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Aldous Huxley

  In framing an ideal we may assume what we wish, but should avoid impossibilities.



  by Aldous Huxley


  "Attention," a voice began to call, and it was as though an oboe had suddenly become articulate. "Attention," it repeated in the same high, nasal monotone. "Attention."

  Lying there like a corpse in the dead leaves, his hair matted, his face grotesquely smudged and bruised, his clothes in rags and muddy, Will Farnaby awoke with a start. Molly had called him. Time to get up. Time to get dressed. Mustn't be late at the office.

  "Thank you, darling," he said and sat up. A sharp pain stabbed at his right knee and there were other kinds of pain in his back, his arms, his forehead.

  "Attention," the voice insisted without the slightest change of tone. Leaning on one elbow, Will looked about him and saw with bewilderment, not the gray wallpaper and yellow curtains of his London bedroom, but a glade among trees and the long shadows and slanting lights of early morning in a forest. "Attention"?

  Why did she say, "Attention"?

  "Attention. Attention," the voice insisted—how strangely, how senselessly!

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  "Molly?" he questioned. "Molly?"

  The name seemed to open a window inside his head. Suddenly, with that horribly familiar sense of guilt at the pit of the stomach, he smelt formaldehyde, he saw the small brisk nurse hurrying ahead of him along the green corridor, heard the dry creaking of her starched clothes. "Number fifty-five," she was saying, and then halted, opened a white door. He entered and there, on a high white bed, was Molly. Molly with bandages covering half her face and the mouth hanging cavernously open. "Molly," he had called, "Molly ..." His voice had broken, and he was crying, was imploring now, "My darling!" There was no answer. Through the gaping mouth the quick shallow breaths came noisily, again, again. "My darling, my darling . . ." And then suddenly the hand he was holding came to life for a moment. Then was still again.

  "It's me," he said, "it's Will."

  Once more the fingers stirred. Slowly, with what was evidently an enormous effort, they closed themselves over his own, pressed them for a moment and then relaxed again into lifelessness.

  "Attention," called the inhuman voice. "Attention."

  It had been an accident, he hastened to assure himself. The road was wet, the car had skidded across the white line. It was one of those things that happen all the time. The papers are full of them; he had reported them by the dozen. "Mother and three children killed in head-on crash ..." But that was beside the point. The point was that, when she asked him if it was really the end, he had said yes; the point was that less than an hour after she had walked out from that last shameful interview into the rain, Molly was in the ambulance, dying.

  He hadn't looked at her as she turned to go, hadn't dared to look at her. Another glimpse of that pale suffering face might have been too much for him. She had risen from her chair and was moving slowly across the room, moving slowly out of his

  life. Shouldn't he call her back, ask her forgiveness, tell her that he still loved her? Had he ever loved her?

  For the hundredth time the articulate oboe called him to attention.

  Yes, had he ever really loved her?

  "Good-bye, Will," came her remembered whisper as she turned back on the threshold. And then it was she who had said it—in a whisper, from the depths of her heart. "I still love you, Will—in spite of everything."

  A moment later the door of the flat closed behind her almost without a sound. The little dry click of the latch, and she was gone.

  He had jumped up, had run to the front door and opened it, had listened to the retreating footsteps on the stairs. Like a ghost at cockcrow, a faint familiar perfume lingered vanishingly on the air. He closed the door again, walked into his gray-and-yellow bedroom and looked out the widow. A few seconds passed, then he saw her crossing the pavement and getting into the car. He heard the shrill grinding of the starter, once, twice, and after that the drumming of the motor. Should he open the window? "Wait, Molly, wait," he heard himself shouting in imagination. The window remained unopened; the car began to move, turned the corner and the street was empty. It was too late. Too late, thank God! said a gross derisive voice. Yes, thank God! And yet the guilt was there at the pit of his stomach. The guilt, the gnawing of his remorse—but through the remorse he could feel a horrible rejoicing. Somebody low and lewd and brutal, somebody alien and odious who was yet himself was gleefully thinking that now there was nothing to prevent him from having what he wanted. And what he wanted was a different perfume, was the warmth and resilience of a younger body. "Attention," said the oboe. Yes, attention. Attention to Babs's musky bedroom, with its strawberry-pink alcove and the two windows that looked

