by ALDOUS HUXLEY
DOVE-GRAY and in pearls, Eleanor Marsden sipped her dry sherry and, with all the skill of a veteran hostess, directed the conversation. And what good conversation! How exhilaratingly reminiscent of those wonderful evenings, five and twenty years ago, when everyone — but everyone— had come to her Wednesdays in the rue de Babylone! Times, alas, had changed; so had places. Santa Barbara certainly wasn’t Paris. But neither, for that matter, was Paris; for Paris, nowadays, was inhabited by people too young to know what you were talking about, too blatantly self-centered to realize, or even wish to realize, who you were. Practically everyone else was either dead or an invalid or bankrupt.
This evening there were only four of them. Only four; but Dudley, she reflected as she looked, with an almost maternal pride, at Mr. Bull’s Shakespearean forehead and the fluffy halo of white hair about the central dome —Dudley (bless his heart!) was still a host in himself. And still so splendidly gallant in the teeth of age and illness and reverses, still a great actress, still (and for Mrs. Marsden this was the most important) in full possession of those extraordinary psychic faculties of hers, old Moira Dillon remained the dear, good precious creature she had always been. And if you wanted youth, if you wanted charm and Continental swagger, there was Alec Pozna. Her eyes rested for a moment on the sleek black head of her Social Secretary, then turned complacently to the mirror over the mantelpiece, to that last but not least of the conversing four—Your Humble Servant, with her infallible gift for drawing people out, for keeping the ball rolling, for knowing the precise, the psychological moment to interject one of her famous epigrams, one of those delicious anecdotes about Gide (she specialized in Gide stories) or the Aga Khan.
Outside, in the deepening twilight, Pamela Field came up the steps from the lower garden. In the lily pool on the terrace a chorus of invisible frogs was in full voice.
“Shut up!” she shouted as she approached.
There was a sudden silence. You could hear the traffic on the Roosevelt Highway, the cicadas in the distant pines. Then, tentatively, there was a single croak.
“Shut up!” she repeated.
This time the silence remained unbroken. Pamela smiled to herself triumphantly. It was childish, of course; for any disturbance, any suddenly intruding noise, would make the creatures stop. Childish — and yet how satisfying to be able to yell, “Shut up,” and be obeyed! She turned and, noiseless in her sneakers, padded across the flagstones toward the house. Outside the French windows she came to a halt.
The curtains had not been drawn, and in the lamplit room the four of them looked like a TV show with the sound turned off. Behind the plate glass, in utter silence, the mouths opened and shut, the hands moved, the faces senselessly grimaced. It gave Pamela a deep, malevolent satisfaction to look at them, herself unseen, grinning in a vacuum, gesticulating over nothing. She felt that she was getting some of her own back, was taking her revenge. Revenge for being only twenty and what they liked to call maladjusted (maladjusted, thank God, to them!); revenge for being a poor relation they had to be specially kind to on account of her mother and that second marriage and all the drinking and those fights when her stepfather came home with lipstick on his face . . .
“Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.” Behind the glass the lunatic television show took a new and even grotesquer turn. Old Mr. Bull had bellowed himself out of breath, and now Aunt Eleanor was going through the preposterous motions of telling a story. There was no change in her tightly girdled pose; but the gruesomely well-preserved prettiness of the face had suddenly come to life. There was a vivacious flashing of dentures, a brightness in the china-blue eyes, even a pair of dimples, forty years too late, in the embalmed cheeks. As though under order from an invisible producer, she tilted her head, she assumed an expression of conscious naughtiness.
The story came to its climax. Aunt Eleanor closed her mouth triumphantly, and at once the others began to laugh — to laugh so loudly that even through the glass Pamela could hear the muffled ghost of their guffawing. And what antics, what postures! Old Miss Dillon covered her mouth with both hands, her enormous earrings shook and swayed, she heaved like a whale, wobbled in her wine-colored jersey dress, like Jello. Old Mr. Bull slapped his thighs, doubled over, straightened himself up, beat his thighs again, and once more doubled over.
Meanwhile Alec had thrown back his head and flashed his teeth at the ceiling. And now, with one of those quick impulsive gestures, which Pamela always suspected him of rehearsing before the looking glass in his bathroom, he leaned forward, he seized Aunt Eleanor’s hand, he raised it, glittering with diamonds, to his bristly mustache, his moist red lips. Then he looked up at her with admiring, almost amorous eyes. The lips — they reminded Pamela suddenly of sea anemones — began to move. Aunt Eleanor smiled back at him and shook a playfully reproachful finger in his face. A few more hand-kissings, Pamela reflected with a savage disgust, a few more well-timed compliments, and she’d be giving him her power of attorney. It would serve him right if she also gave him herself. But, no, that wouldn’t worry him in the least. He’d get engaged, he’d even marry her, with all the ardor of a Ruritanian prince in a movie. But she’d have to begin by making a cash settlement.
AS THOUGH in derisive comment on what she was thinking a peacock screamed lugubriously in the darkness behind her. Pamela started and turned. Beyond the black mass of the live oak tree, where the invisible birds were roosting, there was the flat glimmer of the sea, and above it, a greenish afterglow darkening into blue. Out of the live oak came another long, inhuman yell. It was a signal. Time to face the music, time to submit yet once more to the torture of being alone and self-conscious in a world that (it was obvious) hated her no less passionately than she detested it. She opened the French window and, without a word, without so much as a look at Aunt Eleanor, or any of the others, slouched into the drawing room.
“Good evening, dear.” Mrs. Marsden’s tone was resolutely affectionate. “Did you have a nice walk?”
Pamela gave vent to an inarticulate mumble and, letting herself fall, hunched and averted, into the nearest chair, immediately lighted a cigarette. Not that she wanted to smoke; but if she didn’t, what could she do with her hands?
Mrs. Marsden looked at her niece and charitably reminded herself that, after all, it wasn’t the poor girl’s fault that poor Dwight had died when she was twelve, that Molly had rushed with such an animal eagerness into that disastrous second marriage. It wasn’t her fault; but surely, surely there was no need for a face so delicately molded to look, in the sullen blankness of its expression, quite so intensely, so malignantly ugly. And then the clothes . . . In one quick comprehensive glance she took in the sneakers, the filthy blue jeans, the crumpled cotton jacket, the striped sweat shirt, not merely repulsive, but downright indecent, with those hard-bitten nails as matching accessories, that none too recently washed hair scraped back from the forehead and tied with tape in a mare’s tail at the back of the head. Deliberate squalor superimposed upon deliberate ugliness.
“Do you have to look like a garbage collector?” she asked, articulating the words with more than even her usual exquisite precision of utterance.
“What’s that?” Mr. Bull thrust the microphone of his hearing aid in her direction. “What’s that?” The thought that he might be missing something always threw him into a panic.
Still holding herself averted, Pamela blew out a mouthful of smoke and, making an enormous effort to keep her voice from trembling out of control, said, “Yes, I do.”
Under their discreet make-up Mrs. Marsden’s cheeks were flushed with sudden anger. She opened her mouth to speak, then thought better of it — thought better of it, she tried to tell herself, on high moral grounds, out of Christian forbearance. But in fact she had noticed the sudden tightening of the muscles around Pamela’s mouth, and had been afraid. She forced a little laugh and turned, with a shrug, to Alec and Miss Dillon.
