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Stretta, no more than a congregation of stone staircases largely monopolized by goats with colossal udders and jingling bells, and we hurtled into the archway of an enormous mediaeval building whose iron gate shut upon us with a clang like a new-oiled postern.
And as we ascended the winding stone stairs there came down to us a medley of persons and impressions. There were far gongs and musical cries pierced by a thin continuous whine. There was a piratical creature, with fierce eyes and an alarming shock of upstanding black hair, who wielded a mop and stared with voracious curiosity. There came bounding down upon us a boy of eleven or so, with brown hair, a freckled nose, and beautiful gray eyes. There descended a buxom woman of thirty, modest and capable to the eye, yet with a sort of tarnish of sorrowful experience in her demeanor. And behind her, walking abreast and in step, three astounding apparitions, — Russian guardsmen, — in complete regalia, blue and purple and bright gold, so fabulous that one stumbled and grew afraid. Mincingly they descended, in step, their close-shaven polls glistening, their small eyes and thin long legs giving them the air of something dreamed, bizarre adumbrations of an order gone down in ruin and secret butchery to a strangled silence.
A high, deep, narrow gothic doorway on a landing stood open, and we edged through.
I had many questions to ask. I was reasonably entitled to know, for example, the charges for these baronial halls and gigantic refectories. I had a legitimate curiosity concerning the superb beings who dwelt, no doubt, in mediaeval throne-rooms in distant wings of the chateau. And above all I was wishful to learn the recent history of Mr. Eustace Heatly, sometime second engineer of the old S.S. Dolores, late
engineer lieutenant, and now before my eyes tearing off his coat and vest and pants, and bent double over a long black coffin-like steel chest, whence he drew a suit of undeniable tweeds. But it was only when he had abolished the last remaining trace of naval garniture by substituting a cerise poplin cravat for the black affair worn in memory of the late Lord Nelson, and a pair of brown brogues for the puritanical messboots of recent years, that Heatly turned to where I sat on the bed and looked searchingly at me from under his higharched, semi-circular black eyebrows.
He was extraordinarily unlike a naval officer now. Indeed, he was unlike the accepted Englishman. He had one of those perplexing personalities that are as indigenous to England as the Pennine Range and the Yorkshire Wolds, as authentic as Stonehenge; yet, by virtue of their very perplexity, have a difficulty in getting into literature. There was nothing of the tall, blond, silent Englishman about this man, at all. Yet there was probably no mingling of foreign blood in him since Phoenician times. He was entirely and utterly English. He can be found in no other land, and yet is to be found in all lands, generally with a concession from the government and a turbulent band of assistants. His sloping simian forehead was growing bald, and it gleamed as he came over to where I sat. His jaws, blue from the razor, creased as he drew back his chin and began his inevitable movement of the shoulders that preluded speech. He was English, and was about to prove his racial affinity beyond all cavil.
'But why get yourself demobilized out here?' I demanded, when he had explained. 'Is there a job to be had?'
'Job!' he echoed, eyebrows raised, as he looked over his shoulder with apparent animosity. 'Job! There 's a fortune out here! See this,'
He dived over the bed to where his uniform lay, and extracted from the breast-pocket a folded sheet of gray paper. Inside was a large roughly penciled tracing of the Eastern Mediterranean. There was practically no nomenclature. An empty Italy kicked at an equally vacuous Sicily. Red blots marked ports. The seas were spattered with figures, as in a chart, marking soundings. And laid out in straggling lines, like radiating constellations, were green and yellow and violet crosses. From Genoa to Marseilles, from Marseilles to Oran, from Port Said and Alexandria to Cape Bon, from Salonika to Taranto, those polychromatic clusters looped and clotted in the sea-lanes, until the eye, roving at last toward the intricate configuration of the Cyclades, caught sight of the Sea of Marmora, where the green symbols formed a closely woven texture.
'Where did you get this?' I asked, amazed; and Heatly smoothed the crackling paper as it lay between us on the bed. His shoulders worked and his chin drew back, as if he were about to spring upon me.
'That/s telling,' he grunted. 'The point is, do you want to come in on this? These green ones, y' understand, are soft things, in less 'n ten fathom. The yellows are deeper. The others are too big or too deep for us.'
'Who's us?' I asked, beginning to feel an interest beyond his own personality.
He began to fold up the chart, which had no doubt come by unfrequented ways from official dossiers.
'There's the skipper and the mate and meself,' he informed me; 'but we can do with another engineer. — Come in with us!' he ejaculated; 'it's the chance of a lifetime. You put up five hundred, and it's share and share alike.'
I had to explain, of course, that what he suggested was quite impossible. I
was not demobilized. I had to join a ship in dock-yard hands. Moreover, I had no five hundred to put up.
