eyes. If she once began to guess that I was anxious not to spend the night in the same room with her, she would also begin to guess that my halo was made of plaster.
At that moment a man led a mule past and the old woman called to him. He was going to fetch wood down from near the refuge. Alison could ride on the packsaddle.
It was destined.
The long path zigzagged up a cliff face, and leaving the lower world behind, we came over the top into the upper Parnassus. A vernally cool wind blew across two or three miles of meadowland. Beyond, somber black firwoods and gray buttresses of rock climbed, arched and finally disappeared into fleecy white clouds. Alison got off and we walked over the turf beside the muleteer. He was about forty, with a fierce moustache under a broken nose and a fine air of independence about him. He told us about the shepherd life: a life of sun-hours, counting, milking, brittle stars and chilling winds, endless silences broken only by bells, alarms against wolves and eagles; a life virtually unchanged in the last six thousand years. I translated for Alison. She warmed to him at once, establishing a half-sexual, half-philanthropic rapport across the language barrier.
He said he had worked in Athens for a time, but then hyparchi esychia, there was no silent peace there. Alison liked the word: esychia, esychia, she kept on repeating. He laughed and corrected her pronunciation; stopping and conducting her, as if she were an orchestra. Her eyes flicked defiantly at me, to see if she was behaving properly in my eyes. I kept a neutral face; but I liked the man, one of those fine rural Greeks who constitute the least servile and most likeable peasantry in Europe, and I couldn’t help lildng Alison for liking him back.
On the far side of the grassland we came to two kalyvia, rough stone huts, by a spring. Our muleteer was taking another path from then on. Alison fished impulsively in her red Greek shoulder-bag, and pressed on him two packets of airline cigarettes. “Esychia,” the muleteer said. He and Alison stood interminably shaking hands, while I took their photo.
“Esychia, esychia. Tell him I know what he means.”
“He knows you know. That’s why he likes you.”
At last we set off through the firs.
“You think I’m just sentimental.”
“No I don’t. But one packet would have been enough.”
“No it wouldn’t. I felt two packets fond of him.”
Later she said, “That beautiful word.”
We climbed a little way. “Listen.”
We stopped on the stony track and listened and there was nothing but silence, esychia, the breeze in the fir branches. She took my hand and we walked on.
The path mounted interminably through the trees, through clearings alive with butterflies, over rocky stretches where we several times lost the path. As we came higher, it grew cooler, and the mountain ahead, a damp polar gray, disappeared completely into the cloud. We spoke very little because we seldom had breath to speak. But the solitude, the effort, the need I had continually to take her hand to help her when the path became, as it frequently did, a rough staircase rather than a path—all broke some of the physical reserve between us; instituted a sort of sexless camaraderie that we both accepted as the form.
It was about six when we came to the refuge. It was tucked away above the tree line in a goyal, a minute windowless building with a barrel-vaulted roof and a chimney. The door was of rusty iron, perforated with jagged bullet holes from some battle with the Communist andarte during the Civil War: we saw four bunks, a pile of old red blankets, a stove, a lamp, a saw and an axe, even a pair of skis. But it looked as if no one had stayed there for years.
I said, “I’m game to call it a day here.” But she didn’t even answer; simply pulled on a jumper.
The clouds canopied us, it began to drizzle, and as we turned up over a crest, the wind cut like January in England. Then suddenly the clouds were all around us, a swirling mist that cut visibility down to thirty yards or less. I turned to look at Alison. Her nose had gone red and she looked very cold. But she pointed up the next rock-strewn slope.
At the top of it we came to a col and miraculously, as if the mist and the cold had been a small test, the sky began to clear. The clouds thinned, were perfused by oblique sunlight, then burst open into great pools of serene blue. Soon we were walking in sunshine again. Before us lay a wide basin of green turf, ringed with peaks and festooned by streaks of snow still clinging to the screes and hollows of the steeper slopes. Everywhere there were flowers—harebells, gentians, deep magenta-red alpine geraniums, intense yellow asters, saxifrage. They burst out of every cranny in the rocks, they enameled every stretch of turf. It was like stepping back a season. Alison ran on ahead, wildly, and turned, grinning, her arms held out, like a bird about to take wing; then ran on again, dark blue and jeans blue, in absurd childish swoops.
