INTRODUCTION TO MEMOIRES OF THE FOREIGN LEGION
BY MAURICE MAGNUS
Lawrence considered his Introduction to Memoires of the
Foreign Legion by Maurice Magnus the 'the best single piece of
writing, as writing' that he had ever done. Magnus’s book appeared in
1924. The Introduction was reprinted in the collection of Lawrence’s
prose works: Phoenix II published by Heinemann 1968.
As an introduction to the Introduction we include two
extracts from Mark Kinkead Weekes superb biography of Lawrence between 1912 and
1922. This is the second volume of the monumental 3 volumed Cambridge biography
with volume one by John Worthen and volume 3 by David Ellis.
His later account of how, on his way in the wet twilight from
Cooks to the pensione after picking up Douglas's message, he had run into
Douglas with Maurice Magnus, is too long to quote in full and too lively not to
quote at all, even if only as description, without Douglas's characteristic
rat-tat rhythms of speech and the slight twang - not really an accent - which
was the only hint of Americanness in the precise enunciation and somewhat
'mincing' voice' of Magnus with its 'odd high squeak'.
They made an extraordinary pair. Douglas in his fifties had a
broken-down distinction like a grey-haired Mephistopheles, still handsome though
his face had reddeneed and his eyes twinkled wickedly under thick grey brows.
Whimsical, charmingly unscrupulous, he towered above the other, a little man who
'stuck his front out tubbily' above legs which 'seemed to perch behind him, as a
bird's do'. Though Magnus turned out to be hard-up too, he was indeed a man who
knew 'all the short cuts in all the big towns of Europe' and who still indulged
expensive tastes. Add to these Lawrence, 'buttoned up in my old thick overcoat,
and with my beard bushy and raggy because of my horror of entering a strange
barber's shop' and there is a vision worthy of Max Beerbohm. Yet
here in Italy there was no hostility from passers-by.
From Wednesday to Saturday the three men had their meals
together and sat drinking afterwards in either Douglas's or Magnus's bedrooms,
which again made the sharpest of contrasts. Magnus's room was 'very clean and
neat, and slightly perfumed'. Everything in it was 'expensive and finicking':
cut-glass silver-topped bottles and ivory-backed brushes on the dressing-table,
thick leather silver-studded suitcases, a trouser-press; and elegant devotional
literature by the bedside, for Magnus was a Roman Catholic convert who now
thought he might like to become a monk and went to early Mass every day. Whereas
Douglas never believed in opening windows, and the 'queer smell of a bedroom
which is slept in, worked in, lived in, smoked in, and in which men drink their
whiskies, was something new' to Lawrence. Douglas was pagan and amoral by
conviction, more libertarian than Lawrence - and acknowledging less
responsibility for anything but his own pleasure. Both new acquaintances were
homosexual by preference, though both had married. Magnus disliked women.
Douglas - who now preferred boys - had been a great womaniser before his
marriage, and remained charmingly behaved and attractive to women still, though
he had become mysogynist after his divorce and thought of even the attractive
ones as an inferior species. His conversation was entirely uninhibited. Both men
acted on the belief that the less money one had, the more important it was to
spend, whereas Lawrence was determined never to be in debt or under any
obligation that could be avoided. He had arrived in Florence with only £9
sterling in his pocket and £12 in the bank in England, and had Frieda to think
of, so the whisky-drinking bouts felt extravagant though he paid his share.
They were lively company. Douglas at his best had great
raffish charm, considerable learning on all sorts of subjects, a rich store of
anecdote (like his language, frequently obscene) and a zest for life which could
not but attract despite his self-centredness, malice and mischief-making, none
of which he made any attempt to disguise. Magnus had been manager to Gordon
Craig and Isadora Duncan; knew many European capitals; had edited the Roman
Review 'till the war killed it' and lived now by writing for
American magazines, though seemingly always beyond his means so that he was
always on the move. Both men were cosmopolitan and widely travelled. Much of
Douglas's upbringing had been in Austria, and as well as a successful novel,
South Wind, he had made a reputation as a travel writer, especially about
Italy. He also knew something of Asia Minor, North Africa and India as well as
Russia; and acquired considerable scientific knowledge of geology, fauna and
flora wherever he went. Magnus had had a theatrical career in more ways than
one, having landed up at one stage in the French Foreign legion - of which more,
Subsequent events and experiences have coloured almost all
their published memories and judgements of one another, so their responses at
the time can only be uncovered by peeling off later overlays and hindsights as
far as possible. The contemporary evidence (such as it is) suggests little
shadow, and much mutual fascination. There is no hint now of the repulsion from
homosexuals that Lawrence had felt earlier. He was unworried now about such
things, and indeed began to find in Florence 'a nice carelessness' which may
have signified more than the easygoing regime in the pensione. He seems to have
been amused by Magnus's matronly fussing over Douglas, though a bit shocked
still perhaps by Douglas's pederasty. When Douglas, in turn, was amused at
Lawrence's objection to the Florentine boys showing so much bare leg, the cause
may have lain as much in Douglas's reaction to the phenomenon as in the thing
itself-but of repulsion there is no sign. Moreover both of them tended to put
their best sides forward on first acquaintance. If there were to be friction,
temper or sharpness, these would come later. Nobody ever conveyed the flavour of
Douglas's talk, or its funniness, better than the man whom he would later accuse
of having no sense of humour. As to Magnus, Lawrence may have felt that he was
being condescended to by the little man, and if so, his description of Magnus as
'common' may have been reaction to that as well as to a touch of sleaze beneath
the showmanship. Yet their subsequent relationship could not have come about
without a sense, too, of something fine in Magnus's insouciance, sensitivity and
love of beautiful things. When on Saturday 22nd it came to buying Magnus a
birthday present, before the celebratory dinner he had undertaken to give in the
pensione, and before he left for Rome on Sunday, Douglas's suggestion of a
religious medal had a hint of satire, whereas Lawrence's choice of a little
five-lira Volterran amber bowl was perceptive and gave real pleasure. Maurice's
admiration of the 'lovely colour' of Lawrence's hair was also somehow touching
as well as disconcerting (particularly since he could hardly be persuaded that
its strange tint was not a dye). Though Lawrence later doubted whether Magnus
liked him, and claimed to have been 'rather glad' himself when he had gone,
there was an invitation to come to the great monastery at Montecassino when next
the would-be monk was a guest there, and a Lawrence promise to do so, which
suggests some liking on both sides.
As for Douglas, even though the rather rancid portrait in his
Looking Back concentrates on Lawrence's faults and limitations as person
and writer, as Douglas came to see these, it admits also his 'naturally blithe
disposition', his curiosity, his direct and instantaneous poet's observation,
and 'something elemental in him, something of the Erdgeisf.
Mark Kinkead Weekes D.H. Lawrence: Triumph to Exile C.U.P
Walter Salomone had appealed to him immediately after
Magnus's suicide, and he had had to reply that he too had been a victim and
there was no other hope of recovering what Magnus had borrowed than getting
'Dregs' (as it was then called) into print. Though the correspondence has not
come to light, it seems clear that Lawrence felt some responsibility to do
something about the continuing distress of the men who had taken him and Magnus
driving in Malta. He had not introduced Magnus to them - the letter from Don
Mauro Inguanez had done that. He had no direct responsibility for what had
happened, but he had got to know them, and had not warned them against Magnus,
and that was enough to make him want to do something to repair the damage Magnus
had done. Even before the suicide, he and Norman Douglas and Goldring had made a
number of efforts to interest publishers in Magnus's work. Lawrence had
commended 'Dregs' to both Seeker and Fisher Unwin, and had enlisted Goldring's
help to place one of Magnus's translated plays. Douglas, having seen Goldring in
Rome, had got Magnus to send him both 'Dregs' and a memoir of his travels which
has subsequently disappeared. Goldring thought well of 'Dregs', and recalled
later that Douglas, with his help, had taken 'an infinity of trouble' to try to
get it into print - but all without success.
Now, however, Michael Borg and Don Mauro pleaded again with
Lawrence. Douglas had been named literary executor in Magnus's will, but the
Maltese had refused to release the book, their only possible recompense, to him.
They knew Lawrence personally, and must have believed that he would be the more
likely to make a serious effort to recover the money they had lost. It seems
likely that having been sent it now, Lawrence was going right through the book
for the first time, having only seen the first half before. The manuscript shows
a few minor revisions in his hand. It became very clear to him that the material
itself, though remarkable, was not the most pleasant of reading, and was very
unlikely to attract a publisher on its own, as past experience confirmed. The
best hope lay - he thought - in America, and the best chance of making it more
saleable there would be for him to write an introductory memoir of the author as
he had known him. So he embarked on his only attempt at biography, and produced
what he later thought 'the best single piece of writing, as writing' that
he had ever done.
There remained the need to get Douglas's consent. On 20
December Lawrence wrote to explain his plan. He had written 'an introduction
giving all I knew about M - not unkindly I hope', and sought Douglas's agreement
to an attempt to sell manuscript and introduction outright to an American
publisher at an asking price of $400 'or more if possible'. Out of this the
Maltese were to be paid their £60 first, then the £23 Magnus owed
Lawrence, and Douglas could have anything that remained. '[E]ven if you only got
about £20. it is better than a slap in the eye.' If on the other hand
Douglas would do it instead, Lawrence would stand aside - though his tone
suggests he thought that unlikely. Douglas of course would figure, though 'under
a disguised name', in the account of Magnus in Florence, but 'The only vice I
give you is that of drinking the best part of the bottle of whiskey'.
Though Douglas had a legal right to all the proceeds, and
might not have agreed so readily if he had seen what Lawrence had written about
Magnus, 'Dregs' clearly had few prospects on its own. He replied on 26 December
and disclaimed all interest, financial or any other, in the manuscript. 'Whoever
wants it may have it & may ram it up his exhaust pipe', he said, telling
Lawrence to do what he liked with it, to put him in 'drunk and stark
naked if you like', and to 'Pocket all the cash yourself (his emphasis).
Lawrence finally sent both memoir and book to Mountsier on 26
January, warning that he might find the latter as disgusting and horrifying as
Magnus had found the experience, but he should be patient and not give up (iv.
178-9). Perhaps a big publisher like Doran, who had brought out Three
Soldiers by Dos Passos which was also hardly pleasant light reading, might
give $400 for the book outright - and thus help repay the £100 Magnus owed. If
he could obtain any offer, Mountsier was to deal directly with Borg. He might
also try for an additional sum for the memoir if he could get it - but it is
quite clear that Lawrence's essential concern was to enable Magnus's manuscript
to undo the harm that the man himself had done, to the Maltese who had tried to
help him. Though Grant Richards might buy the English rights, Lawrence was
reluctant to have his introduction published in England. He suggested again that
Douglas should be asked to introduce any English edition instead; but if he
refused and Lawrence's piece were wanted, so be it.
Goldring, who never met Magnus, professed himself 'not in a
position to judge whether Lawrence's depreciation, or Douglas's appreciation,
was nearer the truth'. Douglas's tone of pseudo-affectionate contempt for 'my
young friend Lawrence' and his habit of caricature is effective, but if one were
to treat the two portrayals as pure fictions, there could be little doubt which
is the more vividly animated or sharply and clearly focused. The question of
biographic truth however - always impossible, yet always to be sought for
tirelessly - is much more complicated. It has been suggested above that even
Lawrence biographers should not take the memoir as the 'truth' of his feelings
about Magnus in 1919, or even 1920, since it was obviously written with the
hindsight and the more complex and mixed feelings of December 1921, when the end
of the story was known. He probably felt more fascinated and charmed by Magnus
in Florence, and more friendly towards him even in Montecassino, than appears
when the encounters were recreated and the oppositions clarified in 1922. The
truth one can be confident about is the truth of Lawrence's complex feelings
as he wrote.
Moreover Lawrence's one attempt at biography resembles his
literary criticism in working like an X-ray, rendering a good deal of 'body'
shadowy in order to get 'to the bone' - as focused by a powerfully individual
sensibility. So his memoir cares little for the inclusiveness, the painstaking
inquiry, the effort to imagine from the subject's point of view (and that of the
other actors in the story), the attempt to blend objectivity with sympathetic
understanding, which seekers after such biographic truth as is obtainable might
demand of themselves. When Douglas later charged Lawrence with ignoring Magnus's
capacity for friendship, for hard work and for generosity when he was in funds,
there was some truth in the charge since these are in fact visibly there in
Lawrence's portrait, though they are given little emphasis. How much more,
however, is not there at all, which might help one to understand what Magnus was
'really like'? What a pity it seems - if we want 'the whole truth' - that the
author of Sons and Lovers, impatient of the sort of thing he knew only
too well, should have discouraged Magnus from speaking of his beautiful mother,
his only-son relationship with her and with his even more shadowy father, his
upbringing obviously in conflict with his desire not to be American, but
cosmopolitan and pan-European, with only the slightest trace of accent lingering
in his speech. How did he come to know the best theatres in every capital in
Europe, including Russia, and to have edited a review in Rome? Why, having
obviously been very well-off and prosperous - for look at his possessions and
his habits - was he now so down on his luck? And (though this was obviously of
no interest to Lawrence) how did he come to convert to Roman Catholicism, in
England in 1902, possibly at the time of his marriage? And what was the tension
between that and his homosexuality?
As it happens, the sketch of an answer to some of these
questions can suggest what Lawrence's memoir is not. Of Magnus's family
and upbringing in America almost nothing is known - except that his claim about
his mother cannot have been altogether fictive, since he offered to persuade the
then Kaiser to visit Gordon Craig's exhibition in Berlin, and quite clearly had
influential contacts there. Our first glimpse of him, indeed, is in Berlin in
igos, when 'a small, dapper man' turned up at that exhibition, studied every
picture as though he were a connoisseur, praised the artistry in most flattering
terms and offered to write to various papers in America about it. He impressed
Craig by his charm, intelligence and dignity, and the fact that 'he seemed to
know everyone in Berlin'. He was just 29 and had an apparently inexhaustible
ambition to collect celebrities, which had brought him to Europe where he
thought anything was possible: 'One only has to know the right people.' He had
been supporting himself by acting as Berlin correspondent to American papers,
and teaching in the Berlitz school - but after talk with Craig over martinis,
was very ready to become his business manager, and Isadora Duncan's as well when
she was having her affair with Craig. He organised an office, and a secretary -
but none of the three was reliable or careful with money. The relationship had
many ups and downs over the next few years, but Magnus was genuinely useful to
the two artists, and often his contacts seemed to work. (An interesting
sidelight is cast, however, by his habit of pocketing visiting cards from the
silver salvers of houses he visited, since they might come in useful one day.)
However, a taste for luxury on no assured income, and a lack of scruple in
financial affairs, do seem to have been characteristic of him from the start.
Yet, though half a trickster, he also had some genuine organisational talent. It
was through him, as intermediary, that Stanislavsky's proposal that Craig should
come to Moscow was negotiated, and Magnus organised a successful tour of
Switzerland for Isadora immediately after the war. An inclusive biography would
not be short of interest.
Unfortunately the post-war world was a very different one for
Magnus. After he had escaped into Italy from his ill-fated service in the French
Foreign Legion, he made his way to Rome, where Craig ran into him in 1917. In
some ways he was exactly the same. His opening remark was, 'My dear Craig, you
can't live in a hotel - that's not the right background for you' - and 'within
days' he had persuaded Prince Wolkonsky to lend Craig his studio flat, ordered
him some visiting cards, and introduced him to the King's tailor. But in 1919
Craig met Magnus again and found him 'a very changed man. So many of the "names"
with which he had conjured in the past were no more, or no longer meant
anything. He could see no future for himself.' He was indeed thinking of
entering a monastery.
So Lawrence's memoir can by no means tell 'the whole truth'
or anything like it; or shed light on the formative process by which Magnus
became what he was. And yet, not only does nothing in it conflict with what we
can learn from Craig, who knew Magnus for fifteen years, and from Craig's son
who met him many times, but their portrayals fully bear out the mixture of
sophisticate and trickster, elegance and sleaze, wistful charm with suspect
flattery, that Lawrence recreates so cogently. There too is the mincing gait,
though Craig's statement that Magnus would take four steps to anyone else's one
is not nearly as graphic as Lawrence's unforgettable description of birdlike
perkiness. Even the unction with women, combined with waspish dislike (which
Lawrence put into The Lost Girl as well as the memoir) appears in Craig's
account. Though we cannot be sure that the argument about the peasant at
Montecassino took place as Lawrence dramatises it, Magnus's later concern to be
with 'first class' people suggests that the scene is a fair reflection of his
views. The more telling, then, are the signs of weariness and desperation in
Lawrence's portrait of such a man down on his luck and almost at the end of his
tether. The flattering charm and friendliness, the making and keeping up of
contacts, the capacity for busyness and pulling strings, the knowledge of a
number of cities and theatres and the best restaurants and hotels, were the
'body' of the man - but there is little doubt that Lawrence did get to the
skeleton. Craig sums up his fifteen years' acquaintance, which he has described
with some affection, as follows:
Later on, whenever he again did anything for me, he
always managed to disappear with most, if not all, of the money. He was not
dishonest - he was merely very hard up - very involved - and still far too
snappy. He never deliberately cheated me, but he could not resist helping
himself, any more than he could resist helping me.
But Lawrence's final judgement goes a great deal
deeper, and is actually more compassionate in the end than either Craig or
Douglas, because it faces up to the deeper and darker things in Magnus's life,
and still comes out with considerable admiration for his ultimate courage, and
his carrying of human consciousness 'unbroken through horrible experiences'. The
manuscript has great difficulty in organising its feelings at the end. There is
an impassioned denunciation of Magnus's prissy separation of himself from the
degrading homosexuality he saw in the Legion - a passage which had to be cut
from his book, as Lawrence's denunciation of it had to be cut from his memoir.