“Forty years ago,” she said in an undertone, “forty years ago my mother would have sent me out of the room. Now one has to allow the little pets to ‘express their personalities.’” Mrs. Marsden put the words between the ironical equivalent of quotation marks. “Or alternatively you pay a psychiatrist twenty-five dollars an hour to find out why they can’t behave like ladies — or if that’s too much to ask (which nowadays it obviously is), at least like human beings.”
Still hammering at the closed door of an earlier conversation, Mr. Bull drew his chair closer to Pamela’s. “What did you say you did?” he asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said, and again, more loudly, as the questioning microphone became more importunate, “It doesn’t matter.”
“But it does,” Mr. Bull insisted, and with the dread of being shut out, of missing even the most modest bus, there was mingled, as motive for his persistence, a vaguely prurient curiosity about this sullen adolescent with the boyish hips, the provocatively tight sweater, a pathetic hope-against-hope that she would take him into her confidence, would discuss her soul with him, would ask his advice about her sex life — and who could give her better advice than Uncle Dudley? Bull by name and bull by nature. Bull in his time to whole bevies of Europas and Pasiphaës. And from advice who could say where one might go next? Goethe, after all, had had his Bettina — at eighty, wasn’t it? He gave her his most seductive smile.
At the other end of the room Miss Dillon had rushed — her semi-precious earrings swinging, her richly asthmatic contralto vibrant with emotion — to the defense of the young in general, of Pamela in particular. It was so obvious, she insisted. The poor waif just didn’t get loved enough.
Mrs. Marsden was on the verge of being offended. To hear her, one would think that Moira had a monopoly of Christian charity, a corner in psychology. But who had told her to read Father D’Arcy? Who had introduced her to Dr. Horney? Who had gone to church regularly, when Moira was no better than a pagan with a knack for ESP? She glanced at her reflection in the mirror, then turned back to Miss Dillon and said, rather severely, “I give the child everything her mother never gave her.”
“Maybe,” Miss Dillon said. “But now you’ve got to give her a lot more.”
Mr. Bull was irrepressible. “Tell me,” he demanded yet again.
Pamela looked at him for a moment in silence, and suddenly it was all an enormous joke. Her mother, Aunt Eleanor, this old idiot who wanted to make a pass at her . . . She burst out laughing. “I’ll tell you what I do,” she said. “I do my best to look like a garbage collector.”
“A garbage collector? But, my dear, you look absolutely charming.”
She ignored the compliment. A sluice had been raised, a flood of words came pouring out. “Garbage,” she said. “A whole lifetime of garbage. Garbage in diapers. Garbage when I was a kid with earache. And then Mother married her gorilla ...”
Mr. Bull protested. Young Tom wasn’t that bad.
Pamela bared her teeth in a ferocious grin. “Okay, then,”she said. “He wasn’t a gorilla. Just the cutest little baboon. And the garbage wasn’t garbage. It was ice cream. A genuine strawberry and fish-guts sundae. And when I got away from it at home, there was more of the same at Miss Pinkham’s. At UCLA. With an extra quart or two thrown in every time I had a date. And the only time the date ever mattered, who did Prince Charming turn out to be? No less than Carl E. Garbage in person! And now this!”
She made a sweeping gesture that included everything — the brocades, the carpels, the Impressionists on the walls, the tasteful mingling of modern furniture with eighteenth-century Venetian, the staircase descending in a cataract of marble from the balustraded gallery, and at the center of it all Aunt Eleanor with a sherry glass, holding her court. Once more she broke into a peal of loud metallic laughter.
Mrs. Marsden looked at her apprehensively. Was the girl, she wondered, working up to one of her outrageous scenes?
It was just a question, Miss Dillon was saying, of having enough of it — enough positive to cancel out the other person’s negative, enough love to neutralize their hatred, cast out their fear.
Easier said than done, Mrs. Marsden reflected as she remembered that long series of painful and embarrassing episodes. Pamela rushing out into the street in underclothes and being brought back by a policeman on a motorcycle. Pamela biting the Senator’s hand. Pamela at a tea party of church workers explaining the precise meaning of the word “necrophily.” Was it going to happen again?
At this moment, providentially, Victor appeared at the door and announced that dinner was served. With a haste which in any other circumstances she would have condemned as indecent, Mrs. Marsden rose and, calling to theothers to follow, rustled away toward the dining room.
PAMELA’S excitement fell as rapidly as it had boiled up. By the time the napkins were unfolded, she had become her old self— blank, shut, silent. Alter the soup, with a creaking of stays, a sparkle of swinging earrings, Miss Dillon turned to her and, in the most natural, unpatronizing way, began to talk.
Who was her favorite modern poet?
She hated poetry, Pamela heard herself saying.
What was she majoring in at college?
Flunked out, was the triumphant answer. Straight E’s.
They were all such phonies.
And what did she think about religion?
About that book by Truman Capote?
And yet she really liked the old girl, liked her as much as she detested herself for being so rude, so unutterably stupid. But somehow there was no choice. She had to do these things.
Miss Dillon looked at her for a few seconds in silence — looked at her without annoyance, without pity or condemnation, without any of that brightly professional understanding one was apt to see on the faces of psychological counselors; just looked as you might look at any ordinary person. “Life,” she said at last, and her husky voice took on a deeper vibrancy, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
There was a dramatic pause. Pamela stirred uneasily. What was she getting at?
“But there’s also a right to death,” the old actress went on with her infallible sense of timing, “a right to captivity, a right to the pursuit of misery. Don’t you agree with me?”
There was no answer.
“An inalienable right,” the once golden voice continued, “to total alienation, a God-given right to go irrevocably to the Devil.”
Pamela laughed. “The Devil,” she repeated contemptuously. “It’s just words, just stage dialogue.”
“Of course,”Miss Dillon agreed. “But what happens when you start claiming those rights? The words turn into facts. Very unpleasant facts. The fact of madness, for example; the fact of . . .” She hesitated. “ You don’t believe in it, of course — but it happens to be a fact! The fact of being possessed.”
“Who by?” Pamela asked sarcastically. “By Russian agents?”
For an answer Miss Dillon preserved a silence which made the little joke sound abysmally asinine. In her angry humiliation, Pamela plunged yet deeper into silliness. “By Karl Marx’s ghost?”
There was another devastating silence. Then Miss Dillon sighed and said, “I’d hate it if anything happened to you.”
“No, you wouldn’t,” Pamela retorted, trying to save a hopeless situation by plain rudeness. “You wouldn’t care any more than anyone else. Nobody’d give a damn.”
“Maybe you’re right,” said Miss Dillon cheerfully. “If you go on like this nobody will give a damn. In fact,” she added with a chuckle, “they’ll be extremely relieved to see the last of you.”
Pamela flushed darkly and turned away. “My only friend, and I spit in her face—” and now, as was only to be expected, the only friend had turned into another enemy. Suddenly she felt Miss Dillon’s hand on her arm and heard the husky voice. “Let’s have a talk about it sometime,” it said, and the tone was as honestly, as unpatronizingly friendly as ever. “Would you like to?”
Pamela could not trust herself to speak, could not trust herself even to look into a face which she knew must be so kindly that it would make her want to cry. Still averted, she nodded her head.
