You are here: 原版英语 >> 小说 >> Fiction >> General >> 小说content






 Winter. The green xebec whose figurehead was Astarte, goddess of sexual  love, tacked slowly into the Grand Harbour. Yellow bastions, Moorish-looking  city, rainy sky. What more on first glance? In his youth no one of those  score or so other cities had ever shown old Stencil much in the way of  Romance. But now as if making up for lost time his mind seemed to've gone  rainy as the sky.

He kept near the stern, rained on, bird-frame wrapped in oilskin, sheltering  his pipe's match from the wind. Overhead for a while hung Fort St. Angelo,  dirty yellow and wrapped in a quiet not of this earth. Abeam gradually came  H.M.S. Egmont, a few seamen on her decks like blue-and-white dolls shivering  for the Harbour wind, holy stoning to work off this morning's chill. His  cheeks hollowed and flattened as the xebec seemed to describe a complete  circle and Grandmaster La Vallette's dream whirled away for Fort St. Elmo  and the Mediterranean, which in their turn spun past into Ricasoli,  Vittoriosa, the Dockyard. Mehemet the master swore at his helmsman, Astarte  now leaned from the xebec's bowsprit toward the city as if it were male and  asleep and she, inanimate figurehead, a succubus preparing to ravish.  Mehemet approached him. "Mara lives in a strange house," said Stencil. Wind  flapped one whitening forelock, rooted halfway back on his scalp. He said it  for the city, not for Mehemet; but the master understood.

"Whenever we came to Malta," he said in some Levantine tongue, "I got the  feeling. As if a great hush were on this sea and the island its heart. As if  I'd come back to something my own heart needs as deeply as a heart can." He  lit a cigarette from Stencil's pipe. "But it is a deception. She's an  inconstant city. Be wary of her."

One hulking boy stood on the quay to receive their lines. He and Mehemet  exchanged salaam aleikums. A pillar of cloud stood to the north behind  Marsamuscetto, looking solid and about to topple; to crush the city. Mehemet  wandered about kicking the crew. One by one they drifted below decks and  began hauling the cargo topside: a few live goats, some sacks of sugar,  dried tarragon from Sicily, salted pilchards in barrels, from Greece.

Stencil had his gear collected. The rain descended more quickly. He opened a  great umbrella and stood under it watching the Dockyard country. Well, what  am I waiting for, he wondered. The crew had retired below decks all sullen.  Mehemet came squishing across the deck. "Fortune," he said.

"An inconstant goddess." The pier hand who'd taken their lines now sat on a  piling, facing the water, hunched up like a bedraggled sea bird. "Island of  sunshine?" Stencil laughed. His pipe was still lit. Among white fumes then  he and Mehemet made farewell. He teetered across a single plank to shore,  balancing a ditty bag on one shoulder, the umbrella looking like a  tightrope-walker's parasol. Indeed, he thought. What safety, after all, on  this shore. Ashore anywhere?

From the window of a cab, proceeding in the rain along Strada Reale, Stencil  could detect none of the holiday one saw in other capitals of Europe.  Perhaps it was only the rain. But welcome relief surely. Stencil was fed to  surfeit on songs, bunting, parades, promiscuous loves, uncouth noisemakings;  all the normal responses of noncombatants-in-the-mass to Armistice or peace.  Even in the normally sober offices in Whitehall, it had been impossible.  Armistice, ha!

"I cannot understand your attitude," from Carruthers-Pillow, then Stencil's  superior. "Armistice, ha, indeed."

Stencil muttered something about things not being stabilized. How could he  tell Carruthers-Pillow of all people, who felt in the presence of the most  inconsequential chit initialed by the Foreign Secretary much as Moses must  have toward the Decalogue God blasted out for him on stone. Wasn't the  Armistice signed by legally-constituted heads of government? How could there  not be peace? It would never be worth the trouble arguing. So they'd stood  that November morning, watching the lamplighter extinguish the lights in St.  James's Park, as if having long ago passed through some quicksilver surface  from when Viscount Grey had stood perhaps at the same window and made his  famous remark about the lamps going out all over Europe. Stencil of course  didn't see the difference between event and image, but saw no advantage in  disturbing his chief's euphoria. Let the poor innocent sleep. Stencil had  merely been dour, which in him passed for high celebration.

Lieutenant Mungo Sheaves, aide to the Officer Administrating Government on  Malta, had set before Whitehall an architecture of discontent: among the  police force, the University students, the civil service, the Dockyard  workers. Behind it all lurked "the Doctor"; organizer, civil engineer: E.  Mizzi. A bogeyman to Major General Hunter-Blair, the OAG, Stencil guessed;  but found it took him an effort to see Mizzi as anything but a busy  man-of-policy, agile, Machiavellian, a trifle old-fashioned, who'd managed  to last as far as 1919. For a survival like that Stencil could only feel a  wistful pride. His good friend Porpentine - twenty years ago in Egypt -  hadn't he been the same sort? Belonged to a time where which side a man was  on didn't matter: only the state of opposition itself, the tests of virtue,  the cricket game? Stencil may have come in on the tail end.


It must be shock, fine: even Stencil could feel shock. Ten million dead and  twice that wounded if nothing else. "But we reach a point," he'd thought of  telling Carruthers-Pillow, "we old campaigners, when the habits of the past  become too strong. Where we can say, and believe, that this abattoir, but  lately bankrupt, was fundamentally no different from the Franco-Prussian  conflict, the Sudanese wars, even the Crimea. It is perhaps a delusion - say  a convenience - necessary to our line of work. But more honorable surely  than this loathsome weakness of retreat into dreams: pastel visions of  disarmament, a League, a universal law. Ten million dead. Gas.  Passchendaele. Let that be now a large figure, now a chemical formula, now  an historical account. But dear lord, not the Nameless Horror, the sudden  prodigy sprung on a world unaware. We all saw it. There was no innovation,  no special breach of nature, or suspension of familiar principles. If it  came as any surprise to the public then their own blindness is the Great  Tragedy, hardly the war itself."

On route to Valletta - the steamer to Syracuse, the week of lying doggo in a  waterfront tavern till Mehemet's xebec arrived; all the way across a  Mediterranean whose teeming history and full depth he could not feel, nor  try, nor afford to try to feel, old Stencil had had it out with himself.  Mehemet had helped.

"You're old," the skipper mused over his nightly hashish. "I am old, the  world is old; but the world changes always; we, only so far. It's no secret,  what sort of change this is. Both the world and we, M. Stencil, began to die  from the moment of birth. Your game is politics which I don't pretend to  understand. But it seems that these -" he shrugged - "noisy attempts to  devise political Happiness: new forms of government, new ways to arrange the  fields and workshops; aren't they like the sailor I saw off Bizerte in  1324." Stencil chuckled. Mehemet's recurring lament was for a world taken  from him. He belonged to the trade routes of the Middle, Ages. According to  the yarn he had in fact sailed the xebec through a rift in time's fabric,  pursued then among the Aegean Islands by a Tuscan corsair which mysteriously  dropped from sight. But it was the same sea and not until docking at Rhodes  did Mehemet learn of his displacement. And since had forsaken land for a  Mediterranean which thank Allah would never change. Whatever his true  nostalgia he reckoned by the Moslem calendar not only in conversation but  also in logs and account books; though the religion and perhaps the  birthright he'd let pass years ago.

"Slung on a stage over the gunwale of an old felucca, the Peri. A storm had  just passed, rushing away toward the land in a great slope of clouds;  already turning yellowish from the desert. The sea there is the color of  Damascus plums; and how quiet. Sun was going down; not a beautiful sunset,  more a gradual darkening of the air and that storm's mountainside. The Peri  had been damaged, we hove to alongside and hailed her master. No reply. Only  the sailor - I never saw his face - one of your fellahin who abandon the  land like a restless husband and then grumble for the rest of their term  afloat. It's the strongest marriage in the world. This one wore a kind of  loincloth and a rag round his head for the sun which was almost gone. After  we'd shouted in every dialect we had among us, he replied in Tuareg: 'The  master is gone, the crew is gone, I am here and I am painting the ship.' It  was true: he was painting the ship. She'd been damaged, not a load line in  sight, and a bad list. 'Come aboard,' we told him, 'night is nearly on us  and you cannot swim to land.' He never answered, merely continued dipping  the brush in his earthen jar and slapping it smoothly on the Peri's creaking  sides. What color? It looked gray but the air was dark. This felucca would  never again see the sun. Finally I told the helmsman to swing our ship round  and continue on course. I watched the fellah until it was too dark: becoming  smaller, inching closer to the sea with every swell but never slackening his  pace. A peasant with all his uptorn roots showing, alone on the sea at  nightfall, painting the side of a sinking ship."