Lawrence is enraged by Magnus daring to sit in judgement - he who told Lawrence
'Oh, I always try to keep my physical friendships as decent as possible -
while they last', but whose decency consisted of 'Filching the blood-warmth from
the lower class' and paying them off, despising them all the while as his
inferiors. Lawrence, regarding the 'passionate blood' as sacred, would rather
have the reckless homosexual depravity of the 'poor devils of legionaries' than
this genteelly purchased gratification, that then washes its hands and goes on
quickly to talk of things of the mind and the spirit. Moreover it is clear -
though this too had to go — that Lawrence sees some relation between Magnus's
sexual habits and his treatment of his friends in Malta. Michael Borg felt not
only cheated but confused and distressed, because 'sold in the best part of
himself. Magnus 'came up so winsomely to appeal for affection. He took the
affection, and paid back twenty francs. Bargain! - Later, he took the affection,
and borrowed twenty francs, and cleared out in triumph. And he to sit in
judgement on the Legionaries!',
But it is not only to repay Borg and the other 'men with warm
blood' from whom Magnus filched money and affection that Lawrence wishes to
publish Magnus's book and his own memoir. For the brutality and depravity Magnus
experienced in the Legion were for Lawrence only part of the brutality and
depravity of the war as a whole. It is necessary to know what sex, and
war, and crime, and corruption can be and do; and to free ourselves by
experiencing these, like an inoculation. That is finally what he respects, in
spite of all: that Magnus 'realised' what he feared.
Mark Kinkead Weekes D.H. Lawrence: Triumph to Exile C.U.P
Introduction to Memoirs of the
On a dark, wet, wintry evening in November, 1919, I arrived in Florence,
having just got back to Italy for the first time since 1914. My wife was in
Germany, gone to see her mother, also for the first time since that fatal year
1914. We were poor; who was going to bother to publish me and to pay for my
writings, in 1918 and 1919? I landed in Italy with nine pounds in my pocket and
about twelve pounds lying in the bank in London. Nothing more. My wife, I hoped,
would arrive in Florence with two or three pounds remaining. We should have to
go very softly, if we were to house ourselves in Italy for the winter. But after
the desperate weariness of the war, one could not bother.
So I had written to Norman Douglas to get me a cheap room somewhere in
Florence, and to leave a note at Cook's. I deposited my bit of luggage at the
station, and walked to Cook's in the Via Tornabuoni. Florence was strange to me:
seemed grim and dark and rather awful on the cold November evening. There was a
note from Douglas, who has never left me in the lurch. I went down the Lung 'Arno
to the address he gave.
I had just passed the end of the Ponte Vecchio, and was watching the first
lights of evening and the last light of day on the swollen river as I walked,
when I heard Douglas's voice:
"Isn't that Lawrence? Why of course it is, of course it is, beard and all!
Well, how are you, eh? You got my note? Well now, my dear boy, you just go on to
the Cavelotti—straight ahead, straight ahead—you've got the number. There's a
room for you there. We shall be there in half an hour. Oh, let me introduce you
I had unconsciously seen the two men approaching, Douglas tall and portly,
the other man rather short and strutting. They were both buttoned up in their
overcoats, and both had rather curly little hats. But Norman Douglas was
decidedly shabby and a gentleman, with his wicked red face and tufted eyebrows.
The other man was almost smart, all in grey, and he looked at first sight like
an actor-manager, common. There was a touch of down-on-his-luck about him too.
He looked at me, buttoned up in my old thick overcoat, and with my beard bushy
and raggy because of my horror of entering a strange barber's shop, and he
greeted me in a rather fastidious voice, and a little patronizingly. I forgot to
say I was carrying a small hand-bag. But I realized at once that I ought, in
this little grey-sparrow man's eyes—he stuck his front out tubbily, like a bird,
and his legs seemed to perch behind him, as a bird's do—I ought to be in a cab.
But I wasn't. He eyed me in that shrewd and rather impertinent way of the world
of actor-managers: cosmopolitan, knocking shabbily round the world.
He looked a man of about forty, spruce and youngish in his deportment, very
pink-faced, and very clean, very natty, very alert, like a sparrow painted to
resemble a tom-tit. He was just the kind of man I had never met: little smart
man of the shabby world, very much on the spot, don't you know.
"How much does it cost?" I asked Douglas, meaning the room.
"Oh, my dear fellow, a trifle. Ten francs a day. Third rate, tenth rate, but
not bad at the price. Pension terms of course—everything included—except wine."
"Oh no, not at all bad for the money," said Magnus. "Well now, shall we be
moving? You want the post office, Douglas?" His voice was precise and a little
mincing, and it had an odd high squeak.
"I do," said Douglas—.
"Well then come down here——" Magnus turned to a dark little alley,
"Not at all," said Douglas. "We turn down by the bridge."
"This is quicker," said Magnus. He had a twang rather than an accent in his
speech—not definitely American.
He knew all the short cuts of Florence. Afterwards I found that he knew all
the short cuts in all the big towns of Europe.
I went on to the Cavelotti and waited in an awful plush and gilt
drawing-room, and was given at last a cup of weird muddy brown slush called tea,
and a bit of weird brown mush called jam on some bits of bread. Then I was taken
to my room. It was far off, on the third floor of the big, ancient, deserted
Florentine house. There I had a big and lonely, stone-comfortless room looking
on to the river. Fortunately it was not very cold inside, and I didn't care. The
adventure of being back in Florence again after the years of war made one
After an hour or so someone tapped. It was Douglas coming in with his
grandiose air—now a bit shabby, but still very courtly.
"Why here you are—miles and miles from human habitation! I told her to
put you on the second floor, where we are. What does she mean by it? Ring that
bell. Ring it."
"No," said I, "I'm all right here."
"What!" cried Douglas. "In this Spitzbergen! Where's that bell?"
"Don't ring it," said I, who have a horror of chambermaids and explanations.
"Not ring it! Well you're a man, you are! Come on then. Come on down to my
room. Come on. Have you had some tea—filthy muck they call tea here? I never
I went down to Douglas's room on the lower floor. It was a littered mass of
books and typewriter and papers: Douglas was just finishing his novel. Magnus
was resting on the bed, in his shirt sleeves: a tubby, fresh-faced little man in
a suit of grey, faced cloth bound at the edges with grey silk braid. He had
light blue eyes, tired underneath, and crisp, curly, dark brown hair just grey
at the temples. But everything was neat and even finicking about his person.
"Sit down! Sit down!" said Douglas, wheeling up a chair. "Have a whisky?"
"Whisky!" said I.
"Twenty-four francs a bottle—and a find at that," moaned Douglas. I must tell
that the exchange was then about forty-five lire to the pound.
"Oh Norman," said Magnus—, "I didn't tell you. I was offered a bottle of 1913
Black and White for twenty-eight lire."
"Did you buy it?"
"No. It's your turn to buy a bottle."
"Twenty-eight francs—my dear fellow!" said Douglas, cocking up his eyebrows.
"I shall have to starve myself to do it."
"Oh no you won't, you'll eat here just the same," said Magnus.
"Yes, and I'm starved to death. Starved to death by the muck—the absolute
muck they call food here. I can't face twenty-eight francs, my dear chap—can't
be done, on my honour."
"Well look here, Norman—. We'll both buy a bottle. And you can get the one at
twenty-two, and I'll buy the one at twenty-eight."
So it always was, Magnus indulged Douglas, and spoilt him in every way. And
of course Douglas wasn't grateful. Au contraire! And Magnus's pale blue
smallish round eyes, in his cockatoo-pink face, would harden to indignation
The room was dreadful. Douglas never opened the windows: didn't believe in
opening windows. He believed that a certain amount of nitrogen — I should say a
great amount—is beneficial. The queer smell of a bedroom which is slept in,
worked in, lived in, smoked in, and in which men drink their whiskies, was
something new to me. But I didn't care. One had got away from the war.
We drank our whiskies before dinner. Magnus was rather yellow under the eyes,
and irritable; even his pink fattish face went yellowish.
"Look here," said Douglas. "Didn't you say there was a turkey for dinner?
What? Have you been to the kitchen to see what they're doing to it?"
"Yes," said Magnus testily. "I forced them to prepare it to roast."
"With chestnuts—stuffed with chestnuts?" said Douglas.
"They said so," said Magnus.
"Oh, but go down and see that they're doing it. Yes, you've got to keep your
eye on them, got to. The most awful howlers if you don't. You go now and see
what they're up to." Douglas used his most irresistible grand manner.
"It's too late," persisted Magnus, testy.
"It's never too late. You just run down and absolutely prevent them from
boiling that bird in the old soup-water," said Douglas. "If you need force,
Magnus went. He was a great epicure, and knew how things should be cooked.
But of course his irruptions into the kitchen roused considerable resentment,
and he was getting quaky. However, he went. He came back to say the turkey was
being roasted, but without chestnuts.
"What did I tell you! What did I tell you!" cried Douglas. "They are
absolute——! If you don't hold them by the neck while they peel the chestnuts,
they'll stuff the bird with old boots, to save themselves trouble. Of course you
should have gone down sooner, Magnus."
Dinner was always late, so the whisky was usually two whiskies. Then we went
down, and were merry in spite of all things. That is, Douglas always grumbled
about the food. There was one unfortunate youth who was boots and porter and
waiter and all. He brought the big dish to Douglas, and Douglas always poked and
pushed among the portions, and grumbled frantically, sotto voce, in Italian to
the youth Beppo, getting into a nervous frenzy. Then Magnus called the waiter to
himself, picked the nicest bits off the dish and gave them to Douglas, then
The food was not good, but with Douglas it was an obsession. With the waiter
he was terrible—"Cos' e? Zuppa? Grazie. No niente per me. No—No!—Quest' acqua
sporca non bevo io. I don't drink this dirty water. What—— What's that in it—a
piece of dish clout? Oh holy Dio, I can't eat another thing this evening——"
And he yelled for more bread—bread being war rations and very limited in
supply—so Magnus in nervous distress gave him his piece, and Douglas threw the
crumb part on the floor, anywhere, and called for another litre. We always drank
heavy dark red wine at three francs a litre. Douglas drank two-thirds, Magnus
drank least. He loved his liquors and did not care for wine. We were noisy and
unabashed at table. The Old Danish ladies at the other end of the room, and the
rather impecunious young Duca and family not far off were not supposed to
understand English. The Italians rather liked the noise, and the young signorina
with the high-up yellow hair eyed us with profound interest. On we sailed, gay
and noisy, Douglas— telling witty anecdotes and grumbling wildly and only half
whimsically about the food. We sat on till most people had finished—then went up
to more whisky—one more perhaps—in Magnus's room.
When I came down in the morning I was called into Magnus's room. He was like
a little pontiff in a blue kimono-shaped dressing-gown with a broad border of
reddish purple: the blue was a soft mid-blue, the material a dull silk. So he
minced about, in demi-toilette. His room was very clean and neat, and slightly
perfumed with essences. On his dressing-table stood many cut glass bottles and
silver-topped bottles with essences and pomades and powders, and heaven knows
what. A very elegant little prayer book lay by his bed—and a life of St.
Benedict. For Magnus was a Roman Catholic convert. All he had was expensive and
finicking: thick leather silver-studded suit-cases standing near the wall,
trouser-stretcher all nice, hair-brushes and clothes-brush with old ivory backs.
I wondered over him and his niceties and little pomposities. He was a new bird
For he wasn't at all just the common person he looked. He was queer and
sensitive as a woman with Douglas, and patient and fastidious. And yet he was
common, his very accent was common, and Douglas despised him.
And Magnus rather despised me because I did not spend money. I paid for a
third of the wine we drank at dinner, and bought the third bottle of whisky we
had during Magnus's stay. After all, he only stayed three days. But I would not
spend for myself. I had no money to spend, since I knew I must live and my wife
"Oh," said Magnus—. "Why, that's the very time to spend money, when you've
got none. If you've got none, why try to save it? That's been my philosophy all
my life; when you've got no money, you may Just as well spend it. If you've got
a good deal, that's the time to look after it." Then he laughed his queer little
laugh, rather squeaky. These were his exact words.
'Precisely," said Douglas—. "Spend when you've nothing to spend, my boy.
Spend hard then."
"No," said I. "If I can help it, I will never let myself be penniless while I
live. I mistrust the world too much."
"But if you're going to live in fear of the world," said Magnus "what's the
good of living at all? Might as well die."
I think I give his words almost verbatim. He had a certain impatience of me
and of my presence. Yet we had some jolly times—-mostly in one or other of their
bedrooms, drinking a whisky and talking. We drank a bottle a day—I had very
little, preferring the wine at lunch and dinner, which seemed delicious after
the war famine. Douglas would bring up the remains of the second litre in the
evening, to go on with before the coffee came.
I arrived in Florence on the Wednesday or Thursday evening; I think Thursday.
Magnus was due to leave for Rome on the Saturday. I asked Douglas who Magnus
"Oh, you never know what he's at. He was manager for Isadora Duncan for a
long time—knows all the capitals of Europe: St. Petersburg, Moscow, Tiflis,
Constantinople, Berlin, Paris—knows them as you and I know Florence. He's been
mostly in that line—theatrical. Then a journalist. He edited the Roman Review
till the war killed it. Oh, a many-sided sort of fellow."
"But how do you know him?" said I.
"I met him in Capri years and years ago—oh, sixteen years ago— and clean
forgot all about him till somebody came to me one day in Rome and said: You're
Norman Douglas. I didn't know who he was. But he'd never forgotten me.
Seems to be smitten by me, somehow or other. All the better for me, ha-ha!—if he
likes to run round for me. My dear fellow, I wouldn't prevent him, if it amuses
him. Not for worlds."
And that was how it was. Magnus ran Douglas's errands, forced the other man
to go to the tailor, to the dentist, and was almost a guardian angel to him.
"Look here!" cried Douglas—. "I can't go to that damned tailor. Let the thing
wait, I can't go."
"Oh yes. Now look here Norman, if you don't get it done now while I'm here
you'll never get it done. I made the appointment for three o'clock——"
"To hell with you! Details! Details! I can't stand it, I tell you."
Douglas chafed and kicked, but went.
"A little fussy fellow," he said. "Oh yes, fussing about like a woman. Fussy,
you know, fussy. I can't stand these fussy——" And Douglas went off into
Well, Magnus ran round and arranged Douglas's affairs and settled his little
bills, and was so benevolent, and so impatient and nettled at the ungrateful way
in which the benevolence was accepted. And Douglas despised him all the time as
a little busybody and an inferior. And I there between them just wondered. It
seemed to me Magnus would get very irritable and nervous at midday and before
dinner, yellow round the eyes and played out. He wanted his whisky. He was tired
after running round on a thousand errands and quests which I never understood.
He always took his morning coffee at dawn, and was out to early Mass and pushing
his affairs before eight o'clock in the morning. But what his affairs were I
still do not know. Mass is all I am certain of.
However, it was his birthday on the Sunday, and Douglas would not let him go.
He had once said he would give a dinner for his birthday, and this he was not
allowed to forget. It seemed to me Magnus rather wanted to get out of it. But
Douglas— was determined to have that dinner.
"You aren't going before you've given us that hare, don't you imagine it, my
boy. I've got the smell of that hare in my imagination, and I've damned well got
to set my teeth in it. Don't you imagine you're going without having produced
So poor Magnus, rather a victim, had to consent. We discussed what we should
eat. It was decided the hare should have truffles, and a dish of champignons,
and cauliflower, and zabaioni—and I forget what else. It was to be on Saturday
evening. And Magnus would leave on Sunday for Rome.
Early on the Saturday morning he went out, with the first daylight, to the
old market, to get the hare and the mushrooms. He went himself because he was a
On the Saturday afternoon Douglas took me wandering round to buy a birthday
"I shall have to buy him something—have to—have to——" he said fretfully. He
only wanted to spend about five francs. We trailed over the Ponte Vecchio,
looking at the jewellers' booths there. It was before the foreigners had come
back, and things were still rather dusty and almost at pre-war prices. But we
could see nothing for five francs except the little saint-medals. Douglas wanted
to buy one of those. It seemed to me infra dig. So at last coming down to the
Mercato Nuovo we saw little bowls of Volterra marble, a natural amber colour,
for four francs.
"Look, buy one of those," I said to Douglas, "and he can put his pins or
studs or any trifle in, as he needs."
So we went in and bought one of the little bowls of Volterra marble.
Magnus seemed so touched and pleased with the gift.
"Thank you a thousand times, Norman," he said. "That's charming! That's
exactly what I want."
The dinner was quite a success, and, poorly fed as we were at the pension, we
stuffed ourselves tight on the mushrooms and the hare and the zabaioni, and
drank ourselves tight with the good red wine which swung in its straw flask in
the silver swing on the table. A flask has two and a quarter litres. We were
four persons, and we drank almost two flasks. Douglas made the waiter measure
the remaining half-litre and take it off the bill. But good, good food, and cost
about twelve francs a head the whole dinner.
Well, next day was nothing but bags and suit-cases in Magnus's room, and the
misery of departure with luggage. He went on the midnight train to Rome:
"I always travel first-class," he said, "and I always shall, while I can buy
the ticket. Why should I go second? It's beastly enough to travel at all."
"My dear fellow, I came up third the last time I came from Rome," said
Douglas. "Oh, not bad, not bad. Damned fatiguing journey anyhow."
So the little outsider was gone, and I was rather glad. I don't think he
liked me. Yet one day he said to me at table:
"How lovely your hair is—such a lovely colour! What do you dye it with?"
I laughed, thinking he was laughing too. But no, he meant it. "It's got no
particular colour at all," I said, "so I couldn't dye it that!"
"It's a lovely colour," he said. And I think he didn't believe me, that I
didn't dye it. It puzzled me, and it puzzles me still.
But he was gone. Douglas moved into Magnus's room, and asked me to come down
to the room he himself was vacating. But I preferred to stay upstairs.
Magnus was a fervent Catholic, taking the religion, alas, rather unctuously.
He had entered the Church only a few years before. But he had a bishop for a
god-father, and seemed to be very intimate with the upper clergy. He was very
pleased and proud because he was a constant guest at the famous old monastery
south of Rome. He talked of becoming a monk; a monk in that aristocratic and
well-bred order. But he had not even begun his theological studies: or any
studies of any sort. And Douglas said he only chose the Benedictines because
they lived better than any of the others.
