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

V.《V》


Loading...

Chapter Three

In which Stencil, a quick-change artist, does eight impersonations

 

As spread thighs are to the libertine, flights of migratory birds to the  ornithologist, the working part of his tool bit to the production machinist,  so was the letter V to young Stencil. He would dream perhaps once a week  that it had all been a dream, and that now he'd awakened to discover the  pursuit of V. was merely a scholarly quest after all, an adventure of the  mind, in the tradition of The Golden Bough or The White Goddess.

But soon enough he'd wake up the second, real time, to make again the  tiresome discovery that it hadn't really ever stopped being the same simple-minded, literal pursuit; V. ambiguously a beast of venery, chased  like the hart, hind or hare, chased like an obsolete, or bizarre, or  forbidden form of sexual delight. And clownish Stencil capering along behind  her, bells ajingle, waving a wooden, toy oxgoad. For no one's amusement but  his own.

His protest to the Margravine di Chiave Lowenstein (suspecting V.'s natural  habitat to be the state of siege, he'd come to Mallorca directly from  Toledo, where he'd spent a week night-walking the alcazar asking questions,  gathering useless memorabilia): "It isn't espionage," had been, and still  was, spoken more out of petulance than any desire to establish purity of  motive. He wished it could all be as respectacle and orthodox as spying. But  somehow in his hands s the traditional tools and attitudes were always  employed toward mean ends: cloak for a laundry sack, dagger to peel  potatoes; dossiers to fill up dead Sunday afternoons; worst of all, disguise  itself not out of any professional necessity but only as a trick, simply to  involve him less in the chase, to put off some part of the pain of dilemma  on various "impersonations."

Herbert Stencil, like small children at a certain stage and Henry Adams in  the Education, as well as assorted autocrats since time out of mind, always  referred to himself in the third person. This helped "Stencil" appear as  only one among a repertoire of identities. "Forcible dislocation of  personality" was what he called the general technique, which is not exactly  the same as "seeing the other fellow's point of view"; for it involved, say,  wearing clothes that Stencil wouldn't be caught dead in, eating foods that  would have made Stencil gag, living in unfamiliar digs, frequenting bars or  cafes of a non-Stencilian character; all this for weeks on end; and why? To  keep Stencil in his place: that is, in the third person.

Around each seed of a dossier, therefore, had developed a nacreous mass of  inference, poetic license, forcible dislocation of personality into a past  he didn't remember and had no right in, save the right of imaginative  anxiety or historical care, which is recognized by no one. He tended each  seashell on his submarine scungille farm, tender and impartial, moving  awkwardly about his staked preserve on the harborbed, carefully avoiding the  little dark deep right there in the midst of the tame shellfish, down in  which God knew what lived: the island Malta, where his father had died,  where Herbert had never been and knew nothing at all about because something  there kept him off, because it frightened him.

One evening, drowsing on the sofa in Bongo-Shaftsbury's apartment, Stencil  took out his one souvenir of whatever old Sidney's Maltese adventure had  been. A gay, four-color postcard, a Daily Mail battle photo from the Great  War, showing a platoon of sweating, kilted Gordons wheeling a stretcher on  which lay an enormous German enlisted man with a great mustache, one leg in  a splint and a most comfortable grin. Sidney's message read: "I feel old,  and yet like a sacrificial virgin. Write and cheer me up. FATHER."

Young Stencil hadn't written because he was eighteen and never wrote. That  was part of the present venery: the way he'd felt on hearing of Sidney's  death half a year later and only then realizing that neither of them had  communicated since the picture-postcard.

A certain Porpentine, one of his father's colleagues, had been murdered in  Egypt under the duello by Eric Bongo-Shaftsbury, the father of the man who  owned this apartment. Had Porpentine gone to Egypt like old Stencil to  Malta, perhaps having written his own son that he felt like one other spy,  who'd in turn one off to die in Schleswig-Holstein, Trieste, Sofia,  anywhere? Apostolic succession. They must know when it's time, Stencil had  often thought; but if death did come like some last charismatic bestowal,  he'd have no real way of telling. He'd only the veiled references to  Porpentine in the journals. The rest was impersonation and dream.

 

I

 As the afternoon progressed, yellow clouds began to gather over Place  Mohammed Ali, from the direction of the Libyan desert. A wind with no sound  at all swept up rue Ibrahim and across the square, bringing a desert chill  into the city.

For one P. Aieul, cafe waiter and amateur libertine, the clouds signaled  rain. His lone customer, an Englishman, perhaps a tourist because his face  was badly sunburned, sat all tweeds, ulster and expectation looking out on  the square. Though he'd been there over Coffee not fifteen minutes, already  he seemed as permanent a landscape's feature as the equestrian statue of  Mohammed Ali itself. Certain Englishmen, Aieul knew, have this talent. But  they're usually not tourists.

Aieul lounged near the entrance to the cafe; outwardly inert but teeming  inside with sad and philosophical reflections. Was this one waiting for a  lady? How wrong to expect any romance or sudden love from Alexandria. No  tourists' city gave that gift lightly. It took - how long had he been way  from the Midi? twelve years? - at least that long. Let them be deceived into  thinking the city something more than what their Baedekers said it was: a  Pharos long gone to earthquake and the sea: picturesque but faceless Arabs;  monuments, tombs, modern hotels. A false and bastard city; inert - for  "them" - as Aieul himself.

He watched the sun darken and wind flutter the leaves of acacias round Place  Mohammed Ali. In the distance a name was being bellowed: Porpentine,  Porpentine. It whined in the square's hollow reaches like a voice from  childhood. Another fat Englishman, fair-haired, florid - didn't all  Northerners look alike? - had been striding down rue Cherif Pacha in a dress  suit and a pith helmet two sizes too large. Approaching Aieul's customer, he  began blithering rapidly in English from twenty yards out. Something about a  woman, a consulate. The waiter shrugged. Having teamed years back there was  little to be curious about in the conversations of Englishmen. But the bad  habit persisted.

Rain began, thin drops, hardly more than a mist. "Hat fingan," the fat one  roared, "hat fingan kahwa bisukkar, ya weled." Two red faces burned angry  at each other across the table.

Merde, Aieul thought. At the table: "M'sieu?"

"Ah," the gross smiled, "Coffee then. Cafe, you know."

On his return the two were conversing lackadaisical about a grand party at  the Consulate tonight. What consulate? All Aieul could distinguish were  names. Victoria Wren. Sir Alastair Wren (father? husband?). A  Bongo-Shaftsbury. What ridiculous names that country produced. Aieul  delivered the Coffee and returned to his lounging space.

This fat one was out to seduce the girl, Victoria Wren, another tourist  traveling with her tourist father. But was prevented by the lover,  Bongo-Shaftsbury. The old one tweed - Porpentine - was the macquereau. The  two he watched were anarchists, plotting to assassinate Sir Alastair Wren, a  powerful member of the English Parliament. The peer's wife - Victoria - was  meanwhile being blackmailed by Bongo-Shaftsbury, who knew of her own secret  anarchist sympathies. The two were music-hall entertainers, seeking jobs in  a grand vaudeville being produced by Bongo-Shaftsbury, who was in town  seeking funds from the foolish knight Wren. Bongo-Shaftsbury's avenue of  approach would be through the glamorous actress Victoria, Wren's mistress,  posing as his wife to satisfy the English fetish of respectability. Fat and  Tweed would enter their consulate tonight arm-in-arm, singing a jovial song,  shuffling, rolling their eyes. 

Rain had increased in thickness. A white envelope with a crest on the flap  passed between the two at the table. All at once the tweed one jerked to his  feet like a clockwork doll and began speaking in Italian.

A fit? But there was no sun. And Tweed had begun to sing:

 Pazzo son!

 Guardate, come io piango ed imploro . . .

Italian opera. Aieul felt sick. He watched them with a pained smile. The  antic Englishman leaped in the air, clicked his heels; stood posturing, fist  on chest, other arm outstretched:

 Come io chiedo pieta!