"Am I only getting old?" Stencil wondered. "Perhaps past the time I can  change with the world."

"The only change is toward death," repeated Mehemet cheerfully. "Early and  late we are in decay." The helmsman began to sing a monotonous, Levantine  lanterloo. There were no stars and the sea was hushed. Stencil refused  hashish and filled his pipe with a respectable English blend; lit up,  puffed, began:

"Which way does it go? As a youth I believed in social progress because I  saw chances for personal progress of my own. Today, at age sixty, having  gone as far as I'm about to go, I see nothing but a dead end for myself, and  if you're right, for my society as well. But then: suppose Sidney Stencil  has remained constant after all - suppose instead sometime between 1859 and  1919, the world contracted a disease which no one ever took the trouble to  diagnose because the symptoms were too subtle - blending in with the events  of history, no different one by one but altogether fatal. This is how the  public, you know, see the late war. As a new and rare disease which has now  been cured and conquered for ever."

"Is old age a disease?" Mehemet asked. "The body slows down, machines wear  out, planets falter and loop, sun and stars gutter and smoke. Why say a  disease? Only to bring it down to a size you can look at and feel  comfortable?"

"Because we do paint the side of some Peri or other, don't we. We call it  society. A new coat of paint; don't you see? She can't change her own  color."

"No more than the pustules of smallpox have anything to do with death. A new  complexion, a new coat of paint."

"Of course," said Stencil, thinking of something else, "of course we would  all prefer to die of old age . . ."

The Armageddon had swept past, the professionals who'd survived had received  no blessing, no gift of tongues. Despite all attempts to cut its career  short the tough old earth would take its own time in dying and would die of  old age.

Then Mehemet told him of Mara.

"Another of your women."

"Ha, ha. Indeed. Maltese for woman."

"Of course."

"She is - if you care for the word - a spirit, constrained to live in  Xaghriet Mewwija. The inhabited plain; the peninsula whose tip is Valletta  her domain. She nursed the shipwrecked St. Paul - as Nausicaa and  Odysseus - taught love to every invader from Phoenician to French. Perhaps  even to the English, though the legend loses respectability after Napoleon.  She was from all evidence a perfectly historical personage, like St. Agatha,  another of the island's minor saints.

"Now the Great Siege was after my time, but legend - one of them - says that  she once had access to the entire island and the waters as far as the  fishing banks off Lampedusa. The Fishing fleets would always lie to there in  the shape of a carob pod, her proper symbol. Early in your 1585, at any  rate, two privateers, Giou and Romegas, captured a Turkish galleon belonging  to the chief eunuch of the Imperial Seraglio. In retaliation Mara was taken  prisoner on one of her jaunts to Lampedusa by the corsair Dragut, and  brought back to Constantinople. Soon as the ship had passed the invisible  circle centered at Xaghriet Mewwija with Lampedusa on the rim, she fell into  a strange trance, from which neither caresses nor tortures could rouse her.  At length, having lost their own figurehead in a collision with a Sicilian  ragusy the week before, the Turks lashed Mara to the bowsprit and that was  how she entered Constantinople: a living figurehead. On drawing near to that  city, blinding yellow and dun under a clear sky, she was heard to awake and  cry: "Lejl, hekk ikun." Night, so be it. The Turks thought she was raving.  Or blind.

"They brought her to the serail into the presence of the Sultan. Now she  never was pictured as a raving beauty. She shows up as a number of  goddesses, minor deities. Disguise is one of her attributes. But one curious  thing about those images: jar ornaments, friezes, sculptures, no matter:  she's always tall, slim, small-breasted and bellied. No matter what the  prevalent fashion in females, she remains constant. In her face is always a  slight bow to the nose, a wide spacing of the eyes, which are small. No one  you'd turn to watch on the street. But she was a teacher of love after all.  Only pupils of love need be beautiful.

"She pleased the Sultan. Perhaps she made the effort. But was installed  somehow as a concubine about the time La Vallette back on her island was  blocking the creek between Senglea and St. Angelo with an iron chain and  poisoning the springs in the Marsa plain with hemp and arsenic. Once in the  seraglio she proceeded to raise hell. She'd always been attributed magical  talents. Perhaps the carob pod - she's often depicted holding one - had  something to do with it. Wand, scepter. Perhaps too, some kind of fertility  goddess - do I embarrass your Anglo-Saxon nerves? - though it is a quaint,  hermaphrodite sort of deity.

"Soon - a matter of weeks - the Sultan noticed a certain coldness infecting  each of his nightly companions; a reluctance, a lack of talent. Also a  change in attitude among the eunuchs. Almost - how to say it - smug and  keeping a bad secret of it. Nothing he could establish definitely; and so  like most unreasonable men with suspicions he had certain girls and eunuchs  tortured horribly. All protested innocence, showed honest fear to the last  twist of the neck, the last upward thrust of the iron spike. And yet it  progressed. Spies reported that shy concubines who had once paced with  ladylike steps - limited by a slim chain between the ankles - and downcast  eyes now smiled and flirted promiscuously with the eunuchs, and the eunuchs  - horror! - flirted back. Girls left to themselves would suddenly leap on  one another with fierce caresses; on occasion make loud abandoned love  before the scandalized eyes of the Sultan's agents.

"At length it occurred to His Ghostly Magnificence, nearly out of his mind  with jealousy, to call in the sorceress Mara. Standing before him in a shift  fashioned of tigermoth wings she faced the Imperial dais with a wicked  smile. The Imperial retainers were charmed.

"'Woman,' began the Sultan.

"She raised a hand, 'I have done it all,' she recited sweetly: 'taught your  wives to love their own bodies, showed them the luxury of a woman's love;  restored potency to your eunuchs so that they may enjoy one another as well  as the three hundred perfumed, female beasts of your harem.'

"Bewildered at such ready confession, his tender Moslem sensibilities  outraged by the epidemic of perversion she'd unleashed upon his domestic  repose, the Sultan made what is a fatal mistake with any woman: he decided  to argue. Jolted into a rare sarcasm he explained to her, as to an idiot,  why eunuchs cannot have sexual intercourse.

"Her smile never fading, her voice placid as before, Mara replied: 'I have  provided them with the means."

"So confidently did she speak that the Sultan began to feel the first  groundswell of an atavistic terror. Oh, at last he knew: he was in the  presence of a witch.

"Back Home the Turks, led by Dragut and the pashas Piali and Mustafa, had  laid siege to Malta. You know generally how it went. They occupied Xaghriet  Mewwija, took Fort St. Elmo, and began their assault on Notabile, Borgo -  today that's Vittoriosa - and Senglea, where La Vallette and the Knights  were making their final stand.

"Now after St. Elmo had fallen, Mustafa (possibly in sorrow for Dragut,  killed in that encounter by a stone cannonball) had also launched a grisly  offensive on the morale of the Knights. He beheaded their slaughtered  brethren, tied the corpses to planks and floated them into the Grand  Harbour. Imagine being on sunrise watch and seeing the dawn touch those  ex-comrades-in-arms, belly up and crowding the water: death's flotilla.

"One of the great mysteries about the Siege is why, when the Turks  outnumbered the invested Knights, when the days of the besieged were  numbered on a single hand, when Borgo and thus Malta were almost in the same  hand - Mustafa's - why should they suddenly pull up and retreat, hoist  anchor and leave the island?

"History says because of a rumor. Don Garcia de Toledo, viceroy of Sicily,  was on route with forty-eight galleys. Pompeo Colonna and twelve hundred  men, sent by the Pope to relieve La Vallette, eventually reached Gozo. But  somehow the Turks got hold of intelligence that twenty thousand troops had  landed at Melleha Bay and were on route to Notabile. General retreat was  ordered; church bells all over Xaghriet Mewwija began to ring; the people  thronged the streets, cheering. The Turks fled, embarked and sailed away to  the southeast forever. History attributes it all to bad reconnaissance.

"But the truth is this: the words were spoken directly to Mustafa by the  head of the Sultan himself. The witch Mara had sent him into a kind of  mesmeric trance; detached his head and put it into the Dardanelles, where  some miraculous set and drift - who knows all the currents, all the things  which happen in this sea? - sent it on a collision course with Malta. There  is a song written by a latter-day jongleur named Falconiere. No Renaissance  had ever touched him; he resided at the Auberge of Aragon, Catalonia and  Navarre at the time of the Siege. You know the sort of poet who can fall  into belief in any fashionable cult, current philosophy, new-found foreign  superstition. This one fell into belief and possibly love for Mara. Even  distinguished himself on the ramparts of Borgo, braining four Janissaries  with his lute before someone handed him a sword. She was, you see, his  Lady."