But I had said to Magnus that when my wife came and we moved south, I would
like to visit the monastery some time, if I might. "Certainly," he said. "Come
when I am there. I shall be there in about a month's time. Do come! Do be sure
and come. It's a wonderful place —-oh, wonderful. It will make a great
impression on you. Do come. Do come. And I will tell Don Bernardo, who is my
greatest friend, and who is guest-master, about you. So that if you wish to go
when I am not there, write to Don Bernardo. But do come when I am there."
My wife and I were due to go into the mountains south of Rome, and stay there
some months. Then I was to visit the big, noble monastery that stands on a bluff
hill like a fortress crowning a great precipice, above the little town and the
plain between the mountains. But it was so icy cold and snowy among the
mountains, it was unbearable. We fled south again, to Naples, and to Capri.
Passing, I saw the monastery crouching there above, world-famous, but it was
impossible to call then.
I wrote and told Magnus of my move. In Capri I had an answer from him. It had
a wistful tone—and I don't know what made me think that he was in trouble, in
monetary difficulty. But I felt it acutely—a kind of appeal. Yet he said nothing
direct. And he wrote from an expensive hotel in Anzio, on the sea near Rome.
At the moment I had just received twenty pounds unexpected and joyful from
America—a gift too. I hesitated for some time, because I felt unsure. Yet the
curious appeal came out of the letter, though nothing was said. And I felt also
I owed Magnus that dinner, and I didn't want to owe him anything, since he
despised me a little for being careful. So partly out of revenge, perhaps, and
partly because I felt the strange wistfulness of him appealing to me, I sent him
five pounds, saying perhaps I was mistaken in imagining him very hard up, but if
so, he wasn't to be offended.
It is strange to me even now, how I knew he was appealing to me. Because it
was all as vague as I say. Yet I felt it so strongly. He replied: "Your cheque
has saved my life. Since I last saw you I have fallen down an abyss. But I will
tell you when I see you. I shall be at the monastery in three days. Do come—and
come alone." I have forgotten to say that he was a rabid woman-hater.
This was just after Christmas. I thought his "saved my life" and "fallen down
an abyss" was just the American touch of "very, very——-." I wondered what on
earth the abyss could be, and I decided it must be that he had lost his money or
his hopes. It seemed to me that some of his old buoyant assurance came out again
in this letter. But he was now very friendly, urging me to come to the
monastery, and treating me with a curious little tenderness and protectiveness.
He had a queer delicacy of his own, varying with a bounce and a commonness.
He was a common little bounder. And then he had this curious delicacy and
tenderness and wistfulness.
I put off going north. I had another letter urging me—and it seemed to me
that, rather assuredly, he was expecting more money. Rather cockily, as if he
had a right to it. And that made me not want to give him any. Besides, as my
wife said, what right had I to give away the little money we had, and we there
stranded in the south of Italy with no resources if once we were spent up. And I
have always been determined never to come to my last shilling—if I have to
reduce my spending almost to nothingness. I have always been determined to keep
a few pounds between me and the world.
I did not send any money. But I wanted to go to the monastery, so wrote and
said I would come for two days. I always remember getting up in the black dark
of the January morning, and making a little coffee on the spirit-lamp, and
watching the clock, the big-faced, blue old clock on the campanile in the piazza
in Capri, to see I wasn't late. The electric light in the piazza, lit up the
face of the campanile. And we were then a stone's throw away, high in the
Palazzo Ferraro, opposite the bubbly roof of the little duomo. Strange dark
winter morning, with the open sea beyond the roofs, seen through the side
window, and the thin line of the lights of Naples twinkling far, far off.
At ten minutes to six I went down the smelly dark stone stairs of the old
palazzo, out into the street. A few people were already hastening up the street
to the terrace that looks over the sea to the bay of Naples. It was dark and
cold. We slid down in the funicular to the shore, then in little boats were
rowed out over the dark sea to the steamer that lay there showing her lights and
It was three long hours across the sea to Naples, with dawn coming slowly in
the east, beyond Ischia, and flushing into lovely colour as our steamer pottered
along the peninsula, calling at Massa and Sorrento and Piano. I always loved
hanging over the side and watching the people come out in boats from the little
places of the shore, that rose steep and beautiful. I love the movement of these
watery Neapolitan people, and the naive trustful way they clamber in and out the
boats, and their softness, and their dark eyes. But when the steamer leaves the
peninsula and begins to make away round Vesuvius to Naples, one is already
tired, and cold, cold, cold in the wind that comes piercing from the snowcrests
away there along Italy. Cold, and reduced to a kind of stony apathy by the time
we come to the mole in Naples, at ten o'clock —or twenty past ten.
We were rather late, and I missed the train. I had to wait till two o'clock.
And Naples is a hopeless town to spend three hours in. However, time passes. I
remember I was calculating in my mind whether they had given me the right change
at the ticket-window. They hadn't —and I hadn't counted in time. Thinking of
this, I got in the Rome train. I had been there ten minutes when I heard a
"Is this the Rome train?" I asked my fellow-traveller.
"No, it is the slow train."
"At ten past two."
I almost jumped through the window. I flew down the platform.
"The diretto!" I cried to a porter.
"Parte! Eccolo la!" he said, pointing to a big train moving inevitably away.
I flew with wild feet across the various railway lines and seized the end of
the train as it travelled. I had caught it. Perhaps if I had missed it fate
would have been different. So I sat still for about three hours. Then I had
There is a long drive up the hill from the station to the monastery. The
driver talked to me. It was evident he bore the monks no good will.
"Formerly," he said, "if you went up to the monastery you got a glass of wine
and a plate of macaroni. But now they kick you out of the door."
"Do they?" I said. "It is hard to believe."
"They kick you out of the gate," he vociferated.
We twisted up and up the wild hillside, past the old castle of the town, past
the last villa, between trees and rocks. We saw no one. The whole hill belongs
to the monastery. At last at twilight we turned the corner of the oak wood and
saw the monastery like a huge square fortress-palace of the sixteenth century
crowning the near distance. Yes, and there was Magnus just stepping through the
huge old gateway and hastening down the slope to where the carriage must stop.
He was bareheaded, and walking with his perky, busy little stride, seemed very
much at home in the place. He looked up to me with a tender, intimate look as I
got down from the carriage. Then he took my hand. "So very glad to see you," he
said. "I'm so pleased you've come." And he looked into my eyes with that
wistful, watchful tenderness rather like a woman who isn't quite sure of her
lover. He had a certain charm in his manner; and an odd pompous touch with it at
this moment, welcoming his guest at the gate of the vast monastery which reared
above us from its buttresses in the rock, was rather becoming. His face was
still pink, his eyes pale blue and sharp, but he looked greyer at the temples.
"Give me your bag," he said. "Yes do—and come along. Don Bernardo is just at
Evensong, but he'll be here in a little while. Well now, tell me all the news."
"Wait," I said. "Lend me five francs to finish paying the driver-he has no
"Certainly, certainly," he said, giving the five francs.
I had no news—so asked him his.
"Oh, I have none either," he said. "Very short of money, that of course is no
news." And he laughed his little laugh. "I'm so glad to be here," he continued.
"The peace, and the rhythm of the life is so beautiful! I'm sure you'll love
We went up the slope under the big, tunnel-like entrance and were in the
grassy courtyard, with the arched walk on the far sides, and one or two trees.
It was like a grassy cloister, but still busy. Black monks were standing
chatting, an old peasant was just driving two sheep from the cloister grass, and
an old monk was darting into the little post-office which one recognized by the
shield with the national arms over the doorway. From under the far arches came
an old peasant carrying a two-handed saw.
And there was Don Bernardo, a tall monk in a black, well-shaped gown, young,
good-looking, gentle, hastening forward with a quick smile. He was about my age,
and his manner seemed fresh and subdued, as if he were still a student. One felt
one was at college with one's college mates.
We went up the narrow stair and into the long, old, naked white corridor,
high and arched. Don Bernardo had got the key of my room: two keys, one for the
dark antechamber, one for the bedroom. A charming and elegant bedroom, with an
engraving of English landscape, and outside the net curtain a balcony looking
down on the garden, a narrow strip beneath the walls, and beyond, the clustered
buildings of the farm, and the oak woods and arable fields of the hill summit:
and beyond again, the gulf where the world's valley was, and all the mountains
that stand in Italy on the plains as if God had just put them down ready made.
The sun had already sunk, the snow on the mountains was full of a rosy glow, the
valleys were full of shadow. One heard, far below, the trains shunting, the
world clinking in the cold air.
"Isn't it wonderful! Aha the most wonderful place on earth!" said Magnus.
"What now could you wish better than to end your days here?
The peace, the beauty, the eternity of it." He paused and sighed. Then he put
his hand on Don Bernardo's arm and smiled at him with that odd, rather wistful
smirking tenderness that made him such a quaint creature in my eyes.
"But I'm going to enter the order. You're going to let me be a monk and be
one of you, aren't you, Don Bernardo?"
"We will see," smiled Don Bernardo. "When you have begun your studies."
"It will take me two years," said Magnus. "I shall have to go to the college
in Rome. When I have got the money for the fees——" He talked away, like a boy
planning a new role.
"But I'm sure Lawrence would like to drink a cup of tea," said Don Bernardo.
He spoke English as if it were his native language. "Shall I tell them to make
it in the kitchen, or shall we go to your room?"
"Oh, we'll go to my room. How thoughtless of me! Do forgive me, won't you?"
said Magnus, laying his hand gently on my arm. "I'm so awfully sorry, you know.
But we get so excited and enchanted when we talk of the monastery. But come
along, come along, it will be ready in a moment on the spirit-lamp."
We went down to the end of the high, white, naked corridor. Magnus had a
quite sumptuous room, with a curtained bed in one part, and under the window his
writing-desk with papers and photographs, and nearby a sofa and an easy table,
making a little sitting-room, while the bed and toilet things, pomades and
bottles were all in the distance, in the shadow. Night was fallen. From the
window one saw the world far below, like a pool the flat plain, a deep pool of
darkness with little twinkling lights, and rows and bunches of light that were
the railway station.
I drank my tea, Magnus drank a little liqueur, Don Bernardo in his black
winter robe sat and talked with us. At least he did very little talking. But he
listened and smiled and put in a word or two as we talked, seated round the
table on which stood the green-shaded electric lamp.
The monastery was cold as the tomb. Couched there on the top of its hill, it
is not much below the winter snow-line. Now by the end of January all the summer
heat is soaked out of the vast, ponderous stone walls, and they become masses of
coldness cloaking around. There is no heating apparatus whatsoever—none. Save
the fire in the kitchen, for cooking, nothing. Dead, silent, stone cold
At seven we went down to dinner. Capri in the daytime was hot, so I had
brought only a thin old dust-coat. Magnus therefore made me wear a big coat of
his own, a coat made of thick, smooth black cloth, and lined with black
sealskin, and having a collar of silky black sealskin. I can still remember the
feel of the silky fur. It was queer to have him helping me solicitously into
this coat, and buttoning it at the throat for me.
"Yes, it's a beautiful coat. Of course!" he said. "I hope you find it warm."
"Wonderful," said I. "I feel as warm as a millionaire."
"I'm so glad you do," he laughed.
"You don't mind my wearing your grand coat?" I said.
"Of course not! Of course not! It's a pleasure to me if it will keep you
warm. We don't want to die of cold in the monastery, do we? That's one of the
mortifications we will do our best to avoid. What? Don't you think? Yes, I think
this coldness is going almost too far. I had that coat made in New York fifteen
years ago. Of course in Italy ——" he said It'ly—"I've never worn it, so it is as
good as new. And it's a beautiful coat, fur and cloth of the very best. And the
tailor." He laughed a little, self-approving laugh. He liked to give the
impression that he dealt with the best shops, don't you know, and stayed in the
best hotels, etc. I grinned inside the coat, detesting best hotels, best shops,
and best overcoats. So off we went, he in his grey overcoat and I in my sealskin
millionaire monster, down the dim corridor to the guests' refectory. It was a
bare room with a long white table. Magnus and I sat at the near end. Further
down was another man, perhaps the father of one of the boy students. There is a
college attached to the monastery.
We sat in the icy room, muffled up in our overcoats. A lay-brother with a
bulging forehead and queer, fixed eyes waited on us. He might easily have come
from an old Italian picture. One of the adoring peasants. The food was
abundant—but alas, it had got cold in the long cold transit from the kitchen.
And it was roughly cooked, even if it was quite wholesome. Poor Magnus did not
eat much, but nervously nibbled his bread. I could tell the meals were a trial
to him. He could not bear the cold food in that icy, empty refectory. And his
phthisickiness offended the lay-brothers. I could see that his little
pomposities and his "superior" behaviour and his long stay made them have that
old monastic grudge against him, silent but very obstinate and effectual—the
same now as six hundred years ago. We had a decanter of good red wine-— but he
did not care for much wine. He was glad to be peeling the cold orange which was
After dinner he took me down to see the church, creeping like two thieves
down the dimness of the great, prison-cold white corridors, on the cold flag
floors. Stone cold: the monks must have invented the term. These monks were at
Compline. So we went by our two secret little selves into the tall dense
nearly-darkness of the church. Magnus, knowing his way about here as in the
cities, led me, poor wondering worldling, by the arm through the gulfs of the
tomb-like place. He found the electric light switches inside the church, and
stealthily made me a light as we went. We looked at the lily marble of the great
floor, at the pillars, at the Benvenuto Cellini casket, at the really lovely
pillars and slabs of different coloured marbles, all coloured marbles, yellow
and grey and rose and green and lily white, veined and mottled and splashed:
lovely, lovely stones—— And Benvenuto had used pieces of lapis lazuli, blue as
cornflowers. Yes, yes, all very rich and wonderful.
We tiptoed about the dark church stealthily, from altar to altar, and Magnus
whispered ecstasies in my ear. Each time we passed before an altar, whether the
high altar or the side chapels, he did a wonderful reverence, which he must have
practised for hours, bowing waxily down and sinking till his one knee touched
the pavement, then rising like a flower that rises and unfolds again, till he
had skipped to my side and was playing cicerone once more. Always in his grey
overcoat, and in whispers: me in the big black overcoat, millionairish. So we
crept into the chancel and examined all the queer fat babies of the choir
stalls, carved in wood and rolling on their little backs between monk's place
and monk's place—queer things for the chanting monks to have between them, these
shiny, polished, dark brown fat babies, all different, and all jolly and lusty.
We looked at everything in the church—and then at everything in the ancient room
at the side where surplices hang and monks can wash their hands.
Then we went down to the crypt, where the modern mosaics glow in wonderful
colours, and sometimes in fascinating little fantastic trees and birds. But it
was rather like a scene in the theatre, with Magnus for the wizard and myself a
sort of Parsifal in the New York coat. He switched on the lights, the gold
mosaic of the vaulting glittered and bowed, the blue mosaic glowed out, the holy
of holies gleamed theatrically, the stiff mosaic figures posed around us. To
tell the truth I was glad to get back to the normal human room and sit on a sofa
huddled in my overcoat, and look at photographs which Magnus showed me:
photographs of everywhere in Europe. Then he showed me a wonderful photograph of
a picture of a lovely lady—asked me what I thought of it, and seemed to expect
me to be struck to bits by the beauty. His almost sanctimonious expectation made
me tell the truth, that I thought it just a bit cheap, trivial, And then he
"That's my mother."
It looked so unlike anybody's mother, much less Magnus's, that I was
startled. I realized that she was his great stunt, and that I had put my foot in
it. So I just held my tongue. Then I said, for I felt he was going to be silent
"There are so few portraits, unless by the really great artists, that aren't
a bit cheap. She must have been a beautiful woman."
"Yes, she was," he said curtly. And we dropped the subject.
He locked all his drawers very carefully, and kept the keys on a chain. He
seemed to give the impression that he had a great many secrets, perhaps
dangerous ones, locked up in the drawers of his writing-table there. And I
always wonder what the secrets can be, that are able to be kept so tight under
lock and key.
Don Bernardo tapped and entered. We all sat round and sipped a funny liqueur
which I didn't like. Magnus lamented that the bottle was finished. I asked him
to order another and let me pay for it. So he said he would tell the postman to
bring it up next day from the town. Don Bernardo sipped his tiny glass with the
rest of us, and he told me, briefly, his story—and we talked politics till
nearly midnight. Then I came out of the black overcoat and we went to bed.
In the morning a fat, smiling, nice old lay-brother brought me my water. It
was a sunny day. I looked down on the farm cluster and the brown fields and the
sere oak woods of the hill-crown, and the rocks and bushes savagely bordering it
round. Beyond, the mountains with their snow were blue-glistery with sunshine,
and seemed quite near, but across a sort of gulf. All was still and sunny. And
the poignant grip of the past, the grandiose, violent past of the Middle Ages,
when blood was strong and unquenched and life was flamboyant with splendours and
horrible miseries, took hold of me till I could hardly bear it. It was really
agony to me to be in the monastery and to see the old farm and the bullocks
slowly working in the fields below, and the black pigs rooting among weeds, and
to see a monk sitting on a parapet in the sun, and an old, old man in skin
sandals and white bunched, swathed legs come driving an ass slowly to the
monastery gate, slowly, with all that lingering nonchalance and wildness of the
Middle Ages, and yet to know that I was myself, child of the present. It was so
strange from Magnus's window to look down on the plain and see the white road
going straight past a mountain that stood like a loaf of sugar, the river
meandering in loops, and the railway with glistening lines making a long black
swoop across the flat and into the hills. To see trains come steaming, with
white smoke flying. To see the station like a little harbour where trucks like
shipping stood anchored in rows in the black bay of railway. To see trains stop
in the station and tiny people swarming like flies! To see all this from the
monastery, where the Middle Ages live on in a sort of agony, like Tithonus, and
cannot die, this was almost a violation to my soul, made almost a wound.
Immediately after coffee we went down to Mass. It was celebrated in a small
crypt chapel underground, because that was warmer. The twenty or so monks sat in
their stalls, one monk officiating at the altar. It was quiet and simple, the
monks sang sweetly and well, there was no organ. It seemed soon to pass by.
