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Complete Short Stories, Page 2

Robert Graves

  Human corpses are rare. If one can catch a corpse and pull it out, one is paid seven shillings and sixpence. I wouldn’t do it for that. And I suppose one also would have to give evidence at the inquest. No, I would leave the corpse for someone else to earn money with. There go the river police in their motor launch. They are watching suspiciously in case I throw my apple core out of the window. It is a prosecutable offence. I will wait until they have gone. Here comes the Mary Blake. I am getting to know the tugs well. I can distinguish the Mary Blake, the Vixen or the Elsa at half a mile. But every day something new of one sort or another goes by. One early morning last year was sensational. There went by an opera hat, a submarine, and a seal. Today I am content with the dabchicks and the lemons. At low tide I expect the old woman with the sack and the old man who pokes about under the stones and puts what he finds into jam jars. He would puzzle you, but I have been at this window long enough to find out what he is after. He is an anthology poem by William Wordsworth, ‘The Leech Gatherer’. Plenty of leeches on these beaches. The demand, I hear, is steady. Whether from extremely old-fashioned doctors or from extremely modern ones I do not know. Or care much at the moment. I am busy being pleased with the river, which is now as still as a lake, at the exact balance of the tide. A child’s ball floats motionless under the window. I am tempted to get up and rescue it. But it looks as though it mightn’t bounce. I’ll stay in bed a little longer.

  The Shout

  WHEN WE ARRIVED with our bags at the Asylum cricket ground, the chief medical officer, whom I had met at the house where I was staying, came up to shake hands. I told him that I was only scoring for the Lampton team today (I had broken a finger the week before, keeping wicket on a bumpy pitch). He said: ‘Oh, then you’ll have an interesting companion.’

  ‘The other scoresman?’ I asked.

  ‘Crossley is the most intelligent man in the asylum,’ answered the doctor, ‘a wide reader, a first-class chess-player, and so on. He seems to have travelled all over the word. He’s been sent here for delusions. His most serious delusion is that he’s a murderer, and his story is that he killed two men and a woman at Sydney, Australia. The other delusion, which is more humorous, is that his soul is split in pieces – whatever that means. He edits our monthly magazine, he stage manages our Christmas theatricals, and he gave a most original conjuring performance the other day. You’ll like him.’

  He introduced me. Crossley, a big man of forty or fifty, had a queer, not unpleasant, face. But I felt a little uncomfortable, sitting next to him in the scoring box, his black-whiskered hands so close to mine. I had no fear of physical violence, only the sense of being in the presence of a man of unusual force, even perhaps, it somehow came to me, of occult powers.

  It was hot in the scoring box in spite of the wide window. ‘Thunderstorm weather,’ said Crossley, who spoke in what country people call a ‘college voice’, though I could not identify the college. ‘Thunderstorm weather makes us patients behave even more irregularly than usual.’

  I asked whether any patients were playing.

  ‘Two of them, this first wicket partnership. The tall one, B.C. Brown, played for Hants three years ago, and the other is a good club player. Pat Slingsby usually turns out for us too – the Australian fast bowler, you know – but we are dropping him today. In weather like this he is apt to bowl at the batsman’s head. He is not insane in the usual sense, merely magnificently ill-tempered. The doctors can do nothing with him. He wants shooting, really.’ Crossley began talking about the doctor. ‘A good– hearted fellow and, for a mental-hospital physician, technically well advanced. He actually studies morbid psychology and is fairly well-read, up to about the day before yesterday. I have a good deal of fun with him. He reads neither German nor French, so I keep a stage or two ahead in psychological fashions; he has to wait for the English translations. I invent significant dreams for him to interpret; I find he likes me to put in snakes and apple pies, so I usually do. He is convinced that my mental trouble is due to the good old “antipaternal fixation” – I wish it were as simple as that.’

  Then Crossley asked me whether I could score and listen to a story at the same time. I said that I could. It was slow cricket.

  ‘My story is true,’ he said, ‘every word of it. Or, when I say that my story is “true”, I mean at least that I am telling it in a new way. It is always the same story, but I sometimes vary the climax and even recast the characters. Variation keeps it fresh and therefore true. If I were always to use the same formula, it would soon drag and become false. I am interested in keeping it alive, and it is a true story, every word of it. I know the people in it personally. They are Lampton people.’