Mehemet recited:

   Fleeing the mistral, fleeing the sun's hot lash,

   Serene in scalloped waves, and sculptured sky

   The head feels no rain, fears no pitchy night,

   As o'er this ancient sea it races stars,

   Empty but for a dozen fatal words,

   Charmed by Mara, Mara my only love . . .

There follows an apostrophe to Mara."

Stencil nodded sagely, trying to fill in with Spanish cognates.

"Apparently," Mehemet concluded, "the head returned to Constantinople and  its owner, the sly Mara meanwhile having slipped aboard a friendly galiot,  disguised as a cabin boy. Back in Valletta at last she appeared in a vision  to La Vallette, greeting him with the words "Shalom aleikum."

The joke being that shalom is Hebrew for peace and also the root for the  Greek Salome, who beheaded St. John.

"Beware of Mara," the old sailor said then. "Guardian spirit of Xaghriet  Mewwija. Whoever or whatever sees to such things condemned her to haunt the  inhabited plain, as punishment for her show at Constantinople. About as  useful as clapping any faithless wife in a chastity belt.

"She's restless. She will find ways to reach out from Valletta, a city named  after a man, but of feminine gender, a peninsula shaped like the mons  Veneris - you see? It is a chastity belt. But there are more ways than one  to consummation, as she proved to the Sultan."

Now sprinting from the taxi through the rain to his hotel, Stencil did  indeed feel a tug. Not so much at his loins - there had been company enough  in Syracuse to anaesthetize that for a while - as at the wizened adolescent  he was always apt to turn into: A little later, scrunched. up in an  undersize tub, Stencil sang. It was a tune, in fact, from his "music-hall"  days before the war, and primarily a way to relax:

   Every night to the Dog and Bell

   Young Stencil loved to go

   To dance on the tables and shout and sing

   And give 'is pals a show.

   His little wife would stay to Home

   'Er 'eart all filled wiv pain

   But the next night sharp at a quarter to six

   'E'd be down to the pub again. Until

   That one fine evening in the monf of May

   He announced to all as came wivin 'is sight

   You must get along wivout me boys

   I'm through wiv rowdiness and noise.

   Cause Stencil's going 'ome tonight;

[In palmier days a chorus of junior F.O. operatives would enter here  singing]:

 'Ere, wot's this? Wot's the matter wiv Stencil?

   Wot's the reason for such a change of 'eart?

[To which Stencil would answer]:

   Gather round me closely lads

   And I the most forlorn of cads

   Will tell you all ere I depart:


   I've just become the father to a bouncing baby boy

   And Herbert blithering Stencil is 'is name.

   'E's a card  And treats me wiv regard

   Though I 'awe to change 'is nappies all the same.

   I don't know where we got the time to make 'im,

   Cause I've been coming 'ome drunk most every night,

   But 'e's cute and fat as a kidney pie

   And looks like 'is ma and that is why

   Stencil's going 'ome tonight

   (Just ask the milkman)

   Stencil's going 'ome tonight.

Out of the tub, dry, back in tweeds, Stencil stood at the window, looking  out idly at the night.

At length came a knock at the door. It would be Maijstral. A quick twitch of  eyeballs about the room to check for loose papers, anything compromising.  Then to the door to admit the shipfitter who'd been described to him as  looking like a stunted oak. Maijstral stood there neither aggressive nor  humble, merely existing: whitening hair, unkempt mustaches. A nervous tic in  the man's upper lip made the food particles trapped there vibrate  disturbingly.

"He comes of noble family," Mehemet had revealed sadly. Stencil fell into  the trap, asking which family. "Della Torre," Mehemet replied. Delatore,  informer.

"What of the Dockyard people," Stencil asked.

"They will attack the Chronicle." (A grievance stemming from the strike of  1917; the newspaper had published a letter condemning the strike, but had  given no equal time for a reply.) "There was a meeting a few minutes ago."  Maijstral gave him a brief digest. Stencil knew all the objections. Workers  from England got a colonial allowance: local yardbirds received only normal  wages. Most would like to emigrate, after hearing glowing reports from the  Maltese Labour Carps and other crews from abroad of higher pay outside  Malta. But the rumor had started, somehow, that the government was refusing  passports to keep workers on the island, against any future requirement.  "What else can they do but emigrate?" Maijstral digressed: "With the war the  number of Dockyard workers swelled to three times what it was before. Now,  with Armistice, they're already laying off. There are only so many jobs here  outside the Dockyard. Not enough to keep everyone eating."

Stencil wanted to ask: if you sympathize, why inform? He had used informers  as a journeyman his tools and had never tried to understand their motives.  Usually he supposed it was no more than a personal grudge, a desire for  revenge. But he'd seen them before, torn: committed to some program or  other, and still helping along its defeat. Would Maijstral be there in the  van of the mob storming the Daily Malta Chronicle? Stencil did want to ask  why, but could hardly. It being none of his affair.

Maijstral told him all he knew and left, expressionless as before. Stencil  lit a pipe, consulted a map of Valletta, and five minutes later was  strolling sprightly down Strada Reale, trailing Maijstral.

This was normal precaution. Of course, a certain double standard was at  work; the feeling being "If he will inform for me he will also inform  against me."

Ahead Maijstral now turned left, away from the lights of the main  thoroughfare; down the hill toward Strada Stretta. Here were the borders of  this city's Disreputable Quarter; Stencil looked around without much  curiosity. It was all the same. What a warped idea of cities one got in this  occupation! If no record of this century should survive except the personal  logs of F.O. operatives, the historians of the future must reconstruct a  curious landscape indeed.

Massive public buildings with characterless facades; networks of streets  from which the civilian populace seems mysteriously absent. An aseptic  administrative world, surrounded by an outlying vandal-country of twisting  lanes, houses of prostitution, taverns; ill-lit except for rendezvous  points, which stand out like sequins on an old and misused ball-gown.

"If there is any political moral to be found in this world," Stencil once  wrote in his journal, "it is that we carry on the Business of this century  with an intolerable double vision. Right and Left; the hothouse and the  street. The Right can only live and work hermetically, in the hothouse of  the past, while outside the Left prosecute their affairs in the streets by  manipulated mob violence. And cannot live but in the dreamscape of the  future.

"What of the real present the men-of-no-politics, the once-respectable  Golden Mean? Obsolete; in any case, lost sight of. In a West of such  extremes we can expect, at the very least, a highly 'alienated' populace  within not many more years."

Strada Stretta; Strait Street. A passage meant, one felt, to be choked with  mobs. Such was nearly the case: early evening had brought to it sailors  ashore from H.M.S. Egmont and smaller men-o-war; seamen from Greek, Italian  and North African merchantmen; and a supporting cast of shoeshine boys,  pimps, hawkers of trinkets, confections, dirty pictures. Such were the  topological deformities of this street that one seemed to walk through a  succession of musichall stages, each demarcated by a curve or slope, each  with a different set and acting company but all for the same low  entertainment. Stencil, old soft-shoe artist, felt quite at Home.

But he increased his pace through the thickening crowds; noticing with some  anxiety that Maijstral had begun to disappear more and more frequently is  the surgings of white and blue ahead.

To his right he became aware of a persistent image, flickering in and out of  his field of vision. Tall, black, somehow conical. He risked a sidewise  glance. What seemed to be a Greek pope or parish priest had been keeping  abreast of him for some time. What was a man of God doing in this territory?  Seeking perhaps to reclaim souls; but their glances touched and Stencil saw  no merciful intention there.

"Chaire," muttered the priest.

"Chaire, Papa," said Stencil out of the side of his mouth, and tried to push  ahead. He was restrained by the pope's ringed hand.

"One moment, Sidney," said the voice. "Come over here, out of this mob."

That voice was damned familiar. "Maijstral is going to the John Bull," said  the pope. "We can catch up with him later." They proceeded down an alley to  a small courtyard. In the center was a cistern, its rim adorned with a dark  sunburst of sewage.

"Presto change-ho," and off came the holy man's black beard and calotte.

"Demivolt, you've grown crude in your old age. What sort of low comedy is  this? What's the matter with Whitehall?"