With a flash and tinkle of earrings, Miss Dillon swung round to Mr. Bull, who was holding forth at the top of his booming voice about the new administration and what ought to be done in the Middle East.
“My only friend,” Pamela inwardly repeated, “and I spit in her face.” Her throat tightened and tears came info her eyes. To have an excuse to wipe them, she pretended to choke.
“And look at Iran,” Mr. Bull cried in a tone of tragic irony. “Just look at it!”
Then, suddenly realizing that he had been forgetting to eat, he returned to his cracked crab. There was a silence.
“Don’t let anyone talk to me,”Pamela implored the God she didn’t believe in.
The prayer was answered. Aunt Eleanor started to tell Miss Dillon about the most recent of her psychic experiences. She had dreamed of Mimi de Barbazange, and whom should she get a letter from, next morning, but Mimi de Barbazange?
Always the Social Secretary, Alec Pozna loudly expressed his amazement.
And now it was Miss Dillon’s turn — and the old girl was, as everybody knew, really psychic, almost a professional.
A few nights ago, she began, at 3 A.M. (the trained contralto thrilled dramatically as she specified the witching hour) she had been awakened by a voice distinctly saying “Alfred,” and again more urgently, “Alfred!” That was Wednesday, and on Thursday morning, in the Air Mail Edition of the New York Times, there it was — the news of poor Lord Basingstoke’s passing — very suddenly, of a heart attack. There was a pause, a reverential hush. Aunt Eleanor sighed at last and turned to Alec. What about dogs? Didn’t he agree that they were telepathic too? Her own little Ponto, for example . . .
For Pamela it was positively a godsend. Now she could jeer again, now she was justified in any rudeness, however outrageous. “My only friend, and I spit in her face” — but with the best of good reasons: because of Ponto, because of Basingstoke and Barbazange. Secretly, behind the mask of her blank face, she hooted with derision.
MEANWHILE cracked crab had given place to veal, sauterne to a claret which Alec duly pronounced to be the finest he had drunk since the war. Aunt Eleanor smiled at him appreciatively. Then Miss Dillon started to tell a story (“I think you’ll find it rather interesting,” she said to Pamela in a whispered parenthesis) — a story about a demoniac waitress whom she had exorcised, between two performances of Hay Fever, at Montgomery, Alabama. The girl had had an illegitimate baby, couldn’t support it, of course, had to agree to its being adopted by someone who could, and shortly thereafter had found herself invaded by an entity — by something that made her do all kinds of things she didn’t want to do. Stupid things, violent things, things against her own interest, vile and disgusting things.
With mounting anger — for what did the old woman mean by telling her that she’d be particularly interested in this sort of nonsense? — Pamela listened to the ruin of that famous voice, as it rose and fell, wheezily, breathlessly, but how fascinatingly still, with what incomparable art! Through a long catalogue of outrages, of convulsions, of shrieks and blasphemies and obscenities, the anecdote advanced toward its solemn conclusion.
“Come out of her!” Miss Dillon cried, and raised her right hand in a Shakespearean gesture. “Come out of her!” Then, after a pause and very softly, “In the name of God, come out of her.”
Mr. Bull, who had been eating with such an intensity of concentration as to be quite unable to talk, suddenly lifted a perspiring face and, to Pamela’s huge delight, roared, “I don’t believe a word of it!”
“Dudley!” Mrs. Marsden protested.
But Mr. Bull was not to be silenced. “I don’t mind your talking about haunted houses,” he declared. “Or calculating horses, or J. B. Rhine, or even God, if it amuses you. But not entities. I draw the line at entities.” With a horny fingernail he drew it on the tablecloth, looked around him defiantly, then dropped his head and began to eat again, passionately, as though his life depended on it.
Pamela stole a glance at Miss Dillon. Had he made her mad? Would she go for him? But instead of starting a fight, Miss Dillon merely laughed good-humoredly. “I’ll respect your line,” she said. “But will they?”
Mr. Bull’s mouth was so full that he had to confine himself to an angry grunt.
“Will they respect it?” Miss Dillon repeated, turning suddenly to Pamela. “That’s the question — isn’t it?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” the girl muttered.
Miss Dillon picked up her claret glass, set it down in front of her plate, and proceeded to construct around it a little barricade of forks and spoons and bits of Melba toast.
“The strongest line,” she said, as she built her wall, “is the pursuit of happiness and a certain . . .” She hesitated. “I won’t say ‘faith,”she went on, “because it’s one of those words that put people’s teeth on edge. Call it ‘confidence.’ Confidence in the human race, confidence in the universe. You have to assume that they’re not quite as bad as they so often seem to be. If you don’t have confidence, if you start pursuing misery instead of happiness, then you do this.” She removed a piece of Melba toast. “And then you run the risk of this.” She thrust the point of a knife through the gaping breach. “It’s very simple,”she said, “painfully simple.”
Mrs. Marsden, meanwhile, had tactfully changed the subject. Such a splendid exhibition of armor at the Los Angeles Museum! And the new open-air sculpture gallery with all those things from the Hearst collection — really stunning! Mr. Bull swallowed his last mouthful of veal and rose again to the surface.
“I like the way they polish their bronzes,”he said. “You can see yourself reflected in the goddesses’ buttocks.” He broke into a bellowing guffaw.
Mrs. Marsden joined in the merriment, not indulgently or perfunctorily, but with a surprisingly wholehearted peal of laughter. As though she were ten years old, Pamela reflected with savage contempt, and had just seen a dirty word penciled on the washroom wall. Talk of repressions! Talk of the price you had to pay for all that damned refinement!
THE plates were changed. A mountain of pink ice cream, garnished with strawberries, made its appearance. Without waiting for anyone else, Mr. Bull plunged once again into the ecstasy of eating and was lost to conversation.
Suddenly Aunt Eleanor broke off in the middle of a sentence. “Did you hear?" she asked excitedly.
Every spoon, except Mr. Bull’s, was poised in a listening gesture.
“ Did you hear? ”
And suddenly Pamela was aware of a strange little piping whisper that seemed to come from somewhere between the top of Miss Dillon’s head and the red-shaded candles at the center of the table.
“It’s Kapila,” Mrs. Marsden cried.
“So it is,” said Miss Dillon calmly, and took another spoonful of ice cream.
Faintly, with a sibilant indistinctness, the whispering voice spoke again.
“He’s saying good evening,” Mrs. Marsden announced. An expression of unwonted animation lit up the embalmed prettiness of her face. “Good evening, Kapila,”she called into space.
Pamela sniggered inaudible.
This time, in spite of the accompanying whistle, the words were perfectly intelligible.
“Good evening, everybody.”
Alec Pozna did not have to simulate astonishment. “What on earth . . .?”
“Nothing on earth,” Mrs. Marsden answered triumphantly. “Kapila comes from Outside.”
She turned to Dudley Bull, who was spooning up the last of his strawberries. “Can you hear him?”
“Hear whom?” he asked, still munching.
“Kapila?” he repeated. “Who’s Kapila?”
He looked at Mrs. Marsden, who looked at Miss Dillon. “That,” said the latter, “is what I’ve been trying to figure out for the last sixteen years. Ever since this thing began to happen.”
“Kapila’s a Hindu,” Mrs. Marsden explained.