Lykeri, the highest peak, was too steep to be climbed quickly. We had to scramble up, using our hands, resting frequently. Near the top we came on beds of violets in bloom, huge purple flowers that had a delicate scent; and then at last, hand in hand, we struggled up the last few yards and stood on the little platform with its crowning cairn. Alison said, “Oh my God, oh my God.”
On the far side a huge chasm plunged down two thousand feet of shadowy air. The westering sun was still just above the horizon, but the clouds had vanished. The sky was a pale, absolutely dustless, absolutely pure, azure. There were no other mountains near to crowd the distance out. We seemed to stand immeasurably high, where land and substance drew up to a narrow zenith, remote from all towns, all society, all drought and defect. Purged.
Below, for a hundred miles in each direction, there were other mountains, valleys, plains, islands, seas; Attica, Boeotia, Argolis, Achaia, Locris, Aetolia, all the old heart of Greece. The setting sun richened, softened, refined all the colors. There were deep blue eastern shadows and lilac western slopes; pale copper-green valleys, Tanagra-colored earth; the distant sea dreaming, smoky, milky, calm as old blue glass. With a splendid classical simplicity someone had formed in small stones, just beyond the cairn, the letters phiomega—light. It was exact. The peak reached up into a world both literally and metaphorically of light It didn’t touch the emotions; it was too vast, too inhuman, too serene; and it came to me like a shock, a delicious intellectual joy marrying and completing the physical one, that the reality of the place was as beautiful, as calm, as ideal, as so many poets had always dreamed it to be.
We took photographs of each other, of the view, and then sat down on the windward side of the cairn and smoked cigarettes, huddled together because of the cold. Alpine crows screeched overhead, torn in the wind; wind as cold as ice, as astringent as acid. There came back the memory of that mind-voyage Conchis had induced in me under hypnosis. They seemed almost parallel experiences; except that this had all the beauty of its immediacy, its uninducedness, its being-nowness.
I looked covertly at Alison; the tip of her nose was bright red. But I was thinking that after all she had guts; that if it hadn’t been for her we wouldn’t have been there, this world at our feet, this sense of triumph; this transcendent crystallization of all I felt for Greece.
“You must see things like this every day.”
“Never like this. Never even beginning to be like this.” Two or three minutes later she said, “This is the first decent thing that’s happened to me for months. Today. And this.” After a pause, she added, “And you.”
“Don’t say that. I’m just a mess. A defilement.”
“I still wouldn’t want to be here with anyone else.” She stared out towards Euboea; bruised face, being dispassionate for once. She turned and looked at me. “Would you?”
“I can’t think of any other girl I’ve ever known who could walk this far.”
She thought it over, then looked at me again. “What an evasive answer that was.”
“I’m glad we came. You’re a trouper, Kelly.”
“And you’re a bastard, Urfe.”
But I could see that she wasn’t offended.
Almost at once tiredness, as we returned, attacked us. Alison discovered a blister on her left heel, where the new shoe had rubbed. We wasted ten minutes of the quick-dying light trying to improvise a bandage for it; and then, almost as abruptly as if a curtain had dropped, night was on us. With it came wind. The sky remained clear, the stars burned frantically, but somewhere we went down the wrong rocky slope and at the place I expected the refuge to be there was nothing. It was difficult to see footholds, increasingly difficult to think sensibly. We foolishly went on, coming into a vast volcanic bowl, a stark lunar landscape; snow-streaked cliffs, violent winds howling round the sides. Wolves became real, not an amusing reference in a casual conversation.
Alison must have been far more frightened, and probably far colder, than I was. At the center of the bowl it became clear that it was impossible to get out except by going back, and we sat for a few minutes to rest in the lee of a huge boulder. I held her close against me for warmth’s sake. She lay with her head buried in my sweater, in a completely unsexual embrace; and cradling her there, shivering in that extraordinary landscape, a million years and miles from the sweltering Athens night, I felt it meant nothing, it must mean nothing. I told myself I would have felt the same with anyone. But I looked out over the grim landscape, an accurate enough simile of my life, and remembered something the muleteer had said earlier; that wolves never hunt singly, but always in pairs. The lone wolf was a myth.