Rain drenched the two. The sunburned face bobbed like a balloon, the only  touch of color in that square. Fat sat in the rain, sipping at the Coffee,  observing his frolicking companion. Aieul could hear drops of rain pattering  on the pith helmet. At length Fat seemed to awake: arose, leaving a piastre  and a millieme on the table (avare!) and nodded to the other, who now stood  watching him. The square was empty except for Mohammed Ali and the horse.

(How many times had they stood this way: dwarfed horizontal and vertical by  any plaza or late-afternoon? Could an argument from design be predicated on  that instant only, then the two must have been displaceable, like minor  chess pieces, anywhere across Europe's board. Both of a color though one  hanging back diagonal in deference to his partner, both scanning any  embassy's parquetry for signs of some dimly sensed opposition - lover,  meal-ticket, object of political assassination - any statue's face for a  reassurance of self-agency and perhaps, unhappily, self-humanity; might they  be trying not to remember that each square in Europe, however you cut it,  remains inanimate after all?)

They turned about formally and parted in opposite directions, Fat back  toward the Hotel Khedival, Tweed into rue de Ras-et-Tin and the Turkish  quarter.

Bonne chance, Aieul thought. Whatever it is tonight, bonne chance. Because I  will see neither of you again, that's the least I can wish. He fell asleep  at last against the wall, made drowsy by the rain, to dream of one Maryam  and tonight, and the Arab quarter ....

Low places in the square filled, the usual random sets of criss-crossing  concentric circles moved across them. Near eight o'clock, the rain slackened  off.

 

II

 Yusef the factotum, temporarily on loan from Hotel Khedival, dashed through  the failing rain, across the street to the Austrian Consulate; darting in by  the servants' entrance.

"Late!" shouted Meknes, leader of the kitchen force. "And so, spawn of a  homosexual camel: the punch table for you."

Not a bad assignment, Yusef thought as he put on the white jacket and combed  his mustaches. From the punch table on the mezzanine one could see the whole  show: down the decolletages of the prettier women (Italian breasts were the  finest - ah!), over all that resplendent muster of stars, ribbons and exotic  Orders.

Soon, from his vantage, Yusef could allow the first sneer of many this  evening to ripple across a knowledgeable mouth. Let them make holiday while  they could. Soon enough the fine clothes would be rags and the elegant  woodwork crusted with blood. Yusef was an anarchist.

Anarchist and no one's fool. He kept abreast of current events, always on  lookout for any news favorable to even minor chaos. Tonight the political  situation was hopeful: Sirdar Kitchener, England's newest colonial hero,  recently victorious at Khartoum, was just now some 400 miles further down  the White Nile, foraging about in the jungle; a General Marchand was also  rumored in the vicinity. Britain wanted no part of France in the Nile  Valley. M. Delcasse, Foreign Minister of a newly-formed French cabinet,  would as soon go to war as not if there were any trouble when the two  detachments met. As meet, everyone realized by now, they would. Russia would  support France, while England had a temporary rapprochement with Germany -  meaning Italy and Austria as well.

Bung ho, the English said. Up goes the balloon. Yusef, believing that an  anarchist or devotee of annihilation must have some childhood memory to be  nostalgic about by way of balance, loved balloons. Most nights at dreams'  verge he could revolve like the moon about any gaily-dyed pig's intestine,  distended with his own warm breath.

But from the corner of his eye now: miracle. How, if one believed in  nothing, could one account . . .

A balloon-girl. A balloon-girl. Hardly seeming to touch the waxed mirror  beneath. Holding her empty cup out to Yusef. Mesikum bilkher, good evening;  are there any other cavities you wish filled, my English lady. Perhaps he  would spare children like this. Would he? If it should come to a morning,  any morning when all the muezzins were silent, the pigeons gone to bide  among the catacombs, could he rise robeless in Nothing's dawn and do what he  must? By conscience, must?

"Oh," she smiled: "Oh thank you. Leltak leben." May thy night be white as  milk.

As thy belly . . . enough. She bobbed off, light as cigar smoke rising from  the great room below. She'd pronounced her o's with a sigh, as if fainting  from love. An older man, solidly built, hair gone gray-looking like a  professional street-brawler in evening dress-joined her at the stairs.  "Victoria," he rumbled.

Victoria. Named after her queen. He fought in vain to hold back laughter. No  telling what would amuse Yusef.

His attention was to stray to her now and again throughout the evening. It  was pleasant amid all that glitter to have something to focus on. But she  stood out. Her color - even her voice was lighter than the rest of her  world, rising with the smoke to Yusef, whose hands were sticky with Chablis  punch, mustache a sad tangle - he had a habit of unconsciously trimming the  ends with his teeth.

Meknes dropped by every half-hour to call him names. If one happened to be  in earshot they traded insults, some coarse, some ingenious, all following  the Levantine pattern proceeding backward through the other's ancestry,  creating extempore at each step or generation an even more improbable and  bizarre misalliance.

Count Khevenhuller-Metsch the Austrian Consul had been spending much time in  the company of his Russian counterpart, M. de Villiers. How, Yusef wondered,  can two men joke like that and tomorrow be enemies. Perhaps they'd been  enemies yesterday. He decided public servants weren't human.

Yusef shook the punch ladle at the retreating back of Meknes. Public servant  indeed. What was he, Yusef, if not a public servant? Was he human? Before  he'd embraced political nihilism, certainly. But as a servant, here,  tonight, "them"? He might as well be a fixture on the wall.

But that will change, he smiled, grim. Soon he was day-dreaming again of  balloons.

At the bottom of the steps sat the girl, Victoria, center of a curious  tableau. Seated next to her was a chubby blond man whose evening clothes  looked shrunken by the rain. Standing facing them at the apices of a flat  isosceles triangle were the gray-headed man who'd spoken her name, a young  girl of eleven in a white shapeless frock, and another man whose face looked  sunburned. The only voice Yusef could hear was Victoria's. "My sister is  fond of rocks and fossils, Mr. Goodfellow." The blond head next to her  nodded courteously. "Show them, Mildred." The younger girl produced from her  reticule a rock, turned and held it up first to Victoria's companion and  then to the red face beside her. This one seemed to retreat, embarrassed.  Yusef reflected that he could blush at will and no one would know. A few  more words and the red face had left the group to come loping up the stairs.

To Yusef he held up five fingers: "Khamseh." As Yusef busied himself filling  the cups, someone approached from behind and touched the Englishman lightly  on one shoulder. The Englishman spun, his hands balling into fists and  moving into position for violence. Yusef's eyebrows went up a fraction of an  inch. Another street-fighter. How long since he'd seen reflexes like that?  In Tewfik the assassin, eighteen and apprentice tombstone-cutter - perhaps.

But this one was forty or forty-five. No one, Yusef reasoned, would stay fit  that long unless his profession demanded it. What profession would include  both a talent for killing and presence at a consulate party? An Austrian  consulate at that.

The Englishman's hands had relaxed. He nodded pleasantly.

"Lovely girl," the other said. He wore blue-tinted spectacles and a false  nose.

The Englishman smiled, turned, picked up his five cups of punch and started  down the stairs. At the second step he tripped and fell; proceeded whirling  and bouncing, followed by sounds of breaking glass and a spray of Chablis  punch, to the bottom. Yusef noted that he knew how to take falls. The other  street-fighter laughed to cover the general awkwardness.

"Saw a fellow do that in a music hall once," he rumbled. "You're much  better, Porpentine. Really."

Porpentine extracted a cigarette and lay while smoking where he'd come to  rest.

Up on the mezzanine the man with the blue eyeglasses peeked archly from  behind a pillar, removed the nose, pocketed it and vanished.

A strange collection. There is more here, Yusef guessed. Had it to do with  Kitchener and Marchand? Of course it must. But - His puzzling was  interrupted by Meknes, who had returned to describe Yusef's  great-great-great-grandfather and grandmother as a one-legged mongrel dog  who fed on donkey excrement and a syphilitic elephant, respectively.