Magnus and I sat near the door. He was very devoted and scrupulous in his going
up and down. I was an outsider. But it was pleasant—not too sacred. One felt the
monks were very human in their likes and their jealousies. It was rather like a
group of dons in the dons' room at Cambridge, a cluster of professors in any
college. But during Mass they, of course, just sang their responses. Only I
could tell some watched the officiating monk rather with ridicule—he was one of
the ultra-punctilious sort, just like a don. And some boomed their responses
with a grain of defiance against some brother monk who had earned dislike. It
was human, and more like a university than anything. We went to Mass every
morning, but I did not go to Evensong.
After Mass Magnus took me round and showed me everything of the vast
monastery. We went into the Bramante Courtyard, all stone, with its great well
in the centre, and the colonnades of arches going round, full of sunshine, gay
and Renaissance, a little bit ornate but still so jolly and gay, sunny pale
stone waiting for the lively people, with the great flight of pale steps
sweeping up to the doors of the church, waiting for gentlemen in scarlet
trunk-hose, slender red legs, and ladies in brocade gowns, and page-boys with
fluffed, golden hair. Splendid, sunny, gay Bramante Courtyard of lively stone.
But empty. Empty of life. The gay red-legged gentry dead forever. And when
pilgrimages do come and throng in, it is horrible artisan excursions from the
great town, and the sordidness of industrialism.
We climbed the little watchtower that is now an observatory, and saw the
vague and unshaven Don Giovanni among all his dust and instruments. Magnus was
very familiar and friendly, chattering in his quaint Italian, which was more
wrong than any Italian I have ever heard spoken; very familiar and friendly, and
a tiny bit deferential to the monks, and yet, and yet—rather patronizing. His
little pomposity and patronizing tone coloured even his deferential yearning to
be admitted to the monastery. The monks were rather brief with him.
They no doubt have their likes and dislikes greatly intensified by the
We stood on the summit of the tower and looked at the world below: the town,
the castle, the white roads coming straight as judgment out of the mountains
north, from Rome, and piercing into the mountains south, toward Naples,
traversing the flat, flat plain. Roads, railway, river, streams, a world in
accurate and lively detail, with mountains sticking up abruptly and rockily, as
the old painters painted it. I think there is no way of painting Italian
landscape except that way —that started with Lorenzetti and ended with the
We looked at the ancient cell away under the monastery, where all the
sanctity started. We looked at the big library that belongs to the State, and at
the smaller library that belongs still to the abbot. I was tired, cold, and sick
among the books and illuminations. I could not bear it any more. I felt I must
be outside, in the sun, and see the world below, and the way out.
That evening I said to Magnus:
"And what was the abyss, then?"
"Oh well, you know," he said, "it was a cheque which I made out at Anzio.
There should have been money to meet it, in my bank in New York. But it appears
the money had never been paid in by the people that owed it me. So there was I
in a very nasty hole, an unmet cheque, and no money at all in Italy. I really
had to escape here. It is an absolute secret that I am here, and it must be,
till I can get this business settled. Of course I've written to America about
it. But as you see, I'm in a very nasty hole. That five francs I gave you for
the driver was the last penny I had in the world: absolutely the last penny. I
haven't even anything to buy a cigarette or a stamp." And he laughed chirpily,
as if it were a joke. But he didn't really think it a joke. Nor was it a joke.
I had come with only two hundred lire in my pocket, as I was waiting to
change some money at the bank. Of this two hundred I had one hundred left or one
hundred and twenty-five. I should need a hundred to get home. I could only give
Magnus the twenty-five, for the bottle of drink. He was rather crestfallen. But
I didn't want to give him money this time: because he expected it.
However, we talked about his plans: how he was to earn something. He told me
what he had written. And I cast over in my mind where he might get something
published in London, wrote a couple of letters on his account, told him where I
thought he had best send his material. There wasn't a great deal of hope, for
his smaller journalistic articles seemed to me very self-conscious and poor. He
had one about the monastery, which I thought he might sell because of the
That evening he first showed me the Legion manuscript. He had got it rather
raggedly typed out. He had a typewriter, but felt he ought to have somebody to
do his typing for him, as he hated it and did it unwillingly. That evening and
when I went to bed and when I woke in the morning I read this manuscript. It did
not seem very good—vague and diffuse where it shouldn't have been—lacking in
sharp detail and definite event. And yet there was something in it that made me
want it done properly. So we talked about it, and discussed it carefully, and he
unwillingly promised to tackle it again. He was curious, always talking about
his work, even always working, but never properly doing anything.
We walked out in the afternoon through the woods and across the rocky bit of
moorland which covers most of the hill-top. We were going to the ruined convent
which lies on the other brow of the monastery hill, abandoned and sad among the
rocks and heath and thorny bushes. It was sunny and warm. A barefoot little boy
was tending a cow and three goats and a pony, a barefoot little girl had five
geese in charge. We came to the convent and looked in. The further part of the
courtyard was still entire, the place was a sort of farm, two rooms occupied by
a peasant-farmer. We climbed about the ruins. Some creature was crying—crying,
crying, crying with a strange, inhuman persistence, leaving off and crying
again. We listened and listened—the sharp, poignant crying. Almost it might have
been a sharp-voiced baby. We scrambled about, looking. And at last outside a
little cave-like place found a blind black puppy crawling miserably on the
floor, unable to walk, and crying incessantly. We put it back in the little
cave-like shed, and went away. The place was deserted save for the crying puppy.
On the road outside however was a man, a peasant, just drawing up to the
arched convent gateway with an ass under a load of brushwood. He was thin and
black and dirty. He took off his hat, and we told him of the puppy. He said the
bitch-mother had gone off with his son with the sheep. Yes, she had been gone
all day. Yes, she would be back at sunset. No, the puppy had not drunk all day.
Yes, the little beast cried, but the mother would come back to him.
They were the old-world peasants still about the monastery, with the hard,
small bony heads and deep-lined faces and utterly blank minds, crying their
speech as crows cry, and living their lives as lizards among the rocks, blindly
going on with the little job in hand, the present moment, cut off from all past
and future, and having no idea and no sustained emotion, only that eternal
will-to-live which makes a tortoise wake up once more in spring, and makes a
grasshopper whistle on in the moonlight nights even of November. Only these
peasants don't whistle much. The whistlers go to America. It is the hard,
static, unhoping souls that persist in the old life. And still they stand back,
as one passes them in the corridors of the great monastery, they press
themselves back against the whitewashed walls of the still place, and drop their
heads, as if some mystery were passing by, some God-; mystery, the higher
beings, which they must not look closely upon. So, also this old peasant—he was
not old, but deep-lined like a gnarled bough. He stood with his hat down in his
hands as we spoke to him and answered the short, hard, insentient answers, as a
tree might speak. "The monks keep their peasants humble," I said to Magnus. "Of
course!" he said. "Don't you think they are quite right? Don't you think they
should be humble?" And he bridled like a little turkey-cock on his hind legs.
"Well," I said, "if there's any occasion for humility, I do."
"Don't you think there is occasion?" he cried. "If there's one thing worse
than another, it's this equality that has come into the world. Do you believe in
"No," I said. "I don't believe in equality. But the problem is, wherein does
"Oh," chirped Magnus complacently. "It lies in many things. It lies in birth
and in upbringing and so on, but it is chiefly in mind. Don't you think? Of
course I don't mean that the physical qualities aren't charming. They are, and
nobody appreciates them more than I do. Some of the peasants are beautiful
creatures, perfectly beautiful. But that passes. And the mind endures."
I did not answer. Magnus was not a man one talked far with. But I thought to
myself, I could not accept Magnus's superiority to the peasant. If I had really
to live always under the same roof with either one of them, I would have chosen
the peasant. If I had had to choose, I would have chosen the peasant. Not
because the peasant was wonderful and stored with mystic qualities. No, I don't
give much for the wonderful mystic qualities in peasants. Money is their mystery
of mysteries, absolutely. No, if I chose the peasant it would be for what he
lacked rather than for what he had. He lacked that complacent mentality that
Magnus was so proud of, he lacked all the trivial trash of glib talk and more
glib thought, all the conceit of our shallow consciousness. For his mindlessness
I would have chosen the peasant: and for his strong blood-presence. Magnus
wearied me with his facility and his readiness to rush into speech, and for the
exhaustive nature of his presence. As if he had no strong blood in him to
sustain him, only this modern parasitic lymph which cries for sympathy all the
"Don't you think yourself that you are superior to that peasant?' he asked
me, rather ironically. He half expected me to say no.
"Yes, I do," I replied. "But I think most middle-class, most so-called
educated people are inferior to the peasant. I do that."
"Of course," said Magnus readily. "In their hypocrisy——" He was great against
hypocrisy—especially the English sort.
"And if I think myself superior to the peasant, it is only that I feel myself
like the growing tip, or one of the growing tips of the tree, and him like a
piece of the hard, fixed tissue of the branch or trunk. We're part of the same
tree: and it's the same sap," said I.
"Why, exactly! Exactly!" cried Magnus. "Of course! The Church would teach the
same doctrine. We are all one in Christ—but between our souls and our duties
there are great differences."
It is terrible to be agreed with, especially by a man like Magnus. All that
one says, and means, turns to nothing.
"Yes," I persisted. "But it seems to me the so-called culture, education, the
so-called leaders and leading-classes today, are only parasites —like a great
flourishing bush of parasitic consciousness flourishing on top of the tree of
life, and sapping it. The consciousness of today doesn't rise from the roots. It
is just parasitic in the veins of life. And the middle and upper classes are
just parasitic upon the body of life which still remains in the lower classes."
"What!" said Magnus acidly. "Do you believe in the democratic lower classes?"
"Not a bit," said I.
"I should think not, indeed!" he cried complacently.
"No, I don't believe the lower classes can ever make life whole again, till
they do become humble, like the old peasants, and yield themselves to real
leaders. But not to great negators like Lloyd George or Lenin or Briand."
"Of course! of course!" he cried. "What you need is the Church in power
again. The Church has a place for everybody."
"You don't think the Church belongs to the past?" I asked.
"Indeed I don't, or I shouldn't be here. No," he said sententiously, 'the
Church is eternal. It puts people in their proper place. It puts women down into
their proper place, which is the first thing to be done-——"
He had a great dislike of women, and was very acid about them. Not because of
their sins, but because of their virtues: their economies, their philanthropies,
their spiritualities. Oh, how he loathed women. He had been married, but the
marriage had not been a success. He smarted still. Perhaps his wife had despised
him, and he had not quite been able to defeat her contempt.
So, he loathed women, and wished for a world of men. "They talk about love
between men and women," he said. "Why it's all a fraud. The woman is just taking
all and giving nothing, and feeling sanctified about it. All she tries to do is
to thwart a man in whatever he is doing. No, I have found my life in my
friendships. Physical relationships are very attractive, of course, and one
tries to keep them as decent and all that as one can. But one knows they will
pass and be finished. But one's mental friendships last for ever."
"With me, on the contrary," said I. "If there is no profound blood-sympathy,
I know the mental friendship is trash. If there is real, deep blood response, I
will stick to that if I have to betray all the mental sympathies I ever made, or
all the lasting spiritual loves I ever felt."
He looked at me, and his face seemed to fall. Round the eyes he was yellow
and tired and nervous. He watched me for some time.
"Oh!" he said, in a queer tone, rather cold. "Well, my experience has been
We were silent for some time.
"And you," I said, "even if you do manage to do all your studies and enter
the monastery, do you think you will be satisfied?"
"If I can be so fortunate, I do really," he said. "Do you doubt it?"
"Yes," I said. "Your nature is worldly, more worldly than mine. Yet I should
die if I had to stay up here."
"Why?" he asked, curiously.
"Oh, I don't know. The past, the past. The beautiful, the wonderful past, it
seems to prey on my heart, I can't bear it."
He watched me closely.
"Really!" he said stoutly. "Do you feel like that? But don't you think it is
a far preferable life up here than down there? Don't you think the past is far
preferable to the future, with all this socialismo and these communisti and so
We were seated, in the sunny afternoon, on the wild hill-top high-above the
world. Across the stretch of pale, dry, standing thistles that, peopled the
waste ground, and beyond the rocks was the ruined convent. Rocks rose behind us,
the summit. Away on the left were the woods which hid us from the great
monastery. This was the mountain top, the last foothold of the old world. Below
we could see the plain, the straight white road, straight as a thought, and the
more flexible black railway with the railway station. There swarmed the
ferrovieri like ants. There was democracy, industrialism, socialism, the red
flag of the communists and the red, white and green tricolor of the fascisti.
That was another world. And how bitter, how barren a world! Barren like the
black cinder-track of the railway, with its two steel lines.
And here above, sitting with the little stretch of pale, dry thistle around
us, our back to a warm rock, we were in the Middle Ages. Both worlds were agony
to me. But here, on the mountain top was worst the past, the poignancy of the
"I think one's got to go through with the life down there—get somewhere
beyond it. One can't go back," I said to him.
"But do you call the monastery going back?" he said. "I don't The peace, the
eternity, the concern with things that matter. I consider it the happiest fate
that could happen to me. Of course it means putting physical things aside. But
when you've done that—why, it seem to me perfect."
"No," I said. "You're too worldly."
"But the monastery is worldly too. We're not Trappists. Why this monastery is
one of the centres of the world—one of the most active centres."
"Maybe. But that impersonal activity, with the blood suppressed and going
sour—no, it's too late. It is too abstract—political maybe——"
"I'm sorry you think so," he said, rising. "I don't."
"Well," I said. "You'll never be a monk here, Magnus. You see if you are."
"You don't think I shall?" he replied, turning to me. And there was a catch
of relief in his voice. Really, the monastic state must have been like going to
prison for him.
"You haven't a vocation," I said.
"I may not seem to have, but I hope I actually have."
"Of course, if you're so sure," he laughed, putting his hand on my arm.
He seemed to understand so much, round about the questions that trouble one
deepest. But the quick of the question he never felt. He had no real middle, no
real centre bit to him. Yet, round and round about all the questions, he was so
intelligent and sensitive.
We went slowly back. The peaks of those Italian mountains in the sunset, the
extinguishing twinkle of the plain away below, as the sun declined and grew
yellow; the intensely powerful mediaeval spirit lingering on this wild hill
summit, all the wonder of the mediaeval past; and then the huge mossy stones in
the wintry wood, that was once a sacred grove; the ancient path through the
wood, that led from temple to temple on the hill summit, before Christ was born;
and then the great Cyclopean wall one passes at the bend of the road, built even
before the pagan temples; all this overcame me so powerfully this afternoon,
that I was almost speechless. That hill-top must have been one of man's intense
sacred places for three thousand years. And men die generation after generation,
races die, but the new cult finds root in the old sacred place, and the quick
spot of earth dies very slowly. Yet at last it too dies. But this quick spot is
still not quite dead. The great monastery couchant there, half empty, but also
not quite dead. And Magnus and I walking across as the sun set yellow and the
cold of the snow came into the air, back home to the monastery! And I feeling as
if my heart had once more broken: I don't know why. And he feeling his fear of
life, that haunted him, and his fear of his own self and its consequences, that
never left him for long. And he seemed to walk close to me, very close. And we
had neither of us anything more to say.
Don Bernardo was looking for us as we came up under the archway, he hatless
in the cold evening, his black dress swinging voluminous. There were letters for
Magnus. There was a small cheque for him from America—about fifty dollars—from
some newspaper in the Middle West that had printed one of his articles. He had
to talk with Don Bernardo about this.
I decided to go back the next day. I could not stay any longer. Magnus was
very disappointed, and begged me to remain. "I thought you would stay a week at
least," he said. "Do stay over Sunday. Oh do!" But I couldn't, I didn't want to.
I could see that his days were a torture to him—the long, cold days in that vast
quiet building, with the strange and exhausting silence in the air, and the
sense of the past preying on one, and the sense of the silent, suppressed
scheming struggle of life going on still in the sacred place.
It was a cloudy morning. In the green courtyard the big Don Anselmo had just
caught the little Don Lorenzo round the waist and was swinging him over a bush,
like .lads before school. The Prior was just hurrying somewhere, following his
long fine nose. He bade me good-bye; pleasant, warm, jolly, with a touch of
wistfulness in his deafness. I parted with real regret from Don Bernardo.
Magnus was coming with me down the hill—not down the carriage road, but down
the wide old paved path that swoops so wonderfully from the top of the hill to
the bottom. It feels thousands of years old. Magnus was quiet and friendly. We
met Don Vincenzo, he who has the care of the land and crops, coming slowly,
slowly uphill in his black cassock, treading slowly with his great thick boots.
He was reading little book. He saluted us as we passed. Lower down a strapping
girl was watching three merino sheep among the bushes. One sheep came on its
exquisite slender legs to smell of me, with that insatiable curiosity of a
pecora. Her nose was silken and elegant as she reached it to sniff at me, and
the yearning, wondering, inquisitive look in her eye made me realize that the
Lamb of God must have been such a sheep as this.
Magnus was miserable at my going. Not so much at my going, as at being left
alone up there. We came to the foot of the hill, on to the town highroad. So we
went into a little cave of a wine-kitchen to drink a glass of wine. Magnus
chatted a little with the young woman. He chatted with everybody. She eyed us
closely—and asked if we were from the monastery. We said we were. She seemed to
have a little lurking antagonism round her nose, at the mention of the monastery
Magnus paid for the wine—a franc. So we went out on the highroad, to part.
"Look," I said. "I can only give you twenty lire, because I shall need the
rest for the journey——"
But he wouldn't take them. He looked at me wistfully. Then I went on down to
the station, he turned away uphill. It was market in the town, and there were
clusters of bullocks, and women cooking a little meal at a brazier under the
trees, and goods spread out on the floor to sell, and sacks of beans and corn
standing open, clustered round the trunks of the mulberry trees, and wagons with
their shafts on the ground. The old peasants in their brown homespun frieze and
skin sandals were watching for the world. And there again was the Middle Ages.