"They're all right," sang Demivolt, hopping clumsily about the courtyard.  "You're as much a surprise to me, you know."

"What about Moffit," Stencil said. "As long as they're staging a reunion of  the Florence crew."

"Moffit caught it in Belgrade. I thought you'd heard." Demivolt removed the  soutane and rolled his paraphernalia in it. Underneath he wore a suit of  English tweed. After quickly recombing his hair and twirling his mustache,  he looked no different from the Demivolt Stencil had last seen in '99.  Except for more gray in the hair, a few more lines in the face.

"God knows who all they've sent to Valletta," said Demivolt cheerfully, as  they returned to the street. "I suspect it's only another fad - F.O. gets  these fits, you know. Like a spa or watering place. The fashionable Place To  Go seems to be different every season."

"Don't look at me. I have only a hint what's up. The natives here are as we  say, restless. This chap Fairing - R.C. priest, Jesuit I suspect - thinks  there will be a blood bath before very long."

"Yes, I've seen Fairing. If his paycheck is coming out of the same pocket as  ours, he shows it not."

"Oh I doubt, I doubt," Stencil said vaguely, wanting to talk about old times.

"Maijstral always sits out in front; we'll go across the street." They took  seats at the Cafe Phoenicia, Stencil with his back to the street. Briefly,  over Barcelona beer each filled the other in on the two decades between the  Vheissu affair and here, voices monotone against the measured frenzy of the  street.

"Odd how paths cross."

Stencil nodded.

"Are we meant to keep tabs on one another? Or were we meant to meet."

"Meant?" too quickly. "By Whitehall, of course."

"Of course."

As we get older we skew more toward the past. Stencil had thus become  partially lost to the street and the yardbird across it. The ill-starred  year in Florence - Demivolt having popped up again - now came back to him,  each unpleasant detail quivering brightly in the dark room of his spy's  memory. He hoped devoutly that Demivolt's appearance was merely chance; and  not a signal for the reactivation of the same chaotic and Situational forces  at work in Florence twenty years ago.

For Fairing's prediction of massacre, and its attendant politics, had all  the earmarks of a Situation-in-the-process-of-becoming. He had changed none  of his ideas on The Situation. Had even written an article, pseudonymous,  and sent it to Punch: "The Situation as an N-Dimensional Mishmash." It was  rejected.

"Short of examining the entire history of each individual participating;"  Stencil wrote, "short of anatomizing each soul, what hope has anyone of  understanding a Situation? It may be that the civil servants of the future  will not be accredited unless they first receive a degree in brain surgery."

He indeed was visited by dreams in which he had shrunk to submicroscopic  size and entered a brain, strolling in through some forehead's pore and into  the cul-de-sac of a sweat gland. Struggling out of a jungle of capillaries  there he would finally reach bone; down then through the skull, dura mater,  arachnoid, pia mater to the fissure-floored sea of cerebrospinal fluid. And  there he would float before final assault on the gray hemispheres: the soul.

Nodes of Ranvier, sheath of Schwann, vein of Galen; tiny Stencil wandered  all night long among the silent, immense lightning bursts of nerve-impulses  crossing a synapse; the waving dendrites, the nerve-autobahns chaining away  to God knew where in receding clusters of end-bulbs. A stranger in this  landscape, it never occurred to him to ask whose brain he was in. Perhaps  his own. They were fever dreams: the kind where one is given an impossibly  complex problem to solve, and keeps chasing dead ends, following random  promises, frustrated at every turn, until the fever breaks.

Assume, then, a prospect of chaos in the streets, joined by every group on  the island with a grudge. This would include nearly everyone but the OAG and  his staff. Doubtless each would think only of his own immediate desires. But  mob violence, like tourism, is a kind of communion. By its special magic a  large number of lonely souls, however heterogeneous, can share the common  property of opposition to what is. And like an epidemic or earthquake the  politics of the street can overtake even the most stable-appearing of  governments; like death it cuts through and gathers in all ranks of society.

-> The poor would seek revenge against the millers, who allegedly profiteered  in bread during the war.

-> The civil servants would be out looking for a fairer shake: advance  notice of open competition, higher salaries, no more racial discrimination.

-> The tradesmen would want repeal of the Succession and Donation Duties  Ordinance. This tax was meant to bring in 5000 pounds yearly; but the actual  assessments amounted to 30,000 pounds.

-> Bolshevists among the yardbirds could only be satisfied with the  abolition of all private property, sacred or profane. 

-> The anti-colonial extremists would seek of course to sweep England from  the Palace forever. Damn the consequences. Though probably Italy would enter  on the next crest and be even harder to dislodge. There would be blood ties,  then. 

-> The Abstentionists wanted a new constitution.

-> The Mizzists - comprising three clubs: Giovine Malta, Dante Alighieri, Il  Comitato Patriottico - sought (a) Italian hegemony in Malta, (b)  aggrandizement for the leader, Dr. Enrico Mizzi.

-> The Church - here perhaps Stencil's C. of E. stuffiness colored an  otherwise objective view - wanted only what the Church always desires during  times of political crisis. She awaited a Third Kingdom. Violent overthrow is  a Christian phenomenon.

The matter of a Paraclete's coming, the comforter, the dove; the tongues of  flame, the gift of tongues: Pentecost. Third Person of the Trinity. None of  it was implausible to Stencil. The Father had come and gone. In political  terms, the Father was the Prince; the single leader, the dynamic figure  whose virtu used to be a determinant of history. This had degenerated to the  Son, genius of the liberal love-feast which had produced 1848 and lately the  overthrow of the Czars. What next? What Apocalypse?

Especially on Malta, a matriarchal island. Would the Paraclete be also a  mother? Comforter, true. But what gift of communication could ever come from  a woman . . .

Enough, lad, he told himself. You're in dangerous waters. Come out, come  out.

"Don't turn around now," Demivolt broke in conversationally, "but it's she.  At Maijstral's table."

When Stencil did turn around he saw only a vague figure in an evening cape,  her face shadowed by an elaborate, probably Parisian bonnet.

"That is Veronica Manganese."

"Gustavus V is ruler of Sweden. You are brimful of intelligence, aren't you."

Demivolt gave Stencil a thumbnail dossier on Veronica Manganese. Origins  uncertain. She'd popped up in Malta at the beginning of the war, in the  company of one Sgherraccio, a Mizzist. She was now intimate with various  renegade Italians, among them D'Annunzio the poet-militant, and one  Mussolini, an active and troublesome anti-socialist. Her political  sympathies weren't known; whatever they might be, Whitehall was less than  amused. The woman was clearly a troublemaker. She was reputed to be wealthy;  lived alone in a villa long abandoned by the baronage of Sant' Ugo di  Tagliapiombo di Sammut, a nearly defunct branch of the Maltese nobility. The  source of her income was not apparent.

"He's a double agent, then."

"It would seem so."

"Why don't I go back to London. You seem to be doing quite well -"

"Negative, negative, Sidney. You do remember Florence."

A waiter materialized with more Barcelona beer. Stencil fumbled for his  pipe. "This must be the worst brew in the Mediterranean. You deserve  another, for that. Can't Vheissu ever be a dead file?"

"Call Vheissu a symptom. Symptoms like that are always alive, somewhere in  the world."

"Sweet Christ, we've only now concluded one. Are they quite ready, do you  think, to begin this foolishness again?"

"I don't think," Demivolt smiled grimly. "I try not to. Seriously, I believe  all elaborate games of this sort arise from someone in the Office - high up,  of course - getting a hunch. Saying to himself, 'Look here: something is  wrong, you know.' He's usually right. In Florence he was right, again only  as far as we're talking about symptoms and not about any acute case of  whatever the disease is.

"Now you and I are only private-soldiers. For myself, I wouldn't presume.  That manner of guesswork draws from a really first-rate intuitiveness. Oh we  have our own minor hunches, of course: your following Maijstral tonight. But  it's a matter of level. Level of pay-grade, level of elevation above the  jumble, where one can see the long-term movements. We're in it, in the  thick, after all."

"And so they want us together," Stencil murmured.

"As of now. Who knows what they'll want tomorrow?"

"And I wonder who else is here."

"Look sharp. There they go." They let the two across the street move off  before they arose. "Like to see the island? They're probably on their way  out to the Villa. Not that the rendezvous is apt to prove very exciting."

So they made their way down Strada Streeta, Demivolt looking like a jaunty  anarchist with the black bundle under one arm.

"The roads are terrible," Demivolt admitted, "but we have an automobile."

"I'm frightened to death of automobiles."