 

III

 The Fink restaurant was quiet: not much doing. A few English and German  tourists - the penny-pinching kind whom it was never any use approaching -  sat scattered about the room, making noise enough for midday in Place  Mohammed Ali.

Maxwell Rowley-Bugge, hair coiffed, mustaches curled and external clothing  correct to the last wrinkle and thread, sat in one corner, back to the wall,  feeling the first shooting pains of panic begin to dance about his abdomen.  For beneath the careful shell of hair, skin and fabric lay holed and gray  linen and a ne'er-do-well's heart. Old Max was a peregrine and penniless at  that.

Give it a quarter of an hour more, he decided. If nothing promising comes  along I shall move on to L'Univers.

He had crossed the border into Baedeker land some eight years ago - '90 -  after an unpleasantness in Yorkshire. It had been Ralph MacBurgess then - a  young Lochinvar come down to the then wide enough horizons of England's  vaudeville circuits. He sang a bit, danced a bit, told a number of passable  barnyard jokes. But Max or Ralph had a problem; being perhaps too daft for  small girls. This particular girl, Alice, had shown at age ten the same  halfway responses (a game, she'd carol - such fun) of her predecessors. But  they know, Max told himself: no matter how young, they know what it is,  what they're doing. Only they don't think about it that much. Which was why  he drew the line at sixteen or so - any older and romance, religion, remorse  entered blundering stagehands to ruin a pure pas de deux.

But this one had told her friends, who became jealous - one at least enough  to pass it on to the clergyman, parents, police - O God. How awkward it had  been. Though he'd not tried to forget the tableau - dressing room in the  Athenaeum Theatre, a middle-sized town called Lardwick-in-the-Fen. Bare  pipes, worn sequined gowns hung in a corner. Broken hollow-pasteboard pillar  for the romantic tragedy the vaudeville had replaced. A costume box for  their bed. Then footsteps, voices, a knob turning so slow . . .

She'd wanted it. Even afterward, dry-eyed among a protective cordon of  hating faces, the eyes had said: I still want it. Alice, the ruin of Ralph  MacBurgess. Who knew what any of them wanted?

How he had come to Alexandria, where he would go on leaving, little of that  could matter to any tourist. He was that sort of vagrant who exists, though  unwillingly, entirely within the Baedeker world - as much a feature of the  topography as the other automata: waiters, porters, cabmen, clerks. Taken  for granted. Whenever he was about his Business - cadging meals, drinks, or  lodging - a temporary covenant would come into effect between Max and his  "touch"; by which Max was defined as a well-off fellow tourist temporarily  embarrassed by a malfunction in Cook's machinery.

A common game among tourists. They knew what he was; and those who  participated in the game did so for the same reason they haggled at shops or  gave baksheesh to beggars: it was in the unwritten laws of Baedeker land.  Max was one of the minor inconveniences to an almost perfectly arranged  tourist-state. The inconvenience was more than made up for in "color."

Fink's now began a burst into life. Max looked up with interest. Merrymakers  were coming across rue de Rosette from a building which looked like an  embassy or consulate. Party there must have only now broken up. The  restaurant was filling rapidly. Max surveyed each newcomer, waiting for the  imperceptible nod, the high-sign.

He decided at last on a group of four: two men, a small girl and a young  lady who like the gown she wore seemed awkwardly bouffant and provincial.  All English, of course. Max had his criteria.

He also had an eye, and something about the group disturbed him. After eight  years in this supranational domain he knew a tourist when he saw one. The  girls were almost certain - but their companions acted wrong: lacking a  certain assurance an instinctive way of belonging to the touristic part of  Alex common to all cities, which even the green show heir first time out.  But it was getting late and Max had nowhere to stay tonight, nor had he  eaten.

His opening line was unimportant, being only a choice among standard  openers, each effective as long as the touches were eligible to play. It was  the response that counted. Here it came out close to what he'd guessed. The  two men, looking like a comedy team: one fair and fat, the other dark,  red-faced and scrawny, seemed to want to play the gay dog. Fine, let them.  Max knew how to be gay. During the introductions his eyes may have stayed a  half-second too long on Mildred Wren. But she was myopic and stocky; nothing  of that old Alice in her at all.

An ideal touch: all behaved as if they'd known him for years. But you  somehow felt that through some horrible osmosis the word was going to get  round. Wing in on the wind to every beggar, vagrant, exile-by-choice and  peregrine-at-large in Alex that the team of Porpentine & Goodfellow plus the  Wren sisters were sitting at a table in the Fink. This whole hard-up  population might soon begin to drift in one by one, each getting the same  sort of reception, drawn into the group cordially and casually as a close  acquaintance who had left but a quarter of an hour before. Max was subject  to visions. It would go on, into tomorrow, the next day, the next: they  would keep calling for waiters in the same cheery voices to bring more  chairs, food, wine. Soon the other tourists would have to be sent away:  every chair in the Fink would be in use, spreading out from this table in  rings, like a tree trunk or rain puddle. And when the Fink's chairs ran out  the harassed waiters would have to begin bringing more in from next door and  down the street and then the next block, the next quarter; the seated  beggars would overflow into the street, it would swell and swell . . .  conversation would grow to enormity, each of the participating bringing to  it his own reminiscences, jokes, dreams, looninesses, epigrams . . . an  entertainment! A grand vaudeville! They'd sit like that, eating when hunger  came, getting drunk, sleeping it off, getting drunk again. How would it end? How could it?

She'd been talking, the older girl - Victoria - while Voslauer gone perhaps  to her head. Eighteen, Max guessed, slowly giving up his vision of vagrants'  communion. About the age Alice would be, now.

Was there a bit of Alice there? Alice was of course another of his criteria.  Well the same queer mixture, at least, of girl-at-play, girl-in-heat. Blithe  and so green . . .

She was Catholic; had been to a convent school near her Home. This was her  first trip abroad. She talked perhaps overmuch about her religion; had  indeed for a time considered the Son of God as a young lady will consider  any eligible bachelor. But had realized eventually that of course he was not  but maintained instead a great harem clad in black, decked only with  rosaries. Unable to stand for any such competition Victoria had therefore  left the novitiate after a matter of weeks but not the Church: that with its  sadfaced statuary, odors of candles and incense, formed along with an uncle  Evelyn the foci of her serene orbit. The uncle, a wild or renegade  sundowner, would arrive from Australia once every few years bringing no  gifts but his wonderful yarns. As far as Victoria remembered, he'd never  repeated himself. More important perhaps, she was given enough material to  evolve between visits a private back of beyond, a colonial doll's world she  could play with and within constantly: developing, exploring, manipulating.  Especially during Mass: for here was the stage or dramatic field already  prepared, serviceable to a seedtime fancy. So it came about that God wore a  wideawake hat and fought skirmishes with an aboriginal Satan out at the  antipodes of the firmament, in the name and for the safekeeping of any  Victoria.

Now Alice - it had been "her" clergyman, had it not? she was C. of E.,  sturdy-English, future mother, apple cheeks, all that. What is wrong with  you Max, he asked himself. Come out of that costume box, that cheerless  past. This one's only Victoria, Victoria . . . but what was there about her?

Normally in gatherings like this Max could be talkative, amusing. Not so  much by way of paying for his meal or kip as to keep fit, retain the fine  edge, the knack for telling a good yarn and gauging his own rapport with the  audience in case, in case . . .

He could go back into the Business. There were touring companies abroad:  even now, eight years aged, eyebrow-line altered, hair dyed, the  mustache - who'd know him? What need for exile? The story had spread to the  troupe and through them to all small-urban and provincial England. But  they'd all loved him, handsome, jolly Ralph. Surely after eight years, even  if he were recognized . . .