“You mean, he says he’s a Hindu,” Miss Dillon qualified. “But is he? He could be just a part of me. Or maybe he’s something entirely different. Not human at all. One of those things Dudley draws a line at.” She uttered her rich asthmatic laugh. “Not a bad one, mind you — not like the thing that had got into that poor little waitress. Just some kind of nice, ordinary, middle-class flibbertigibbet, whose hobby happens to be producing voices in the neighborhood of elderly females.”
Pamela listened admiringly. What a performance! Anyone would think she was absolutely sincere.
Mrs. Marsden turned to Mr. Bull. “Put your microphone in the middle of the table,” she commanded.
“Maybe he’ll talk to you.”
“Now, really, Eleanor!” Mr. Bull protested. “Whom do you take me for? Joan of Arc?”
“Do what I tell you,” said Mrs. Marsden peremptorily.
All the tact of the veteran hostess had vanished. She was the crusader, the mouthpiece of a cause.
Mr. Bull smiled with indulgent irony and obeyed.
There was a long half minute of silence. Then, near the microphone, a tiny sound like an articulated squeak made itself heard. Mr. Bull started. “Who said that?” he demanded.
“Entities,” Miss Dillon answered with a chuckle.
Frowning angrily, Mr. Bull picked up his hearing aid and gave the thing a sharp, punitive shaking. “I guess it was the battery,” he muttered.
There was a whistling among the candlesticks, and the little voice said, “No, it wasn’t.”
Miss Dillon leaned back in her chair and shook with genial laughter.
“I suppose you picked it up when you were in vaudeville,” said Mr. Bull in a tone that was meant to be insulting.
“Picked up what?”
Miss Dillon smiled, but did not answer.
“Don’t be an ass-ss,” said the whisper dispassionately.
“A what?” He pushed his microphone a little further out into the emptiness.
“An ass-ss. A s-stupid ass-ss,” the little squeak elaborated.
So rapidly that his halo of white hair lifted in the wind of his own motion, Mr. Bull wheeled round to see if he could catch the tasteless joker red-handed. But that Pozna fellow, still open-mouthed with astonishment, was obviously out of the question. And, no less obviously, was Pamela. Why, the girl wasn’t even listening. He looked at Eleanor Marsden. Her face, at ordinary times politely impassive, wore the rapturous expression of a believer at the altar rails.
He turned back to Miss Dillon. “Very funny,” he said sarcastically. “I congratulate you.”
Miss Dillon ignored him. “This is the first time,” she remarked, as she lighted her cigarette, “that Kapila has ever come in during a meal.”
Mr. Bull saw his opportunity and let out a guffaw. “Maybe he wasn’t getting enough to eat on the other side.”
This time the whisper seemed to be coming from somewhere over his left shoulder. “There’s-s that ass-ss again,” it said a little wearily.
But Mr. Bull had had time to recover his sense of superiority. A rationalist in the midst of superstitious dupes and self-deceiving cheats, he could afford to smile. “Thank you,” he said.
The silence that followed was broken at last by Mrs. Marsden. “Give us a message,” she wheedled. “Please, Kapila, give us a message.”
Furtively, as though from ambush, Pamela shot a glance at her aunt. Everything about her was as rigidly elegant as ever — everything except the almost abject smile she was aiming into the air in front of her. The smile of a teen-ager, mummified, but hopelessly in love — not, of course, with Dillon’s invisible Charlie McCarthy, but with herself, with an Eleanor Marsden idealized and so unutterably precious that the Universe simply couldn’t afford to do without her. Or could it? Kapila had the answer. Hence the wheedling, hence the adoring smile.
How grotesque, Pamela said to herself, how nauseating, how. . .! And then, like a blow, it struck her that this, precisely, was the smile she had caught, at the end of that last, unforgettably dreadful evening with Carl, on her own face.
“Darling . . .”
“Cut it out!”
“Don’t you love me?”
She remembered the long silence, the horrible waiting. They were standing in the living room, he with his back to the old Venetian mirror that hung near the door, at bay, while she looked up at him imploringly. He met her eyes for a moment, then turned away. Despairingly, against her better judgment, she took his hand.
“Don’t you love me, Carl?”
“You make me tired,” he said at last and suddenly, roughly, he broke away from her.
Where the hard averted face had been, there was only her own reflection in the mirror, a pale face abjectly trying to smile at somebody who wasn’t even there. The front door slammed, the hurrying feet clattered on the steps and along the path.
“Give us a message,” Mrs. Marsden’s wheedling voice repeated.
It was the last straw, the grotesque insult that somehow took all the tragedy out of her suffering and turned it into something low and sordid. Pamela pushed back her chair and hurried out of the room, out of the house. “I hate them,” she kept repeating, “I hate them.”
And the more she hated, the more hateful she felt herself becoming. Death, captivity, the pursuit of misery . . . Everything old Dillon had said was absolutely true, and she hated her for having said it.
AN HOUR later Mr. Bull found her, dry-eyed but miserable, in the little round temple at the end of the terrace. Above her chair, high on its pedestal, glimmered that, early Victorian statue of Venus with which (on his advice and because it looked exactly like a George Eliot heroine who had somehow mislaid her petticoats) Mrs. Marsden had adorned her summerhouse.
“There she is!” he bellowed with elephantine playfulness. “Prostrate before the goddess of love. No, no, don’t run away,” he added, as she made a move to rise. “I’m not as dangerous as all that.”
Echoing enormously in the dome of the tiny temple, his rakish laughter was meant to imply that, in reality, he was even more dangerous.
He sat down beside her, he laid a hand on her knee. De l’audace, toujours de l’audace, he was thinking; but at the same time festina lente. These first pats must be strictly avuncular.
“How wise of you, my child, to get out when you did! Nothing but spirits ever since you left. Personally, I’m a crass materialist.”
There was another pat, a playful little pinch.
“Hamlet,” he ventured, “complained of its being too too solid. For my taste, I confess, it can never be solid enough.” Mr. Bull roused the echoes with another peal of what he liked to think of as Byronic laughter. “Never solid enough,” he repeated, and illustrated his words by a lingering squeeze.
Pamela said nothing, but sat there, perfectly still, as though she were at the dentist’s. Everything was garbage anyhow; so why bother, why not accept any filth that might present itself?
“Well, I’m glad she’s gone,” Mr. Bull went on, preparing to advance behind the screen of irrelevant conversation.
“Glad who’s gone?” Pamela asked.
“Weren’t you there when Moira’s agent rang up?”
“You mean Miss Dillon’s gone?” Pamela asked with sudden concern. A moment ago she had never wanted to see the old woman again; but now . . . now it was as though her last hope had suddenly been taken away from her.
“Some sort of job,” Mr. Bull explained. “Got to start rehearsals tomorrow morning. So it was good-by — thank goodness.”
“I like her,” said Pamela with a kind of angry emphasis.
“Oh, so do I, so do I,” Mr. Bull hastened to assure her. In circumstances like these, as he knew by bitter experience, the smallest difference of opinion could raise an insurmountable obstacle. “It’s poor little Eleanor I’m worried about.”
Applied to Aunt Eleanor, the epithets were so ludicrous that Pamela nearly burst out laughing.
“There’s no holding her,” Mr. Bull went on, “when Moira’s around. All this damned superstition! All this twaddle about entities and everlasting life! It’s her only weakness.”
