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After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, Page 2

Aldous Huxley

  Accompanied wherever they went by the tremolos of the Perpetual Wurlitzer, they had driven next to look at the Tower of Resurrection—from the outside only; for it housed the executive offices of the West Coast Cemeteries Corporation. Then the Children’s Corner with its statues of Peter Pan and the Infant Jesus, its groups of alabaster babies playing with bronze rabbits, its lily pool and an apparatus labelled The Fountain of Rainbow Music, from which there spouted simultaneously water, coloured lights and the inescapable strains of the Perpetual Wurlitzer. Then, in rapid succession, the Garden of Quiet, the Tiny Taj Mahal, the Old World Mortuary. And, reserved by the chauffeur to the last, as the final and crowning proof of his employer’s glory, the Pantheon itself.

  Was it possible, Jeremy asked himself, that such an object existed? It was certainly not probable. The Beverly Pantheon lacked all verisimilitude, was something entirely beyond his powers to invent. The fact that the idea of it was now in his mind proved, therefore, that he must really have seen it. He shut his eyes against the landscape and recalled to his memory the details of that incredible reality. The external architecture, modelled on that of Boecklin’s Toteninsel. The circular vestibule. The replica of Rodin’s Le Baiser, illuminated by concealed pink floodlights. The flights of black marble stairs. The seven-storey columbarium, with its endless galleries, its tiers on tiers of slab-sealed tombs. The bronze and silver urns of the cremated, like athletic trophies. The stained glass windows after Burne-Jones. The texts inscribed on marble scrolls. The Perpetual Wurlitzer crooning on every floor. The sculpture . . .

  That was the hardest to believe, Jeremy reflected, behind closed eyelids. Sculpture almost as ubiquitous as the Wurlitzer. Statues wherever you turned your eyes. Hundreds of them, bought wholesale, one would guess, from some monumental masonry concern at Carrara or Pietrasanta. All nudes, all female, all exuberantly nubile. The sort of statues one would expect to see in the reception room of a high-class brothel in Rio de Janeiro. “Oh Death,” demanded a marble scroll at the entrance to every gallery, “where is thy sting?” Mutely, but eloquently, the statues gave their reassuring reply. Statues of young ladies in nothing but a very tight belt imbedded, with Bernini-like realism, in the Parian flesh. Statues of young ladies crouching; young ladies using both hands to be modest; young ladies stretching, writhing, callipygously stooping to tie their sandals, reclining. Young ladies with doves, with panthers, with other young ladies, with upturned eyes expressive of the soul’s awakening. “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” proclaimed the scrolls. “The Lord is my shepherd; therefore shall I want nothing.” Nothing, not even Wurlitzer, not even girls in tightly buckled belts. “Death is swallowed up in victory”—the victory no longer of the spirit but of the body—the well-fed body, for ever youthful, immortally athletic, indefatigably sexy. The Moslem paradise had had copulations six centuries long. In this new Christian heaven, progress, no doubt, would have stepped up the period to a millennium and added the joys of everlasting tennis, eternal golf and swimming.

  All at once the car began to descend. Jeremy opened his eyes again, and saw that they had reached the further edge of the range of hills, among which the Pantheon was built.

  Below lay a great tawny plain, chequered with patches of green and dotted with white houses. On its further side, fifteen or twenty miles away, ranges of pinkish mountains fretted the horizon.

  “What’s this?” Jeremy asked.

  “The San Fernando Valley,” said the chauffeur. He pointed into the middle distance. “That’s where Groucho Marx has his place,” he said. “Yes, sir.”

  At the bottom of the hill the car turned to the left along a wide road that ran, a ribbon of concrete and suburban buildings, through the plain. The chauffeur put on speed; sign succeeded sign with bewildering rapidity. MALTS CABINS DINE AND DANCE AT THE CHATEAU HONOLULU SPIRITUAL HEALING AND COLONIC IRRIGATION BLOCK-LONG HOT DOGS BUY YOUR DREAM HOME NOW. And behind the signs the mathematically planted rows of apricot and walnut trees flicked past—a succession of glimpsed perspectives preceded and followed every time by fan-like approaches and retirements.

  Dark-green and gold, enormous orange orchards manœuvred, each one a mile-square regiment glittering in the sunlight. Far off, the mountains traced their un-interpretable graph of boom and slump.

  “Tarzana,” said the chauffeur startlingly; and there, sure enough, was the name suspended, in white letters, across the road. “There’s Tarzana College,” the man went on, pointing to a group of Spanish-Colonial palaces clustering round a Romanesque basilica. “Mr. Stoyte, he’s just given them an auditorium.”