But now Max found not much to say. The girl dominated conversation, and it  was the kind of conversation Max had no knack for. Here were none of your  post-mortems on the day past - vistas! tombs! curious beggars! - no bringing  out of small prizes from the shops and bazaars, no speculation on tomorrow's  itinerary; only a passing reference to a party tonight at the Austrian  Consulate. Here instead was unilateral confession, and Mildred contemplating  a rock with trilobite fossiles she'd found out near the site of the Pharos,  the other two men listening to Victoria but yet off somewhere else switching  glances at each other, at the door, about the room. Dinner came, was eaten,  went. But even with a filled belly Max could not cheer up. They were somehow  depressing: Max felt disquieted. What had he walked into? It showed bad  judgment, settling on this lot.

"My God," from Goodfellow. They looked up to see, materialized behind them,  an emaciated figure in evening dress whose head appeared to be that of a  nettled sparrow-hawk. The head guffawed, retaining its fierce expression.  Victoria bubbled over in a laugh.

"It's Hugh!" she cried, delighted.

"Indeed," came a hollow voice from inside somewhere.

"Hugh Bongo-Shaftsbury," said Goodfellow, ungracious.

"Harmakhis." Bongo-Shaftsbury indicated the ceramic hawk's head. "God of  Heliopolis and chief deity of Lower Egypt. Utterly genuine, this: a mask,  you know, used in the ancient rituals." He seated himself next to Victoria.  Goodfellow scowled. "Literally Horus on the horizon, also represented as a  lion with the head of a man. Like the Sphinx."

"Oh," Victoria said (that languid "oh"), "the Sphinx."

"How far down the Nile do you intend to go," asked Porcine. "Mr.  Goodfellow has mentioned your interest in Luxor."

"I feel it is fresh territory, sir," Bongo-Shaftsbury replied. "No  first-rate work around the area since Grebaut discovered the tomb of the  Theban priests back in '91. Of course one should have a look round the  pyramids at Gaza, but that is pretty much old hat since Mr. Flinders  Petrie's painstaking inspection of sixteen or seventeen years ago."

Now what was this, Max wondered. An Egyptologist was he, or only reciting  from the pages of his Baedeker? Victoria poised prettily between Goodfellow  and Bongo-Shaftsbury, attempting to maintain a kind of flirtatious  equilibrium.

On the face of it, all normal. Rivalry for the young lady's attentions  between the two, Mildred a younger sister, Porpentine perhaps a personal  secretary; for Goodfellow did have the affluent look. But beneath?

He came to the awareness reluctantly. In Baedeker land one doesn't often run  across impostors. Duplicity is against the law, it is being a Bad Fellow.

But they were only posing as tourists. Playing a game different from Max's;  and it frightened him.

Talk at the table stopped. The faces of the three men lost whatever marks of  specific passion they had held. The cause was approaching their table: an  unremarkable figure wearing a cape and blue eyeglasses.

"Hullo Lepsius," said Goodfellow. "Tire of the climate in Brindisi, did you?"

"Sudden Business called me to Egypt."

So the party had already grown from four to seven. Max remembered his  vision. What quaint manner of peregrine here: these two? He saw a flicker of  communication between the newcomers, rapid and nearly coinciding with a  similar glance between Porpentine and Goodfellow.

Was that how the sides were drawn up? Were there sides at all?

Goodfellow sniffed at his wine. "Your traveling companion," he said at last.  "We'd rather hoped to see him again."

"Gone to a Switzerland," said Lepsius, "of clean winds, clean mountains. One  can have enough, one day, of this soiled South."

"Unless you go far enough south. I imagine far enough down the Nile one gets  back to a kind of primitive spotlessness."

Good timing, Max noted. And the gestures preceded the lines as they should.  Whoever they were it was none of your amateur night.

Lepsius speculated: "Doesn't the law of the wild beast prevail down there?  There are no property rights. There is fighting. The victor wins all. Glory,  life, power and property; all."

"Perhaps. But in Europe, you know, we are civilized. Fortunately jungle law  is inadmissible."

Odd: neither Porpentine nor Bongo-Shaftsbury spoke. Each had bent a close  eye on his own man, keeping expressionless.

"Shall we meet again in Cairo then," said Lepsius.

"Most certainly"; nodding.

Lepsius took his leave then.

"What a queer gentleman," Victoria smiled, restraining Mildred, who'd cocked  an arm preparing to heave her rock at his retreating form.

Bongo-Shaftsbury turned to Porpentine. "Is it queer to favor the clean over  the impure?"

"It may depend on one's employment," was Porpentine's rejoinder: "and  employer."

Time had come for the Fink to close up. Bongo-Shaftsbury took the check with  an alacrity which amused them all. Half the battle, thought Max. Out in the  street he touched Porpentine's sleeve and began an apologetic denunciation  of Cook's. Victoria skipped ahead across rue Cherif Pacha to the hotel.  Behind them a closed carriage came rattling out of the drive beside the  Austrian Consulate and dashed away hell-for-leather down rue de Rosette.

Porpentine turned to watch it. "Someone is in a hurry," Bongo-Shaftsbury  noted.

"Indeed," said Goodfellow. The three watched a few lights in the upper  windows of the consulate. "Quiet, though."

Bongo-Shaftsbury laughed quickly, perhaps a bit incredulous.

"Here. In the street . . ."

"A fiver would see me through," Max had continued, trying to regain  Porpentine's attention.

"Oh," vague, "of course, I could spare it." Fumbling naively with his wallet.

Victoria watched them from the curb opposite. "Do come along," she called.

Goodfellow grinned. "Here, m'dear." And started across with Bongo-Shaftsbury.

She stamped her foot. "Mr. Porpentine." Porpentine, five quid between his  fingertips, looked around. "Do finish with your cripple. Give him his  shilling and come. It's late."

The white wine, a ghost of Alice, first doubts that Porpentine was genuine;  all could contribute to a violation of code. The code being only: Max, take  whatever they give you. Max had already turned away from the note which  fluttered in the street's wind, moved off against the wind. Limping toward  the next pool of light he sensed Porpentine still looked after him. Also  knew what he must look like: a little halt, less sure of his own memories'  safety and of how many more pools of light he could reasonably expect from  the street at night.

 

IV

 The Alexandria and Cairo morning express was late. It puffed into the Gare  du Caire slow, noisy, venting black smoke and white steam to mingle among  palms and acacias in the park across the tracks from the station house.

Of course the train was late. Waldetar the conductor snorted good-naturedly  at those on the platform. Tourists and Businessmen, porters from Cook's and  Gaze's, poorer, third-class passengers with their impedimenta - like a  bazaar -: what else did they expect? Seven years he'd made the same  leisurely run, and the train had never been on time. Schedules were for the  line's owners, for those who calculated profit and loss. The train itself  ran on a different clock - its own, which no human could read.

Waldetar was not an Alexandrian. Born in Portugal, he now lived with a wife  and three children near the railroad yards in Cairo. His life's progress had  been inevitably east; having somehow escaped the hothouse of his fellow  Sephardim he flew to the other extreme and developed an obsession with  ancestral roots. Land of triumph, land of God. Land of suffering, also.  Scenes of specific persecution upset him.

But Alexandria was a special case. In the Jewish year 3554 Ptolemy  Philopator, having been refused entrance to the temple at Jerusalem,  returned to Alexandria and imprisoned many of the Jewish colony there.  Christians were not the first to be put on exhibition and mass-murdered for  the amusement of a mob. Here Ptolemy, after ordering Alexandria's Jews  confined in the Hippodrome, embarked on a two-day debauch. The king, his  guests and a herd of killer elephants fed on wine and aphrodisiacs: when all  had been up to the proper level of blood-lust, the elephants were turned  loose into the arena and driven upon the prisoners. But turned (goes the  tale) on the guards and spectators instead, trampling many to death. So  impressed was Ptolemy that he released the condemned, restored their  privileges, and gave them leave to kill their enemies.

Waldetar, a highly religious man, had heard the story from his father and  was inclined to take the common-sense view. If there is no telling what a  drunken human will do, so much less a herd of drunken elephants. Why put it  down to God's intervention? There were enough instances of that in history,  all regarded by Waldetar with terror and a sense of his own smallness:  Noah's warning of the Flood, the parting of the Red Sea, Lot's escape from  annihilated Sodom. Men, he felt, even perhaps Sephardim, are at the mercy of  the earth and its seas. Whether a cataclysm is accident or design, they need  a God to keep them from harm.