Her only weakness, Pamela repeated to herself ironically. There was a long silence. She felt another squeeze. The dentist was reaching for his forceps. Her muscles stiffened in anticipation.
But Mr. Bull was looking out between the pillars of the summerhouse. This darkness, he was thinking, this scent of jasmine and, over there, the wide gleam of the sea, over here the endless soliloquies of frogs — it had been the same in the little garden above Ravello, thirty-one years ago. A June night, and Eleanor in her hammock, all in white, with little scarlet slippers on her bare feet, and corals around her neck.
In a rush of fidelity to that long-vanished beloved, he withdrew the avuncular hand.
Pamela’s taut muscles relaxed. “Thank goodness!” And yet, now that she had made up her mind to take whatever filth might present itself, it was almost disappointing.
From the highway came the mournful howling of a police siren. Mr. Bull was far away among the ancient olive trees. One red slipper had fallen to the grass, and he was holding the little foot (how tenderly, how reverently!) between his hands. Remote, in Columbus, Ohio, hovered the middleaged banker she had refused to divorce. Wisely, Mr. Bull was now ready to admit; for he was a poor man and Eleanor was never meant to be poor. But at the time, how tragic it had seemed, how excruciating! That garden of their bliss had been hedged about with agonies. His heart overflowed into speech.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” he felt constrained to say. There was a long pause, and then, “She was the only woman I ever really loved.”
He began another sentence; then, too deeply moved to be able to go on speaking, broke off.
The only woman he had ever loved . . . And it was Aunt Eleanor — Aunt Eleanor! A voiceless howl of laughter pealed inside Pamela’s skull.
Garbage was still garbage, but the filth had become grotesque. “The only woman he had ever loved!” It was like something by Thurber. She visualized the picture, she imagined the caption.
“Isn’t it providential, Mr. Bull, that men and women should be of opposite sexes?”
And the great Bull would shake his hearing aid and say, “What’s that?”
“Opposite sexes,” she’d repeat fortissimo. “OPPOSITE SEXES.”
“Opposite sexes,” Pamela whispered between her teeth. No, that wasn’t good enough. Lingering over the sibilants, she tried again. “Oppos-site s-sex-xes.”
With a little start, Mr. Bull surfaced from the depths of his reverie. “What’s that?” he asked, word-perfect in his Thurberian role. “What’s that ?”
“I didn’t say anything,” Pamela answered with a careless casualness, of which she had not believed herself capable.
“I thought I heard that damned . . .”Mr. Bull broke off in mid-phrase and frowned angrily,
“Rears-s its-s ugly head,” Pamela whispered. Then, “Tris-stan, Tris-stan.” And there he was, in the theatre of her mind, the Great Lover, bald and deaf, drinking down the potion, while an embalmed Isolde palpitated in the background.
“S-s-s,” she whistled, “its-s ugly head.”
Mr. Bull looked up sharply. “Are you trying to be funny?" he demanded in a loud, angry tone.
“Trying to be funny?” Pamela repeated with the most beautifully innocent incomprehension.
Mr. Bull peered at her through the darkness, divined a pair of wide astonished eyes, and decided he must have been the victim of head noises. “I guess I was imagining things,” he muttered.
For the second time that evening Pamela had the exhilarating sense that she was getting some of her own back. Those dummies gesticulating behind the glass—that had been good. But this was better, this was much more satisfying. For now it was not a mere accident that was making fools of them. No, this time she was doing it. And suddenly an entire plan of campaign unrolled itself before her. She saw herself practicing, practicing, till she could make the little voice come from nowhere. She saw Aunt Eleanor abjectly begging for messages and wincing when she got them. Messages with a vengeance! Home truths about her meannesses, her love of flattery. Nonsense about the Next World. Off-color jokes from the departed. And after Aunt Eleanor, she’d deal with Alec Pozna. “Where’s that pimp?” the voice would ask. “Where’s that lickspittle?” And then it would be the turn of Mr. Bull. “Keep your hands to yourself!”
Mr. Bull sighed profoundly and heaved himself out of his chair. The spell was broken; the risen past had slipped back, irrevocably, into the grave. It was time to go in, time to return to Eleanor in 1953, to the numb insensibilities of old age.
Pamela watched him lumbering away, then sat up in her chair and set to work.
“This is Marouf.” (The voice, she had already decided, was to be an Arabian.) “This is Marouf.”
Talking between your teeth was easy. So was that hissing. No trick at all. A little piping whistle with every syllable. But how did you prevent your lips from moving? How did you breathe so that people wouldn’t suspect you? How could you keep ihe muscles of your checks and throat completely relaxed? She raised her hands and, very lightly, touched her face. “This is Marouf.”
Under the fingertips there was a positive earthquake of movement. Patiently she tried again.
“This is Marouf. This is Marouf . . .”
A hundred repetitions later there was no perceptible improvement. Angrily she jumped up and walked out onto the terrace.
“Shut up, you devils!” she shouted at the frogs.
THERE was silence in the lily pool. And now she would refresh her abhorrence of the humans. Keeping to the shadows, Pamela walked over to the house. There they were, behind the plate glass, like things in an aquarium. Mr. Bull was doing the crossword in the London Times. In the yellow sofa beyond the fireplace, Aunt Eleanor was busy on the embroidery of that altar cloth for Bishop Hicks. Beside her sat Alec Pozna with a book, reading aloud. Under the bristles of his mustache those juicy sea anemones that were his lips moved steadily, inaudibly. He turned a page and Pamela had a glimpse of the title: Spiritual Something or Other —the second word escaped her. She smiled sardonically, remembering that phrase she had read in an article by some Austrian psychoanalyst — “Menopause Spirituality.” In Aunt Eleanor’s case it was Menopause Spirituality combined with Senility Spiritualism. You could express it in the form of an equation: —
Spiritual Something or Other plus
Give us a Message.”
Result: poor old Mr. Bull had to listen to voices, and the unspeakable Pozna (whose personal taste, as she knew, ran to Mickey Spillane and naked girls with bullet holes two inches below the navel) had to spend his evenings reading about Mental Prayer and Religious Experiences.
How peaceful they looked in their aquarium, how domestic, and at the same time how extraordinarily high-class! Like an illustration to a story about Mother’s Day— but Mother’s Day at the Vanderbilts’. She made a grimace of disgust and turned back toward the summerhouse. “Loathsome,” she whispered, then touched her face and tried again. “Absolutely loathsome.”
This time, it seemed to Pamela, there was a real improvement. Much less breath coming out between the teeth, hardly any movement of the lips. And the throat, the whole face, felt easier, looser, altogether more natural.
She entered the dark cavern of the summerhouse and, feeling all at once very strong and confident, resumed her scat.
“I’ll show them!” she said aloud.
“I’ll show them,” repeated the echo in the vaulted roof.
A wave of heat ran up her spine. There was a prickling inside her ears, and from under her arms there issued a kind of crawling. Like centipedes, like innumerable caterpillars, crawling up her throat, crawling over her breasts — horrible beyond words and yet one wished it could go on forever. The sensation disappeared as suddenly as it had come. She drew a deep breath and set to work again.
“Loathsome.” That was good, she said to herself approvingly, that was very good indeed.
“They’re vermin,” she went on — and how absurdly easy it was to get a whistle even on a V! “They’re lice, they’re bedbugs.” And then, “Insect powder!”