It began to rain, however. Suddenly it began to pour with rain, and my coat
was wet through, and my trouser-legs. The train from Rome was late—I hoped not
very late, or I should miss the boat. She came at last: and was full. I had to
stand in the corridor. Then the man came to say dinner was served, so I luckily
got a place and had my meal too. Sitting there in the dining-car, among the fat
Neapolitans eating their macaroni, with the big glass windows steamed opaque and
the rain beating outside, I let myself be carried away, away from the monastery,
away from Magnus, away from everything.
At Naples there was a bit of sunshine again, and I had time to go on foot to
the Immacolatella, where the little steamer lay. There on the steamer I sat in a
bit of sunshine, and felt that again the world had come to an end for me, and
again my heart was broken. The steamer seemed to be making its way away from the
old world, that had come to another end in me.
It was after this I decided to go to Sicily. In February, only a few days
after my return from the monastery, I was on the steamer for Palermo, and at
dawn looking out on the wonderful coast of Sicily. Sicily, tall, forever rising
up to her gem-like summits, all golden in dawn, and always glamorous, always
hovering as if inaccessible, and yet so near, so distinct. Sicily unknown to me,
and amethystine-glamorous in the Mediterranean dawn: like the dawn of our day,
the wonder-morning of our epoch.
I had various letters from Magnus. He had told me to go to Girgenti. But I
arrived in Girgenti when there was a strike of sulphur-miners, and they threw
stones. So I did not want to live in Girgenti. Magnus hated Taormina—he had been
everywhere, tried everywhere, and was not, I found, in any good odour in most
places. He wrote however saying he hoped I would like it. And later he sent the
Legion manuscript. I thought it was good, and told him so. It was offered to
publishers in London, but rejected.
In early April I went with my wife to Syracuse for a few days: lovely, lovely
days, with the purple anemones blowing in the Sicilian fields, and Adonis-blood
red on the little ledges, and the corn rising strong and green in the magical,
malarial places, and Etna flowing now to the northward, still with her crown of
snow. The lovely, lovely journey from Catania to Syracuse, in spring, winding
round the blueness of that sea, where the tall pink asphodel was dying, and the
yellow asphodel like a lily showing her silk. Lovely, lovely Sicily, the
dawn-place, Europe's dawn, with Odysseus pushing his ship out of the shadows
into the blue. Whatever had died for me, Sicily had then not died: dawn-lovely
Sicily, and the Ionian sea.
We came back, and the world was lovely: our own house above the almond trees,
and the sea in the cove below. Calabria glimmering like a changing opal away to
the left, across the blue, bright straits and all the great blueness of the
lovely dawn-sea in front, where the sun rose with a splendour like trumpets
every morning, and me rejoicing like a madness in this dawn, day-dawn,
life-dawn, the dawn which is Greece, which is me.
Well, into this lyricism suddenly crept the serpent. It was a lovely morning,
still early. I heard a noise on the stairs from the lower terrace, and went to
look. M- on the stairs, looking up at me with a frightened face.
"Why!" I said. "Is it you?"
"Yes," he replied. "A terrible thing has happened."
He waited on the stairs, and I went down. Rather unwillingly, because I
detest terrible things, and the people to whom they happen. So we leaned on the
creeper-covered rail of the terrace, under festoons of creamy bignonia flowers,
and looked at the pale blue, ethereal sea.
"When did you get back?" said he.
"Oh! I came before. The contadini said they thought you would come yesterday
evening. I've been here several days."
"Where are you staying?"
"At the San Domenico."
The San Domenico being then the most expensive hotel here, I thought he must
have money. But I knew he wanted something of me.
"And are you staying some time?"
He paused a moment, and looked round cautiously.
"Is your wife there?" he asked, sotto voce.
"Yes, she's upstairs."
"Is there anyone who can hear?"
"No—only old Grazia down below, and she can't understand anyhow."
"Well," he said, stammering. "Let me tell you what's happened. I had to
escape from the monastery. Don Bernardo had a telephone message from the town
below, that the carabinieri were looking for an Americano—my name—— Of course
you can guess how I felt, up there! Awful! Well———! I had to fly at a moment's
notice. I just put two shirts in a handbag and went. I slipped down a path—or
rather, it isn't a path—down the back of the hill. Ten minutes after Don
Bernardo had the message I was running down the hill."
"But what did they want you for?" I asked dismayed.
"Well," he faltered. "I told you about the cheque at Anzio, didn't I? Well it
seems the hotel people applied to the police. Anyhow," he added hastily, "I
couldn't let myself be arrested up there, could I? So awful for the monastery!"
"Did they know then that you were in trouble?" I asked.
"Don Bernardo knew I had no money," he said. "Of course he had to know.
Yes—he knew I was in difficulty. But, of course, he didn't
know—well—everything." He laughed a little, comical laugh over the everything,
as if he was just a little bit naughtily proud of it: most ruefully also.
"No," he continued, "that's what I'm most afraid of—that they'll find out
everything at the monastery. Of course it's dreadful—the Americano, been staying
there for months, and everything so nice and —, well you know how they are, they
imagine every American is a millionaire, if not a multi-millionaire. And
suddenly to be wanted by the police! Of course it's dreadful! Anything rather
than a scandal at the monastery—anything. Oh, how awful it was! I can tell you,
in that quarter of an hour, I sweated blood. Don Bernardo lent me two hundred
lire of the monastery money—which he'd no business to do. And I escaped down the
back of the hill, I walked to the next station up the line, and took the next
train—the slow train—a few stations up towards Rome. And there I changed and
caught the diretto for Sicily. I came straight to you——— Of course I was in
agony: imagine it! I spent most of the time as far as Naples in the lavatory."
He laughed his little jerky laugh.
"What class did you travel?"
"Second. All through the night. I arrived more dead than alive, not having
had a meal for two days—only some sandwich stuff I bought on the platform."
"When did you come then?"
"I arrived on Saturday evening. I came out here on Sunday morning, and they
told me you were away. Of course, imagine what it's like! I'm in torture every
minute, in torture, of course. Why just imagine!" And he laughed his little
"But how much money have you got?"
"Oh—I've just got twenty-five francs and five soldi." He laughed as if it was
rather a naughty joke.
"But," I said, "if you've got no money, why do you go to the San Domenico?
How much do you pay there?"
" Fifty lire a day. Of course it's ruinous——"
"But at the Bristol you only pay twenty-five—and at Fichera's only twenty."
"Yes, I know you do," he said. "But I stayed at the Bristol once, and I
loathed the place. Such an offensive manager. And I couldn't touch the food at
"But who's going to pay for the San Domenico, then?" I asked.
"Well, I thought," he said, "you know all those manuscripts of mine? Well,
you think they're some good, don't you? Well, I thought if I made them over to
you, and you did what you could with them and just kept me going till I can get
a new start—or till I can get away——"
I looked across the sea: the lovely morning-blue sea towards Greece.
"Where do you want to get away to?" I said.
"To Egypt. I know a man in Alexandria who owns newspapers there. I'm sure if
I could get over there he'd give me an editorship or something. And of course
money will come. I've written to ——, who was my greatest friend, in London. He
will send me something——"
"And what else do you expect?"
"Oh, my article on the monastery was accepted by Land and Water —thanks to
you and your kindness, of course. I thought if I might stay very quietly with
you, for a time, and write some things I'm wanting to do, and collect a little
money—and then get away to Egypt——"
He looked up into my face, as if he were trying all he could on me. First
thing I knew was that I could not have him in the house with me: and even if I
could have done it, my wife never could.
"You've got a lovely place here, perfectly beautiful," he said. "Of course,
if it had to be Taormina, you've chosen far the best place here. I like this
side so much better than the Etna side. Etna always there and people raving
about it gets on my nerves. And a charming house, charming."
He looked round the loggia and along the other terrace.
"Is it all yours?" he said.
"We don't use the ground floor. Come in here."
So we went into the salotta.
"Oh, what a beautiful room," he cried. "But perfectly palatial. Charming!
Charming! Much the nicest house in Taormina."
"No," I said, "as a house it isn't very grand, though I like it for myself.
It's just what I want. And I love the situation. But I'll go and tell my wife
you are here."
"Will you?" he said, bridling nervously. "Of course I've never met your
wife." And he laughed the nervous, naughty, jokey little laugh.
I left him, and ran upstairs to the kitchen. There was my wife, with wide
eyes. She had been listening to catch the conversation. But Magnus's voice was
"Magnus!" said I softly. "The carabinieri wanted to arrest him at the
monastery, so he has escaped here,, and wants me to be responsible for him."
"Arrest him what for ? "
"Debts, I suppose. Will you come down and speak to him?"
Magnus of course was very charming with my wife. He kissed her hand humbly,
in the correct German fashion, and spoke with an air of reverence that
infallibly gets a woman.
"Such a beautiful place you have here," he said, glancing through the open
doors of the room, at the sea beyond. "So clever of you to find it."
"Lawrence found it," said she. "Well, and you are in all kinds of
"Yes, isn't it terrible!" he said, laughing as if it were a joke—rather a wry
joke. " I felt dreadful at the monastery. So dreadful for them, if there was any
sort of scandal. And after I'd been so well received there —and so much the
Signer Americano——— Dreadful, don't you think?" He laughed again, like a naughty
We had an engagement to lunch that morning. My wife was dressed, so I went to
get ready. Then we told Magnus we must go out, and he accompanied us to the
village. I gave him just the hundred francs I had in my pocket, and he said
could he come and see me that evening? I asked him to come next morning.
"You're so awfully kind," he said, simpering a little.
But by this time I wasn't feeling kind.
"He's quite nice," said my wife. "But he's rather an impossible little
person. And you'll see, he'll be a nuisance. Whatever do you pick up such
dreadful people for?"
"Nay," I said. "You can't accuse me of picking up dreadful people. He's the
first. And even he isn't dreadful."
The next morning came a letter from Don Bernardo addressed to me, but only
enclosing a letter to Magnus. So he was using my address. At ten o'clock he
punctually appeared: slipping in as if to avoid notice. My wife would not see
him, so I took him out on the terrace again.
"Isn't it beautiful here!" he said. "Oh, so beautiful! If only I had peace of
mind. Of course I sweat blood every time anybody comes through the door. You are
splendidly private out here."
"Yes," I said. "But Magnus, there isn't a room for you in the house. There
isn't a spare room anyway. You'd better think of getting some thing cheaper in
"But what can I get?" he snapped.
That rather took my breath away. Myself, I had never been near San Domenico
hotel. I knew I simply could not afford it.
"What made you go to the San Domenico in the first place?" I said " The most
expensive hotel in the place!"
"Oh, I'd stayed there for two months, and they knew me, and knew they'd ask
no questions. I knew they wouldn't ask for a deposit or anything."
"But nobody dreams of asking for a deposit," I said.
"Anyhow I shan't take my meals there. I shall just take coffee in the
morning. I've had to eat there so far, because I was starved to death and had no
money to go out. But I had two meals in that little restaurant yesterday;
disgusting food." "And how much did that cost?"
"Oh fourteen francs and fifteen francs, with a quarter of wine—and such a
Now I was annoyed, knowing that I myself should have bought bread and cheese
for one franc, and eaten it in my room. But also I realized that the modern
creed says, if you sponge, sponge thoroughly: and also that every man has a
"right to live," and that if he can manage to live well, no matter at whose
expense, all credit to him. This is the kind of talk one accepts in one's
slipshod moments; now it was actually tried on me, I didn't like it at all.
"But who's going to pay your bill at the San Domenico?" I said.
"I thought you'd advance me the money on those manuscripts." "It's no good
talking about the money on the manuscripts," I said. "I should have to give it
to you. And as a matter of fact, I've got just sixty pounds in the bank in
England, and about fifteen hundred lire here. My wife and I have got to live on
that. We don't spend as much in a week as you spend in three days at the San
Domenico. It's no good your thinking I can advance money on the manuscripts. I
can't. If I was rich, I'd give you money. But I've got no money, and never have
had any. Have you nobody you can go to?"
"I'm waiting to hear from ——. When I go back into the village, I'll telegraph
to him," replied Magnus, a little crestfallen. "Of course I'm in torture night
and day, or I wouldn't appeal to you like this. I know it's unpleasant for
you——" and he put his hand on my arm and looked up beseechingly. "But what am I
"You must get out of the San Domenico," I said. "That's the first thing."
'Yes," he said, a little piqued now. "I know it is. I'm going to ask
Pancrazio Melenga to let me have a room in his house. He knows me quite
well—he's an awfully nice fellow. He'll do anything for me— anything. I was just
going there yesterday afternoon when you were coming from Timeo. He was out,, so
I left word with his wife, who is a charming little person. If he has a room to
spare, I know he will let me nave it. And he's a splendid cook—splendid. By far
the nicest food in Taormina,"
"Well," I said. "If you settle with Melenga, I will pay your bill at the San
Domenico, but I can't do any more. I simply can't."
"But what am I to do?" he snapped.
"I don't know," I said. "You must think."
"I came here," he said, "thinking you would help me. What am I to do, if you
won't? I shouldn't have come to Taormina at all, save for you. Don't be unkind
to me—don't speak so coldly to me——" He put his hand on my arm, and looked up at
me with tears swimming in his eyes. Then he turned aside his face, overcome with
tears. I looked away at the Ionian sea, feeling my blood turn to ice and the sea
go black. I loathe scenes such as this.
"Did you telegraph to ——?" I said.
"Yes. I have no answer yet. I hope you don't mind—I gave your address for a
"Oh," I said. "There's a letter for you from Don Bernardo."
He went pale. I was angry at his having used my address in this manner.
"Nothing further has happened at the monastery," he said. "They rang up from
the Questura, from the police station, and Don Bernardo answered that the
Americano had left for Rome. Of course I did take the train for Rome. And Don
Bernardo wanted me to go to Rome. He advised me to do so. I didn't tell him I
was here till I had got here. He thought I should have had more resources in
Rome, and of course I should. I should certainly have gone there, if it hadn't
been for you here———"
Well, I was getting tired and angry. I would not give him any more money at
the moment. I promised, if he would leave the hotel I would pay his bill, but he
must leave it at once. He went off to settle with Melenga. He asked again if he
could come in the afternoon: I said I was going out.
He came nevertheless while I was out. This time my wife found him on the
stairs. She was for hating him, of course. So she stood immovable on the top
stair, and he stood two stairs lower, and he kissed her hand in utter humility.
And he pleaded with her, and as he looked up to her on the stairs the tears ran
down his face and he trembled with distress. And her spine crept up and down
with distaste and discomfort. But he broke into a few phrases of touching
German, and I know he broke down her reserve and she promised him all he wanted.
This part she would never confess, though. Only she was shivering with revulsion
and excitement and even a sense of power, when I came home.
That was why Magnus appeared more impertinent than ever, next morning. He had
arranged to go to Melenga's house the following day and to pay ten francs a day
for his room, his meals extra. So that was something. He made a long tale about
not eating any of his meals in the hotel now, but pretending he was invited out,
and eating in the little restaurants where the food was so bad. And he had now
only fifteen lire left in his pocket. But I was cold, and wouldn't give him any
more. said I would give him money next day, for his bill.
He had now another request, and a new tone.
"Won't you do one more thing for me?" he said. "Oh do! Do do this one thing
for me. I want you to go to the monastery and bring away my important papers and
some clothes and my important trinkets. I have made a list of the things
here—and where you'll find then in my writing-table and in the chest of drawers.
I don't think you'll have any trouble. Don Bernardo has the keys. He will open
everything for you. And I beg you, in the name of God, don't let anybody else
see the things. Not even Don Bernardo. Don't, whatever you do, let him see the
papers and manuscripts you are bringing. If he sees them, there's an end to me
at the monastery. I can never go back there. I am ruined ii their eyes for ever.
As it is—although Don Bernardo is the best person in the world and my dearest
friend, still—you know what people are— especially monks. A little curious,
don't you know, a little inquisitive Well, let us hope for the best as far as
that goes. But you will do this for me, won't you? I shall be so eternally
Now a journey to the monastery meant a terrible twenty hours in the train
each way—all that awful journey through Calabria to Naples and northwards. It
meant mixing myself up in this man's affairs. I meant appearing as his
accomplice at the monastery. It meant travelling with all his "compromising"
papers and his valuables. And all this time, I never knew what mischiefs he had
really been up to, and I didn't trust him, not for one single second. He would
tell me nothing save that Anzio hotel cheque. I knew that wasn't all, by any
means. So I mistrusted him. And with a feeling of utter mistrust goes a feeling
of contempt and dislike——And finally, it would have cost me at least ten pounds
sterling, which I simply did not want to spend in waste.
"I don't want to do that," I said.
"Why not?" he asked, sharp, looking green. He had planned it all out.
"No, I don't want to."
"Oh, but I can't remain here as I am. I've got no clothes—I've got nothing to
wear. I must have my things from the monastery. What can I do? What can I do? I
came to you, if it hadn't been for you I should have gone to Rome. I came to
you—Oh yes, you will go. You will go, won't you? You will go to the monastery
for my things?" And again he put his hand on my arm, and the tears began to fall
from his upturned eyes. I turned my head aside. Never had the Ionian sea looked
so sickening to me.
"I don't want to" said I.
"But you will! You will! You will go to the monastery for me, won't you?
Everything else is no good if you won't. I've nothing to wear. I haven't got my
manuscripts to work on, I can't do the things I am doing. Here I live in a sweat
of anxiety. I try to work, and I can't settle. I can't do anything. It's
dreadful. I shan't have a minute's peace till I have got those things from the
monastery, till I know they can't get at my private papers. You will do this for
me! You will, won't you? Please do! Oh please do!" And again tears.
And I with my bowels full of bitterness, loathing the thought of that journey
there and back, on such an errand. Yet not quite sure that I ought to refuse.
And he pleaded and struggled, and tried to bully me with tears and entreaty and
reproach, to do his will. And I couldn't quite refuse. But neither could I
At last I said :
"I don't want to go, and I tell you. I won't promise to go. And I won't say
that I will not go. I won't say until tomorrow. Tomorrow I will tell you. Don't
come to the house. I will be in the Corso at ten o'clock."