The storm and the earthquake have no mind. Soul cannot commend no-soul. Only  God can.

But elephants have souls. Anything that can get drunk, he reasoned, must  have some soul. Perhaps this is all "soul" means. Events between soul and  soul are not God's direct province: they are under the influence either of  Fortune, or of virtue. Fortune had saved the Jews in the Hippodrome.

Merely train's hardware for any casual onlooker, Waldetar in private life  was exactly this mist of philosophy, imagination and continual worry over  his several relationships - not only with God, but also with Nita, with their  children, with his own history. There's no organized effort about it but  here remains a grand joke on all visitors to Baedeker's world: the permanent  residents are actually humans in disguise.T his secret is as well kept as  the others: that statues talk (though the vocal Memnon of Thebes, certain  sunrises, been indiscreet), that some government buildings go mad and  mosques make love.

Passengers and baggage aboard, the train overcame its inertia and started  off only a quarter of an hour behind schedule toward the climbing sun. The  railway from Alexandria to Cairo describes a rough arc whose chord points  southeast. But the train must first angle north to skirt Lake Mareotis.  While Waldetar made his way among the first-class compartments to gather  tickets, the train passed rich villages and gardens alive with palms and  orange trees.  Abruptly these were left behind. Waldetar squeezed past a  German with blue lenses for eyes and an Arab deep in conversation in time to  enter a compartment and see from the window momentary death: desert. The  site of the ancient Eleusis - a great mound, looking like the one spot on  earth fertile Demeter had never seen, passed by to the south.

At Sidi Gaber the train swung at last toward the southeast, inching slow as  the sun; zenith and Cairo would in fact be reached at the same time. Across  the Mahmudiyeh Canal, into a slow bloom of green - the Delta - and clouds of  ducks and pelicans rising from the shores of Mareotis, frightened by the  noise. Beneath the lake were 150 villages, submerged by a man-made Flood in  1801, when the English cut through an isthmus of desert during the siege of  Alexandria, to let the Mediterranean in. Waldetar liked to think that the  waterfowl soaring thick in the air were ghosts of fellahin. What submarine  wonders at the floor of Mareotis! Lost country: houses, hovels, farms, water  wheels, all intact.

Did the narwhal pull their plows? Devilfish drive their water wheels?

Down the embankment a group of Arabs lazed about, evaporating water from the  lake for salt. Far down the canal were barges, their sails brave white under  this sun.

Under the same sun Nita would be moving now about their little yard growing  heavy with what Waldetar hoped would be a boy. A boy could even it up, two  and two. Women outnumber us now, he thought: why should I contribute further  to the imbalance?

"Though I'm not against it," he'd once told her during their courtship (part  way here - in Barcelona, when he was stevedoring at the docks); "God's will,  is it not? Look at Solomon, at many great kings. One man, several wives."

"Great king," she yelled: "who?" They both started to laugh like children.  "One peasant girl you can't even support." Which is no way to impress a  young man you are bent on marrying. It was one of the reasons he fell in  love with her shortly afterward and why they'd stayed in love for nearly  seven years of monogamy.

Nita, Nita . . The mind's picture was always of her seated behind their  house at dusk, where the cries of children were drowned in the whistle of a  night train for Suez; where cinders came to lodge in pores beginning to  widen under the stresses of some heart's geology ("Your complexion is going  from bad to worse," he'd say: "I'll have to start paying more attention to  the lovely young French girls who are always making eyes at me." "Fine,"  she'd retort, "I'll tell that to the baker when he comes to sleep with me  tomorrow, it'll make him feel better"); where all the nostalgias of an  Iberian littoral lost to them - the squid hung to dry, nets stretched across  any skyglow morning or evening, singing or drunken cries of sailors and  fishermen from behind only the next looming warehouse (find them, find them!

voices whose misery is all the world's night) - came unreal, in a symbolic  way, as a racketing over points, a chuff-chuff of inanimate breath, and had  only pretended to gather among the pumpkins, purslane and cucumbers, date  palm, roses and poinsettias of their garden.

Halfway to Damanhur he heard a child crying from a compartment nearby.  Curious, Waldetar looked inside. The was English, eleven or so, nearsighted:  her watering eyes swam distorted behind thick eyeglasses. Across from her a  man, thirty or so, harangued. Another looked on, perhaps angry, his burning  face at least giving the illusion. The girl held a rock to her flat bosom.

"But have you never played with a clockwork doll?" the man insisted, the  voice muffled through the door. "A doll which does everything perfectly,  because of the machinery inside. Walks, sings, jumps rope. Real little boys  and girls, you know, cry: act sullen, won't behave." His hands lay perfectly  still, long and starved-nervous, one on each knee.

"Bongo-Shaftsbury," the other began. Bongo-Shaftsbury waved him off,  irritated.

"Come. May I show you a mechanical doll. An electro-mechanical doll."

"Have you one -" she was frightened, Waldetar thought with an onrush of  sympathy, seeing his own girls. Damn some of these English - "have you one  with you?"

"I am one," Bongo-Shaftsbury smiled. And pushed back the sleeve of his coat  to remove a cufflink. He rolled up the shirt cuff and thrust the naked  underside of his arm at the girl. Shiny and black, sewn into the flesh, was  a miniature electric switch. Single-pole, double-throw. Waldetar recoiled  and stood blinking. Thin silver wires ran from its terminals up the arm,  disappearing under the sleeve.

"You see, Mildred. These wires run into my brain. When the switch is thrown  the other -"

"Papa!" the girl cried.

"Everything works by electricity. Simple and clean."

"Stop it," said the other Englishman.

"Why, Porpentine." Vicious. "Why. For her? Touched by her fright, are you.  Or is it for yourself."

Porpentine seemed to retreat bashfully. "One doesn't frighten a child, sir."

"Hurrah. General principles again." Corpse fingers jabbed in the air. "But  someday, Porpentine, I, or another, will catch you off guard. Loving,  hating, even showing some absent-minded sympathy. I'll watch you. The moment  you forget yourself enough to admit another's humanity, see him as a person  and not a symbol - then perhaps-"

"What is humanity."

"You ask the obvious, ha, ha. Humanity is something to destroy."

There was noise from the rear car, behind Waldetar. Porpentine came dashing  out and they collided. Mildred had fled, clutching her rock, to the  adjoining compartment.

The door to the rear platform was open: in front of it a fat florid  Englishman wrestled with the Arab Waldetar had seen earlier talking to the  German. The Arab had a pistol. Porpentine moved toward them, closing  cautiously, choosing his point. Waldetar, recovering at last, hurried in to  break up the fight. Before he could reach them Porpentine had let loose a  kick at the Arab's throat, catching him across the windpipe. The Arab  collapsed rattling.

"Now," Porpentine pondered. The fat Englishman had taken the pistol.

"What is the trouble," Waldetar demanded, in his best public-servant's voice.

"Nothing." Porpentine held out a sovereign. "Nothing that cannot be healed  by this sovereign cure."

Waldetar shrugged. Between them they got the Arab to a third-class  compartment, instructed the attendant there to look after him - he was  sick - and to put him off at Damanhur. A blue mark was appearing on the  Arab's throat. He tried to talk several times. He looked sick enough.

When the Englishmen had at last returned to their compartments Waldetar fell  into reverie which continued on past Damanhur (where he saw the Arab and  blue-lensed German again conversing), through a narrowing Delta, the sun  rose toward noon and the train crawled toward Cairo's Principal Station; as  dozens of small children ran alongside the train calling for baksheesh; as  girls in blue cotton skirts and veils, with breasts made sleek brown by the  sun, traipsed down to the Nile to fill their water jars; as water wheels  spun and irrigation canals glittered and interlaced away to the horizon; as  fellahin lounged under the palms; as buffalo paced their every day's tracks  round and round the sakiehs. The point of the green triangle is Cairo. It  means that relatively speaking, assuming your train stands still and the  land moves past, that the twin wastes of the Libyan and Arabian deserts to  right and left creep in inexorably to narrow the fertile and quick part of  your world until you are left with hardly more than a right-of-way, and  before you a great city. So there crept in on the gentle Waldetar a  suspicion cheerless as the desert.