  They turned to the right along a less important road. The orange groves gave place for a few miles to huge fields of alfalfa and dusty grass, then returned again more luxuriant than ever. Meanwhile the mountains on the northern edge of the valley were approaching and, slanting in from the west, another range was looming up to the left. They drove on. The road took a sudden turn, aiming, it seemed, at the point where the two ranges must come together. All at once, through a gap between two orchards, Jeremy Pordage saw a most surprising sight. About half a mile from the foot of the mountains, like an island off a cliff-bound coast, a rocky hill rose abruptly, in places almost precipitously, from the plain. On the summit of the bluff and as though growing out of it in a kind of stony efflorescence, stood a castle. But what a castle! The donjon was like a skyscraper, the bastions plunged headlong with the effortless swoop of concrete dams. The thing was Gothic, mediaeval, baronial—doubly baronial, Gothic with a Gothicity raised, so to speak, to a higher power, more mediaeval than any building of the thirteenth century. For this . . . this object, as Jeremy was reduced to calling it, was mediaeval, not out of vulgar historical necessity, like Coucy, say, or Alnwick, but out of pure fun and wantonness, platonically, one might say. It was mediaeval as only a witty and irresponsible modern architect would wish to be mediaeval, as only the most competent modern engineers are technically equipped to be.

  Jeremy was startled into speech. “What on earth is that?” he asked, pointing at the nightmare on the hilltop.

  “Why, that’s Mr. Stoyte’s place,” said the retainer; and smiling yet once more with the pride of vicarious ownership, he added: “It’s a pretty fine home, I guess.”

  The orange groves closed in again; leaning back in his seat, Jeremy Pordage began to wonder, rather apprehensively, what he had let himself in for when he accepted Mr. Stoyte’s offer. The pay was princely; the work, which was to catalogue the almost legendary Hauberk Papers, would be delightful. But that cemetery, this Object—Jeremy shook his head. He had known, of course, that Mr. Stoyte was rich, collected pictures, owned a show place in California. But no one had ever led him to expect this. The humorous puritanism of his good taste was shocked; he was appalled at the prospect of meeting the person capable of committing such an enormity. Between that person and oneself, what contact, what community of thought or feeling could possibly exist? Why had he sent for one? For it was obvious that he couldn’t conceivably like one’s books. But had he even read one’s books? Did he have the faintest idea of what one was like? Would he be capable, for example, of understanding why one had insisted on the name of The Araucarias remaining unchanged? Would he appreciate one’s point of view about . . .

  These anxious questionings were interrupted by the noise of the horn, which the chauffeur was sounding with a loud and offensive insistence. Jeremy looked up. Fifty yards ahead, an ancient Ford was creeping tremulously along the road. It carried, lashed insecurely to roof and running boards and luggage rack, a squalid cargo of household goods—rolls of bedding, an old iron stove, a crate of pots and pans, a folded tent, a tin bath. As they flashed past, Jeremy had a glimpse of three dull-eyed, anaemic children, of a woman with a piece of sacking wrapped around her shoulders, of a haggard, unshaved man.

  “Transients,” the chauffeur explained in a tone of contempt.

  “What’s that?” Jeremy asked.

  “Why, transients” the Negro rep
eated, as though the emphasis were an explanation, “Guess that lot’s from the dust bowl. Kansas licence plate. Come to pick our navels.”

  “Come to pick your navels?” Jeremy echoed incredulously.

  “Navel oranges,” said the chauffeur. “It’s the season. Pretty good year for navels, I guess.”

  They emerged once more into the open and there once more was the Object, larger than ever. Jeremy had time to study the details of its construction. A wall with towers encircled the base of the hill, and there was a second line of defence, in the most approved post-Crusades manner, half way up. On the summit stood the square keep, surrounded by subsidiary buildings.

  From the donjon, Jeremy’s eyes travelled down to a group of buildings in the plain, not far from the foot of the hill. Across the façade of the largest of them the words “Stoyte Home for Sick Children” were written in gilded letters. Two flags, one the stars and stripes, the other a white banner with the letter S in scarlet, fluttered in the breeze. Then a grove of leafless walnut trees shut out the view once again. Almost at the same moment the chauffeur threw his engine out of gear and put on the brakes. The car came gently to a halt beside a man who was walking at a brisk pace along the grassy verge of the road.

  “Want a ride, Mr. Propter?” the Negro called.