"I didn't doubt for a minute you would do this for me," he said. "Otherwise I
should never have come to Taormina." As if he had done me an honour in coming to
Taormina; and as if I had betrayed him.
"Well," I said. "If you make these messes you'll have to get out of them
yourself. I don't know why you are in such a mess."
"Any man may make a mistake," he said sharply, as if correcting me.
"Yes, a mistake" said I. "If it's a question of a mistake."
So once more he went, humbly, beseechingly, and yet, one could not help but
feel, with all that terrible insolence of the humble. It is the humble, the
wistful, the would-be-loving souls today who bully us with their
charity-demanding insolence. They just make up their minds, these needful
sympathetic souls, that one is there to do their will-Very good.
I decided in the day I would not go. Without reasoning it out, I knew I
really didn't want to go. I plainly didn't want it. So I wouldn't.
The morning came again hot and lovely. I set off to the village. But there
was Magnus watching for me on the path beyond the valley. He came forward and
took my hand warmly, clingingly. I turned back to remain in the country. We
talked for a minute of his leaving the hotel—he was going that afternoon, he had
asked for his bill. But he was waiting for the other answer.
"And I have decided," I said, "I won't go to the monastery."
"You won't." He looked at me. I saw how yellow he was round the eyes, and
yellow under his reddish skin.
"No," I said.
And it was final. He knew it. We went some way in silence. I turned in at the
garden gate. It was a lovely, lovely morning of hot sun. Butterflies were
flapping over the rosemary hedges and over a few little red poppies, the young
vines smelt sweet in flower, very sweet, the corn was tall and green, and there
were still some wild, rose-red gladiolus flowers among the watery green of the
wheat. Magnus had accepted my refusal. I expected him to be angry. But no, he
seemed quieter, wistfuller, and he seemed almost to love me for having refused
him. I stood at a bend in the path. The sea was heavenly blue, rising up beyond
the vines and olive leaves, lustrous pale lacquer blue as only the Ionian sea
can be. Away at the brook below the women were washing and one could hear the
chock-chock-chock of linen beaten against the stones. I felt Magnus then an
intolerable weight and like a clot of dirt over everything.
"May I come in?" he said to me.
"No," I said. "Don't come to the house. My wife doesn't want it."
Even that he accepted without any offence, and seemed only to like me better
for it. That was a puzzle to me. I told him I would leave a letter and a cheque
for him at the bank in the Corso that afternoon.
I did so, writing a cheque for a few pounds, enough to cover his bill and
leave a hundred lire or so over, and a letter to say I could not do any more,
and I didn't want to see him any more.
So, there was an end of it for a moment. Yet I felt him looming in the
village, waiting. I had rashly said I would go to tea with him to the villa of
one of the Englishmen resident here, whose acquaintance I had not made. Alas,
Magnus kept me to the promise. As I came home he appealed to me again. He was
rather insolent. What good to him, he said, were the few pounds I had given him?
He had got a hundred and fifty lire left. What good was that? I realized it
really was not a solution, and said nothing. Then he spoke of his plans for
getting to Egypt.
The fare, he had found out, was thirty-five pounds. And where were
thirty-five pounds coming from? Not from me.
I spent a week avoiding him, wondering what on earth the poor devil was
doing, and yet determined he should not be a parasite on me. If I could have
given him fifty pounds and sent him to Egypt to be a parasite on somebody else,
I would have done so. Which is what we call charity. However, I couldn't.
My wife chafed, crying: "What have you done! We shall have him on our hands
all our life. We can't let him starve. It is degrading, degrading, to have him
hanging on to us."
"Yes," I said. "He must starve or work or something. I am not God who is
responsible for him."
Magnus was determined not to lose his status as a gentleman. In a way I
sympathized with him. He would never be out at elbows. That is your modern
rogue. He will not degenerate outwardly. Certain standards of a gentleman he
would keep up: he would be well-dressed, he would be lavish with borrowed money,
he would be as far as possible honourable in his small transactions of daily
life. Well, very good. I sympathized with him to a certain degree. If he could
find his own way out, well and good. Myself, I was not his way out.
Ten days passed. It was hot and I was going about the terrace in pyjamas and
a big old straw hat, when suddenly, a Sicilian, handsome, in the prime of life,
and in his best black suit, smiling at me and taking off his hat!
And could he speak to me. I threw away my straw hat, and we went into the
salotta. He handed me a note.
"II Signor Magnus mi ha dato questa lettera per Lei!" he began, and I knew
what was coming. Melenga had been a waiter in good hotels, had saved money,
built himself a fine house which he let to foreigners. He was a pleasant fellow,
and at his best now, because he was in a rage. I must repeat Magnus‘s letter
from memory—"Dear Lawrence, would you do me another kindness. Land and Water
sent a cheque for seven guineas for the article on the monastery, and Don
Bernardo forwarded this to me under Melenga's name. But unfortunately he made a
mistake, and put Orazio instead of Pancrazio, so the post office would not
deliver the letter, and have returned it to the monastery. This morning Melenga
insulted me, and I cannot stay in his house another minute. Will you be so kind
as to advance me these seven guineas, and I shall leave Taormina at once, for
I asked Melenga what had happened, and read him the letter. He handsome in
his rage, lifting his brows and suddenly smiling:
"Ma senta, Signore! Signer Magnus has been in my house for ten days, and
lived well, and eaten well, and drunk well, and I have not seen a single penny
of his money. I go out in the morning and buy all the things, all he wants, and
my wife cooks it, and he is very pleased very pleased, has never eaten such good
food in his life, and everything is splendid, splendid. And he never pays a
penny. Not a penny. Says he is waiting for money from England, from America,
from India. But the money never comes. And I am a poor man, Signore, I have a
wife and child to keep. I have already spent three hundred lire for this Signor
Magnus, and I never see a penny of it back. And he says the money is coming, it
is coming—— But when ? He never says he has got no money. He says he is
expecting. Tomorrow—always tomorrow. It will come tonight, it will come
tomorrow. This makes me in a rage. Till at last this morning I said to him I
would bring nothing in, and he shouldn't have not so much as a drop of coffee in
my house until he paid for it. It displeases me, Signore, to say such a thing. I
have known Signor Magnus for many years, and he has always had money, and always
been pleasant, molto bravo, and also generous with his money. Si, lo so! And my
wife, poverina, she cries and says if the man has no money he must eat. But he
doesn't say he has no money. He says always it is coming, it is coming, today,
tomorrow, today, tomorrow. E non viene mai niente. And this enrages me, Signore.
So I said that to him this morning. And he said he wouldn't stay in my house,
and that I had insulted him, and he sends me this letter to you, Signore, and
says you will send him the money. Ecco come!"
Between his rage he smiled at me. One thing however I could see: he was not
going to lose his money, Magnus or no Magnus.
"Is it true that a letter came which the post would not deliver?" I asked
"Si signore, e vero. It came yesterday, addressed to me. And why, signore,
why do his letters come addressed in my name? Why? Unless he has done
He looked at me enquiringly. I felt already mixed up in shady affairs.
"Yes," I said, "there is something. But I don't know exactly what. I don't
ask, because I don't want to know in these affairs. It is better not to know."
"Gia! Gia! Molto meglio, signore. There will be something. There will be
something happened that he had to escape from that monastery. And it will be
some affair of the police."
"Yes, I think so," said I. "Money and the police. Probably debts. I don't
ask. He is only an acquaintance of mine, not a friend."
"Sure it will be an affair of the police," he said with a grimace. "If not,
why does he use my name! Why don't his letters come in his own name? Do you
believe, signore, that he has any money? Do you think this money will come? "
"I'm sure he's got no money," I said. "Whether anybody will send him any I
The man watched me attentively.
"He's got nothing?" he said.
"No. At the present he's got nothing."
Then Pancrazio exploded on the sofa.
"Allora! Well then! Well then, why does he come to my house, why does he come
and take a room in my house, and ask me to buy food, good food as for a
gentleman who can pay, and a flask of wine, and everything, if he has no money?
If he has no money, why does he come to Taormina? It is many years that he has
been in Italy—ten years, fifteen years. And he has no money. Where has he had
his money from before? Where?"
"From his writing, I suppose."
"Well then why doesn't he get money for his writing now? He writes. He
writes, he works, he says it is for the big newspapers."
"It is difficult to sell things."
"Heh! then why doesn't he live on what he made before? He hasn't a soldo. He
hasn't a penny—But how! How did he pay his bill at the San Domenico? "
"I had to lend him the money for that. He really hadn't a penny."
"You! You! Well then, he has been in Italy all these years. How is it he has
nobody that he can ask for a hundred lire or two? Why does he come to you? Why?
Why has he nobody in Rome, in Florence, anywhere?"
"I wonder that myself."
"Siccuro! He's been all these years here. And why doesn't he speak proper
Italian? After all these years, and speaks all upside-down, it isn't Italian, an
ugly confusion. Why? Why? He passes for a signore, for a man of education. And
he comes to take the bread out of my mouth. And I have a wife and child, I am a
poor man, I have nothing to eat myself if everything goes to a mezzo-signore
like him. Nothing! He owes me now three hundred lire. But he will not leave my
house, he will not leave Taormina till he has paid. I will go to the Prefettura,
I will go to the Questura, to the police. I will not be swindled by such a mezzo
signore. What does he want to do? If he has no money, what does he want to do?"
"To go to Egypt where he says he can earn some," I replied briefly But I was
feeling bitter in the mouth. When the man called Magnus mezzo-signore, a
half-gentleman, it was so true. And at the same time it was so cruel, and so
rude. And Melenga—there I sat in my pyjama and sandals—probably he would be
calling me also a mezzo-signore or a quarto-signore even. He was a Sicilian who
feels he is being done out of his money—and that is saying everything.
"To Egypt! And who will pay for him to go? Who will give him money? But he
must pay me first. He must pay me first."
"He says," I said, "that in the letter which went back to the monastery there
was a cheque for seven pounds—some six hundred lire—and he asks me to send him
this money, and when the letter is returned again I shall have the cheque that
is in it."
Melenga watched me. " Six hundred lire———" he said. . "Yes."
"Oh well then. If he pays me, he can stay——" he said; he almost added: "till
the six hundred is finished." But he left it unspoken.
"But am I going to send the money? Am I sure that what he say is true?"
"I think it is true. I think it is true," said he. "The letter did come."
I thought for a while.
"First," I said, "I will write and ask him if it is quite true, and to give
me a guarantee."
"Very well," said Melenga.
I wrote to Magnus, saying that if he could assure me that what he said about
the seven guineas was quite correct, and if he would give me a note to the
editor of Land and Water, saying that the cheque was to be paid to me, I would
send the seven guineas.
Melenga was back in another half-hour. He brought a note which began:
"Dear Lawrence, I seem to be living in an atmosphere of suspicion First
Melenga this morning, and now you———" Those are the exact opening words. He went
on to say that of course his word was true, and he enclosed a note to the
editor, saying the seven guineas were to be transferred to me. He asked me
please to send the money, as he could not stay another night at Melenga's house,
but would leave for Catania, where, by the sale of some trinkets, he hoped to
make some money and to see once more about a passage to Egypt. He had been to
Catania once already—travelling third class—but had failed to find any cargo
boat that would take him to Alexandria. He would get now to Malta. His things
were being sent down to Syracuse from the monastery.
I wrote and said I hoped he would get safely away, and enclosed the cheque.
"This will be for six hundred lire," said Melenga.
"Yes," said I.
"Eh, va bene! If he pays the three hundred lire, he can stop in my house for
thirty lire a day."
"He says he won't sleep in your house again."
"Ma! Let us see. If he likes to stay. He has always been a bravo signore. I
have always liked him quite well. If he wishes to stay and pay me thirty lire a
The man smiled at me rather greenly.
"I'm afraid he is offended," said I.
"Eh, va bene! Ma senta, Signore. When he was here before—you know I have this
house of mine to let. And you know the English signorina goes away in the
summer. Oh, very well. Says Magnus, he writes for a newspaper, he owns a
newspaper, I don't know what, in Rome. He will put in an advertisement
advertising my villa. And so I shall get somebody to take it. Very well. And he
put in the advertisement. He sent me the paper and I saw it there. But no one
came to take my villa. Va bene! But after a year, in the January, that is, came
a bill for me for twenty-two lire to pay for it. Yes, I had to pay the
twenty-two lire, for nothing—for the advertisement which Signore Magnus put in
"Bah!" said I.
He shook hands with me and left. The next day he came after me in the street
and said that Magnus had departed the previous evening for Catania. As a matter
of fact the post brought me a note of thanks from Catania. Magnus was never
indecent, and one could never dismiss him just as a scoundrel. He was not. He
was one of these modern parasites who just assume their right to live and live
well, leaving the payment to anybody who can, will, or must pay. The end is
There came also a letter from Rome, addressed to me. I opened it unthinking.
It was for Magnus, from an Italian lawyer, stating that enquiry had been made
about the writ against Magnus, and that it was for qualche affaro di truffa,
some affair of swindling: that the lawyer had seen this, that and the other
person, but nothing could be done. He regretted, etc., etc. I forwarded this
letter to Magnus at Syracuse, and hoped to God it was ended. Ah, I breathed free
now he had gone.
But no. A friend who was with us dearly wanted to go to Malta. It only about
eighteen hours' journey from Taormina—easier than going to Naples. So our friend
invited us to take the trip with her, as her guests. This was rather jolly. I
calculated that Magnus, who had be gone a week or so, would easily have got to
Malta. I had had a friend letter from him from Syracuse, thanking me for the one
I had forwarded, and enclosing an I.O.U. for the various sums of money he had
So, on a hot, hot Thursday, we were sitting in the train again running south,
the four and a half hours' journey to Syracuse. And M— dwindled now into the
past. If we should see him! But no, it was impossible. After all the
wretchedness of that affair we were in holiday spirits.
The train ran into Syracuse station. We sat on, to go the few yards further
into the port. A tout climbed on the foot-board: were we going to Malta? Well,
we couldn't. There was a strike of the steamers, we couldn't go. When would the
steamer go? Who knows? Perhaps tomorrow.
We got down crestfallen. What should we do? There stood the express train
about to start off back northwards. We could be home again that evening. But no,
it would be too much of a fiasco. We let the train go, and trailed off into the
town, to the Grand Hotel, which is an old Italian place just opposite the port.
It is rather a dreary hotel—and many bloodstains of squashed mosquitoes on the
bedroom walls. Ah! vile mosquitoes!
However, nothing to be done. Syracuse port is fascinating too, a tiny port
with the little Sicilian ships having the slanting eyes painted on the prow, to
see the way, and a coal boat from Cardiff, and one America and two Scandinavian
steamers—no more. But there were two torpedo boats in the harbour, and it was
like a festa, a strange, lousy festa.
Beautiful the round harbour where the Athenian ships came. And wonderful,
beyond, the long sinuous sky-line of the long flat-topped table-land hills which
run along the southern coast, so different from the peaky, pointed, bunched
effect of many-tipped Sicily in the north. The sun went down behind that lovely,
sinuous sky-line, the harbor water was gold and red, the people promenaded in
thick streams under the pomegranate trees and hibiscus trees. Arabs in white
burnouses and fat Turks in red and black alpaca long coats strolled also—waiting
for the steamer.
Next day it was very hot. We went to the consul and the steamer agency. There
was real hope that the brute of a steamer might actually sail that night. So we
stayed on, and wandered round the town on the island, the old solid town, and
sat in the church looking at the grand Greek columns embedded there in the
When I came in to lunch the porter said there was a letter for me.
Impossible! said I. But he brought me a note. Yes. Magnus! He was staying at the
other hotel along the front. "Dear Lawrence, I saw you this morning, all three
of you walking down the Via Nazionale, but you would not look at me. I have got
my visas and everything ready. The strike of the steamboats has delayed me here.
I am sweating blood. I have a last request to make of you. Can you let me have
ninety lire, to make up what I need for my hotel bill? If I cannot have this I
am lost. I hoped to find you at the hotel but the porter said you were out. I am
at the Casa Politi, passing every half-hour in agony. If you can be so kind as
to stretch your generosity to this last loan, of course I shall be eternally
grateful. I can pay you back once I get to Malta——"
Well, here was a blow! The worst was that he thought I had cut him —a thing I
wouldn't have done. So after luncheon behold me going through the terrific sun
of that harbour front of Syracuse, an enormous and powerful sun, to the Casa
Politi. The porter recognized me and looked enquiringly. Magnus was out, and I
said I would call again at four o'clock.
It happened we were in the town eating ices at four, so I didn't get to his
hotel till half-past. He was out—gone to look for me. So I left a note saying I
had not seen him in the Via Nazionale, that I had called twice, and that I
should be in the Grand Hotel in the evening.
When we came in at seven, Magnus in the hall, sitting the picture of misery
and endurance. He took my hand in both his, and bowed to the women, who nodded
and went upstairs. He and I went and sat in the empty lounge. Then he told me
the trials he had had—how his luggage had come, and the station had charged him
eighteen lire a day for deposit—how he had had to wait on at the hotel because
of the ship— how he had tried to sell his trinkets, and had today parted with
his opal sleevelinks—so that now he only wanted seventy, not ninety lire. I gave
him a hundred note, and he looked into my eyes, his own eyes swimming with
tears, and he said he was sweating blood.
Well, the steamer went that night. She was due to leave at ten. We went on
board after dinner. We were going second class. And so, for once, was Magnus. It
was only an eight hours' crossing, yet, in spite of all the blood he had
sweated, he would not go third class. In a way I admired him for sticking to his
principles. I should have gone third myself, out of shame of spending somebody
else's money. He would not give way to such weakness. He knew that as far as the
world goes you're a first-class gentleman if you have a first-class ticket; if
you have a third, no gentleman at all. It behoved him to be a gentleman,
understood his point, but the women were indignant. And I was just rather tired
of him and his gentlemanliness.