She saw a vision of herself spraying Aunt Eleanor with an enormous Flit Gun, sprinkling DDT on Pozna and Mr. Bull. What antics, what a buzzing and a flapping! She laughed aloud. Overhead in the plaster dome, the echoes gasped and cackled. The vision faded, the noise of merriment died away. Pamela wiped her eyes and prepared to go on with her practicing. What should it be now? More about vermin — or something else? Suddenly there was a little whistle behind her.
“Not a joke,” she seemed to hear; and then, much more distinctly, “I’d really like to kill them.”
She started violently, turned and, at the sight of that huge presence looming out of the darkness above her, was filled for a brief appalling moment with mortal terror. Then she laughed unsteadily. It was only Venus, and she was obviously getting whispers on the brain.
She raised her hands to her face.
“I’d really like to kill them,” she repeated.
Under the cool skin not a muscle had stirred; the breath came quietly, evenly, and it came through the nostrils. Incredulous, she tried again.
“Kill them,” she whispered, “murder them. Murder them!”
Even at the highest pitch of emphasis her fingers recorded nothing.
“I’ve made it!” she cried exultantly.
“Made it,” said the echo.
And then, in the ensuing silence, she heard the tiny voice again. “Break her neck,”it said.
For a moment it was like being on a roller coaster — the bottom falling out of the stomach, the heart rushing up into the throat. Then she remembered a phrase that had been used in her psychology class at UCLA — “ Unconscious verbalization” — and was able to smile indulgently at her own terrors. Unconscious verbalization — but of course! And meanwhile, Pamela reminded herself triumphantly, she had made it! She was ready to go and wipe the floor with them, ready to take her revenge, to get some of her own back — at last.
NOBODY paid much attention when she opened the French window and slipped into the room. Aunt Eleanor merely glanced at her for a moment over the top of her spectacles and vaguely smiled. Pozna went on reading Spiritual Something or Other, and Mr. Bull did not look up from his crosswords. She picked up a couple of magazines from the table and retired to the remotest corner of the room.
Seven letters. Bird from South America. Mr. Bull frowned, then hopefully whispered “Jabiru.” He counted the letters on his fingers. Damn it — there were only six.
“Getting tired?” Mrs. Marsden asked solicitously, as Alee put down the book and reached for his highball.
Under the black bristles the sea anemones parted, the white teeth flashed. “Not a bit,” he said with that rich accent which suggested principalities in the Caucasus, ancestral halls in Montenegro or Walachia.
He took a gulp of whiskey and water, wiped the anemones on a lemon-colored silk handkerchief, and picked up the book again. “Ça me passionne,” he added, incapable evidently of voicing his enthusiasm in anything less expressive than French. He flashed another smile, then recommenced his reading. “‘Do what you are doing now; suffer what you are suffering now. Nothing need be changed but your own heart. Holiness consists in willing everything but sin, everything that happens to us by God’s order.'”
Mrs. Marsden looked up from her embroidery. “How true that is!” she cried.
“Tout à fait merveilleux!” said her Social Secretary.
“Read it again.”
Stifling a yawn, Pozna went back to the beginning of the paragraph. Stitching away at a crimson pomegranate, Mrs. Marsden listened with focused attention. “Nothing need be changed but your heart.” But how hard it was to begin! And would she ever reach the point of actually willing the miseries of daily life? Willing her arthritis, willing the income tax, willing this headlong flight of the days toward old age and death, willing all her anxieties over Pamela?
At the other end of the room the little voice gave vent to Pamela’s feelings in an almost noiseless chuckle.
“‘It is by obeying,’” Pozna read on, “‘that we are made free.’ ”
“What tripe!” Pamela said to herself, and opened the magazine she was holding. Half a dozen corpses on a battlefield confronted her. Profoundly bored, she moved on to the new fashions from Italy. Lovely clothes, and the girls were beautiful. Put then they had boy friends, they had fathers, they had mothers who didn’t drink and aunts who weren’t stinkingly rich. Angrily she turned the page. On the right-hand side was a bright pink advertisement of tenderized ham; on the left, the Annunciation by Fra Angelico. And then a doublepage spread, in full color, of a gigantic plate of corned beef hash.
“‘What is man?’” Pozna was declaiming. “‘An angel, an animal, a void, a whole world . . .’ ”
From corned beef hash Pamela turned to the latest starlet. Five feet five and a half. One hundred and seventeen pounds. Bust, thirty-eight; waist, twenty-three; hips, thirty-eight and a half.
“Man is a nothing surrounded by God, destitute of God, hungry for God; a nothing capable of God, a nothing, if it so desires, filled with God.’”
“Lies,” Pamela thought derisively. It was all a pack of lies. No, it wasn’t even lies. To tell a lie, you must know the truth. And there wasn’t any truth. There was only this senselessness of unrelated items in a magazine; there was only this monstrous jumble of thighs and corned beef hash, of corpses and Annunciations, of strapless bras and Pozna reading about God.
From behind the Chinese screen came a whistle and four faint syllables that might perhaps have been “Insect powder.”
Mrs. Marsden looked up from the pomegranate and glanced around the room. Alec was reading, Dudley had his crosswords, Pamela was wasting her time, as usual, on a magazine. There seemed to be nothing here to account for what she had heard. But had she heard it?
As though in answer to her question there was a whispering in the empty fireplace. The words were indistinguishable; but at least they had been spoken.
Mrs. Marsden was filled with a sudden fluttering excitement. Pozna read on, but God had retreated into the unregarded background. The near, the only important realities were this tiny voice and the thrilling fact that, though Moira had gone, Kapila had remained — for her!
“‘How could we deny self, if there were not, within us, something different from self?’”
She touched his arm. He looked up and gave her one of those irresistible smiles of his. “What is it, Princess?” he asked.
She had been going to tell him about Kapila; but now she changed her mind. If she told Alec, she would have to tell Dudley too; and then good-by to any hope of getting an important message. For Dudley would start by saying that he couldn’t hear; and then, when he did hear, he’d try to be funny.
“I’m feeling rather tired,” she said to Pozna. “I think I’ll go to bed.”
SHE started to roll up her embroidery. In her room, she was thinking exultantly, she’d have Kapila all to herself.
Out of the fireplace came another whisper — of approval surely, of loving encouragement.
Taken by surprise, Pamela looked up from that absolutely fascinating picture of a deformed rat, whose parents had been exposed to atomic radiation, and was appalled by what she saw. Why, she hadn’t started yet, she hadn’t even decided what she was going to do! And here was Aunt Eleanor running out on her.
“You’re not going to bed?” she asked anxiously. And when her aunt nodded, “But it’s only a quarter past ten,” she protested, and would have liked to add, “You double-crossing old . . .”
“I’ve got the beginnings of a headache,” Mrs. Marsden explained.
Pamela jumped up. “Let me get you some aspirin,” she cried and started for the staircase.
Mrs. Marsden checked her. It wasn’t necessary. She’d take some when she was in bed.
“I’d like to bring it to you,” Pamela insisted.
Touched by so much solicitude, Aunt Eleanor put an arm round the girl’s shoulders, gave her a good hug, and kissed the averted cheek.
“Poor waif!” she said to herself, remembering Moira’s phrase, and then, “Love, love.” It was the only cure. Patience and love.
Rigid with loathing, Pamela suffered herself to be embraced.