If they are what I think; what sort of world is it when they must let  children suffer?

Thinking, of course, of Manoel, Antonia and Maria: his own.

 

V

 The desert creeps in on a man's land. Not a fellah, but he does own some  land. Did own. From a boy, he has repaired the wall, mortared, carried stone  heavy as he, lifted, set in place. Still the desert comes. Is the wall a  traitor, letting it in? Is the boy possessed by a djinn who makes his hands  do the work wrong? Is the desert's attack too powerful for any boy, or wall,  or dead father and mother?

No. The desert moves in. It happens, nothing else. No djinn in the boy, no  treachery in the wall, no hostility in the desert. Nothing.

Soon, nothing. Soon only the desert. The two goats must choke on sand,  nuzzling down to find the white clover. He, never to taste their soured milk  again. The melons die beneath the sand. Never more can you give comfort in  the summer, cool abdelawi, shaped like the Angel's trumpet! The maize dies  and there is no bread. The wife, the children grow sick and short-tempered.  The man, he, runs one night out to where the wall was, begins to lift and  toss imaginary rocks about, curses Allah, then begs forgiveness from the  Prophet, then urinates on the desert, hoping to insult what cannot be  insulted.

They find him in the morning a mile from the house, skin blued, shivering in  a sleep which is almost death, tears turned to frost on the sand.

And now the house begins to fill with desert, like the lower half of an  hourglass which will never be inverted again.

What does a man do? Gebrail shot a quick look back at his fare. Even here,  in the Ezbekiyeh garden at high noon, these horse's hooves sounded hollow.  You jolly damn right Inglizi; a man comes to the City and drives for you and  every other Frank with land to return to. His family lives all together in a  room no bigger than your W.C., out in Arabian Cairo where you never go  because it's too dirty, and not "curious." Where the street is so narrow  hardly a man's shadow can pass; a street, like many not on any guidebook's  map. Where the houses pile up in steps; so high that the windows of two  buildings may touch across the street; and hide the sun. Where goldsmiths  live in filth and tend tiny flames to make adornment far your traveling  English ladies.

Five years Gebrail had hated them. Hated the stone buildings and metaled  roads, the iron bridges and glass windows of Shepheard's Hotel which it  seemed were only different forms of the same dead sand that had taken his  Home. "The City," Gebrail often told his wife, just after admitting he'd  come Home drunk and just before beginning to yell at his children - the five  of them curled blind in the windowless room above the barber like so many  puppy-bodies - "the city is only the desert in disguise."

The Lord's angel, Gebrail, dictated the Koran to Mohammed the Lord's  Prophet. What a joke if all that holy book were only twenty-three years of  listening to the desert. A desert which has no voice. If the Koran were  nothing, then Islam was nothing. Then Allah was a story, and his Paradise  wishful thinking.

"Fine." The fare leaned over his shoulder, smelling of garlic, like an  Italian. "Wait here." But dressed like an Inglizi. How horrible the face  looked: dead skin peeling off the burned face in white rags. They were in  front of Shepheard's Hotel.

Since noon they'd been all over the fashionable part of the city . From  Hotel Victoria (where, oddly, his fare had emerged from the servants'  entrance) they had driven first to the Quarter Rossetti, then a few stops  along the Muski; then uphill to the Rond-Point, where Gebrail waited while  the Englishman disappeared for half an hour into the Bazaars' pungent  labyrinth. Visiting, perhaps. Now he'd seen the girl before, surely. The  girl in the Quarter Rossetti: Coptic, probably. Eyes made impossibly huge  with mascara, pose slightly hooked and bowed, two vertical dimples on either  side of the mouth, crocheted shawl covering hair and back, high cheekbones,  warm-brown skin.

Of course she'd been a fare. He remembered the face. She was mistress to  some clerk or other in the British Consulate. Gebrail had picked the boy up  for her in front of the Hotel Victoria, across the street. Another time  they'd gone to her rooms. It helped Gebrail to remember faces. Brought in  more baksheesh if you bade them good-day any second time. How could you say  they were people: they were money. What did he care about the love affairs  of the English? Charity - selfless or erotic - was as much a lie as the  Koran. Did not exist.

One merchant in the Muski too he had seen. A jewel merchant who had lent  money to the Mahdists and was afraid his sympathies would become known now  that the movement was crushed. What did the Englishman want there? He had  brought no jewels away from the shop; though he'd remained inside for nearly  an hour. Gebrail shrugged. They were both fools. The only Mahdi is the  desert.

Mohammed Ahmed, the Mahdi of '83, was believed by some to be sleeping not  dead in a cavern near Baghdad. And on the Last Day, when the prophet Christ  re-establishes el-Islam as the religion of the world he will return to life  to slay Dejal the antichrist at a church gate somewhere in Palestine. The  Angel Asrafil will trumpet a blast to kill everything on earth, and another  to awaken the dead.

But the desert's angel had hidden all the trumpets beneath the sand. The  desert was prophecy enough of the Last Day.

Gebrail lounged exhausted against the seat of his pinto-colored phaeton. He  watched the hindquarters of the poor horse. A poor horse's ass. He nearly  laughed. Was this a revelation then from God? Haze hung over the city.

Tonight, he would  get drunk with an acquaintance who sold sycamore figs,  whose name Gebrail didn't know. The fig-hawker believed in the Last Day; saw  it, in fact, close at hand.

"Rumors," he said darkly, smiling at the girl with the rotting teeth, who  worked the Arabian cafes looking for love-needy Franks with her baby on one  shoulder. "Political rumors."

"politics is a lie."

"Far up the Bahr-el-Abyad, in the heathen jungle, is a place called Fashoda.  The Franks - Inglizi, Feransawi - will fight a great battle there, which  will spread in all directions to engulf the world."

"And Asrafil will sound the call to arms," snorted Gebrail. "He cannot. He  is a lie, his trumpet is a lie. The only truth -"

"Is the desert, is the desert. Wahyat abuk! God forbid."

And the fig-hawker went off into the smoke to get more brandy.

Nothing was coming. Nothing was already here.

Back came the Englishman, with his gangrenous face. A fat friend followed  him out of the hotel.

"Bide time," the fare called mirthfully.

"Ha, ho. I'm taking Victoria to the opera tomorrow night."

Back in the cab: "There is a chemist's shop near the Credit Lyonnais." Weary  Gebrail gathered the reins.

Night was coming rapidly. This haze would make the stars invisible. Brandy,  too, would help. Gebrail enjoyed starless nights. As if a great lie were  finally to be exposed . . .

 

VI

 Three in the morning, hardly a sound in the streets, and time for Girgis the  mountebank to be about his nighttime avocation, burglary.

Breeze in the acacias: that was all. Girgis huddled in bushes, near the back  of Shepheard's Hotel. While the sun was up he and a crew of Syrian acrobats  and a trio from Port Said (dulcimer, Nubian drum, reed pipe) performed in a  cleared space by the Ismailiyeh Canal out in the suburbs near the  slaughterhouse of Abbasiyeh. A fair. There were swings and a fearsome  steam-driven carousel for the children; serpent-charmers, and hawkers of all  refreshment: toasted seeds of abdelawi, limes, fried treacle, water flavored  with licorice or orange blossom, meat puddings. His customers were the  children of Cairo and those aged children of Europe, the tourists.