It amused me very much to lean on the rail of the upper deck an watch the
people coming on board—first going into the little custom house with their
baggage, then scuffling up the gangway on board. "The tall Arabs in their
ghostly white woollen robes came carrying the sacks: they were going on to
Tripoli. The fat Turk in his fez and long black alpaca coat with white drawers
underneath came beaming up to the second class. There was a great row in the
customs house: and then, simply running like a beetle with rage, there came on
board a little Maltese or Greek fellow, followed by a tall lanten-jawed fellow:
both seedy-looking scoundrels suckled in scoundrelism. They raved and nearly
threw their arms away into the sea, talking wildly in some weird language with
the fat Turk, who listened solemnly, away below on the deck. Then they rushed to
somebody else. Of course, we were dying with curiosity. Thank heaven I heard men
talking in Italian. It appears the two seedy fellows were trying to smuggle
silver coin small sacks and rolls out of the country. They were detected. But
they declared they had a right to take it away, as it was foreign speci English
florins and half-crowns, and South American dollars and Spanish money. The
customs-officers however detained the lot. The little enraged beetle of a fellow
ran back and forth from the ship to the customs, from the customs to the ship,
afraid to go without his money afraid the ship would go without him.
At five minutes to ten, there came Magnus: very smart in his little grey
overcoat and grey curly hat, walking very smart and erect and genteel, and
followed by a porter with a barrow of luggage. They went into the customs,
Magnus in his grey suede gloves passing rapidly and smartly in, like the
grandest gentleman on earth, and with his grey suede hands throwing open his
luggage for inspection. From on board we could see the interior of the little
Yes, he was through. Brisk, smart, superb, like the grandest little gentleman
on earth, strutting because he was late, he crossed the bit flagged pavement and
came up the gangway, haughty as you can wish. The carabinieri were lounging by
the foot of the gangway, fooling with one another. The little gentleman passed
them with his nose in the a came quickly on board, followed by his porter, and
in a moment d appeared. After about five minutes the porter reappeared—a
red-haired fellow, I knew him—he even saluted me from below, the brute. But
Magnus lay in hiding.
I trembled for him at every unusual stir. There on the quay stood the English
consul with his bull-dog, and various elegant young officers with yellow on
their uniforms, talking to elegant young Italian ladies in black hats with stiff
ospreys and bunchy furs, and gangs of porters and hotel people and onlookers.
Then came a tramp-tramp-tramp of a squad of soldiers in red fezzes and baggy
grey trousers. Instead of coming on board they camped on the quay. I wondered if
all these had come for poor Magnus. But apparently not.
So the time passed, till nearly midnight, when one of the elegant young
lieutenants began to call the names of the soldiers: and the soldiers answered:
and one after another filed on board with their kit. So, they were on board, on
their way to Africa.
Now somebody called out—and the visitors began to leave the boat. Barefooted
sailors and a boy ran to raise the gangway. The last visitor or official with a
bunch of papers stepped off the gangway. People on shore began to wave
handkerchiefs. The red-fezzed soldiers leaned like so many flower-pots over the
lower rail. There was a calling of farewells. The ship was fading into the
harbour, the people on shore seemed smaller, under the lamp, in the deep
night—without one's knowing why.
So, we passed out of the harbour, passed the glittering lights of Ortygia,
past the two lighthouses, into the open Mediterranean. The noise of a ship in
the open sea! It was a still night, with stars, only a bit chill. And the ship
churned through the water.
Suddenly, like a revenant, appeared Magnus near us, leaning on the rail and
looking back at the lights of Syracuse sinking already forlorn and little on the
low darkness. I went to him.
"Well," he said, with his little smirk of a laugh. "Good-bye Italy!"
"Not a sad farewell either," said I.
"No, my word, not this time," he said. "But what an awful long time we were
starting! A brutta mezz'ora for me, indeed. Oh, my word, I begin to breathe free
for the first time since I left the monastery! How awful it's been! But of
course, in Malta, I shall be all right. Don Bernardo has written to his friends
there. They'll have everything ready for me that I want, and I can pay you back
the money you so kindly lent me."
We talked for some time, leaning on the inner rail of the upper deck.
"Oh," he said, "there's Commander So-and-so, of the British fleet. He's
stationed in Malta. I made his acquaintance in the hotel. I hope we're going to
be great friends in Malta. I hope I shall have an opportunity to introduce you
to him. Well, I suppose you will want to be joining your ladies. So long, then.
Oh, for tomorrow morning! I never longed so hard to be in the British Empire——"
He laughed, and strutted away.
In a few minutes we three, leaning on the rail of the second-class upper
deck, saw our little friend large as life on the first-class deck smoking a
cigar and chatting in an absolutely first-class-ticket manner with the above
mentioned Commander. He pointed us out to the Commander, and we felt the
first-class passengers were looking across at us second-class passengers with
pleasant interest. The women went behind a canvas heap to laugh, I hid my face
under my hat-brim to grin and watch. Larger than any first-class ticketer leaned
our little friend on the first-class rail, and whiffed at his cigar. So
degage and so genteel he could be. Only I noticed he wilted a little when
the officers of the ship came near.
He was still on the first-class deck when we went down to sleep. In the
morning I came up soon after dawn. It was a lovely summer Mediterranean morning,
with the sun rising up in a gorgeous golden rage, and the sea so blue, so fairy
blue, as the Mediterranean is in summer. We were approaching quite near to a
rocky, pale yellow island with some vineyards, rising magical out of the swift
blue sea into the morning radiance. The rocks were almost as pale as butter, the
islands were like golden shadows loitering in the midst of the Mediterranean
lonely among all the blue.
Magnus came up to my side.
"Isn't it lovely! Isn't it beautiful!" he said. "I love approaching these
islands in the early morning." He had almost recovered his assurance, and the
slight pomposity and patronizing tone I had first know in him. "In two hours I
shall be free! Imagine it! Oh what a beautiful feeling!" I looked at him in the
morning light. His face was good deal broken by his last month's experience,
older looking, and dragged. Now that the excitement was nearing its end, the
tiredness began to tell on him. He was yellowish round the eyes, and the whites
of his round, rather impudent blue eyes were discoloured.
Malta was drawing near. We saw the white fringe of the sea upon the yellow
rocks, and a white road looping on the yellow rocky hillside, thought of St.
Paul, who must have been blown this way, must have struck the island from this
side. Then we saw the heaped glitter of the square facets of houses, Valletta,
splendid above the Mediterranean, and a tangle of shipping and Dreadnoughts and
watch-towers in the beautiful, locked-in harbour.
We had to go down to have passports examined. The officials sat in the long
saloon. It was a horrible squash and squeeze of the first- and second-class
passengers. Magnus was a little ahead of me. I saw the American eagle on his
passport. Yes, he passed all right. Once more he was free. As he passed away he
turned and gave a condescending affable nod to me and to the Commander, who was
just behind me.
The ship was lying in Valletta harbour. I saw Magnus, quite superb and brisk
now, ordering a porter with his luggage into a boat. The great rocks rose above
us, yellow and carved, cut straight by man. On top were all the houses. We got
at last into a boat and were rowed ashore. Strange to be on British soil and to
hear English. We got a carriage and drove up the steep highroad through the
cutting in the rock, up to the town. There, in the big square we had coffee,
sitting out of doors. A military band went by playing splendidly in the bright,
hot morning. The Maltese lounged about, and watched. Splendid the band, and the
soldiers! One felt the splendour of the British Empire, let the world say what
it likes. But alas, as one stayed on even in Malta, one felt the old lion had
gone foolish and amiable. Foolish and amiable, with the weak amiability of old
We stayed in the Great Britain Hotel. Of course one could not be in Valletta
for twenty-four hours without meeting Magnus. There he was, in the Strada Reale,
strutting in a smart white duck suit, with a white pique cravat. But alas, he
had no white shoes: they had got lost or stolen. He had to wear black boots with
his summer finery.
He was staying in an hotel a little further down our street, and he begged me
to call and see him, he begged me to come to lunch. I promised and went. We went
into his bedroom, and he rang for more sodas.
"How wonderful it is to be here!" he said brightly. "Don't you like it
immensely? And oh, how wonderful to have a whisky and soda! Well now, say when."
He finished one bottle of Black and White, and opened another. The waiter, a
good-looking Maltese fellow, appeared with two syphons. Magnus was very much the
signore with him, and at the same time very familiar: as I should imagine a rich
Roman of the merchant class might have been with a pet slave. We had quite a
nice lunch, and whisky and soda and a bottle of French wine. And Magnus was the
charming and attentive host.
After lunch we talked again of manuscripts and publishers and how he might
make money. I wrote one or two letters for him. He was anxious to get something
under way. And yet the trouble of the arrangements was almost too much for his
nerves. His face looked broken and old, but not like an old man, like an old
boy, and he was really very irritable.
For my own part I was soon tired of Malta, and would gladly have left after
three days. But there was the strike of steamers still, we had wait on. Magnus
professed to be enjoying himself hugely, making excursions every day, to St.
Paul's Bay and to the other islands. He had also made various friends or
acquaintances. Particularly two young me Maltese, who were friends of Don
Bernardo. He introduced me to the two young men: one Gabriel Mazzaiba and the
other Salonia. They had small businesses down on the wharf. Salonia asked Magnus
to go for a drive in a motor-car round the island, and Magnus pressed me to go
too. Which I did. And swiftly, on a Saturday afternoon, we dodge about in the
car upon that dreadful island, first to some fearful at stony bay, arid,
treeless, desert, a bit of stony desert by the sea, with unhappy villas and a
sordid, scrap-iron front: then away inland up long and dusty roads, across a
bone-dry, bone-bare, hideous landscape. True there was ripening corn, but this
was all of a colour with the dust yellow, bone-bare island. Malta is all a pale,
softish, yellowish rock just like bathbrick: this goes into fathomless dust. And
the island is stark as a corpse, no trees, no bushes even: a fearful landscape,
cultivate and weary with ages of weariness, and old weary houses here and there.
We went to the old capital in the centre of the island, and this interesting.
The town stands on a bluff of hill in the middle of the dreariness, looking at
Valletta in the distance, and the sea. The houses are all pale yellow, and tall,
and silent, as if forsaken. There is a cathedral, too, and a fortress outlook
over the sun-blazed, sun-dried, disheartening island. Then we dashed off to
another village and climb a church-dome that rises like a tall blister on the
plain, with houses round and corn beyond and dust that has no glamour, stale,
weary like bone-dust, and thorn hedges sometimes, and some tin-like prickly
pears. In the dusk we came round by St. Paul's Bay, back to Valletta.
The young men were very pleasant, very patriotic for Malta, very Catholic. We
talked politics and a thousand things. Magnus was gently patronizing, and
seemed, no doubt, to the two Maltese a very elegant and travelled and wonderful
gentleman. They, who had never seen even a wood, thought how wonderful a forest
must be, and Magnus talked to them of Russia and of Germany.
But I was glad to leave that bone-dry, hideous island. Magnus begged me to
stay longer: but not for worlds! He was establishing himself securely: was
learning the Maltese language, and cultivating a thorough acquaintance with the
island. And he was going to establish himself. Mazzaiba was exceedingly kind to
him, helping him in every way. In Rabato, the suburb of the old town—a quiet,
forlorn little yellow street —he found a tiny house of two rooms and a tiny
garden. This would cost five pounds a year. Mazzaiba lent the furniture—and when
I left, Magnus was busily skipping back and forth from Rabato to Valletta,
arranging his little home, and very pleased with it. He was also being very
Maltese, and rather anti-British, as is essential, apparently, when one is not a
Britisher and finds oneself in any part of the British Empire. Magnus was very
much the American gentleman.
Well, I was thankful to be home again and to know that he was safely shut up
in that beastly island. He wrote me letters, saying how he loved it all, how he
would go down to the sea—five or six miles' walk —at dawn, and stay there all
day, studying Maltese and writing for the newspapers. The life was fascinating,
the summer was blisteringly hot, and the Maltese were most attractive,
especially when they knew you were not British. Such good-looking fellows, too,
and do anything you want. Wouldn't I come and spend a month?—I did not answer—
felt I had had enough. Came a postcard from Magnus: "I haven't had a letter from
you, nor any news at all. I am afraid you are ill, and feel so anxious. Do
write———" But no, I didn't want to write.
During August and September and half October we were away in the north. I
forgot my little friend: hoped he was gone out of my life. But I had that fatal
sinking feeling that he hadn't really gone out of it yet.
In the beginning of November a little letter from Don Bernardo— did I know
that Magnus had committed suicide in Malta? Following that, a scrubby Maltese
newspaper, posted by Salonia, with a marked notice: "The suicide of an American
gentleman at Rabato. Yesterday the American Maurice Magnus, a well-built man in
the prime of life, was found dead in his bed in his house at Rabato. By the
bedside was a bottle containing poison. The deceased had evidently taken his
life by swallowing prussic acid. Mr. Magnus had been staying for some months on
the island, studying the language and the conditions with a view to writing a
book. It is understood that financial difficulties were the cause of this
Then Mazzaiba wrote asking me what I knew of Magnus, and saying the latter
had borrowed money which he, Mazzaiba, would like to recover. I replied at once,
and then received the following letter from Salonia. "Valletta, 20 November,
1920. My dear Mr. Lawrence, some time back I mailed you our Daily Malta
Chronicle which gave a account of the death of Magnus. I hope you have received
same. As the statements therein given were very vague and not quite correct,
please accept the latter part of this letter as a more correct version.
"The day before yesterday Mazzaiba received your letter which I gave me to
read. As you may suppose we were very much astonished by its general purport.
Mazzaiba will be writing to you in a few days, in the meantime I volunteered to
give you the details you asked for.
" Mazzaiba and I have done all in our power to render Magnus's stay here as
easy and pleasant as possible from the time we first met him in your company at
the Great Britain Hotel. This is not correct. They were already quite friendly
with Magnus before that motor-drive, when I saw these two Maltese for the first
time. He lived in an embarrassed mood since then, and though we helped him as
best we could both morally and financially he never confided to us his troubles.
To the very day we cannot but look on his coming here and his stay among us, to
say the least of the way he left us, as a huge farce wrapped up mystery, a
painful experience unsolicited by either of us and a cause of grief unrequited
except by our own personal sense of duty towards stranger.
"Mazzaiba out of mere respect did not tell me of his commitment towards
Magnus until about a month ago, and this he did in a most confidential and
private manner merely to put me on my guard, thinking and rightly, too, that
Magnus would be falling on me next time for funds; Mazzaiba having already given
him about £55 and would n possibly commit himself any further. Of course, we
found him all along a perfect gentleman. Naturally, he hated the very idea that
we or anybody else in Malta should look upon him in any other light. I never
asked directly, though Mazzaiba (later myself) was always quite enough to
interpret rightly what he meant and obliged him forthwith. "At this stage, to
save the situation, he made up a scheme that the three of us should exploit the
commercial possibilities in Morocco, very nearly materialized, everything was
ready, I was to go with him Morocco, Mazzaiba was to take charge of affairs here
and to dispose transactions we initiated there. Fortunately, for lack of the
necessary funds the idea had to be dropped, and there it ended, thank God, aft a
great deal of trouble I had in trying to set it well on foot.
"Last July, the Police, according to our law, advised him that he was either
to find a surety or to deposit a sum of money with them as otherwise at the
expiration of his three months' stay he would be compelled to leave the place.
Money he had none, so he asked Mazzaiba to stand as surety. Mazzaiba could not
as he was already guarantor for his alien cousins who were here at the time.
Mazzaiba (not Magnus) asked me and I complied,, thinking that the responsibility
was just moral and only exacted as a matter of form.
"When, as stated before, Mazzaiba told me that Magnus owed him £55 and that
he owed his grocer and others at Notabile (the old town, of which Rabato is the
suburb) over £10, I thought I might as well look up my guarantee and see if I
was directly responsible for any debts he incurred here. The words of his
declaration which I endorsed stated that 'I hereby solemnly promise that I will
not be a burden to the inhabitants of these islands, etc.,' and deeming that
unpaid debts to be more or less a burden, I decided to withdraw my guarantee,
which I did on the 23rd ult. The reason I gave to the police was that he was
outliving his income and that I did not intend to shoulder any financial
responsibility in the matter. On the same day I wrote to him up at Notabile
saying that for family reasons I was compelled to withdraw his surety. He took
my letter in the sense implied and no way offended at my procedure.
"Magnus, in his resourceful way, knowing that he would with great difficulty
find another guarantor, wrote at once to the police saying that he understood
from Mr. Salonia that he (S) had withdrawn his guarantee, but as he (M) would be
leaving the island in about three weeks' time (still intending to exploit
Morocco) he begged the Commissioner to allow him this period of grace, without
demanding a new surety. In fact he asked me to find him a cheap passage to Gib.
in an ingoing tramp steamer. The police did not reply to his letter at all, no
doubt they had everything ready and well thought out. He was alarmed in not
receiving an acknowledgment, and, knowing full well what he imminently expected
at the hands of the Italian police, he decided to prepare for the last act of
"We had not seen him for three or four days when he came to Mazzaiba's office
on Wednesday, 3rd inst, in the forenoon. He stayed there for some time talking
on general subjects and looking somewhat more excited than usual. He went up to
town alone at noon as Mazzaiba went to Singlea. I was not with them in the
morning, but in the afternoon about 4.30, whilst I was talking to Mazzaiba in
his office, Magnus again came in looking very excited, and, being closing time,
we went up, the three of us, to town, and there left him in the company of a
"On Thursday morning, 4th inst., at about 10 a.m., two detectives in plain
clothes met him in a street at Notabile. One of them quite casually went up to
him and said very civilly that the inspector of police wished to see him re a
guarantee or something, and that he was to with him to the police station. This
was an excuse as the detective had about him a warrant for his arrest for
frauding an hotel in Rome, a that he was to be extradited at the request of the
authorities in Italy. Magnus replied that as he was in his sandals he would
dress up and with them immediately, and, accompanying him to his house at No 1.
Strada S. Pietro, they allowed him to enter. He locked the door behind him,
leaving them outside.