“. . . her neck,” said the little voice from the fireplace, and broke into infinitesimal laughter.
“Did you hear something?” Pozna asked excitedly.
But Mrs. Marsden was determined to keep Kapila to herself. “No,” she said coldly, “I didn’t.”
Pozna opened his mouth to speak, then remembered that he was only a Social Secretary and refrained.
Mrs. Marsden turned and walked across the yellow carpet to where Dudley was sitting in his pool of lamplight. She moved with poised deliberation; but inwardly she was bubbling with elation. Another minute or two and she’d be alone, the door locked, the lights turned out, in touch at last, at last, with the Beyond.
She laid a hand on Dudley’s shoulder. “Good night,” she shouted; for his hearing aid was off.
“Good night,”he said absently, without looking up from the puzzle.
Mrs. Marsden looked at the pink tonsure with its silver halo, and smiled affectionately. “You may be a stupid old Doubling Thomas,” she began with a teasing laugh.
“What’s that?” He looked up and turned on his machine.
“. . . a stupid old Doubting Thomas,” she repeated, “but I forgive you.”
Mr. Bull smiled back at her. “And you may be a credulous old Witch of Endor, but I adore you.” He took her hand and kissed it. “Shall I tell you what I was thinking about this evening?” he asked in a lower tone; and when she nodded, he said, “ Ravello.”
“Ravello,” she repeated.
“Do you remember those red slippers?”
“What makes you think I could forget?”
There was a silence.
“Back to Thurber!” Pamela said to herself as she looked at them. It was the moment, obviously, for the little voice to come in.
“Tris-stan,” she whispered, “at s-seventy . . .”
She broke off in confusion. It was not the voice that had spoken, it was herself—and Pozna was looking at her, Pozna was furious. She turned away almost in tears. All those dreams about getting some of her own back — and now this flop, this utter failure.
Mrs. Marsden said a last good night to her old friend and moved toward the staircase.
“I think I’ll go to bed too,”Pamela muttered and, dodging past her aunt, ran up the stone stairs two at a time.
“Wait for me,” Mrs. Marsden called to her.
The talk with Dudley and the prospect of being, in a few moments, alone with the living pledge of her eternal life had filled her with a happiness that could express itself only in affection, only in altruism. More love was what this poor child needed, and more love was what she would give her.
Obediently, but with manifest reluctance, the girl came back from the end of the gallery and took her stand near the top of the stairs.
“Dear child!” she heard Aunt Eleanor saying. But if the old girl thought she was going to make any answer, or even look at her, she was making a big mistake.
Mrs. Marsden climbed a few more stairs, then halted, glanced up at that blank and stony face, then turned to look back at the room below. Dudley, she saw, was furiously scribbling, Alec had walked over to the radio and was fiddling with the dials. Only love, she was thinking, could rouse this poor child from her stupor of negation, and only laughter could carry love’s message.
“Look at her,” she cried in a tone of what was meant to be the tenderest kind of teasing fun, “look at her, gentlemen!” As Dudley raised his head, as Alec looked up from the radio, she waved a jeweled hand in Pamela’s direction. “Juliet on the balcony — waiting for her Romeo.”
The blood rushed up into Pamela’s checks and she was filled with a hatred so violent that she began to tremble.
Mr. Bull blew a kiss, Pozna dutifully shouted, “Bravo!” then resumed his search for a program.
“Juliet in blue jeans,” Mrs. Marsden playfully continued.
On the blank face above her an expression of ferocious mockery appeared for an instant and was gone again.
“ Isolde in a girdle,” Pamela willed the little voice to say. This time it obeyed. “Isolde in a girdle.”
Mrs. Marsden started violently and looked over her left shoulder. Pamela had to bite her lip to prevent herself from laughing aloud. Failure had been turned into a triumph more complete than anything she had dared to hope for. Below, in the living room, the radio started to play a waltz. One two three, one two three— The Gypsy Baron. The music seemed to be coming from somewhere immensely far away, and there was Pozna, there was Mr. Bull, there was Aunt Eleanor — like midgets, like marionettes.
“Isolde,” said the little voice, as she laughed in secret triumph, “Isolde with false teeth.”
And suddenly there were those caterpillars again, there were those centipedes, crawling up her throat, crawling between her breasts. Unspeakably horrible— and yet she wanted the crawling to go on forever.
She looked at the little creature on the stairs, and saw only the ridiculous caricature of Aunt Eleanor.
“Just a little old hag,” she thought with a kind of indulgent ferocity.
“Just a little old hag,” said the voice.
Mrs. Marsden turned and, her face distorted with terror, started once more to climb the stairs.
“A hag with money, a hag with parasites.”
This time the whisper was immediately in front of her, and so close, so menacing, that Mrs. Marsden instinctively raised a hand to shield her face.
Incomprehensibly — was it in Magyar, was it in Rumanian? — Pozna began to sing in tune with the violins.
“Listen to him!” said the voice, whispering derisively. “How he loves you!” And then, “Filthy, filthy.”
Mrs. Marsden struck wildly at the empty air in front of her.
“Filthy!” The word, it seemed, was being uttered within an inch of her unprotected eyes.
Throwing back her head, she struck again and recoiled, lost her footing and, with a terrible Scream, fell backwards. There was a crash of bone against marble, a thud of flesh. The body twisted, slithered, came to a halt at the foot of the stairs. From overhead, as Pamela looked down in horror, came a peal of almost inaudible laughter.
BY ONE o’clock the house was quiet again. Lying on her bed, Pamela stared at the ceiling. Now on one side, now on the other, an invisible bedfellow kept whispering, “You killed her, you broke her neck, broke her neck, broke her neck.”
She put her fingers in her ears and shut her eyes. But all that happened was that she saw poor old Mr. Bull, with his hands over his face, sobbing like a child. And there, once again, was Pozna, white as a sheet, kneeling by the body. She heard his deep voice and then her own — tearful, abject.
“You did it.”
“I didn’t. I swear I didn’t.”
“I heard you playing those tricks before you went upstairs,” he began. Then the butler came running in, and he broke off. They lifted the body. Shuddering, Pamela turned away.
“He knows,” said the little voice in her ear. “He’ll tell them.”
All her giant invincibility oozed out of her; she was filled with a cringing terror.
But when the doctor came, Pozna dropped no hint of what he knew. “I guess she just slipped,” he said and, looking squarely at Pamela, “Isn’t that your opinion?”
She nodded without speaking.
Dr. Hancock sighed, shook his head, said something idiotic about accidents in the home and safety first, then pulled out his pen and began to write.
Five minutes later the ambulance came, and the thing under the sheet was taken away. Dr. Hancock took his leave. Still crying like a little boy, Mr. Bull was led off to bed.
“Alone at last,” said Pozna as he sat down beside Pamela on the yellow sofa. He took her hand and, with a leering parody of old-world gallantry, lingeringly kissed it, then looked up into her face. Under the bristles the red sea anemones parted, the white teeth gleamed in a sardonic grin. “I congratulate you,” he said. “You’ve made about six hundred thousand dollars this evening.”
“Six hundred thousand . . . ?” she echoed, uncomprehendingly.
“That’s what it’ll come to after you’ve paid Uncle Sam and the attorneys.”
“You mean . . . ?”
“Don’t pretend you didn’t know.”