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  onto the Charing Cross Road and were looked into, all night long, by the winking glare of the big sky sign for Porter's Gin on the opposite side of the street. Gin in royal crimson—and for ten seconds the alcove was the Sacred Heart, for ten miraculous seconds the flushed face so close to his own glowed like a seraph's, transfigured as though by an inner fire of love. Then came the yet profounder transfiguration of darkness. One, two, three, four . . . Ah God, make it go on forever! But punctually at the count of ten the electric clock would turn on another revelation—but of death, of the Essential Horror; for the lights, this time, were green, and for ten hideous seconds Babs's rosy alcove became a womb of mud and, on the bed, Babs herself was corpse-colored, a cadaver galvanized into posthumous epilepsy. When Porter's Gin proclaimed itself in green, it was hard to forget what had happened and who one was. The only thing to do was to shut one's eyes and plunge, if one could, more deeply into the Other World of sensuality, plunge violently, plunge deliberately into those alienating frenzies to which poor Molly— Molly ("Attention") in her bandages, Molly in her wet grave at Highgate, and Highgate, of course, was why one had to shut one's eyes each time when the green light made a corpse of Babs's nakedness—had always and so utterly been a stranger. And not only Molly. Behind his closed eyelids, Will saw his mother, pale like a cameo, her face spiritualized by accepted suffering, her hands made monstrous and subhuman by arthritis. His mother and, standing behind her wheelchair, already running to fat and quivering like calf's-foot jelly with all the feelings that had never found their proper expression in consummated love, was his sister Maud.

  "How can you, Will?"

  "Yes, how can you?" Maud echoed tearfully in her vibrating contralto.

  There was no answer. No answer, that was to say, in any words that could be uttered in their presence, that, uttered,

  those two martyrs—the mother to her unhappy marriage, the daughter to filial piety—could possibly understand. No answer except in words of the most obscenely scientific objectivity, the most inadmissible frankness. How could he do it? He could do it, for all practical purposes was compelled to do it, because . . . well, because Babs had certain physical peculiarities which Molly did not possess and behaved at certain moments in ways which Molly would have found unthinkable.

  There had been a long silence; but now, abruptly, the strange voice took up its old refrain.

  "Attention. Attention."

  Attention to Molly, attention to Maud and his mother, attention to Babs. And suddenly another memory emerged from the fog of vagueness and confusion. Babs's strawberry-pink alcove sheltered another guest, and its owner's body was shuddering ecstatically under somebody else's caresses. To the guilt in the stomach was added an anguish about the heart, a constriction of the throat.


  The voice had come nearer, was calling from somewhere over there to the right. He turned his head, he tried to raise himself for a better view; but the arm that supporte
d his weight began to tremble, then gave way, and he fell back into the leaves. Too tired to go on remembering, he lay there for a long time staring up through half-closed lids at the incomprehensible world around him. Where was he and how on earth had he got here? Not that this was of any importance. At the moment nothing was of any importance except this pain, this annihilating weakness. All the same, just as a matter of scientific interest. . .

  This tree, for example, under which (for no known reason) he found himself lying, this column of gray bark with the groining, high up, of sun-speckled branches, this ought by rights to be a beech tree. But in that case—and Will admired himself for being so lucidly logical—in that case the leaves had no right to

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  be so obviously evergreen. And why would a beech tree send its roots elbowing up like this above the surface of the ground? And those preposterous wooden buttresses, on which the pseudo-beech supported itself—where did those fit into the picture? Will remembered suddenly his favorite worst line of poetry. "Who prop, thou ask'st, in these bad days my mind?" Answer: congealed ectoplasm, Early Dali. Which definitely ruled out the Chilterns. So did the butterflies swooping out there in the thick buttery sunshine. Why were they so large, so improbably cerulean or velvet black, so extravagantly eyed and freckled? Purple staring out of chestnut, silver powdered over emerald, over topaz, over sapphire.