I forced Alison to her feet and we stumbled back the way we had come. Along a ridge to the west another col and slope led down towards the black distant sea of trees. Eventually we saw contoured against the sky a tor-shaped hill I had noticed on the way up. The refuge was just the other side of it. Alison no longer seemed to care; I kept hold of her hand and dragged her along by main force. Bullying her, begging her, anything to keep her moving. Twenty minutes later the squat dark cube of the refuge appeared in its little combe.
I looked at my watch. It had taken us an hour and a half to reach the peak; and over three hours to get back.
I groped my way in and sat Alison on a bunk. Then I struck a match, found the lamp and tried to light it; but it had no wick and no oil. I turned to the stove. That, thank God, had dry wood. I ripped up all the paper I could find: a Penguin novel of Alison’s, the wrappings off the food we had bought; then lit it and prayed. There were backpuffs of papery, then resinous smoke, and the kindling caught. In a few minutes the hut grew full of flickering red light and sepia shadows, and even more welcome heat. I picked up a pail. Alison raised her head from her knees.
“I’m going to get some water now.”
“Okay.” She smiled wanly.
“I should get under some blankets.” She nodded.
But when I came back from the stream five minutes later she was gingerly feeding logs through the upper door of the stove; barefooted, on a red blanket she had spread over the floor between the bunks and the fire. On a lower bunk she had laid out what was to be our meal: bread, chocolate, sardines, paximadia, oranges; and she had even found an old saucepan.
“Kelly, I ordered you to bed.”
“I suddenly remembered I’m meant to be an air hostess. The life and soul of the crash.” She took the pail of water and began to wash the saucepan out. As she crouched, I could see the sore red spots on her heels. “Do you wish we hadn’t done it?”
She looked back up at me. “Just no?”
“I’m delighted we did it.”
Satisfied, she went back to the saucepan, filled it with water, began to crumble the chocolate. I sat on the edge of the bunk and took my own shoes and socks off. I wanted to be natural, and I couldn’t; and she couldn’t. The heat, the tiny room, the two of us, in all that cold desolation.
“Sorry I went all womany. It’ll never happen again.”
There was a ghost of sarcasm in her voice, but I couldn’t see her face. She had begun to stir the chocolate over the stove.
“Don’t be silly.”
A squall of wind battered against the iron roof, and the door groaned half open.
She said, “Saved from the storm.”
I looked at her from the door, after I had propped it to with one of the skis. She was stirring the melting chocolate with a twig, standing sideways to avoid the heat, watching me. She pulled a flushed face, and swiveled her eyes round the dirty walls. “Romantic, isn’t it?”
“As long as they keep the wind out.” She smiled secretly at me and looked down at her saucepan. “Why do you smile?”
“Because it is romantic.”
I sat down on the bunk again. She pulled off her jumper and shook her hair free. I invoked the image of Lily; but somehow it was a situation that Lily could never have got into; so could not be very absent-present in. I tried to sound at ease.
“You look fine. In your element.”
“So I should. I spend most of my life slaving in a four-by-two galley.” She stood with one hand on her hips; a minute of silence; old domestic memories from Russell Square; watching her cook. “What was that Sartre play we saw?”
“This is Huis even closer.”
She kept her back turned. “Being tired always makes me feel sexy.” I breathed in. She said softly, “One more risk.”
“Just because the first tests are negative, it doesn’t mean
She flashed a look round, a shy smile. “All right. Only… if you… you know.”
I stared at her. “You’re sweet.”
“Not very good at saying it.”
“I’m so absolutely fucked up. In all ways.”
She lifted a blackbrown dob from the saucepan. “I think this delicious consommé a la reine is ready.”
She came and bent beside me with that peculiar downwards look and automatic smile of air hostesses.