“But I swear.”
With a gesture of the most possessive, the most insulting familiarity, he laid a hand on her head and patted it, as though she were a pet animal.
“You don’t have to put on an act for me,” he said. “I’m not the police.”
“It’s not an act.” Her voice trembled and broke. “It’s the truth.”
“Quite, quite,” said Pozna indulgently. “You were so damned innocent you never even suspected you were going to inherit anything. And at the same time you loved your dear old Auntie so much that you hoped she’d live forever. What an adorable child!” He gave her head another little pat and smiled at her. She met his eyes for a moment, then turned away. “Look at me,” he ordered. And when she mutely refused, “Look at me,” he shouted and, taking her chin between his thumb and forefinger, he turned her face toward his. Her eyes filled with tears, her lips began to tremble. Pozna laughed and, leaning forward, kissed her on the mouth. She uttered a cry of horror and tried to avert her face; but the hand under her chin was too strong for her. Red under the bristles, the sea anemones pouted, parted. Slowly, deliberately, he kissed her again, then released his hold, administered a little fillip on the tip of her nose, and said, “Six hundred thousand! We could have a lot of fun, don’t you think so?”
Pamela looked at him for a moment, then turned away and violently shook her head.
“Okay,” he said indifferently, and then, after a little pause, “It’s difficult,” he added in a thoughtful tone, “it’s difficult to foresee exactly what they’ll do about it. Would it be murder, would it be manslaughter?” He got up and walked over to the table where the glasses and the bottles were standing. “Of course the defense would plead insanity. It would be a choice between the penitentiary and the asylum.” He uncorked the bottle. “Scotch?”
For all answer, Pamela jumped to her feet and made a dash for the stairs.
“Run,” Pozna shouted derisively, “run!” He drank down his whiskey and then, as she disappeared through the archway at the further end of the gallery, “We’ll go on with our little chat tomorrow,” he said.
“Tomorrow,” Pamela whispered, as she lay there staring at the ceiling. “Tomorrow.” She thought of those red moist lips and shuddered. But if he told them — what then? They would come and ask her questions. “Did you hate your aunt? Did you sometimes wish she were dead? Answer truthfully. Were you, or were you not, trying to scare her? And why did you do it when she was going up the stairs? Didn’t you know it was very dangerous? Or did you do it just because it was dangerous? Just because you hated her, just because you wanted her to die, just because you hoped . . .”
“No, no!” Pamela cried aloud.
But then why had she gone to the trouble of practicing in the summerhouse? “I’d like to murder her,” she heard her own voice repeating. But that was just a joke, that was just one of those things people said. And so were the things about Isolde — Isolde in a girdle, Isolde with false teeth. Just jokes, just kidding.
From the pillow beside her came the kind of amused whistle with which one greets an all too obvious fib. Then the little voice whispered, “Filthy, filthy!”
“But that wasn’t me,” Pamela protested. “I swear it wasn’t. It was . . .”
And suddenly she was on that roller coaster again, falling, sickened with horror, toward destruction. “Unconscious verbalization,” she tried to say. But the comforting magic of science had lost its power. “You do this” Miss Dillon had said as she breached the barrier that surrounded the wineglass. “And you run the risk of this” —of attack, of invasion, of a knife at the very heart of your being.
“It wasn’t me,” Pamela repeated.
“It was you, it was you!”
There was a long silence; then she heard the whistling on the other side of her.
“You and me — it’s the same.”
And all at once Pamela saw herself sitting in front of a row of faceless inquisitors. “Answer truthfully. Did you, or did you not?” “No, I swear. It was someone else.” And then, minute but perfectly distinct, that whisper in the air. “You and me — it’s the same.”
“It’s hopeless,” she said to herself.
FAR off, the chiming clock in the library struck the half hour. Faint and shrill, like a mosquito buzzing at her ear, the little voice said, “Get up.”
Obediently she got up, put on her slippers, opened the door, and tiptoed along the corridor to the archway leading onto the gallery. It was here, under the archway, that she had heard Aunt Eleanor calling: “Wait for me!” And an hour later, in the same place, it had been Pozna’s voice, derisive, menacing: “We’ll go on with our little chat tomorrow.”
Tomorrow, at the mercy of the inquisitors — or else of those hands, those lips, under the bristles, like disgusting animals.
She shuddered and started to move along the gallery. At the head of the stairs she halted. It was very dark, but in her mind’s eye she could see everything, everything, exactly as it had happened.
“Go down,” the little mosquito at her ear commanded.
She clenched her teeth and began to walk down, deliberately, stair by stair, down through the remembered image of Aunt Eleanor striking at the empty air, down through the scream, the fall, the twisted body at the foot of the stairs, down, down and then, like a sleepwalker, across the living room to the French window. She unbolted it and stepped out onto the terrace. The frogs were still croaking, and on the horizon, between the live oaks, lay the pale glimmer of the sea. She crossed the terrace, she entered the summerhouse. On the table, she heard the voice saving, there was an ash tray and in it a book of matches. Her hand fumbled in the darkness, touched, grasped, lifted. “Strike a match.” She struck it. Enormous on her pedestal, Venus jumped out at her, and the hand with which she was trying to hide her bosom seemed to be pointing at that little cupboard, over there, in the left-hand wall. She moved forward, and instantly there was a noiseless commotion of enormous shadows rushing across the dome, along the floor, around the walls. The flame burned her fingers. She dropped the match and was in total darkness. There was a whistling in the dome above her head, a thin high peal of laughter. And suddenly it was not a single voice, but a whole chorus of voices, chuckling, squeaking like bats, chattering in a muted frenzy of excitement. The roller coaster took another headlong swoop —down, down into a bottomless terror, into the absolutely certain knowledge that something infinitely worse even than this was approaching, second by second, through the darkness.
Then, abruptly, there was silence. She could hear the frogs again, could hear a rustling in the oak leaves as one of the peacocks stirred in its sleep. And now it was a belated truck, roaring along the highway. The roaring faded, faded and was gone. And why shouldn’t she go too? What was to prevent her from running back to the house and putting on her clothes, from taking her purse and checkbook and then hitching a ride — up north, to San Francisco, to Portland, anywhere? What was to prevent her? she asked herself almost defiantly, The silence remained unbroken. There was nothing to prevent her. Nothing whatever, except that you and me, you and me — it’s the same.
“It isn’t the same!” she cried aloud.
“Isn’t the same!” the echoes in the dome repeated.
But even as she spoke her feet had begun to move again. She stretched out her hands in the darkness. Here was the back of a metal chair, here the pedestal and one of the statue’s feet. She raised her right hand and touched a smooth columnar thigh, raised it again and found, higher than her head, the crook of an elbow. Her fingers traveled down to the hand, felt the marble dimples between the knuckles, then came to the outstretched index — pointing, pointing inflexibly at what she had to find. She moved forward, pushed aside another metal chair, moved forward again and here, under her fingertips, was the feel of plaster and then, as she moved her hand a little to the right, the feel of wood. She fumbled for the latch, found it, raised it. Noiselessly, the cupboard door swung open. There was a smell of dust and cobwebs. She began to tremble uncontrollably. Then, against her will, she reached into the cupboard. Hanging from a nail in the back wall was a coil of rope. And suddenly, as she touched it, there they were again, whistling under the dome, and laughing, laughing.