Take from them by day, take from them by night. If only his bones weren't  beginning so much to feel it. Performing the tricks - with silk kerchiefs,  folding boxes, a mysteriously pocketed cloak decorated outside with  hieroglyphic ploughs, scepters, feeding ibis, lily and sun - sleight-of-hand  and burglary needed light hands, bones of rubber. But the clowning - that  took it out of him. Hardened the bones: bones that should be alive, not rock  rods under the flesh. Falling off the top of a motley pyramid of Syrians,  making the dive look as near-fatal as it actually was; or else engaging the  bottom man in a slapstick routine so violent that the whole construction  tottered and swayed; mock-horror appearing on the faces of the others. While  the children laughed, shrieked, closed their eyes or enjoyed the suspense.  That was the only real compensation, he supposed - God knew it wasn't the  pay - a response from the children; buffoon's treasure.

Enough, enough. Best get this over, he decided, and to bed as soon as  possible. One of these days he'd climb up on that pyramid so exhausted,  reflexes off enough, that the neckbreaking routine would be no sham. Girgis  shivered in the same wind that cooled the acacias. Up, he told his body:  That window.

And was halfway erect before he saw his competition. Another comic acrobat,  climbing out a window some ten feet above the bushes Girgis crouched in.

Patience, then. Study his technique. We can always learn. The other's face,  turned in profile, seemed wrong: but it was only the streetlight. Feet now  on a narrow ledge, the man began to inch along crablike, toward the corner  of the building. After a few steps, stopped; began to pick at his face.  Something white fluttered down, tissue-thin, into the bushes.

Skin? Girgis shivered again. He had a way of repressing thoughts of disease.

Apparently the ledge narrowed toward the corner. The thief was hugging the  wall closer. He reached the corner. As he stood with each foot on a  different side and the edge of the building bisecting him from eyebrows to  abdomen he his balance and fell. On the way down he yelled out an obscenity  in English. Then hit the shrubbery with a crash, rolled and lay still for a  while. A match flared and went out, leaving only the pulsing coal of a  cigarette.

Girgis was all sympathy. He could see it happening to himself one day, in  front of the children, old and young. If he'd believed in signs he would  have given it up for tonight and gone back to the tent they all shared near  the slaughterhouse. But how could he stay alive on the few milliemes tossed  his way during the day? "Mountebank is a dying profession," he'd reckon in  his lighter moments. "All the good ones have moved into politics."

The Englishman put out his cigarette, rose and began to climb a tree nearby.  Girgis lay muttering old curses. He could hear the Englishman wheezing and  talking to himself as he ascended, crawled out on a limb, straddled it and  peered in a window.

After a lag of fifteen seconds, Girgis distinctly heard the words, "A bit  thick, you know," from the tree. Another cigarette-coal appeared, then  abruptly swung in a quick arc downward and hung a few feet below the limb.  The Englishman was swinging by one arm from the limb.

This is ridiculous, Girgis thought.

Crash. The Englishman fell into the bushes again. Girgis got cautiously to  his feet and went over to him.

"Bongo-Shaftsbury?" the Englishman said, hearing Girgis approach. He lay  looking up at a starless zenith, picking absently at flakes of dead skin on  his face. Girgis stopped a few feet away. "Not yet," the other continued,  "you haven't got me quite yet. They are up there, on my bed, Goodfellow and  the girl. We've been together now for two years, and I can't begin, you  know, to count all the girls he's done this to. As if every capital of  Europe were Margate, and the promenade a continent long." He began to sing.

 

   It isn't the girl I saw you wiv in Brighton,

   Who, who, who's your lady friend?

 

Mad, thought Girgis, pitying. The sun hadn't stopped with this poor fellow's  face, it had gone on into the brain.

"She will be in 'love' with him, whatever the word means. He will leave her.  Do you think I care? One accepts his partner as one does any tool, with all  its idiosyncrasies. I had read Goodfellow's dossier, I knew what I was  getting . . .

"But perhaps the sun, and what is happening down the Nile, and the  knife-switch on your arm, which I did not expect; and the frightened child,  and now -" he gestured up at the window he'd left "have thrown me off. We  all have a threshold. Put your revolver away, Bongo-Shaftsbury - there's a  good fellow - and wait, only wait. She is still faceless, still expendable.  God, who knows how many of us will have to be sacrificed this coming week?  She is the least of my worries. She and Goodfellow."

What comfort could Girgis give him? His English wasn't good, he'd only  understood half the words. The madman had not moved, had only continued to  stare at the sky. Girgis opened his mouth to speak thought better of it, and  began to back away. He realized all at once how tired he was, how much the  days of acrobatics took out of him. Would that alienated figure on the  ground be Girgis someday?

I'm getting old, Girgis thought. I have seen my own ghost. But I'll have a  look at the Hotel du Nil anyway. The tourists there aren't as rich. But we  all do what we can.

 

VII

 The bierhalle north of the Ezbekiyeh garden had been created by north  European tourists in their own image. One memory of Home among the  dark-skinned and tropical. But so German as to be ultimately a parody of  Home.

Hanne had held on to the job only because she was stout and blond. A smaller  brunette from the south had stayed for a time but was finally let go because  she didn't look German enough. A Bavarian peasant but not German enough! The  whims of Boeblich the owner got only amusement from Hanne. Bred to patience  - a barmaid since age thirteen - she had cultivated and perfected a vast  cowlike calm which served her now in good stead among the drunkenness, sex  for sale and general fatuousness of the bierhalle.

To the bovine of this world - this tourist world, at least - love comes, is  undergone, and goes away unobtrusive as possible. So with Hanne and the  itinerant Lepsius; a salesman - said he - of ladies' jewelry. Who was she to  question? Having been through it (her phrase), Hanne, schooled in the ways  of an unsentimental world, knew well enough that men were obsessed with  politics almost as much as women with marriage. Knew the bierhalle to be  more than a place to get drunk or fixed up with a woman, just as its list of  frequent customers did comprise individuals strange to Karl Baedeker's way  of life.

How upset Boeblich would be could he see her lover. Hanne mooned about the  kitchen now, in the slack period between dinner and serious drinking, up to  her elbows in soapy water. Lepsius was certainly "not German enough." Half a  head shorter than Hanne, eyes so delicate that he must wear tinted glasses  even in the murk of Boeblich's, and such poor thin arms and legs.

"There is a competitor in town," he confided to her, "pushing an inferior  line, underselling us - it's unethical, don't you see?" She'd nodded.

Well if he came in . . . anything she happened to overhear . . . a rotten  Business, nothing he'd ever want to subject a woman to . . . but . . .

For his poor weak eyes, his loud snoring, his boylike way of mounting her,  taking too long to come to rest in the embrace of her fat legs . . . of  course, she would go on watch for any "competitor." English he was, and  somewhere had got a bad touch of the sun.

All day, through the slower morning hours, her hearing seemed to grow  sharper. So that at noon when the kitchen erupted gently into  disorder - nothing outright: a few delayed orders, a dropped plate which  shattered like her tender eardrums - she'd heard perhaps more than she was  intended to. Fashoda, Fashoda . . . the word washed about Boeblich's like a  pestilent rain. Even the faces changed: Grune the chef, Wernher the  bartender, Musa the boy who swept floors, Lotte and Eva and the other girls,  all seemed to've turned shifty, to've been hiding secrets all this time.  There was even something sinister about the usual slap on the buttocks  Boeblich gave Hanne as she passed by.

Imagination, she told herself. She'd always been a practical girl, not given  to fancy. Could this be one of love's side-effects? To bring on visions,  encourage voices which did not exist, to make the chewing and second  digestion of any cud only mare difficult? It worried Hanne, who thought she  knew everything about love. How was Lepsius different: a little slower, a  little weaker; certainly no high priest at the Business, no more mysterious  or remarkable than any other of a dozen strangers.

Damn men and their politics. Perhaps it was a kind of sex for them. Didn't  they even use the same word for what man does to a woman and what a  successful politician does to his unlucky opponent? What was Fashoda to her,  or Marchand or Kitchener, or whatever their names were, the two who had  "met" - met for what? Hanne laughed, shaking her head. She could imagine,  for what.

