by FREDERIC PROKOSCH
THE Guadiana flowed slowly through the late afternoon, yellowish,abysmal. There are times when a landscape of great beauty can produce an effect of timelessness and of hallucination. But ugliness — or rather such utter aridity — can produce the same effect. The slow, reptilian movement of the water; the bleak and muddy shore, the buzzing of flies, the mutter of the customs inspector; there was a weird perfection in the drabness of this place.
A young woman — the cut of her clothes showed plainly that she was American — was sitting on her bag, smoking a cigarette, waiting to cross the frontier. she was perhaps too tall, too strong-featured to be pretty; but she was handsome, vital, and intelligentlooking. She might have been thirty-two. Her name was Miss Addison, and she was a journalist.
The dust of Spain still clung to her shoes — expensive, rather startling shoes from-Fifth Avenue; and she sat gazing rather wearily across the river. The opposite shore was Portugal. The Spanish shore was gray, treeless and featureless. The shore of Portugal was green, a little misty, a bit unreal.
“Pardon me, señorita.”
The customs inspector touched her elbow apologetically; a tiny creature out of Goya, with the face of a bulldog and haunting, cavernous eyes.
“May I see your bags? How many are there? These two?”
She opened the lock of the smaller bag, and as the top was raised a great flurry of intimate silken things welled forth, overflowed, slid into the dust.
The inspector’s tiny dark claws plucked, trembling, among the scented privacy of the silks.
“Is that all, senorita?”
She shrugged her shoulders and turned away.
No camera? No films? No firearms?” His voice, suddenly trembling too, floated through the stagnant heat.
At last he wandered away. A tall dark boy with Moorish features carried her bags to the tiny ferryboat. There had been a delay; something wrong with one of the passports; no one knew exactly. The sun was already moving toward the Portuguese shore. It would be dark in another hour.
Finally the motor began to sputter in a primitive fashion; the little boat started to tremble, to move. On the boat, quivering with the desperate vibrations of the motor, stood several bags and bundles and five passengers: an elderly gentleman with a goatee, a dashing young Spaniard, a farmer and his wife, and Miss Addison.
During the first half of the trip no one uttered a word. The farmer, a lean and dignified figure, sat and gazed in animal meditation at the approaching shore. The farmer’s wife was a pregnant, olive-skinned beauty still in her teens; she sat in bovine consternation and stole cautious glances at the other passengers-especially at the stylish American lady. The young Spaniard — an astonishingly handsome fellow in a light blue suit, a Castilian type, perhaps a student at Salamanca — glanced listlessly at a copy of yesterday’s Madrid paper; he seemed nervous; and he seemed, after all, Miss Addison reflected, too well dressed to be a student.
The bald, elderly gentleman with the goatee, who might have been French, who might have been anything south of Amsterdam, sat thumbing through a small green book — a dictionary, perhaps, or a guidebook.
Suddenly the elderly gentleman turned to her and spoke. “You are American, señorita?”
She nodded, in her casual, easy, American way.
“Yes, I thought so; the high cheekbones. Only American women have those high, firm cheekbones and that firm line of the chin. You appear to have strong characters, you American women!” He smiled suggestively, perhaps in admiration, perhaps in irony.
“In some ways, possibly,” she said, and glanced across the sleek yellow water.
“ I have some friends in America,” said the man with the goatee. “At several universities. Scholars. In my field. . . .” His voice trailed off thoughtfully.
“What is your field, señor?”
“Philology, señorita. The history of languages. The meaning of sounds. Yes, I have friends at several of the great American universities. You have been at one of the great American universities, señorita?”
Miss Addison smiled. “Hardly, señor. I have been at Vassar. That is only a small college.”
He nodded eagerly. “Ah, but I have heard of it! For ladies exclusively, isn’t it? Yes, a kind of secular nunnery. We don’t have such institutions in Spain, alas. We don’t as yet, señorita, fully countenance the emancipation of women.” He smiled again, in his equivocal way.
“But it will come, señor.”
“It will come?” He raised his brows. “You think so?”
“It is coming everywhere. It is a part of — ” She hesitated for a word.
He smiled faintly. “Of progress.”
“If you wish. Of modern life, shall we say?”
“So it seems, señorita. And yet, I wonder. Will everything move further and further in this same direction? Will people grow more and more equalized? Will women grow more and more aggressive? More hard? More masculine? ”
She glanced at him quickly. But he seemed to be earnest. There was something faintly unpleasant in his appearance, and in his manner too. He was a scholar, a man of breeding, that was evident enough; but under that perfunctory veneer she felt the presence of a deep-seated vulgarity, or maybe something more disturbing, an inner rawness, a certain brutality, a coarseness of heart — she could not be sure.