Indeed he was. On route to the villa Stencil clutched the Peugeot's seat,  refusing to look at anything but the floorboards. Autos, balloons,  aeroplanes; he'd have nothing to do with them.

"Isn't this rather crude," he gritted, huddled behind the windscreen as if  expecting it to vanish at any moment. "There's no one else on the road."

"At the speed she's going she'll lose us soon enough," Demivolt chirruped,  all breezy. "Relax, Sidney."

They moved southwest into Floriana. Ahead Veronica Manganese's Benz had  vanished in a gale of cinders and exhaust. "Ambush," Stencil suggested.

"They're not that sort." After awhile Demivolt turned right. They worked  their way thus round Marsamuscetto in near-darkness. Reeds whistled in the  fens. Behind them the illuminated city seemed tilted toward them, like some  display case in a poor souvenir shop. And how quiet was Malta's night.  Approaching or leaving other capitals one always caught the sense of a great  pulse or plexus whose energy reached one by induction; broadcasting its  presence over whatever arete or sea's curve might be hiding it. But Valletta  seemed serene in her own past, in the Mediterranean womb, in something so  insulating that Zeus himself might once have quarantined her and her island  for an old sin or an older pestilence. So at peace was Valletta that with  the least distance she would deteriorate to' mere spectacle. She ceased to  exist as anything quick or pulsed, and was assumed again into the textual  stillness of her own history.

The Villa di Sammut lay past Sliema near the sea, elevated on a small  prominence, facing out toward an invisible Continent. What Stencil could see  of the building was conventional enough, as villas go: white walls,  balconies, few windows on the landward side, stone satyrs chasing stone  nymphs about dilapidated grounds; one great ceramic dolphin vomiting clear  water into a pool. But the low wall surrounding the place drew his  attention. Normally insensitive to the artistic or Baedeker aspect of any  city he visited, Stencil was now ready to succumb to the feathery tentacles  of a nostalgia which urged him gently back toward childhood; a childhood of  gingerbread witches, enchanted parks, fantasy country. It was a dream-wall,  swirling and curlicuing now in the light of a quarter moon, seeming no more  solid than the decorative voids - some almost like leaves or petals, some  almost like bodily organs not quite human - which pierced its streaked and  cobbled substance.

"Where have we seen this before," he whispered.

One light in an upper story went out. "Come," said Demivolt. They vaulted  the wall and crept round the villa peering in windows, listening at doors.

"Are we looking for anything particular," Stencil asked.

A lantern came on behind them and a voice said, "Turn round slowly. Hands  away from your sides."

Stencil had a strong stomach and all the cynicism of a non-political career  and an approaching second childhood. But the face above the lantern did give  him a mild shock. It is too grotesque, too deliberately, preciously Gothic  to be real, he protested to himself. The upper part of the nose seemed to  have slid down, giving an exaggerated saddle-and-hump; the chin cut off at  midpoint to slope concave back up the other side, pulling part of the lip up  in a scarred half-smile. Just under the eye socket on the same side winked a  roughly circular expanse of silver. The shadows thrown by the lantern made  it worse. The other hand held a revolver.

"You are spies?" the voice inquired, an English voice twisted somehow by a  mouth cavity one could only infer. "Let me see your faces." He moved the  lantern closer and Stencil saw a change begin to grow in the eyes, all that  had been human in the face to begin with.

"Both of you," the mouth said. "Both of you then." And tears began to  squeeze from the eyes. "Then you know it is she, and why I am here." He  repocketed the revolver, turned, slumped off toward the villa. Stencil  started after him, but Demivolt put out an arm. At a door the man turned.  "Can't you let us alone? Let her make her own peace? Let me be a simple  caretaker? I want nothing more from England." The last words were spoken so  weakly the sea wind nearly carried them off. The lantern and its holder  vanished behind the door.

"Old running mate," Demivolt said, "there is a tremendous nostalgia about  this show. Do you feel it? The pain of a return Home."

"Was that in Florence?"

"The rest of us were. Why not?"

"I don't like duplication of effort."

"This occupation sees nothing else." The tone was grim.

"Another one?"

"Oh hardly so soon. But give it twenty years."

Although Stencil had been face to face with her caretaker, this was the fast  meeting: he must have reckoned it even then as a "first meeting." Suspecting  anyway that Veronica Manganese and he had met before, why surely they would  meet again.



 But the second meeting had to wait on the coming of a kind of false spring,  where smells of the Harbour drifted to the highest reaches of Valletta and  flocks of sea birds consulted dispiritedly down in the Dockyard country,  aping the actions of their human co-tenants.

There had been no attack on the Chronicle. On 3 February political  censorship of the Maltese press was abolished. La Voce del Popolo, the  Mizzist paper, promptly began agitating. Articles praising Italy and  attacking Britain; excerpts copied from the foreign press, comparing Malta  to certain Italian provinces under a tyrannical Austrian rule. The  vernacular press followed suit. None of it worried Stencil particularly.  When the freedom to criticize a government had been suspended four years by  the same government, a great deal of pent-up resentment would obviously be  released in a voluminous - though not necessarily effective - torrent.

But three weeks later, a "National Assembly" met in Valletta to draft a  request for a liberal constitution. All shades of political  opinion - Abstentionists, Moderates, the Comitato Patriottico - were  represented. The gathering met at the club Giovine Malta, which was  Mizzist-controlled.

"Trouble," Demivolt said darkly.

"Not necessarily." Though Stencil knew the difference between "political  gathering" and "mob" is fine indeed. Anything might touch it off.

The night before the meeting a play at the Manoel Theatre, dealing with  Austrian oppression in Italy, worked the crowd into a gloriously foul humor.  The actors tossed in several topical ad libs which did little to improve the  general mood. Rollickers in the street sang La Bella Gigogin. Maijstral  reported that a few Mizzists and Bolshevists were doing their best to drum  up enthusiasm for a riot among the Dockyard workers. The extent of their  success was doubtful. Maijstral shrugged. It might only be the weather. An  unofficial notice had also gone out, advising merchants to close up their  establishments.

"Considerate of them," Demivolt remarked next day as they strolled down  Strada Reale. A few shops and cafes had been closed. A quick check revealed  that the owners had Mizzist sympathies.

As the day progressed small bands of agitators, most of them with a holiday  air (as if rioting were a healthy avocation like handicrafts or outdoor  sports), roamed the streets, breaking windows, wrecking furniture, yelling  at the merchants still open to close up their shops. But for some reason a  spark was missing. Rain swept by in squalls at intervals throughout the day.

"Grasp this moment," Demivolt said, "hold it close, examine it, treasure it.  It is one of those rare occasions on which advance intelligence has proved  to be correct."

True: no one had been particularly excited. But Stencil wondered about that  missing catalyst. Any minor accident: a break in the clouds, a catastrophic  shivering at the first tentative blow to a shop window, the topology of an  object of destruction (up a hill or down - it makes a difference) - anything  might swell a merely mischievous humor to suddenly apocalyptic rage.

But all that came from the meeting was adoption of Mizzi's resolution  calling for complete independence from Great Britain. La Voce del Popolo  gibbered triumphantly. A new meeting of the Assembly was called for 7 June.

"Three and a half months," Stencil said. "It will be warmer then," Demivolt  shrugged. Whereas Mizzi, an Extremist, had been secretary of the February  meeting, one Dr. Mifsud, a Moderate, would be secretary next time. The  Moderates wanted to sit down and discuss the constitutional question with  Hunter-Blair and the Secretary of State for the Colonies, rather than make  any total break with England. And the Moderates, come June, would be in the  majority.

"It seems rather a good lookout," Demivolt protested. "If anything was going  to happen, it would have happened while Mizzi was ascendant."

"It rained," said Stencil. "It was cold."

La Voce del Popolo and the Maltese-language papers continued their attacks  on the government. Maijstral reported twice a week, giving a general picture  of deepening discontent among the yardbirds, but they were afflicted by a  soggy lethargy which must wait for the heat of summer to dry it, the spark  of a leader, a Mizzi or equivalent, to touch it into anything more  explosive. As the weeks passed Stencil came to know more about his double  agent. It came out that Maijstral lived near the Dockyard with his young  wife Carla. Carla was pregnant, the child was due in June.

"How does she feel," Stencil asked once with unaccustomed indiscretion,  "about your being in this occupation."

"She will be a mother soon," Maijstral answered, gloomy. "That's all she  thinks about or feels. You know what it is to be a mother on this island."