He did not press the point. It seemed to me that he had simply been the temporary vehicle of an obscure wave of sentiment. We had been shipmates in the old days. He had never been a friend of mine, it must be understood. We had wrangled and snarled at each other over hot and dirty work, and had gone our separate ways ashore, and he had rushed from the shipping-office that day in Shields and never even said good-bye ere he caught the train to Newcastle and matrimony. Yet here now, after nine years, he abruptly offered me a fortune! The slow inexorable passage of time had worn away the ephemeral scoria of our relations and laid bare an unexpected vein of durable esteem. Even now, as I say, he did not press the point. He was loath to admit any emotion beyond a gruff solicitude for my financial aggrandizement.
While we were bickering amiably on these lines, the high, narrow door opened, and the buxom woman appeared with a tea-tray. She smiled and went over to the embrasured window, where there stood a table. As she stood there, in her neat black dress and white apron, her dark hair drawn in smooth convolutions about her placid brows, her eyes declined upon the apparatus on the tray, she had the air of demure sophistication and sainted worldliness to be found in lady prioresses and mother superiors when dealing with secular aliens. She was an intriguing anomaly in this stronghold of ancient and militant celibates. The glamour of her individual illusion survived even the introduction that followed.
'This is Emma,' said Heatly, as if indicating a natural but amusing feature of the landscape; 'Emma, an old shipmate o" mine. Let him have that room next to this. Anybody been?'
'Yes,' said Emma in a soft, gentle voice, 'Captain Gosnell rang up. He wants to see you at the usual place.'
'Then I'll be going,' said Heatly, drinking tea standing, a trick abhorred by those who regard tea as something of a ritual. 'Lay for four at our table to-night, and send to the Regina for my friend's gear. And mind, no games!'
He placed his arm about her waist. Then, seizing a rakish-looking deerstalker, he made for the door, and halted abruptly, looking back upon us with apparent malevolence. Emma smiled without resigning her pose of »orrowful experience, and the late engineer lieutenant slipped through the door and was gone.
So there were to be no games. I looked at Emma, and stepped over to help myself to tea. There were to be no games. Comely as she was, there was no more likelihood of selecting the cloistral Emma for trivial gallantry than of pulling the admiral's nose. I had other designs on Emma. I had noted the relations of those two with attention, and it was patent to me that Emma could tell me a good deal more about Heatly than Heatly knew about himself. Heatly was that sort of man. He would be a problem of enigmatic opacity to men, and a crystalclear solution to the cool, disillusioned matron.
And Emma told. Women are not only implacable realists, they are unconscious artists. They dwell always in the Palace' of Unpalatable Truth, and never by any chance is there a magic talisman to save them from their destiny. Speech is their ultimate need. We exist for them only in so far as we can be described. As the incarnate travesties of a mystical ideal, we inspire ecstasies of romantic supposition. There is a rapt expression on the features of a woman telling about a man.
Duty and pleasure melt into one suffusing emotion and earth holds for her no holier achievement. And so, as the reader is ready enough to believe, there were no games. Apart from her common urbane humanity, Emma's lot in life, as the deserted wife of a Highland sergeant deficient in emotional stability, had endowed her with the smooth efficiency of a character in a novel. She credited me with a complete inventory of normal virtues and experiences, and proceeded to increase my knowledge of life.
The point of her story, as I gathered, was this. My friend Heatly, in the course of the years, had completed the cycle of existence without in any degree losing the interest of women. I knew he was married. Emma informed me that they had seven children. The youngest .had been born six months before. Where? Why, in the house in Gateshead, of course. Did I know Gateshead? I did. As I sat in that embrasured window and looked down the thin, deep slit of the Strada Lucia, past green and saffron balconies and jutting shrines, to where the Harbor of Marsamuscetto showed a patch of solid dark blue below the distant perfection of Sheina, I thought of Gateshead, with the piercing East Coast wind ravening along its gray, dirty streets, with its frowsy fringe of coalstaithes standing black and stark above the icy river, and I heard the grind and yammer of the grimy street-cars striving to drown the harsh boom and crash from the great yards of Elswick on the far bank. I saw myself again hurrying along in the rain, a tired young man in overalls, making hurried purchases of gear and tobacco and rough gray blankets, for the ship was to sail on the turn of the tide. And I found it easy to see the small two-story house half-way down one of those incredibly ignoble streets, the rain, driven by the cruel wind, whipping against sidewalk and window, the front garden a mere puddle of mud, and indoors a harassed, dogged woman fighting her. way to the day's end, while a horde of robust children romped and gorged and blubbered around her.
'Seven,' I murmured, and the bells of a herd of goats made a musical commotion in the street below.
'Seven,' said Emma, refilling my cup.
'And he's not going home yet, even though he has got out of the navy,' I observed with tactful abstraction.
'That's just it,' said Emma, 'not going home. He's gone into this salvage business, you see. I believe it's a very good thing.'
'Of course his wife gets her half-pay,' I mused.
'She gets all his pay,' accented Emma. 'He sends it all. He has other ways — you understand. Resources. But he won't go home. You know, there's somebody here.'