“You think, señorita, that the world will continue on and on in your direction?” His voice grew softer. “More and more bathrooms? More radios? More cinemas, more fur coats, more colleges for the ladies? ”
She shrugged her shoulders slightly. “You may not like it, señor,” she said, with a feeling of bravado, touched with a hint of annoyance. “ Perhaps it is not in all respects for the best. Perhaps much will be lost. But it will happen, señor. It is a part of the world to come.”
“The world to come.” He repeated the phrase with a mock piety and gazed blandly down the river.
The boat was moving very slowly. The boatman seemed to be having trouble with the motor, which periodically uttered a dull, grinding, spluttering noise, followed by a petulant explosion. And the boatman, with an expression of childlike alarm, kept turning little screws here and there, opening and closing the petcock, caressing the carburetor.
THE afternoon was turning into evening. The boat was moving slowly downstream, and the trees on the Portuguese shore grew darker, more continuous.
The Guadiana seemed to have become broader, and the current was moving at a more stealthy, lethargic pace. As the light grew more oblique and more sepiahued, and as the sun sank toward the horizon, the scene took on a novel, derelict beauty. Everything was touched with this slanting, rather ominous veneer of gold. The bleak sands of the Spanish shore took on a radiant immensity, and each distant shrub and rock cast a sharp blue shadow along the beach.
The water, covered with a lacquer so unruffled that it looked like the skin of a great eel, passed slowly southward without a sound.
“Tell me, señorita,” said the elderly philologist, “what will be the end of it all? Have you ever seriously paused to consider? What will happen in two hundred years? Will it be a paradise of plumbing?”
“I don’t know, señor. You choose to laugh at our plumbing. But that is a small thing. There are other things, and more important things.”
“Such as, señorita?”
“Yes? And what more?”
“Security. Enough food. Decent rooms to live in —”
“Anything else, señorita?”
“Freedom, señor. Happiness.”
“Ah, now we have it! Freedom! Happiness! The freedom and happiness that emanate from sparkling toilets and healthful breakfasts and tidy apartments. I see. I see.” He nodded thoughtfully; he looked very tired, and rather ill.
“You think,” said Miss Addison, in sudden anger, “that all this is trivial and superficial, señor. But are you sure? Wait, señor. Perhaps it is you who are superficial and a little thoughtless. Wait and see.”
He replied gravely: “I shall be dead soon, señorita. I shall be dead before the answer appears.” But his voice grew gentle and urgent. “Forgive me, señorita. I have spoken rudely. You have been our guest. It was unpardonable of me. But believe me, señorita, there are moments when a great terror passes through me. A terror of something happening to the world beside which the war is nothing, nothing, nothing at all.” He looked suddenly very old and very weary. Deep blue shadows had appeared under his eyes, and the teeth shone under his lips in a drawn, almost cadaverous manner. “Forgive me. May I introduce myself? My name is Professor Aguilera. I am on my way to Montevideo.”
At this moment the motor uttered a despairing grunt and then died away. The boat drifted several yards nearer to Portugal and then fell passively into the motion of the current.
“Has the motor stopped?” said the young Castilian, in a portentous tone.
The boatman nodded sheepishly.
“Perhaps there is no more fuel?” said the farmer, with dignity.
“There is fuel,” explained the boatman. “But the motor has been sick for two weeks. Very sick. Now I think it has died.”
“There must be something one can do,” said the farmer’s wife anxiously, peering at the rest of the passengers with her great black eyes, in which her pregnancy lay, somehow, curiously mirrored.
“Certainly something must be done,” said Professor Aguilera, with indifference.
The boatman smiled apologetically. “I have waited for it to happen,” he murmured. “For two weeks she has been ailing. And now —”
“Very well. What are you going to do about it?” said the young Castilian angrily. “Let us drift along all night?”
The boatman looked at the rest with mournful resignation. “We must be patient, señor. There is nothing I can do. Yes, I knew it would happen. I explained to the officials. I warned them. And here it is. Two weeks of sickness. Now she is dead for good.”
“Stop the boat,” said Professor Aguilera, in a voice of fatigue. “We have no wish to drift all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.”
“I have no anchor, señor. Only this.” And the boatman showed him an old iron wheel fastened to a rope.
“Very well. Drop it in the water,” sighed Professor Aguilera.
The boatman gazed at him with sorrow, and shook his head quietly, and proceeded to loosen the rope and lower the iron wheel into the water.
The boat moved more slowly now; but it still drifted steadily and laboriously with the lazy current.
“What will we do?” said Miss Addison, quite calmly. “We have to reach the shore somehow.”