"A few minutes later he opened his bedroom window and dropped letter
addressed to Don Bernardo which he asked a boy in the street post for him, and
immediately closed the window again. One of the detectives picked up the letter
and we do not know to this day if same was posted at all. Some time elapsed and
he did not come out. The detectives were by this time very uneasy and as another
police officer came up they decided to burst open the door. As the door did not
give way they got a ladder and climbed over the roof, and there they found
Magnus in his bedroom dying from poisoning, outstretched on his bed and a glass
of water close by. A priest was immediately called in who had just time to
administer Extreme Unction before he died at 11.45 a.m.
"At 8.0 a.m. the next day his body was admitted for examination the Floriana
Civil Hospital and death was certified to be from poisoning with hydrocyanic
acid. His age was given as 44, being buried on his birthday (7th Novr.), with R.
Catholic Rites at the expense of His Friends in Malta.
"Addenda: Contents of Don Bernardo's letter:—
"'I leave it to you and to Gabriel Mazzaiba to arrange my affairs, cannot live
any longer. Pray for me.'
"Document found on his writing-table:
'"In case of my unexpected death inform American consul.
"' I want to be buried first class, my wife will pay.
"' My little personal belongings to be delivered to my wife. (Address.)
'"My best friend here, Gabriel Mazzaiba, inform him. (Address.)
"' My literary executor Norman Douglas. (Address.)
"'All manuscripts and books for Norman Douglas—. I leave my literary property to
Norman Douglas to whom half of the results are to accrue. The other half my
debts are to be paid with:
"'Furniture etc. belong to Coleiro, Floriana.
"'Silver spoons etc. belong to Gabriel Mazzaiba. (Address.).'
"The American Consul is in charge of all his personal belongings. I am sure he
will be pleased to give you any further details you may require. By the way, his
wife refused to pay his burial expenses, but five of his friends in Malta
undertook to give him a decent funeral. His mourners were: The consul, the
vice-consul, Mr. A., an American citizen, Gabriel Mazzaiba and myself.
"Please convey to Mrs. Lawrence an expression of our sincere esteem and high
regard and you will kindly accept equally our warmest respects, whilst
soliciting any information you would care to pass on to us regarding the late
Magnus. Believe me, My dear Mr. Lawrence, etc."
[Mrs. Magnus refunded the burial expenses through the American consul about
two months after her husband's death.]
When I had read this letter the world seemed to stand still for me. I knew
that in my own soul I had said, "Yes, he must die if he cannot find his own
way." But for all that, now I realized what it must have meant to be the hunted,
desperate man: everything seemed to stand still. I could, by giving half my
money, have saved his life. I had chosen not to save his life.
Now, after a year has gone by, I keep to my choice. I still would not save
his life. I respect him for dying when he was cornered. And for this reason I
feel still connected with him: still have this to discharge, to get his book
published, and to give him his place, to present him just as he was as far as I
knew him myself.
The worst thing I have against him, is that he abused the confidence, the
kindness, and the generosity of unsuspecting people like Mazzaiba. He did not
want to, perhaps. But he did it. And he leaves Mazzaiba swindled, distressed,
confused, and feeling sold in the best part of himself. What next? What is one
to feel towards one's strangers, after having known Magnus? It is this Judas
treachery to ask for sympathy and for generosity, to take it when given—and
then: "Sorry, but anybody may make a mistake!" It is this betraying with a kiss
which makes me still say: "He should have died sooner." No, I would not help to
keep him alive, not if I had to choose again. I would let him go over into
death. He shall and should die, and so should all his sort: and so they will.
There are so many kiss-giving Judases. He was not a criminal: he was obviously
well intentioned: but a Judas every time, selling the good feeling he had tried
to arouse, and had aroused, for any handful of silver he could get. A little
Yesterday arrived the manuscript of the Legion, from Malta. It is exactly two
years since I read it first in the monastery. Then I was moved and rather
horrified. Now I am chiefly amused; because in my mind's eye is the figure of
Magnus in the red trousers and the blue coat with lapels turned up, swinging
like a little indignant pigeon across the drill yards and into the canteen of
Bel-Abbes. He is so indignant so righteously and morally indignant, and so
funny. All the horrors of the actuality fade before the indignation, his little,
Oh, Magnus is a prime hypocrite. How loudly he rails against the Boches! How
great his enthusiasm for the pure, the spiritual Allied cause. Just so long as
he is in Africa, and it suits his purpose! His scorn for the German tendencies
of the German legionaries: even Count de R. secretly leans towards Germany.
"Blood is thicker than water," says our hero glibly. Some blood, thank God.
Apparently not his own. For according to all showing he was, by blood, pure
German: father an mother: even Hohenzollern blood !!! Pure German! Even his
speech his mother-tongue, was German and not English! And then the little
But perhaps something happens to blood when once it has been take to America.
And then, once he is in Valbonne, lo, a change! Where now is sacred France
and the holy Allied Cause! Where is our hero's fervour? It is worse than Bel-Abbes!
Yes, indeed, far less human, more hideously cold. One is driven by very rage to
wonder if he was really a spy, German spy whom Germany cast off because he was
The little gentleman! God damn his white-blooded gentility. The legionaries
must have been gentlemen, that they didn't kick him every day to the lavatory
"You are a journalist?" said the colonel. "No, a litterateur," said Magnus
perkily. "That is something more?" said the Colonel.
Oh, I would have given a lot to have seen it and heard it. The litterateur.
Well, I hope this book will establish his fame as such. I hope the editor, if it
gets one, won't alter any more of the marvellously staggering sentences and the
joyful French mistakes. The litterateur!—the impossible little pigeon!
But the Bel-Abbes part is alive and interesting. It should be read only by
those who have the stomach. Ugly, foul—alas, it is no uglier and no fouler than
the reality. Magnus himself was near enough to being a scoundrel, thief, forger,
etc., etc.—what lovely strings of names he hurls at them!—to be able to
appreciate his company. He himself was such a liar, that he was not taken in.
But his conceit as a gentleman keeping up appearances gave him a real standpoint
from which to see the rest. The book is in its way a real creation. But I would
hate it to be published and taken at its face value, with Magnus as a spiritual
dove among vultures of lust. Let us first put a pinch of salt on the tail of
this dove. What he did do in the way of vice, even in Bel-Abbes, I never chose
to ask him.
Yes, yes, he sings another note when he is planted right among the sacred
Allies, with never a German near. Then the gorgeousness goes out of his
indignation. He takes it off with the red trousers. Now he is just a sordid
little figure in filthy corduroys. There is no vice to purple his indignation,
the little holy liar. There is only sordidness and automatic, passionless,
colourless awful mud. When all is said and done, mud, cold, hideous, foul,
engulfing mud, up to the waist, this is the final symbol of the Great War. Hear
some of the horrified young soldiers. They dare hardly speak of it yet.
The Valbonne part is worse, really, than the Bel-Abbes part. Passionless,
barren, utterly, coldly foul and hopeless. The ghastly emptiness, and the slow
mud-vortex, the brink of it.
Well, now Magnus has gone himself. Yes, and he would be gone in the common
mud and dust himself, if it were not that the blood still beats warm and hurt
and kind in some few hearts. Magnus "hinted" at Mazzaiba for money, in Malta,
and Mazzaiba gave it to him, thinking him a man in distress. He thought him a
gentleman, and lovable, and in trouble! And Mazzaiba—it isn't his real name, but
there he is, real enough—still has this feeling of grief for Magnus. So much so
that now he has had the remains taken from the public grave in Malta, and buried
in his own, the Mazzaiba grave, so that they shall not be lost. For my part, I
would have said that the sooner they mingled with the universal dust, the
better. But one is glad to see a little genuine kindness and gentleness, even if
it is wasted on the bones of that selfish little scamp of a Magnus. He despised
his "physical friendships——" though he didn't forgo them. So why should anyone
rescue his physique from the public grave?
But there you are—there was his power: to arouse affection and a certain
tenderness in the hearts of others, for himself. And on this he traded. One sees
the trick working all the way through the Legion book. God knows how much warm
kindness, generosity, was showered on him during the course of his forty-odd
years. And selfish little scamp, he took it as a greedy boy takes cakes off a
dish, quickly, to make the most of his opportunity while it lasted. And the cake
once eaten: buona sera! He patted his own little paunch and felt
virtuous. Merely physical feeling, you see! He had a way of saying "physical"—a
sort of American way, as if it were spelt "fisacal"—that made me want t kick
Not that he was mean, while he was about it. No, he would give very freely:
even a little ostentatiously, always feeling that he was being liberal
gentleman. Ach, the liberality and the gentility he prided him self on! Ecco!
And he gave a large tip, with a little winsome smile. Bu in his heart of hearts
it was always himself he was thinking of, while he did it. Playing his role of
the gentleman who was awfully nice to everybody: so long as they were nice to
him, or so long as it served his advantage. Just private charity!
Well, poor devil, he is dead: which is all the better. He had his points the
courage of his own terrors, quick-wittedness, sensitiveness to certain things in
his surroundings. I prefer him, scamp as he is, to the ordinary respectable
person. He ran his risks: he had to be running risks with the police,
apparently. And he poisoned himself rather than fall into their clutches. I like
him for that. And I like him for the sharp and quick way he made use of every
one of his opportunities to get out of that beastly army. There I admire him: a
courageous isolated little devil facing his risks, and like a good rat,
determined not to be trapped. I won't forgive him for trading on the generosity
of others, and so dropping poison into the heart of all warm-blooded faith. But
I am glad after all that Mazzaiba has rescued his bones from the public grave. I
wouldn't have done it myself, because I don't forgive him his "fisacal'
impudence and parasitism. But I am glad Mazzaiba has done it. And, for my part,
I will put his Legion book before the world if I can. Let him have his place in
the world's consciousness.
Let him have his place, let his word be heard. He went through vile
experiences: he looked them in the face, braved them through, and kept his
manhood in spite of them. For manhood is a strange quality, to be found in human
rats as well as in hot-blooded men. Magnus carried the human consciousness
through circumstances which would have been too much for me. I would have died
rather than be so humiliated, I could never have borne it. Other men, I know,
went through worse things in the war. But then, horrors, like pain, are their
own anaesthetic. Men lose their normal consciousness, and go through in a sort
of delirium. The bit of Stendhal which Dos Passos quotes in front of Three
Soldiers is frighteningly true. There are certain things which are so
bitter, so horrible, that the contemporaries just cannot know them, cannot
contemplate them. So it is with a great deal of the late war. It was so foul,
and humanity in Europe fell suddenly into such ignominy and inhuman ghastliness,
that we shall never fully realize what it was. We just cannot bear it. We
haven't the soul-strength to contemplate it.
And yet, humanity can only finally conquer by realizing. It is human destiny,
since Man fell into consciousness and self-consciousness, that we can only go
forward step by step through realization, full, bitter, conscious realization.
This is true of all the great terrors and agonies and anguishes of life: sex,
and war, and even crime. When Flaubert in his story—it is so long since I read
it—makes his saint have to kiss the leper, and naked clasp the leprous awful
body against his own, that is what we must at last do. It is the great command
Know Thyself. We've got to know what sex is, let the sentimentalists wiggle as
they like. We've got to know the greatest and most shattering human passions,
let the puritans squeal as they like for screens. And we've got to know
humanity's criminal tendency, look straight at humanity's great deeds of crime
against the soul. We have to fold this horrible leper against our naked warmth:
because life and the throbbing blood and the believing soul are greater even
than leprosy. Knowledge, true knowledge is like vaccination. It prevents the
continuing of ghastly moral disease.
And so it is with the war. Humanity in Europe fell horribly into a hatred of
the living soul, in the war. There is no gainsaying it. We all fell. Let us not
try to wriggle out of it. We fell into hideous depravity of hating the human
soul; a purulent small-pox of the spirit we had. It was shameful, shameful,
shameful, in every country and in all of us. Some tried to resist, and some
didn't. But we were all drowned in shame. A purulent small-pox of the vicious
spirit, vicious against the deep soul that pulses in the blood.
We haven't got over it. The small-pox sores are running yet in the spirit of
mankind. And we have got to take this putrid spirit to our bosom. There's
nothing else for it. Take the foul rotten spirit of mankind, full of the running
sores of the war, to our bosom, and cleanse it there. Cleanse it not with blind
love: ah no, that won't help. But with bitter and wincing realization. We have
to take the disease into our consciousness and let it go through our soul, like
some virus. We have got to realize. And then we can surpass.
Magnus went where I could never go. He carried the human consciousness
unbroken through circumstances I could not have borne. It is not heroism to rush
on death. It is cowardice to accept a martyrdom today. That is the feeling one
has at the end of Dos Passos' book. To let oneself be absolutely trapped? Never!
I prefer Magnus. He drew himself out of the thing he loathed, despised, and
feared. He fought it, for his own spirit and liberty. He fought it open-eyed. He
went through. They were more publicly heroic, they won war medals. But the
lonely terrified courage of the isolated spirit which grits its teeth and stares
the horrors in the face and will not succumb to them, but fights its way through
them, knowing that it must surpass them: this is the rare courage. And this
courage Magnus had: and the man in the Dos Passos book didn't quite have it. And
so, though Magnus poisoned himself, at I would not wish him not to have poisoned
himself: though as far as warm life goes, I don't forgive him; yet, as far as
the eternal and unconquerable spirit of man goes, I am with him through
eternity. I am grateful to him, he beat out for me boundaries of human
experience which I could not have beaten out for myself. The human traitor I
was. But he was not traitor to the spirit. In the great spirit of human
consciousness he was a hero, little, quaking and heroic: a strange quaking
Even the dead ask only for justice: not for praise or exoneration Who dares
humiliate the dead with excuses for their living? I hope may do Magnus justice;
and I hope his restless spirit may be appeased, do not try to forgive. The
living blood knows no forgiving. Only the overweening spirit takes on itself to
dole out forgiveness. But Justice is a sacred human right. The overweening
spirit pretends to perch above justice. But I am a man, not a spirit, and men
with blood that throbs and throbs and throbs can only live at length by being
just, can only die in peace if they have justice. Forgiveness gives the
whimpering dead no rest. Only deep, true justice.
There is Magnus's manuscript then, like a map of the lower places of
mankind's activities. There is the war: foul, foul, unutterably foul. A foul as
Magnus says. Let us make up our minds about it.
It is the only help: to realize, fully, and then make up our minds The war
was foul. As long as I am a man, I say it and assert it, and further I say, as
long as I am a man such a war shall never occur again It shall not, and it shall
not. All modern militarism is foul. It shall go. A man I am, and above machines,
and it shall go, forever, because I have found it vile, vile, too vile ever to
experience again. Cannon; shall go. Never again shall trenches be dug. They
shall not, for I am a man, and such things are within the power of man, to break
and make. I have said it, and as long as blood beats in my veins, I mean it
Blood beats in the veins of many men who mean it as well as I.
Man perhaps must fight. Mars, the great god of war, will be a god forever.
Very well. Then if fight you must, fight you shall, and without engines, without
machines. Fight if you like, as the Roman fought, with swords and spears, or
like the Red Indian, with bows and arrows and knives and war paint. But never
again shall you fight with the foul, base, fearful, monstrous machines of war
which man invented for the last war. You shall not. The diabolic mechanisms are
man's, and I am a man. Therefore they are mine. And I smash them into oblivion.
With every means in my power, except the means of these machines, I smash them
into oblivion. I am at war! I, a man, am at war!—with these foul machines and
contrivances that men have conjured up. Men have conjured them up. I, a man,
will conjure them down again. Won't I? —but I will! I am not one man, I am many,
I am most.
So much for the war! So much for Magnus's manuscript. Let it be read. It is
not this that will do harm, but sloppy sentiment and cant. Take the bitterness
and cleanse the blood.
Now would you believe it, that little scamp Magnus spent over a hundred
pounds of borrowed money during his four months in Malta, when his expenses, he
boasted to me, need not have been more than a pound a week, once he got into the
little house in Notabile. That is, he spent at least seventy pounds too much.
Heaven knows what he did with it, apart from "guzzling." And this hundred pounds
must be paid back in Malta. Which it never will be, unless this manuscript pays
it back. Pay the gentleman's last debts, if no others.
He had to be a gentleman. I didn't realize till after his death. I never
suspected him of royal blood. But there you are, you never know where it will
crop out. He was the grandson of an emperor. His mother was the illegitimate
daughter of the German Kaiser: Douglas— says, of the old Kaiser Wilhelm I, Don
Bernardo says, of Kaiser Frederick Wilhelm, father of the present ex-Kaiser. She
was born in Berlin on the 31 October, 1845: and her portrait, by Paul, now hangs
in a gallery in Rome. Apparently there had been some injustice against her in
Berlin —for she seems once to have been in the highest society there, and to
have attended at court. Perhaps she was discreetly banished by Wilhelm II, hence
Magnus’s hatred of that monarch. She lies buried in the Protestant Cemetery in
Rome, where she died in 1912, with the words Filia Regis on her tomb. Magnus
adored her, and she him. Part of his failings one can certainly ascribe to the
fact that he was an only son, an adored son, in whose veins the mother imagined
only royal blood. And she must have thought him so beautiful, poor thing! Ah
well, they are both dead. Let us be just and wish them Lethe.
Magnus himself was born in New York, 7th November, 1876; so at least it says
on his passport. He entered the Catholic Church in England in 1902. His father
was a Mr. L-Magnus -married to the mother in 1867.
So poor Magnus had Hohenzollern blood in his veins: close kin to the
ex-Kaiser William. Well, that itself excuses him a great deal: because of the
cruel illusion of importance manque, which it must have giver him. He
never breathed a word of this to me. Yet apparently it is accepted at the
monastery, the great monastery which knows most European secrets of any
political significance. And for myself, I believe it is true. And if he was a
scamp and a treacherous little devil, he had also qualities of nerve and
breeding undeniable. He faced his way through that Legion experience: royal
nerves dragging themselves through the sewers, without giving way. But alas, for
royal blood! Like most other blood, it has gradually gone white, during our
spiritual era. Bunches of nerves! And whitish, slightly acid blood. And no
bowels of deep compassion and kindliness. Only charity—a little more than kin,
and less than kind.
Also—Magnus—! Ich grusse dich, in der Ewigkeit. Aber hier, im Herz blut, hast
du Gift und eid nachgelassen—to use your own romantic language.