So here we were coming to it. It had been dawning on me, as I stared down at the blue of the Marsamuscetto, that possibly Heatly's interest for Emma had been heightened by the fact that he was a widower. Nothing so crude as that, however. Something much more interesting to the high gods. Between maturity and second childhood, if events are propitious, men come to a period of augmented curiosity fortified by a vague sense of duties accomplished. They acquire a conviction that, beyond the comfortable and humdrum vales of domestic felicity, where they have lived so long, there lie peaks of ecstasy and mountainranges of perilous dalliance. I roused suddenly.
'But now he's out of the navy,' I remarked.
'You mustn't think that,' said
Emma. 'He isn't that sort of man. I tell you, she's all right.'
'Who? The somebody who's here?'
'No, his wife's all right as far as money goes. But there's no sympathy between them. A man can't go on all his life without sympathy.'
'What is she like?' I asked, not so sure of this.
'Oh, I'm not defending him,' said Emma with her eyes fixed on the sugarbowl. 'Goodness knows/'ve no reason to think well of men, and you're all alike. Only, he's throwing himself away on a — Well, never mind. You 'll see her. Here's your room. You can have this connecting door open if you like.'
'Fine,' I said, looking round, and then walking into a sort of vast and comfortable crypt. The walls, five feet thick, were pierced on opposite sides as for cannon, and one looked instinctively for the inscriptions by prisoners and ribald witticisms by sentries. There was the Strada Lucia again, beyond a delicious green railing; and behind was another recess, from whose shuttered aperture one beheld the hotel courtyard, with a giant tree swelling up and almost touching the yellow walls. I looked at the groined roof, the distant white-curtained bed, the cupboards of black wood, the tiled floor with its old, worn mats. I looked out of the window into the street, and was startled by an unexpectedly near view of a saint in a blue niche by the window, a saint with a long sneering nose and a supercilious expression as she looked down with her stony eyes on the Strada Lucia. I looked across the Strada Lucia, and saw dark eyes and disdainful features at magic casements. And I told Emma that I would take the apartment.
'You 'll find Mr. Heatly in the Cafe de la Reine,' she remarked gently; 'he's there with Captain Gosnell.' But I wanted to see neither Heatly nor Captain Gosnell just yet. I said I would be back to dinner, and took my cap and cane.
After wandering about the town, gazing upon the cosmopolitan crowd that thronged the streets, and musing upon many things, — upon deserted wives and deserting husbands, and their respective fates, — I approached Jhe Libreria, and saw Heatly seated at a table with two other men, in the shadow of one of the great columns. Just behind him a young Maltese kneeled by a great long-haired goat, which he was milking swiftly into a glass for a near-by customer. Heatly, however, was not drinking milk. He was talking. There were three of them and their heads were together over the drinks on the little marble table, so absorbed that they took no notice at all of the lively scene about them.
There was about these men an aura of supreme happiness. In the light of a match-flare, as they lit fresh cigarettes, their features showed up harsh and masculine, the faces of men who dealt neither in ideas nor in emotions, but in prejudices and instincts and desires. Then Heatly turned and saw me, and further contemplation was out of the question.
Of that evening and the tale they told me, there is no record by the alert psychologist. There is a roseate glamour over a confusion of memories. There are recollections of exalted emotions and unparalleled eloquence. We traversed vast distances and returned safely, arm in arm. We were the generals of famous campaigns, the heroes of colossal achievements, and the conquerors of proud and beautiful women.
From the swaying platforms of the Fourth Dimension we caught glimpses of starry destinies. We stood on the shoulders of the lesser gods, to see our enemies confounded. And out of the mist and fume of the evening emerges a shadowy legend of the sea.
By a legerdemain which seemed timely and agreeably inexplicable, the marble table under the arcade of the Libreria became a linen-covered table in an immense and lofty chamber. We were at dinner. The ceiling was a gilded framework of paneled paintings. Looking down upon us from afar were well-fed anchorites and buxom saints. Their faces gleamed from out a dark and polished obscurity, and their ivory arms emerged from the convolutions of ruby and turquoise-velvet draperies. Tall candelabra supported colored globes, which shed a mellow radiance upon the glitter of silver and crystal. There was a sound of music, which rose and fell as some distant door swung to and fro; the air still trembled with the pulsing reverberations of a great gong, and a thin whine, which was the food-elevator ascending in dry grooves from the kitchen, seemed to spur the fleet-footed waiters to a frenzy of service. High cabinets of dark wood stood between tall narrow windows housing collections of sumptuous plates and gilded wares. On side tables heaps of bread and fruit made great masses of solid color, of gamboge, saffron, and tawny orange. Long-necked bottles appeared reclining luxuriously in wicker cradles, like philosophic pagans about to bleed to death.
At a table by the distant door sits the little boy with the freckled nose and beautiful gray eyes. He writes in" a large book as the waiters pause on tip-toe, dishes held as if in votive offering to a red Chinese dragon on the mantel above the boy's head. He writes, and looking out down the en