“We shall, señorita. We shall,” said the boatman. “ Patience. We are helpless. Let time take its course. Another boat may come and tow us. Or we may drift toward the shore. Who knows?” He smiled at her, and his irregular yellow teeth shone in the evening light.
THE sun sank away, and the last threads of gold dissolved into the endless levels of the Spanish shore. The boat still drifted southward, but very slowly. The river seemed quite deserted. Two or three small rowboats moved along the distant shore, and the ferryman cried across the twilight; but no one heard, and the boats passed on.
“It is not such a tragedy,” said the yellow-toothed ferryman philosophically. “It is only that this motor—” His voice died away into the night.
“Once we land, how will we make our way to Vilar Formoso?” said the young Castilian.
“That will be no problem, señor. You will find someone with a wagon. Tomorrow. Perhaps the day after. Believe me, señor, you will have no difficulty.” The boatman nodded toward Miss Addison. “Perhaps the señorita will be a little irritated? But such things happen in life. It is no tragedy.” He smiled at her with his great teeth, a gentle, rather idiotic animal smile.
The evening deepened. The Spanish shore, broad, barren, featureless, faded away for miles into the east. It grew blue, and seemed to be absolutely smooth, like the skin of a large fish. The Portuguese shore, behind which the light was vanishing, rose shaggy and mysterious. Here and there the white walls of a farmhouse shone faintly through the trees, or a plume of smoke rose listlessly skyward. But beyond this there was no sign of life, and the wooded banks began to resemble an endless impenetrable thicket.
A strange weariness began to creep over Miss Addison. It had been a tiring day — first packing and arranging various tedious matters in Seville, then missing the train and deciding to take the bus instead; and the stifling, dusty, odorous heat of the bus, and the delay at the customs, and the tiresome argument with the Spanish professor. And now this.
Her head began to nod, her eyes closed irresistibly. She fell asleep — for several minutes, perhaps for half an hour.
She woke up — or, rather, attained a state halfway between sleep and awakening; but only for several minutes. The boat still seemed to be drifting southward, but she hardly cared. A veil of fog seemed to float before her eyes and to have enveloped her mind and body. Nothing mattered — neither the passage of time, nor the fate of the world, nor her own immediate destiny. She felt, perhaps, a little feverish.
During these few minutes of half-sleep, the landscape took on a strange and emblematic aspect. The shore of Spain was almost invisible: it seemed empty, dead and despairing. And the shore of Portugal, with its black and beckoning groves, was waiting for her with the mysterious warmth of a huge animal.
No one was speaking. The boatman was standing in the front of the boat, gazing toward Portugal. He looked dark and towering, a guider of souls, a fateful ferryman across the waters of death, it occurred to Miss Addison. And with a brief, drowsy terror she glanced at the others. They too sat motionless and alert, all four of them, with their faces turned in silence toward Portugal. Professor Aguilera’s bald head shone softly; his eyes were great caverns, his teeth shone faintly — he looked rather inhuman. The young Castilian, dark and disturbingly handsome, looked like a primitive warrior, a tribal chieftain— with his chin protruding and his lips pressed ardently together. The farmer and his wife sat crouched behind them — the farmer gaunt and hungry-looking, with his bony peasant hands folded quietly above his knees; and the farmer’s wife, harassed, suddenly stripped of her beauty, looking ill and pallid and unnaturally swollen.
But this disturbing vision lasted scarcely a minute — it was a pause between two dreams, hardly more. Then Miss Addison fell asleep for perhaps two hours, and when she woke up it was night.
The young Castilian was sitting close beside her. He was smoking a cigarette and looking into her eyes.
Miss Addison gazed at him in surprise. “Where are we now, señor?” she whispered faintly.
He ignored the question. “I have been watching you, señorita,” he said softly. He reached into his pocket. “Will you have a cigarette?”
She nodded, and he lit it for her. The flash of the match restored her wakefulness, and now in the brief light of the flame she saw the rest — the boatman, the professor, the farmer and his wife — sitting peacefully at a distance, with their eyes closed, fast asleep. “Are they all asleep?” asked Miss Addison, curiously troubled.
The Castilian nodded. “All are asleep, señorita.”
“How late is it?” she asked dimly.
“You looked very beautiful as you slept, señorita,” said the young Castilian. His voice was tender and furry, and at the same time hard, impersonal, and entirely masterful. “Very beautiful. Very young and helpless, like a sleeping child, señorita.” He smiled, and placed his hand gently on her shoulder.
“Please,” Miss Addison whispered, instinctively drawing away. A smooth liquid warmth seemed to be passing through her. She longed to lie back again and close her eyes.
“You need not be afraid of me, señorita,” whispered the Castilian. “I am — a gentleman.” He pronounced the word in English, in a groping, unfamiliar accent. “I shall not harm you.” He paused. Then he said, “Listen, señorita.”