She pushed back a straggle of yellow hair with one soap-bleached hand. Odd  how the skin died and grew soggy-white. It looked like leprosy. Since midday  a certain leitmotif of disease had come jittering in, had half-revealed  self, latent in the music of Cairo's afternoon; Fashoda, Fashoda, a word to  give pale, unspecific headaches, a word suggestive of jungle, and outlandish  micro-organisms, and fevers which were not love's (the only she'd known,  after all, being a healthy girl) or anything human's. Was it a change in the  light, or were the skins of the others actually beginning to show the  blotches of disease?

She rinsed and stacked the last plate. No. A stain. Back went the plate into  the dishwater. Hanne scrubbed, then examined the plate again tilting it  toward the light. The stain was still there. Hardly visible. Roughly  triangular, it extended from an apex near the center to a base an inch or so  from the edge. A sort of brown color, outlines indistinct against the faded  white of the plate's surface. She tilted the plate another few degrees  toward the light and the stain disappeared. Puzzled, she moved her head to  look at it from another angle. The stain flickered twice in and out of  existence. Hanne found that if she focused her eyes a little behind and off  the edge of the plate the stain would remain fairly constant, though its  shape had begun to change outline; now crescent, now trapezoid. Annoyed, she  plunged the plate back into the water and searched among the kitchen gear  under the sink for a stiffer brush.

Was the stain real? She didn't like its color. The color of her headache:  pallid brown. It is a stain she told herself. That's all it is. She scrubbed  fiercely. Outside, the beer-drinkers were coming in from the street.  "Hanne," called Boeblich.

O God, would it never go away? She gave it up at last and stacked the plate  with the other dishes. But now it seemed the stain had fissioned, and  transferred like an overlay to each of her retinae.

A quick look at her hair in the mirror-fragment over the sink; then on went  a smile and out went Hanne to wait on her countrymen.

Of course the first face she saw was that of the "competitor." It sickened  her. Mottled red and white, and loose wisps of skin hanging . . . He was  conferring anxiously with Varkumian the pimp, whom she knew. She began to  make passes.

". . . Lord Cromer could keep it from avalanching . . ."

". . . Sir, every whore and assassin in Cairo . . ."

In the corner someone vomited. Hanne rushed to clean it up.

". . . if they should assassinate Cromer . . ."

". . . bad show, to have no Consul-General . . ."

". . . it will degenerate . . ."

Amorous embrace from a customer. Boeblich approached with a friendly scowl.

". . . keep him safe at all costs . . ."

". . . capable men in this sick world are at a . . ."

". . . Bongo-Shaftsbury will try . . ."

". . . the Opera . . ."

". . . where? Not the Opera . . ."

". . . Ezbekiyeh garden . . ."

". . . the Opera . . . Manon Lescaut . . ."

". . . who did say? I know her . . . Zenobia the Copt . . ."

". . . Kenneth Slime at the Embassy's girl . . ."

Love. She paid attention.

". . . has it from Slime that Cromer is taking no precautions. My God:  Goodfellow and I barged in this morning as Irish tourists: he in a moldly  morning hat with a shamrock, I in a red beard. They threw us bodily into the  street . . ."

". . . no precautions . . . O God . . ."

". . . God, with a shamrock  . . . Goodfellow wanted to lob a bomb . . ."

". . . as if nothing could wake him up . . . doesn't he read the . . ."

A long wait by the bar while Wernher and Musa tapped a new keg. The  triangular stain swam somewhere over the crowd, like a tongue on Pentecost.

". . . now that they have met . . ."

". . . they will stay, I imagine, round . . ."

". . . the jungles round . . ."

". . . will there be, do you think . . ."

". . . if it begins it will be round . . ."

Where?

"Fashoda."

"Fashoda."

Hanne continued on her way, through the establishment's ors and into the  street. Grune the waiter found her ten minutes later leaning back against a  shop front, gazing on night-garden with mild eyes.

"Come."

"What is Fashoda, Grune?"

Shrug. "A place. Like Munich, Weimar, Kiel. A town, but in the jungle."

"What does it have to do with women's jewelry?"

"Come in. The girls and I can't handle that herd."

"I see something. Do you? Floating over the park." From across the canal  came the whistle of the night express for Alexandria.

"Bitte . . ." Some common nostalgia - for the cities of Home; for the train  or only its whistle? - may have held them for a moment. Then the girl  shrugged and they returned to the bierhalle.

Varkumian had been replaced by a young girl in a flowered dress. The leprous  Englishman seemed upset. With ruminant resourcefulness Hanne rolled eyes,  thrust bosoms at a middle-aged bank clerk seated with cronies at the table  next to the couple. Received and accepted an invitation to join them.

"I followed you," the girl said. "Papa would die if he found out." Hanne  could see her face, half in shadow. "About Mr. Goodfellow."

Pause. Then: "Your father was in a German church this afternoon. As we are  now in a German beer hall. Sir Alastair was listening to someone play Bach.  As if Bach were all that were left." Another pause. "So that he may know."

She hung her head, a mustache of beer foam on her upper lip. There came one  of those queer lulls in the noise level of any room; in its center another  whistle from the Alexandria express.

"You love Goodfellow," he said.

"Yes." Nearly a whisper.

"Whatever I may think," she said "I have guessed. You can't believe me, but  I must say it. It's true."

"What would you have me do, then?"

Twisting ringlets round her fingers: "Nothing. Only understand."

"How can you -" exasperated - "men can get killed, don't you see, for  'understanding' someone. The way you want it. Is your whole family daft?  Will they be content with nothing less than the heart, lights and liver?"

It was not love. Hanne excused herself and left. It was not man/woman. The  stain was still with her. What could she tell Lepsius tonight. She had only  the desire to remove his spectacles, snap and crush them, and watch him  suffer. How delightful it would be.

This from gentle Hanne Echerze. Had the world gone mad with Fashoda?

 

VIII

 The corridor runs by the curtained entrances to four boxes, located to  audience right at the top level of the summer theatre in the Ezbekiyeh  garden.

A man wearing blue spectacles hurries into the second box from the stage end  of the corridor. The red curtains, heavy velvet swing to and fro,  unsynchronized, after his passage. The oscillation soon damps out because of  the weight. They hang still. Ten minutes pass.

Two men turn the corner by the allegorical statue of Tragedy. Their feet  crush unicorns and peacocks that repeat diamond-fashion the entire length of  the carpet. The face of one is hardly to be distinguished beneath masses of  white tissue which have obscured the features, and changed slightly the  outlines of the face. The other is fat. They enter the box next to the one  the man with the blue spectacles is in. Light from outside, late summer  light now falls through a single window, turning the statue and the figured  carpet to a monochrome orange. Shadows become more opaque. The air between  seems to thicken with an indeterminate color, though it is probably orange.  Then a girl in a flowered dress comes down the hall and enters the box  occupied by the two men. Minutes later she emerges, tears in her eyes and on  her face. The fat man follows. They pass out of the field of vision.

The silence is total. So there's no warning when the red-and-white-faced man  comes through his curtains holding a drawn pistol. The pistol smokes. He  enters the next box.  Soon he and the man with the blue spectacles,  struggling, pitch through the curtains and fall to the carpet. Their lower halves are still hidden by the curtains. The man with the white-blotched  face removes the blue spectacles snaps them two and drops them to the floor.  The other shuts his eyes tightly, tries to turn his head away from the light.

Another has been standing at the end of the corridor. From this vantage he  appears only as a shadow; the window is behind him. The man who removed the  spectacles now crouches, forcing the prostrate one's head toward the light.  The man at the end of the corridor makes a small gesture with his right  hand. The crouching man looks that way and half rises. A flame appears in  the area of the other's right hand; another flame; another. The flames are  colored a brighter orange than the sun.

Vision must be the last to go. There must also be a nearly imperceptible  line between an eye that reflects and an eye that receives.

The half-crouched body collapses. The face and its masses of white skin loom  ever closer. At rest the body is assumed exactly into the space of this  vantage.

 

 

PrevPage  [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10]  ... NextPage  >> 

  • Prev Fiction:
  • Back to
    General

  • Next Fiction: NoNext
  • Loading...
    相关文章: