IT was in the snow, at the top of those mountains which he had seen only in pictures, but whose name he knew. They were the Tyrolean Alps. At their feet the countryside spread, covered with expanses of crocus, bluebell, and hyacinth; but the top was even more beautiful — it bloomed everlastingly with iridescent snow under a sky which was burningly blue. Such blueness was possible nowhere but in the eyes of the Madonna. The heat of the sun scorched him and made his head golden. Yet in spite of the sun it was impossible to feel any dampness or languor, for the air enclosed him like the hallowing breath of a god; and only dryness and exaltation could exist in that air.
He was standing on the highest peak. Only the miraculous bird whose wings were lined with violet, and the holy antelope whose hoofs scarce skimmed the snow, had been there before him. He had come alone, but he did not mind his loneliness. He stopped to triumph, rather than to rest, leaning one elbow in a crevice, stretching against the rock, and planting his feet in the snow. He was dressed like a modern angel in white wool. His loose jacket and his breeches were soft and only a little less luminous than the side of the mountain. They fell in smooth folds around his lithe spare body. The sun had browned his face and arms and bleached his waving hair to an alloy of silver and gold. His eyes were blue, like the sky, and that troubled him a little, for they had always been gray. But nothing troubled him much — he was so unearthly beautiful.
As he stood with one elbow leaning in the crevice, he remembered that the woman was somewhere in the chalet, on the opposite peak. He did not want her in the chalet; he wanted her in the snow and the sun. But that was simple: you merely called her imperiously, and she came out of the shadow and let down her flaming knot of hair. White flesh and brown flesh, they would be undivided on the snow. So he decided to set out toward her, and that too was a simple thing. He braced himself on both his elbows, pointed his feet downward, shoved hard against the crevice, and sailed like a wind, like a gull, like an angel over the shimmering white. It was something between skiing and flying, yet he wore neither skis nor wings. The air vibrated around him like an aura, and there was a singing in his thighs.
As the singing rose, the motion through the air hastened. Now he came to a jutting crag on the side of the cliff. It stretched against nothing but blueness. He took it easily, bent forward, joined his fingertips above his head, parted them, swinging his arms like pinions at his sides, and sailed into blue space. The exaltation merged into ecstasy. He watched himself sailing, for there were two of him in the dream: the one who acted and the one who looked on. The one who looked on was a high sense of sight capable of recording everything from the broadest sweep of sky cut by the glittering peaks to the most minute iris which the sun begot on a drop of snow. But the one who acted was the glory. He stood back and stared at himself with breathless pleasure, for he was exalted and beautiful. His arms stretched like wings against the sky, and the wind of speed rippled down the white cloth which covered them. He cried out sharply, and heard himself cry out, and thought, ‘At last my voice is free.’ But the cry wakened him. He found himself in the gray morning, in the companionless room, under the low roof.
And what was he? He was a nothing, an English instructor whose pupils jiggled keys while he lectured, a man with a nagging sinus pain between his eyes, a student whose dissertation was never finished but lay forever in closely written sheets among the quaint and useless books — a nothing who had dreamed something remarkable and could not even remember his dream. He lifted his hand to stop the progress of the sinus pain which seemed to force the bones of his forehead outward. The hand which he lifted was thin, nervous, and gray. He felt a sense of hopeless loss, as though some precious thing, a ring, a piece of fine pottery, or a book, had slipped from his fingers into a dull river. Then, wishing to stave off the day a little longer, he went back to sleep.
On this day, which was Saturday, a holiday when other men ate lunches at grills and met their girls in town and sat holding hands in the darkness of moving-picture houses, he went to the doctor’s. He always arrived at onethirty, cold with hunger because he did not dare to eat lunch. The pain of the sinus treatment always nauseated him, and he found it safer to eat nothing at all. Afterward, at three o’clock, when the pain had begun to dull a little, he regularly went to visit Emma and Katherine, his cousins, ladies verging on the fifties, virginal, well read, and makers of small sandwiches and strong tea. He had always found their living room (a place of aqueous light fallen through scrim curtains, of more solid light on chintz chairs, and of romantic light gathered in the fine tracery of the ancient tea set) a haven for him and for his pain. Once, sinking into the deepest chair, with a cup of tea in his hands, he had told them certain lines which came into his mind every time he entered their sunlit quietness : —
Ease after warre, death after life does greatly please.
They had not answered him. It would have been obvious, even blatant to have answered him, and they were never obvious. They never made an open reference to his pain. Still they respected it, walking in their pale woolen dresses softly across the floor, remarking that tea should be served early of a Saturday afternoon, saying, ‘I think, Emma, that the primroses are suffering from too much sun,’ or, ‘ Katherine, for heaven’s sake shut the window. That radio across the street gives me a splitting headache.’ How kindly the afternoons went by there. How earnestly they asked him just what he could make out of Archibald MacLeish. How affectionate the cat was, how amber the tea.
Usually, when he set out for the doctor’s office, he stopped at a candy shop to buy a half-pound box of apricot paste or sugared almonds (his salary would permit only half a pound, but they tied it up nicely with red raffia ribbon) for Emma and Katherine. On days like this day (March icicles in the sun held coagulate the first, the virginal essence of spring) he could honor the hour with extravagance and find enough stray nickels and dimes for six street-corner daffodils. Yet, when he passed the vendors whose baskets showed their golden fillings against the snow, an uneasiness was in him. He thought with wonder as he walked toward the office that to-day he wanted to buy neither apricot paste nor almonds nor daffodils. Something cold and white and gold strove for life-in-remembrance at the back of his brain. He discovered that he had no intention of visiting Emma and Katherine. He walked more quickly than usual. The coldness which had always dulled him because of the hunger and the fear of the pain was dispelled by the mood and the motion. Actual warmth, steady and manly, coursed through his veins and made vital his chest and thighs. There was a singing in his thighs — a muted singing. He stopped before the window of a haberdashery where pongee pajamas were. That dream — Lord! — in that dream he had dreamed something really indecent about Miss Dorn.
He stared at the pongee pajamas and remembered Miss Dorn. She sat in the Dean’s office, behind the typewriter; and sometimes she sang to herself. She wore soft woolen stuff, plaid, clinging, gray and dark blue, out of which her neck came, looking so round and warm. She was tall; there was something of the ancient Celt about her; around her were the names of legendary queens, Deirdre and Maave. And then there was her hair — positively orange. In a braid — yes, he had looked once when she had been leaning over the files — that braid went all the way around her head. And he had dreamed something unquestionably indecent about Miss Dorn.
A far clock dropped the chime of the half hour straight down like a crystal fruit through the March air. ‘Damn,’ he thought, ‘damn!’ Now he would be late. Now the woman-with-the-hatwith-hard-green-berries would be ahead of him, she and her sensitive throat, and he would have to wait. Yet the fruit of the clock dropping through the air had been delightful. He smiled as he walked the last block of vendors and sun-washed faces, as he entered the dignity of the Arcade, as he rose in the hushed, ominous elevators and walked down the colonnade of marble and iodoform.
The doctor, he thought, taking his place in the row of brown chairs, was a very nice man. He was a nice man with good taste; he kept Vanity Fair and the New Yorker on his table and hung drawings from Holbein on his walls. The woman-with-the-hat was there already, and so was the woman-withthe-baby-who-drooled. But he did not mind them too much. He sat in his grave pressed suit with his grave pressed trouser leg crossed, the crease extending before him with mathematical precision. After he had exhausted the possibilities of the crease, he turned to the drawing by Holbein. He had looked at that drawing fifty times before, with coldness and hunger in him, and with his stomach tightened by fear of the pain and his eyes blurred by the outward pressure forever pushing against his forehead. But now the picture was suddenly peeled of all those things which the days had wrapped around it; it was naked and exalted by March sun passing through white blinds; and the young girl who stared seriously from it (drawn in red against ivory paper) had a round womanly neck like the neck of Miss Dorn who worked in the office of the Dean.
The woman-wilh-the-hat arose to the discreet ‘Next’ and was gone behind the heavy door. About Miss Dorn, now. What about Miss Dorn? She worked in that place until three on Saturdays. It would be possible; it had been done before — taxi drivers and shop girls, polo players and débutantes, publishers and authors. You merely went up to the Dean’s office at three. You merely said, ‘Miss Dorn, I wonder if you’d have tea with me this afternoon.’ And she (who had once turned on him a pair of hazel eyes, wide and full of eager kindness) would not refuse. The young girl drawn in red against pale ivory stared at him with serious gentleness. He rested his temple against the tips of his fingers and thought of womankind, Eve and the Madonna, and Deirdre and Miss Dorn, all with breasts to vanquish and to lean upon. For he was suddenly tired, and the woman-with-the-hat was staying long. She came out with watery eyes and went away, and the womanwith-the-baby-who-drooled took her place. Now he was alone in the sunlit office. Sun on the white cover of the February Vanity Fair; sun on snow; there had been something in the dream about sun on snow.
Suddenly it flashed upon him, disembodied from the images in which it had taken place, the bright heroism of that dream. What he had been then he could not say, but he knew that he had been exalted. He had been lifted out of the world of futile lectures, curious books, grave neckties, swerving probes, iodoform and silence, and he had been set in a high place. The winds of that place still moved across his brow.
He knew two things clearly: he must never be again that which he had been before, and he must take Miss Dorn to tea. These things were urgent and were concerned with the salvation of his soul. They had something to do with the chasteness of wind and snow. He heard vague sounds behind the door. Very soon she-with-the-baby would come out, and it would be his turn to be mutilated and humiliated. Well, that was his burden which his destiny had set upon him; and he would endure it (he straightened his shoulders) like — really like a man.
He measured the force of the pain and decided that he could endure it. Besides, there was no doubt about it, the doctor was a very nice man. When the one-with-the-baby was gone, he rose with a springing step and approached the inner office as Mucius approached the fire. ‘ Good afternoon! ’ he said to the doctor, who looked wise and lean and exalted in his white coat. He delighted in the doctor. The doctor was a man of taste and dry beauty. If any hands were to violate the dignity of his flesh, then he thanked God who had given him over into these lean brown ones.
‘How’s the nose?’ said the doctor. He thought as he took off his coat and loosened his collar that there was something disgusting about the word ‘nose.’ It sounded as if it had meant, most considerately and politely, to sound like ‘rose,’ and then had been seized with a whimsical devil and had stuck out its tongue and said ‘ Nya-nya-nya! ’ at you. Anyway, noses themselves were nothing gracious. And his own nose, torn by the probe, swollen by the disease! ‘New suit?’ said the doctor. ‘No. Only an old one cleaned and pressed.’ He sat down squarely in the leather-andenamel chair whose every curve was familiar to his body.
Usually at this point he looked at the ceiling. He was sickened by the machinations, the opening of the vial and the steeping of the cotton on the probe, and he had taught himself to stare at the bare flatness above him. Now he found all that cowardly and scarcely worthy of one who had been set in a high place. He looked at the vial, and he thought of Miss Dorn, and he looked at the probe. His whole body tightened, his teeth clamped together, his hands clasped the enameled arms, and his stomach drew up within him. The doctor bent over him. Really, the doctor was a very nice man. He put his hand under the set chin and tilted it upward. ‘Oh, now, take it easy,’ he said, suspending the probe. ‘No sense in stiffening up like that, my lad. Relax, relax. It is n’t as bad as all that, you know.’ The act of relaxation was impossible. The best that he could manage was a tremulous and humiliating sigh.
There was nothing noble about it. It was the same nasty, disintegrating, damning pain. The probe swerved up into his head — up, he thought, into his brain. The usual moan, which he in the exalted place wished to smother, broke from the tightened cords of his throat, louder than ever. A dissolving pinkish mist quivered before him. ‘What the devil — ’ he said, revolting against nausea and the world. ‘I’m sorry,’ said the doctor. Really, he was a remarkably kind man. ‘That damned membrane is swollen out of God’s grace, and you had to jerk and rip it up again. Sit still, sit still. Wait, I ’ll get you a bit of water.’ He drank the water with the quick gulps of hysteria. The vial sat maliciously on the tray. He cursed the stuff that was in it; his throat was sick with the taste of it.
He put on his coat and readjusted his tie before the small square of mirror. The pain had made him dizzy; he could scarcely stand. ‘What’s your hurry?’ said the doctor, putting the probe into the sterilizer. ‘Don’t go rushing off before you’re thoroughly integrated. There’s nobody waiting. We might have a ten minutes’ chat, you and I.’ But he went on pulling at the knot in his necktie. ‘No,’ he said, ‘no, really, I have to hurry. You see, I’m having tea — with a young lady — this afternoon.’
He stood in the street of vendors and going faces, bewildered by the light and the pain. He did not know exactly what to do. The element of space was contracted by the pink mist, and the element of time was a confusion. What time did she leave the office on Saturdays? He was n’t sure; he thought that she might leave at about three. If he walked, he would get there too late; if he took a cab, he would be much too early. He admitted, with a sense of Mucius drawing his hand from the fire, that he could not endure the street car. The jangling wheels, the rocking motion, the pressure of many bodies around him, would intensify the nausea and the headache. He thought that he would walk about for a while, look into shop windows, think, wait until he was ‘thoroughly integrated,’ and then take a cab. Really, he could not afford a cab. The cab plus the price of the tea would entirely disrupt his budget. Anyway, he could not concern himself with his budget; it was too difficult merely navigating through the Saturday afternoon crowd. The pink mist had cleared, but the pain dissolved all images at the edges. All images seemed to him soluble things which melted off into the atmosphere. As for the pain, the more he walked, the more it tormented him. Even the name of Miss Dorn, which he actually repeated now with his lips, was no talisman against the pain.
He found himself grasping back after those things which had given him pleasure before the probe had swerved upward into his brain. ‘Snow,’ he thought, ‘there was the snow.’ But now the snow glistened in his tormented eyes as did the daffodils; it was impossible to look at either the daffodils or the snow. He recalled forcibly the young woman by Holbein, whose throat had been round against the ivory paper, but everything in that office sickened him. Only the quiet plaid of Miss Dorn’s dress could reach him through this evil hour. He stopped at the florist’s window and leaned against the pane.
There he stood for some ten minutes, staring at the square space of the show window, never staring beyond it, staring only at the Persian violets on their glazed stems, and desiring Miss Dorn’s breast, to be leaned upon. He allowed his forehead to rest against the glass, which had been warmed by the electric lights within. For a minute which, because of its quietness and perfection, seemed an eternity, he rested his forehead there, and the warmth rose out of the glass, out of the womanly breasts of Maave and Deirdre and Eve, and comforted him and relieved the pain. Before him the Persian violets bloomed, and his mind was at peace.
He was roused from this minute by the sense of eyes looking at him, eyes seeing him steadily through the grayed shining of the glass. He looked up. The eyes were shadowy and kind. For a minute he thought that it was a dream; for beyond himself, the glass, and the Persian violets, with her hand considering a pot of primroses, Miss Dorn stood. For of course she was not at work; she had her holiday like the others; this was Saturday afternoon. Her coat was open because of the tropical warmth of these places where orchids and ferns are. Above it her throat rose just as he had remembered it. Her mouth — soft, Celtic mouth — was curved upward with a smile. She knew him and nodded to him, and kept her hand poised for a long time above the primroses. He too nodded, and put the thought of the hand held over the lacy blossoms into his mind, to be remembered: to be remembered when you waken in the morning; to be remembered when somebody whistles a funeral march behind you on the campus; to be remembered when a long look comes into the eyes of your landlady because you have asked for a hotwater bottle.
It was the more like a dream because the shining glass stretched between them, and the small room beyond the glass was rich with flowers, spread its flowers, like those of a mediæval tapestry, behind her bright head whose small hat could not cover all of the redness of her hair. He nodded again, and turned away, carrying with him the thought of the hand and the smile and the lacy flowers.
He did not stay in town much longer. At three o’clock he stood on the clean mat before the door of Emma and Katherine, with silent thighs and with an unusually large bouquet of daffodils held precisely between his gray hands.