  "Who's there?" Will Farnaby called in what he intended to be a loud and formidable tone; but all that came out of his mouth was a thin, quavering croak.

  There was a long and, it seemed, profoundly menacing silence. From the hollow between two of the tree's wooden buttresses an enormous black centipede emerged for a moment into view, then hurried away on its regiment of crimson legs and vanished into another cleft in the lichen-covered ectoplasm.

  "Who's there?" he croaked again.

  There was a rustling in the bushes on his left and suddenly, like a cuckoo from a nursery clock, out popped a large black bird, the size of a jackdaw—only, needless to say, it wasn't a jackdaw. It clapped a pair of white-tipped wings and, darting across the intervening space, settled on the lowest branch of a small dead tree, not twenty feet from where Will was lying. Its beak, he noticed, was orange, and it had a bald yellow patch under each eye, with canary-colored wattles that covered the sides and back of its head with a thick wig of naked flesh. The bird cocked its head and looked at him first with the right eye, then with the left. After which it opened its orange bill, whistled ten or twelve


  notes of a little air in the pentatonic scale, made a noise like somebody having hiccups, and then, in a chanting phrase, do do sol do, said, "Here and now, boys; here and now, boys."

  The words pressed a trigger, and all of a sudden he remembered everything. Here was Pala, the forbidden island, the place no journalist had ever visited. And now must be the morning after the afternoon when he'd been fool enough to go sailing, alone, outside the harbor of Rendang-Lobo. He remembered it all—the white sail curved by the wind into the likeness of a huge magnolia petal, the water sizzling at the prow, the sparkle of diamonds on every wave crest, the troughs of wrinkled jade. And eastwards, across the Strait, what clouds, what prodigies of sculptured whiteness above the volcanoes of Pala! Sitting there at the tiller, he had caught himself singing—caught himself, incredibly, in the act of feeling unequivocally happy.

  " 'Three, three for the rivals,' " he had declaimed into the wind.

  " 'Two, two for the lily-white boys, clothed all in green-oh; One is one and all alone . . . ' "

  Yes, all alone. All alone on the enormous jewel of the sea. " 'And ever more shall be so.' "

  After which, needless to say, the thing that all the cautious and experienced yachtsmen had warned him against happened. The black squall out of nowhere, the sudden, senseless frenzy of wind and rain and waves . . .

  "Here and now, boys," chanted the bird. "Here and now, boys."

  The really extraordinary thing was that he should be here, he reflected, under the trees and not out there, at the bottom of the Pala Strait or, worse, smashed to pieces at the foot of the cliffs. For even after he had managed, by sheer miracle, to take his sinking boat through the breakers and run her aground on the only sandy beach in all those miles of Pala's rockbound coast—

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  even then it wasn't over. The cliffs towered above him; but at the head of the cove there was a kind of headlong ravine where a little stream came down in a succession of filmy waterfalls, and there were trees and bushes growing between the walls of gray limestone. Six or seven hundred feet of rock climbing—in tennis shoes, and all the footholes slippery with water. And then, dear God! those snakes. The black one looped over the branch by which he was pulling himself up. And five minutes later, the huge green one coiled there on the ledge, just where he was preparing to step. Terror had been succeeded by a terror infinitely worse. The sight of the snake had made him start, made him violently withdraw his foot, and that sudden unconsidered movement had made him lose his balance. For a long sickening second, in the dreadful knowledge that this was the end, he had swayed on the brink, then fallen. Death, death, death. And then, with the noise of splintering wood in his ears he had found himself clinging to the branches of a small tree, his face scratched, his right knee bruised and bleeding, but alive. Painfully he had resumed his climbing. His knee hurt him excruciatingly; but he climbed on. There was no alternative. And then the light had begun to fail. In the end he was climbing almost in darkness, climbing by faith, climbing by sheer despair.