“Yes?” She found herself smiling at him.
“Listen, señorita.” His voice was like a shawl gently enfolding her, caressing her, submerging her. “I can see you have traveled much, señorita. I can see you have learned much, and seen much, and done many things. And yet you are like a child, señorita. When you slept I could see that your heart was the heart of a child. You have not truly lived, señorita. For it is possible, I know, to travel six times around the world and read ten thousand books, and still not know life. And it is possible to live in a tiny fishing village, and never set foot in another place, and neither read nor write, and know only the smell of goats, and wine, and bread, and the sea — and yet to know life!”
“Yes,” she said gently, lulled by the rhythm of his voice and the slow, dark rocking of the boat. “Yes, I suppose that is true, señor.”
“Listen, señorita. Has a terrible fear ever come over you? A fear that you are not quite alive, that life is passing you by, that what you do is meaningless, that you may die without ever tasting the real meaning of life? Without ever learning for what nature intended you?”
“I am not afraid,” she whispered softly, with a kind of exultation in her voice. “I feel no fear.”
“Señorita,” whispered the young Castilian ardently, and his face drew closer to hers. There was a hot, resilient beauty in his face, and his eyes shone with an engulfing caress.
And she felt suddenly that it was he who was weak and she who was strong. A reckless delight passed through her, and it seemed, as she reached out her hand, that she was touching the very essence of the night, touching the world of the future and the past, touching the perilous and overwhelming sweetness of life.
The night was impenetrably black. Spain and Portugal had vanished. All she could see was the yearning luster of his eyes. He took her arm and held it close to him, and leaned forward and looked wildly into her eyes, and then pressed his lips against hers.
The rest were still sleeping. They were almost invisible. And the boat continued to drift stealthily southward.
WHEN she awoke, Miss Addison found that it was dawn — a misty gray light swam over the Guadiana, and the arches of cloud over Spain were reflecting a subdued cherry-colored radiance.
The boat had drifted ashore, and the yellowtoothed ferryman touched Miss Addison lightly on the shoulder. “Please, señorita. All is well. There is a wagon for you and the professor.”
And as Miss Addison looked around, she found that the farmer and the farmer’s wife and the young Castilian had vanished. Only the professor remained; he was kneeling beside the shore, washing his face in the sluggish water.
She opened her bag and took out her vanity case. Her hair hung loose and disheveled, her face had lost its air of polish and self-protection. She took her powder puff, her comb. In five minutes she looked presentable.
Professor Aguilera had finished combing his hair when she stepped on shore. He smiled at her. “It is, all in all, most fortunate for us, señorita. There is a road scarcely a hundred yards from the shore. The boatman has very thoughtfully arranged for a wagon to take us to Vilar Formoso. The others? Oh, they left half an hour ago. You were still sleeping soundly, señorita. We all look a bit the worse for our little adventure, I fear. Still, as you see, the boatman was right. It was not a tragedy. Indeed, señorita, you look most remarkably well, I should say beautiful, this morning. There is a certain sparkle in your eyes.”
He smiled at her with a sly, audacious intimacy. “Life is full of surprises, señorita. But there is one thing — it is quite astonishing. The young man in the blue suit, the one from Castile — yes, would you believe it, señorita? — he grew quite confidential this morning, while you were still asleep. He is wanted in Spain for murder — would you believe it ? Oh, yes, he had a reckless, violent air about him, I couldn’t help noticing. He shot three men in Avila, he informed me with pride. A political affair, of course. Yes.” The professor’s eyes grew whimsical as he walked beside Miss Addison up the path toward the road.
The wagon was waiting for them; the old peasant was placing Miss Addison’s leather bags in the rear of the wagon with a great display of awe and ceremony.
“Yes, there were other things he told me too, señorita. Of his life, his family, his student days. And another thing. He told me you frightened him, señorita. Now that is strange, isn’t it? Why should you frighten him? I don’t know. I find it, I must confess, very strange.” Professor Aguilera smiled urbanely; but deep in his eyes, hidden in that Iberian darkness, Miss Addison had a glimpse of something else — a boundlessness, a timelessness, a savage and primordial void. And she remembered her brief apocalyptic vision of the night — the silent ferryman, the four motionless passengers — and for a moment a dizziness seized her, and she wondered whether she had been the victim of some intricate deception.
Professor Aguilera continued, and there was a dark smile in his eyes: “Yes, señorita. Life is strange; there are no patterns. Make a pattern, and life slips through the crevices. Yes, he said he was afraid of you. Do you know what I really think, señorita? I think it is not impossible that he had — for reasons which I would hesitate to imagine — fallen a little in love with you, señorita. . . .”