Stencil's boy-romanticism seized on this: perhaps there was more than a  professional element to the nighttime meetings out at the Sammut villa. He  was almost tempted to ask Maijstral to spy on Veronica Manganese; but  Demivolt, the voice of reason, was reluctant.

"Tip our hand that way. We have an ear already in the villa. Dupiro, the  ragman, who is quite genuinely in love with a kitchen maid there."

If the Dockyard were the only trouble spot to watch Stencil might have  fallen into the same torpor that afflicted the yardbirds. But his other  contact - Father Linus Fairing, S.J., the voice whose call for help had been  heard among the mass mirth of November and set a-clattering the emotional  and intuitive levers, pawls or ratchets to propel Stencil across a continent  and sea for solid reasons as yet unclear to him - this Jesuit saw and heard  (possibly did) enough to keep Stencil moderately hagridden.

"Being a Jesuit," said the priest, "of course there are certain attitudes .  . . we do not control the world in secret, Stencil. We have no spy net, no  political nerve-center at the Vatican." Oh, Stencil was unbiased enough.  Though with his upbringing he could hardly have sidestepped exposure to a  certain C. of E. leeriness toward the Society of Jesus. But he objected to  Fairing's digressions; the fog of political opinion that crept in to warp  what should have been cleareyed reporting. At their initial meeting -  shortly after the first trip out to Veronica Manganese's villa - Fairing had  made a poor first impression. He'd tried to be chummy, even - good God - to  talk shop. Stencil was reminded of certain otherwise competent Anglo-Indians  in the civil service. "We are discriminated against," seemed to be the  complaint: "we are despised by white and Asian alike. Very well, we shall  play to the hilt this false role popular prejudice believes us to play." How  many deliberate heightenings of dialect, breaches of conversational taste,  gaucheries at table had Stencil seen dedicated to that intention?

So with Fairing. "We are all spies in this together," that was the tack he  took. Stencil had been interested only in information. He wasn't about to  let personality enter the Situation; this would be courting chaos. Fairing  realizing soon enough that Stencil was not, after all, a No Popery man, did  give up this arrogant form of honesty far more exasperating behavior. Here,  seemed to be his assumption, here is a spy who has risen above the political  turmoil of his time. Here is Machiavelli on the rack, less concerned with  immediacy than idea. Accordingly the subjective fog crept in to obscure his  weekly reports.

"Any tug in the direction of anarchy is anti-Christian," he protested once,  having sucked Stencil into confessing his theory of Paracletian politics.  "The Church has matured, after all. Like a young person she has passed from  promiscuity to authority. You are nearly two millennia out-of-date."

An old dame trying to cover up a flaming youth? Ha!

Actually Fairing, as a source, was ideal. Malta being, after all, a Roman  Catholic island, the Father was in a position to come by enough information  outside the confessional to clarify (at least) their picture of every  disaffected group on the island. Though Stencil was less than happy over the  quality of these reports, quantity was no problem. But what had provoked his  complaint to Mungo Sheaves in the first place? What was the man afraid of?

For it was not mere love of politicking and intrigue. If he did believe in  the authority of the Church, of institutions, then perhaps four years of  sitting sequestered, outside the suspension of peace, which had lately  convulsed the rest of the Old World, this quarantine might have brought him  to some belief in Malta as a charmed circle, some stable domain of peace.

And then with Armistice to be exposed abruptly at every level to a daftness  for overthrow among his parishioners . . . of course.

It was the Paraclete he feared. He was quite content with a Son grown to  manhood.

Fairing, Maijstral, puzzlement over the identity of the hideous face above  the lantern; these occupied Stencil well into March. Until one afternoon,  arriving at the church early for a meeting, he saw Veronica Manganese emerge  from the confessional, head bowed, face shadowed as he had seen her in  Strada Stretta. She knelt at the altar rail and began to pray penance.  Stencil half-knelt in the rear of the church, elbows hung over the back of  the pew in front of him. Appearing to be a good Catholic, appearing to be  carrying on an affair with Maijstral; nothing suspicious in either. But both  at once and with (he imagined) scores of father-confessors in Valletta alone  for her to choose from; it was as close to superstition as Stencil ever got.  Now and again events would fall into ominous patterns.

Was Fairing too a double agent? If so then it was actually the woman who'd  brought F.O. into this. What twisted Italian casuistry advised revealing any  plot-in-mounting to one's enemies?

She arose and left the church, passing Stencil on route. Their eyes met.  Demivolt's remark came back to him: "A tremendous nostalgia about this show."

Nostalgia and melancholy . . . Hadn't he bridged two worlds? The changes  couldn't have been all in him. It must be an alien passion in Malta where  all history seemed simultaneously present, where all streets were strait  with ghosts, where in a sea whose uneasy floor made and unmade islands every  year this stone fish and Ghaudex and the rocks called Cumin-seed and  Peppercorn had remained fixed realities since time out of mind. In London  were too many distractions. History there was the record of an evolution.  One-way and ongoing. Monuments, buildings, plaques were remembrances only;  but in Valletta remembrances seemed almost to live.

Stencil, at Home everywhere in Europe, had thus come out of his element.  Recognizing it was his first step down. A spy has no element to be out of,  and not feeling "at Home" is a sign of weakness.

F.O. continued to be uncommunicative and unhelpful. Stencil raised the  question to Demivolt: had they been turned out to pasture here?

"I've been afraid of that. We are old."

"It was different once," Stencil asked, "wasn't it?"

They went out that night and got maudlin-drunk. But nostalgic melancholy is  a fine emotion, becoming blunted on alcohol. Stencil regretted the binge. He  remembered rollicking down the hill to Strait Street, well past midnight,  singing old vaudeville songs. What was happening?

There came, in time's fullness, One of Those Days. After a spring morning  made horrible by another night of heavy drinking Stencil arrived at  Fairing's church to learn the priest was being transferred.

"To America. There is nothing I can do." Again the old. fellow-professional  smile.

Could Stencil have sneered "God's will"; not likely. His case wasn't yet  that far advanced. The Church's will, certainly, and Fairing was the type to  bow to Authority. Here was after all another Englishman. So they were, in a  sense, brothers in exile.

"Hardly," the priest smiled. "In the matter of Caesar and God, a Jesuit need  not be as flexible as you might think. There's no conflict of interests."

"As there is between Caesar and Fairing? Or Caesar and Stencil?"

"Something like that."

"Sahha, then. I suppose your relief . . ."

"Father Avalanche is younger. Don't lead him into bad habits."

"I see."

Demivolt was out at Hamrun, conferring with agents among the millers. They  were frightened. Had Fairing been too frightened to stay? Stencil had supper  in his room. He'd drawn no more than a few times on his pipe when there was  a timid knock.

"Oh, come. Come."

A girl, obviously pregnant, who stood, only watching him. 

"Do you speak English, then."

"I do. I am Carla Maijstral." She remained erect, shoulderblades and  buttocks touching the door.

"He will be killed, or hurt," she said. "In wartime a woman must expect to  lose her husband. But now there is peace."

She wanted him sacked. Sack him? Why not. Double agents were dangerous. But  now, having lost the priest . . . She couldn't know about La Manganese.

"Could you help, signor. Speak to him."

"How did you know? He didn't tell you."

"The workers know there is a spy among them. It has become a favorite topic  among all the wives. Which one of us? Of course, it is one of the bachelors,  they say. A man with a wife, with children, could not take the chance." She  was dry-eyed, her voice was steady.

"For God's sake," Stencil said irritably, "sit down."

Seated: "A wife knows things, especially one who will be a mother soon." She  paused to smile down at her belly, which upset Stencil. Dislike for her grew  as the moments passed. "I know only that something is wrong with Maijstral.  In England I have heard that ladies are 'confined' months before the child  is born. Here a woman works, and goes out in the street, as long as she can  move about."

"And you came out looking for me."

"The priest told me."

Fairing. Who was working for whom? Caesar wasn't getting a fair shake. He  tried sympathy. "Was it worrying you that much? That you had to bring it all  into the confessional?"

"He used to stay Home at night. It will be our first child, and a first  child is the most important. It is his child, too. But we hardly speak any  more. He comes in late and I pretend to be asleep."

"But a child also must be fed, sheltered, protected more than a man or  woman. And this requires money."

She grew angry. "Maratt the welder has seven children. He earns less than  Fausto. None of them has ever gone without food, or clothing, or a Home. We  do not need your money."