  "Here and now, boys," shouted the bird.

  But Will Farnaby was neither here nor now. He was there on the rock face, he was then at the dreadful moment of falling. The dry leaves rustled beneath him; he was trembling. Violently, uncontrollably, he was trembling from head to foot.


  Suddenly the bird ceased to be articulate and started to scream. A small shrill human voice said, "Mynah!" and then added something in a language that Will did not understand. There was a sound of footsteps on dry leaves. Then a little cry of alarm. Then silence. Will opened his eyes and saw two exquisite children looking down at him, their eyes wide with astonishment and a fascinated horror. The smaller of them was a tiny boy of five, perhaps, or six, dressed only in a green loincloth. Beside him, carrying a basket of fruit on her head, stood a little girl some four or five years older. She wore a full crimson skirt that reached almost to her ankles; but above the waist she was naked. In the sunlight her skin glowed like pale copper flushed with rose. Will looked from one child to the other. How beautiful they were, and how faultless, how extraordinarily elegant! Like two little thoroughbreds. A round and sturdy thoroughbred, with a face like a cherub's—that was the boy. And the girl was another kind of thoroughbred, fine-drawn, with a rather long, grave little face framed between braids of dark hair.

  There was another burst of screaming. On its perch in the dead tree the bird was turning nervously this way and that; then,



  with a final screech, it dived into the air. Without taking her eyes from Will's face, the girl held out her hand invitingly. The bird fluttered, settled, flapped wildly, found its balance, then folded its wings and immediately started to hiccup. Will looked on without surprise. Anything was possible now—anything. Even talking birds that would perch on a child's finger. Will tried to smile at them; but his lips were still trembling, and what was meant to be a sign of friendliness must have seemed like a frightening grimace. The little boy took cover behind his sister.

  The bird stopped hiccuping and began to repeat a word that Will did not understand. "Runa"—was that it? No, "karuna," Definitely "karuna."

  He raised a trembling hand and pointed at the fruit in the round basket. Mangoes, bananas . . . His dry mouth was watering.

  "Hungry," he said. Then, feeling that in these exotic circumstances the child might understand him better if he put on an imitation of a m
usical-comedy Chinaman, "Me velly hungry," he elaborated.

  "Do you want to eat?" the child asked in perfect English.

  "Yes—eat," he repeated, "eat."

  "Fly away, mynah!" She shook her hand. The bird uttered a protesting squawk and returned to its perch on the dead tree. Lifting her thin little arms in a gesture that was like a dancer's, the child raised the basket from her head, then lowered it to the ground. She selected a banana, peeled it and, torn between fear and compassion, advanced towards the stranger. In his incomprehensible language the little boy uttered a cry of warning and clutched at her skirt. With a reassuring word, the girl halted, well out of danger, and held up the fruit.

  "Do you want it?" she asked.

  Still trembling, Will Farnaby stretched out his hand. Very cautiously, she edged forward, then halted again and, crouching down, peered at him intently.


  "Quick," he said in an agony of impatience.

  But the little girl was taking no chances. Eyeing his hand for the least sign of a suspicious movement, she leaned forward, she cautiously extended her arm.

  "For God's sake," he implored.

  "God?" the child repeated with sudden interest. "Which god?" she asked. "There are such a lot of them."

  "Any damned god you like," he answered impatiently.

  "I don't really like any of them," she answered. "I like the Compassionate One."

  "Then be compassionate to me," he begged. "Give me that banana."

  Her expression changed. "I'm sorry," she said apologetically. Rising to her full height, she took a quick step forward and dropped the fruit into his shaking hand.

  "There," she said and, like a little animal avoiding a trap, she jumped back, out of reach.

  The small boy clapped his hands and laughed aloud. She turned and said something to him. He nodded his round head, and saying "Okay, boss," trotted away, through a barrage of blue and sulphur butterflies, into the forest shadows on the further side of the glade.

  "I told Tom Krishna to go and fetch someone," she explained.