  The stranger turned his head, gave the man a smile of recognition and came to the window of the car. He was a large man, broad shouldered, but rather stooping, with brown hair turning grey and a face, Jeremy thought, like the face of one of those statues which Gothic sculptors carve for a place high up on a West front—a face of sudden prominences and deeply shadowed folds and hollows, emphatically rough-hewn so as to be expressive even at a distance. But this particular face, he went on to notice, was not merely emphatic, not only for the distance; it was a face also for the near point, also for intimacy, a subtle face, in which there were the signs of sensibility and intelligence as well as of power, of a gentle and humorous serenity no less than of energy and strength.

  “Hullo, George,” the stranger said, addressing the chauffeur; “nice of you to stop for me.”

  “Well, I’m sure glad to see you, Mr. Propter,” said the Negro cordially. Then, he half turned in his seat, waved a hand towards Jeremy and with a florid formality of tone and manner, said, “I’d like to have you meet Mr. Pordage of England. Mr. Pordage, this is Mr. Propter.”

  The two men shook hands, and, after an exchange of courtesies, Mr. Propter got into the car.

  “You’re visiting with Mr. Stoyte?” he asked, as the chauffeur drove on.

  Jeremy shook his head. He was here on business; had come to look at some manuscripts—the Hauberk Papers, to be precise.

  Mr. Propter listened attentively, nodded from time to time, and, when Jeremy had finished, sat for a moment in silence.

  “Take a decayed Christian,” he said at last in a meditative tone, “and the remains of a Stoic; mix thoroughly with good manners, a bit of money and an old-fashioned education; simmer for several years in a university. Result: a scholar and a gentleman. Well, there were worse types of human being.” He uttered a little laugh. “I might almost claim to have been one myself, once, long ago.”

  Jeremy looked at him inquiringly. “You’re not William Propter, are you?” he asked. “Not ‘Short Studies in the Counter Reformation,’ by any chance?”

  The other inclined his head.

  Jeremy looked at him in amazement and delight. Was it possible? he asked himself. Those “Short Studies” had been one of his favourite books—a model, he had always thought, of their kind.

  “Well, I’m jiggered,” he said aloud, using the school boyish locution deliberately and as though between inverted commas. He had found that, both in writing and in conversation, there were exquisite effects to be obtained by the judicious employment, in a solemn or cultural context, of a phrase of slang, a piece of childish profanity or obscenity. “I’ll be damned,” he exploded again, and his consciousness of the intentional silliness of the words made him stroke his bald head and cough.

  There was another moment of silence. Then, instead of talking, as Jeremy had expected, about the “Short Studies,” Mr. Propter merely shook his head and said, “We mostly are.”

  “Mostly are what?” asked Jeremy.

  “Jiggered,” Mr. Propter answered. “Damned. In the psychological sense of the word,” he added.

  The walnut trees came to an end and there once more, on the starboard bow, was the Object. Mr. Propter pointed in its direction. “Poor Jo Stoyte!” he said. “Think of having that millstone round one’s neck. Not to mention, of course, all the other millstones that go with it. What luck we’ve had, don’t you think?—we who’ve never been given the opportunity of being anything much worse than scholars and gentlemen!” After another little silence, “Poor Jo,” he went on with a smile, “he isn’t either of them. You’ll find him a bit trying. Because of course he’ll want to bully you, just because tradition says that your type is superior to his type. Not to mention the fact,” he added, looking into Jeremy’s face with an expression of mingled amusement and sympathy, “that you’re probably the sort of person that invites persecution. A bit of a murderee, I’m afraid, as well as a scholar and gentleman.”

  Feeling simultaneously annoyed by the man’s indiscretion and touched by his friendliness, Jeremy smiled rather nervously and nodded his head.