God, she could blow the works. Could he tell her that even if he sacked her  husband, there'd still be Veronica Manganese to keep him away nights? Only  one answer: talk to the priest. "I promise you," he said, "I will do all I  can. But the Situation is more complicated than you may realize."

"My father -" curious he'd not caught that flickering edge of hysteria in  her voice till now - "when I was only five also began to stay away from  Home. I never found out why. But it killed my mother. I will not wait for it  to kill me."

Threatening suicide? "Have you talked to your husband at all?"

"It isn't a wife's place."

Smiling: "Only to talk to his employer. Very well, Signora, I shall try. But  I can guarantee nothing. My employer is England: the King." Which quieted  her.

When she left, he began a bitter dialogue with himself. What had happened to  diplomatic initiative? They - whoever "they" were - seemed to be calling the  tune.

The Situation is always bigger than you, Sidney. It has like God its own  logic and its own justification for being, and the best you can do is cope.

I'm not a marriage counselor, or a priest.

Don't act as if it were a conscious plot against you. Who knows how many  thousand accidents - a variation in the weather, the availability of a ship,  the failure of a crop - brought all these people, with their separate dreams  and worries, here to this island and arranged them into this alignment? Any  Situation takes shape from events much lower than the merely human.

Oh, of course: look at Florence. A random pattern of cold-air currents, some  shifting of the pack ice, the deaths of a few ponies, these helped produce  one Hugh Godolphin, as we saw him. Only by the merest happenstance did he  escape the private logic of that ice-world.

The inert universe may have a quality we can call logic. But logic is a  human attribute after all; so even at that it's a misnomer. What are real  are the cross-purposes. We've dignified them with the words "profession" and  "occupation." There is a certain cold comfort in remembering that Manganese,  Mizzi, Maijstral, Dupiro the ragman, that blasted face who caught us at the  villa - also work at cross-purposes.

But what then does one do? Is there a way out?

There is always the way out that Carla Maijstral threatens to take.

His musings were interrupted by Demivolt, who came stumbling in the door.  "There's trouble."

"Oh indeed. That's unusual."

"Dupiro the ragman."

Good things come in threes. "How."

"Drowned, in Marsamuscetto. Washed ashore downhill from Manderaggio. He had  been mutilated." Stencil thought of the Great Siege and the Turkish  atrocities: death's flotilla.

"It must have been I Banditti," Demivolt continued: "a gang of terrorists or  professional assassins. They vie with one another in finding new and  ingenious ways to murder. Poor Dupiro's genitals were found sewn in his  mouth. Silk suturing worthy of a fine surgeon."

Stencil felt ill.

"We think they are connected somehow with the fasci di combattimento who've  organized last month in Italy, around Milan. The Manganese has been in  intermittent contact with their leader Mussolini. "

"The tide could have carried him across."


"They wouldn't want it out to sea, you know. Craftsmanship of that order  must have an audience or it's worthless."

What's happened, he asked his other half. The Situation used to be a  civilized affair.

No time in Valletta. No history, all history at once . . .

"Sit down, Sidney. Here." A glass of brandy, a few slaps to the face.

"All right, all right. Ease off. It's been the weather." Demivolt waggled  his eyebrows and retreated to the dead fireplace. "Now we have lost Fairing,  as you know, and we may lose Maijstral." He summarized Carla's visit.

"The priest."

"What I thought. But we've had an ear lopped off out at the villa."

"Short of starting an affair, one of us, with La Manganese, I can't see any  way to replace it."

"Perhaps she's not attracted to the mature sort."

"I didn't mean it seriously."

"She did give me a curious look. That day at the church."

"You old dog. You didn't say you'd been slipping out to secret trysts in a  church." Attempting the light touch. But failing.

"It has deteriorated to the point where any move on our part would have to  be bold."

"Perhaps foolish. But confronting her directly . . . I'm an optimist, as you  know."

"I'm a pessimist. It keeps a certain balance. Perhaps I'm only tired. But I  do think it is that desperate. Employing I Banditti indicates a larger  move - by them - soon."

"Wait, in any event. Till we see what Fairing does."

Spring had descended with its own tongue of flame. Valletta seemed  soul-kissed into drowsy complaisance as Stencil mounted the hill southeast  of Strada Reale toward Fairing's church. The place was empty and its silence  broken only by snores from the confessional. Stencil slipped into the other  side on his knees and woke the priest rudely.

"She may violate the secrecy of this little box," Fairing replied, "but I  cannot."

"You know what Maijstral is," Stencil said, angry, "and how many Caesars he  serves. Can't you calm her? Don't they teach mesmerism at the Jesuit  seminary?" He regretted the words immediately.

"Remember I am leaving," coldly: "speak to my successor, Father Avalanche.  Perhaps you can teach him to betray God and the Church and this flock.  You've failed with me. I must follow my conscience."

"What a damned enigma you are," Stencil burst out. "Your conscience is made  of India rubber."

After a pause: "I can, of course, tell her that any drastic step she  takes - threatening the welfare of the child, perhaps - is a mortal sin."

Anger had drained away. Remembering his "damned": "Forgive me, Father."

The priest chuckled. "I can't. You're an Anglican."

The woman had approached so quietly that both Stencil and Fairing jumped  when she spoke.

"My opposite number."

The voice, the voice - of course he knew it. As the priest - flexible enough  to betray no surprise-performed introductions, Stencil watched her face  closely, as if waiting for it to reveal itself. But she wore an elaborate  hat and veil; and the face was as generalized as that of any graceful woman  seen in the street. One arm, sleeveless to the elbow, was gloved and nearly  solid with bracelets.

So she had come to them. Stencil had kept his promise to Demivolt - had  waited to see what Fairing would do.

"We have met, Signorina Manganese."

"In Florence," came the voice behind the veil. "Do you remember?" turning  her head. In the hair visible below the hat was a carved ivory comb, and  five crucified faces, long-suffering beneath their helmets.


"I wore the comb today. Knowing you would be here."

Whether or not he must now betray Demivolt, Stencil suspected he'd be little  use henceforth in either preventing or manipulating for Whitehall's  inscrutable purposes whatever would happen in June. What he had thought was  an end had proved to be only a twenty-year stay. No use, he realized, asking  if she'd followed him or if some third force had manipulated them toward  meeting.

Riding out to the villa in her Benz, he showed none of the usual  automobile-anxieties. What use? They'd come in, hadn't they, from their  thousand separate streets. To enter, hand in hand, the hothouse of a  Florentine spring once again; to be fayed and filleted hermetically into a  square (interior? exterior?) where all art objects hover between inertia and  waking, all shadows lengthen imperceptibly though night never falls, a total  nostalgic hush rests on the heart's landscape. And all faces are blank  masks; and spring is any drawn-out sense of exhaustion or a summer which  like evening never comes.

"We are on the same side, aren't we." She smiled. They'd been sitting idly  in one darkened drawing room, watching nothing - night on the sea - from a  seaward window. "Our ends are the same: to keep Italy out of Malta. It is a  second front, which certain elements in Italy cannot afford to have opened,  now."

This woman caused Dupiro the ragman, her servant's love, to be murdered  terribly.

I am aware of that.

You are aware of nothing. Poor old man.

"But our means are different."

"Let the patient reach a crisis," she said: "push him through the fever. End  the malady as quickly as possible."

A hollow laugh: "One way or another."

"Your way would leave them strength to prolong it. My employers must move in  a straight line. No sidetrackings. Annexationists are a minority in Italy,  but bothersome."

"Absolute upheaval," a nostalgic smile: "that is your way, Victoria, of  course." For in Florence, during the bloody demonstration before the  Venezuelan Consulate, he had dragged her away from an unarmed policeman,  whose face she was flaying with pointed fingernails. Hysterical girl,  tattered velvet. Riot was her element, as surely as this dark room, almost  creeping with amassed objects. The street and the hothouse; in V. were  resolved, by some magic, the two extremes. She frightened him.

"Shall I tell you where I have been since our last closed room?"

"No. What need to tell me? No doubt I have passed and repassed you, or your  work, in every city Whitehall has called me to." He chuckled fondly.

"How pleasant to watch Nothing." Her face (so rarely had he seen it that  way!) was at peace, the live eye dead as the other, with the clock-iris.  He'd not been surprised at the eye; no more than at the star sapphire sewn  into her navel. There is surgery; and surgery. Even in Florence - the comb,  which she would never let him touch or remove - he had noted an obsession  with bodily incorporating little bits of inert matter.

