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, later.
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 p536-
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:
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 p708-
Introduction to Memoirs of the Foreign Legion
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 to Magnus"
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 indifferent.
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 drink it."
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 occasionally.
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, fetch me."
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 helped himself.
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 to me.
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 must live.
"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 was.
"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 improprieties.
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 that hare."
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 connoisseur.
On the Saturday afternoon Douglas took me wandering round to buy a birthday present.
"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: first-class.
"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 hooting.
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 trumpet blow.
"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 arrived.
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 change."
"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 it."
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 everywhere.
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 dessert.
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 said, dramatic:
"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 forever:
"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 monastic life,
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 sixteenth century.
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 photographs.
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 it yourself?"
"No," I said. "I don't believe in equality. But the problem is, wherein does superiority lie."
"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 time.
"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 the opposite."
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 on?"
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 not-quite-dead past.
"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 laugh.
"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 Fichera's."
"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 too hushed.
"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 difficulty!"
"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 boy.
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 the village."
"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 poor meal!"
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 to do?"
"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 reply."
"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 grateful."
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 agree.
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 Malta."
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 him.
"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 something——?"
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 don't know."
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 day——"
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 the paper."
"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 inevitably swindling.
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 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 walls.
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 customs shed.
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 age.
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 lamentable event."
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 his drama.
"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 friend.
"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:—
[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 loving vampire!
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, tuppenny indignation.
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 mongrel!——!
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 no good.
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 and back.
"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 him.
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 little star.
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.