  “Maybe,” Mr. Propter went on, “maybe it would help you to be less of a murderee towards Jo Stoyte, if you knew what gave him the original impulsion to get damned in just that way”—and he pointed again towards the Object. “We were at school together, Jo and I; only nobody called him Jo in those days. We called him Slob, or Jelly-Belly. Because, you see, poor Jo was the local fat boy, the only fat boy in the school during those years.” He paused for a moment; then went on in another tone, “I’ve often wondered why people have always made fun of fatness. Perhaps there’s something intrinsically wrong with fat. For example, there isn’t a single fat saint—except, of course, old Thomas Aquinas; and I cannot see any reason to suppose that he was a real saint, a saint in the popular sense of the word, which happens to be the true sense. If Thomas is a saint, then Vincent de Paul isn’t. And if Vincent’s a saint, which he obviously is, then Thomas isn’t. And perhaps that enormous belly of his had something to do with it. Who knows? But anyhow, that’s by the way. We’re talking about Jo Stoyte. And poor Jo, as I say, was a fat boy and, being fat, was fair game for the rest of us. God, how we punished him for his glandular deficiencies! And how disastrously he reacted to that punishment! Overcompensation . . . But here I am at home,” he added, looking out of the window as the car slackened speed and came to a halt in front of a small white bungalow set in the midst of a clump of eucalyptus trees. “We’ll go on with this another time. But remember, if poor Jo gets too offensive, think of what he was at school and be sorry for him—and don’t be sorry for yourself.” He got out of the car, closed the door behind him and, waving a hand to the chauffeur, walked quickly up the path and entered the little house.

  The car rolled on again. At once bewildered and reassured by his encounter with the author of the “Short Studies,” Jeremy sat, inertly looking out of the window. They were very near the Object now; and suddenly he noticed, for the first time, that the castle hill was surrounded by a moat. Some few hundred yards from the water’s edge, the car passed between two pillars, topped by heraldic lions. Its passage, it was evident, interrupted a beam of invisible light directed on a photoelectric cell; for no sooner were they past the lions than a draw-bridge began to descend. Five seconds before they reached the moat, it was in place; the car rolled smoothly across and came to a halt in front of the main gateway of the castle’s outer walls. The chauffeur got out and, speaking into a telephone receiver concealed in a convenient loophole, announced his presence. The chromium-plated portcullis rose noiselessly, the double doors of stainless steel swung back. They drove in. The car began to climb. The second line of walls was
pierced by another gate, which opened automatically as they approached. Between the inner side of this second wall and the slope of the hill a ferro-concrete bridge had been constructed, large enough to accommodate a tennis court. In the shadowy space beneath, Jeremy caught sight of something familiar. An instant later he had recognized it as a replica of the grotto of Lourdes.

  “Miss Maunciple, she’s a Catholic,” remarked the chauffeur, jerking his thumb in the direction of the grotto. “That’s why he had it made for her. We’s Presbyterians in our family,” he added.

  “And who is Miss Maunciple?”

  The chauffeur hesitated for a moment. “Well, she’s a young lady Mr. Stoyte’s kind of friendly with,” he explained at last; then changed the subject.

  The car climbed on. Beyond the grotto all the hillside was a cactus garden. Then the road swung round to the northern slope of the bluff, and the cactuses gave place to grass and shrubs. On a little terrace, over-elegant like a fashion-plate from some mythological Vogue for goddesses, a bronze nymph by Giambologna spouted two streams of water from her deliciously polished breasts. A little further on, behind wire netting, a group of baboons squatted among the rocks or paraded the obscenity of their hairless rumps.

  Still climbing, the car turned again and finally drew up on a circular concrete platform, carried out on cantilevers over a precipice. Once more the old-fashioned retainer, the chauffeur, taking off his cap, did a final impersonation of himself welcoming the young master home to the plantation, then set to work to unload the luggage.

  Jeremy Pordage Walked to the balustrade and looked over. The ground fell almost sheer for about a hundred feet, then sloped steeply to the inner circle of walls and, below them, to the outer fortifications. Beyond lay the moat and, on the further side of the moat, stretched the orange orchards. “In dunkeln Laub die Gold-Orangen glühn,” he murmured to himself; and then: “He hangs in shades the orange bright, Like golden lamps in a green night.” Marvell’s rendering, he decided, was better than Goethe’s. And, meanwhile, the oranges seemed to have become brighter and more significant. For Jeremy, direct, unmediated experience was always hard to take in, always more or less disquieting. Life became safe, things assumed meaning, only when they had been translated into words and confined between the covers of a book. The oranges were beautifully pigeon-holed; but what about the castle? He turned round and, leaning back against the parapet, looked up. The Object impended, insolently enormous. Nobody had dealt poetically with that. Not Childe Roland, not the King of Thule, not Marmion, not the Lady of Shalott, not Sir Leoline. Sir Leoline, he repeated to himself with a connoisseur’s appreciation of romantic absurdity, Sir Leoline, the baron rich, had—what? A toothless mastiff bitch. But Mr. Stoyte had baboons and a sacred grotto, Mr. Stoyte had a chromium portcullis and the Hauberk Papers, Mr. Stoyte had a cemetery like an amusement park and a donjon like . . .