"See my lovely shoes," as half an hour before he'd knelt to remove them. "I  would so like to have an entire foot that way, a foot of amber and gold,  with the veins, perhaps, in intaglio instead of bas-relief. How tiresome to  have the same feet: one can only change one's shoes. But if a girl could  have, oh, a lovely rainbow or wardrobe of different-hued, different-sized  and -shaped feet . . ."

Girl? She was nearly forty. But then - aside from a body less alive, how  much in fact had she changed? Wasn't she the same balloon-girl who'd seduced  him on a leather couch in the Florence consulate twenty years ago?

"I must go," he told her.

"My caretaker will drive you back." As if conjured, the mutilated face  appeared at the door. Whatever it felt at seeing them together didn't show  in any change of expression. Perhaps it was too painful to change  expression. The lantern that night had given an illusion of change: but  Stencil saw now the face was fixed as any death-mask.

In the automobile, racketing back toward Valletta, neither spoke till they'd  reached the city's verge.

"You must not hurt her, you know."

Stencil turned, struck by a thought. "You are young Gadrulfi - Godolphin -  aren't you?"

"We both have an interest in her," Godolphin said. "I am her servant."

"I too, in a way. She will not be hurt. She cannot be."



 Events began to shape themselves for June and the coming Assembly. If  Demivolt detected any change in Stencil he gave no sign. Maijstral continued  to report, and his wife kept silent; the child presumably growing inside  her, also shaping itself for June.

Stencil and Veronica Manganese met often. It was hardly a matter of any  mysterious "control"; she held no unspeakable secrets over his balding head,  nor did she exert any particular sexual fascination. It could only be age's  worst side-effect: nostalgia. A tilt toward the past so violent he found it  increasingly more difficult to live in the real present he believed to be so  politically crucial. The villa in Sliema became more and more a retreat into  late-afternoon melancholy. His yarning with Mehemet, his sentimental drunks  with Demivolt; these plus Fairing's protean finaglings and Carla Maijstral's  inference to a humanitarian instinct he'd abandoned before entering the  service, combined to undermine what virtu he'd brought through sixty years  on the go, making him really no further use in Malta. Treacherous pasture,  this island.

Veronica was kind. Her time with Stencil was entirely for him. No  appointments, whispered conferences, hurried paper work: only resumption of  their hothouse-time - as if it were marked by any old and overprecious clock  which could be wound and set at will. For it came to that, finally: an  alienation from time, much as Malta itself was alienated from any history in  which cause precedes effect.

Carla did come to him again with unfaked tears this time; and pleading, not  defiant.

"The priest is gone," she wept. "Whom else do I have? My husband and I are  strangers. Is it another woman?"

He was tempted to tell her. But was restrained by the fine irony. He found  himself hoping that there was indeed adultery between his old "love" and the  shipfitter; if only to complete a circle begun in England eighteen years  ago, a beginning kept forcibly from his thoughts for the same period of  time.

Herbert would be eighteen. And probably helling it all about the dear old  isles. What would he think of his father . . .

His father, ha.

"Signora," hastily, "I have been selfish. Everything I can do. My promise."

"We - my child and I: why should we continue to live?"

Why should any of us. He would send her husband back. With or without him  the June Assembly would become what it would: blood bath or calm  negotiation, who could tell or shape events that closely? There were no more  princes. Henceforth politics would become progressively more democratized,  more thrown into the hands of amateurs. The disease would progress. Stencil  was nearly past caring.

Demivolt and he had it out the next evening.

"You're not helping, you know. I can't keep this thing, off by myself."

"We've lost our contacts. We've lost more than that . . ."

"What the hell is wrong, Sidney."

"health, I suppose," Stencil lied.

"O God."

"The students are upset, I've heard. Rumor that the University will be  abolished. Conferment of Degrees law, 1915 - so that the graduating class  this year is first to be affected."

Demivolt took it as Stencil had hoped: a sick man's attempt to be helpful.  "Have a look into that," he muttered. They'd both known of the University  unrest.

On 4 June the acting Police Commissioner requested a 25-man detachment from  the Malta Composite Battalion to be quartered in the city. University  students went on strike the same day, parading Strada Reale, throwing eggs  at anti-Mizzists, breaking furniture, turning the street festive with a  progress of decorated automobiles.

"We are for it," Demivolt announced that evening. "I'm off for the Palace."  Soon after Godolphin called for Stencil in the Benz.

Out at the villa, the drawing room was lit with an unaccustomed brilliance,  though occupied only by two people. Her companion was Maijstral. Others had  obviously been there: cigarette stubs and teacups were scattered among the  statues and old furniture.

Stencil smiled at Maijstral's confusion. "We are old friends," he said  gently. From somewhere - bottom of the tank - came a last burst of duplicity  and virtu. He forced himself into the real present, perhaps aware it would  be his last time there. Placing a hand on the yardbird's shoulder: "Come. I  have private instructions." He winked at the woman. "We're still nominally  opponents, you see. There are the Rules."

Outside his smile faded. "Now quickly, Maijstral, don't interrupt. You are  released. We have no further use for you. Your wife's time is close: go back  to her."

"The signora -" jerking his head back toward the foyer - "still needs me. My  wife has her child."

"It is an order: from both of us. I can add this: if you do not return to  your wife she will destroy herself and the child."

"It is a sin."

"Which she will risk." But Maijstral still shuffled.

"Very well: if I see you again, here or in my woman's company -" that had  hit: a sly smile touched Maijstral's lips - "I turn your name over to your  fellow workers. Do you know what they'll do to you, Maijstral? Of course you  do. I can even call in the Banditti, if you prefer to die more picturesquely  . . ." Maijstral stood for a moment, eyes going numb. Stencil let the  magic spell "Banditti" work for an instant more, then flashed his best - and  last - diplomatic smile: "Go. You and your woman and the young Maijstral.  Stay out of the blood bath. Stay inside." Maijstral shrugged, turned and  left. He did not look back; his trundling step was less sure.

Stencil made a short prayer: let him be less and less sure as he gathers  years . . .

She smiled as he returned to the drawing room. "All done?"

He collapsed into a Louis Quinze chair whose two seraphim keened above a  dark lawn of green velvet. "All done."

Tension grew through 6 June. Units of the civil police and military were  alerted. Another unofficial notice went out, advising merchants to close up  their shops.

At 3:30 P.M. on 7 June mobs began to collect in Strada Reale. For the next  day and a half they owned Valletta's exterior spaces. They attacked not only  the Chronicle (as promised) but also the Union Club, the Lyceum, the Palace,  the houses of anti-Mizzist Members, the cafes and shops which had stayed  open. Landing parties from H.M.S. Egmont, and detachments of Army and police  joined the effort to keep order. Several times they formed ranks; once or  twice they fired. Three civilians were killed by gunfire; seven wounded.  Scores more were injured in the general rioting. Several buildings were set  on fire. Two RAF lorries with machine guns dispersed an attack on the  millers at Hamrun.

A minor eddy in the peaceful course of Maltese government, preserved today  only in one Board of Inquiry report. Suddenly as they had begun, the June  Disturbances (as they came to be called) ended. Nothing was settled. The  primary question, that of self-rule, was as of 1956 still unresolved. Malta  by then had only advanced as far as dyarchy, and if anything moved even  closer to England in February, when the electorate voted three to one to put  Maltese members in the British House of Commons.


Early on the morning of 10 June 1919, Mehemet's xebec set sail from Lascaris  Wharf. Seated on its counter, like some obsolete nautical fixture, was  Sidney Stencil. No one had come to see him off. Veronica Manganese had kept  him only as long as she had to. His eyes kept dead astern.

But as the xebec was passing Fort St. Elmo or thereabouts, a shining Benz  was observed to pull, up near the wharf and a black-liveried driver with a  mutilated face to come to the harbor's edge and gaze out at the ship. After  a moment he raised his hand; waved with a curiously sentimental, feminine  motion of the wrist. He called something in English, which none of the  observers understood. He was crying.

Draw a line from Malta to Lampedusa. Call it a radius. Somewhere in that  circle, on the evening of the tenth, a waterspout appeared and lasted for  fifteen minutes. Long enough to lift the xebec fifty feet, whirling, and  creaking, Astarte's throat naked to the cloudless weather, and slam it down  again into a piece of the Mediterranean whose subsequent surface  phenomena - whitecaps, kelp islands, any of a million flatnesses which  should catch thereafter part of the brute sun's spectrum-showed nothing at all of what came to lie beneath, that quiet June day.

 << PrevPage  [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18] 

  • Prev Fiction:
  • Back to

  • Next Fiction: NoNext
  • Loading...