  We decided that I should keep score of the runs and extras and that he should keep the bowling analysis, and at the fall of every wicket we should copy from each other. This made story-telling possible.

  Richard awoke one morning saying to Rachel: ‘But what an unusual dream.’

  ‘Tell me, my dear,’ she said, ‘and hurry, because I want to tell you mine.’

  ‘I was having a conversation,’ he said, ‘with a person (or persons, because he changed his appearance so often) of great intelligence, and I can clearly remember the argument. Yet this is the first time I have ever been able to remember any argument that came to me in sleep. Usually my dreams are so different from waking that I can only describe them if I say: “It is as though I were living and thinking as a tree, or a bell, or middle C, or a five-pound note; as though I had never been human.” Life there is sometimes rich for me and sometimes poor, but I repeat, in every case so different, that if I were to say: “I had a conversation,” or “I was in love,” or “I heard music,” or “I was angry,” it would be as far from the fact as if I tried to explain a problem of philosophy, as Rabelais’s Panurge did to Thaumast, merely by grimacing with my eyes and lips.’

  ‘It is much the same with me,’ she said. ‘I think that when I am asleep I become, perhaps, a stone with all the natural appetites and convictions of a stone. “Senseless as a stone” is a proverb, but there may be more sense in a stone, more sensibility, more sensitivity, more sentiment, more sensibleness, than in many men and women. And no less sensuality,’ she added thoughtfully.

  It was Sunday morning, so that they could lie in bed, their arms about each other, without troubling about the time; and they were childless, so breakfast could wait. He told her that in his dream he was walking in the sand hills with this person or persons, who said to him: ‘These sand hills are a part neither of the sea before us nor of the grass links behind us, and are not related to the mountains beyond the links. They are of themselves. A man walking on the sand hills soon knows this by the tang in the air, and if he were to refrain from eating and drinking, from sleeping and speaking, from thinking and desiring, he could continue among them for ever without change. There is no life and no death in the sand hills. Anything might happen in the sand hills.’

  Rachel said that this was nonsense, and asked: ‘But what was the argument? Hurry up!’

  He said it was about the whereabouts of the soul, but that now she had put it out of his head by hurrying him. All that he remembered was that the man was first a Japanese, then an Italian, and finally a kangaroo.

  In return she eagerly told her dream, gabbling over the words. ‘I was walking in the sand hills; there were rabbits there, too; how does that tally with what he said of life and death? I saw the man and you walking arm in arm towards me, and I ran from you both and I noticed that he had a black silk handkerchief; he ran after me and my shoe buckle came off and I could not wait to pick it up. I left it lying, and he stooped and put it into his pocket.’

  ‘How do you know that it was the same man?’ he asked.

  ‘Because,’ she said, laughing, ‘he had a black face and wore a blue coat like that picture of Captain Cook. And because it was in the sand hills.’

  He said, kissing her neck: ‘We not only live together and talk together and sleep together
, but it seems we now even dream together.’

  So they laughed.

  Then he got up and brought her breakfast.

  At about half past eleven, she said: ‘Go out now for a walk, my dear, and bring home something for me to think about: and be back in time for dinner at one o’clock.’

  It was a hot morning in the middle of May, and he went out through the wood and struck the coast road, which after half a mile led into Lampton.

  (‘Do you know Lampton well?’ asked Crossley. ‘No,’ I said, ‘I am only here for the holidays, staying with friends.’)

  He went a hundred yards along the coast road, but then turned off and went across the links: thinking of Rachel and watching the blue butterflies and looking at the heath roses and thyme, and thinking of her again, and how strange it was that they could be so near to each other; and then taking a pinch of gorse flower and smelling it, and considering the smell and thinking, ‘If she should die, what would become of me?’ and taking a slate from the low wall and skimming it across the pond and thinking, ‘I am a clumsy fellow to be her husband’; and walking towards the sand hills, and then edging away again, perhaps half in fear of meeting the person of their dream, and at last making a half circle towards the old church beyond Lampton, at the foot of the mountain.

  The morning service was over and the people were out by the cromlechs behind the church, walking in twos and threes, as the custom was, on the smooth turf. The squire was talking in a loud voice about King Charles, the Martyr: ‘A great man, a very great man, but betrayed by those he loved best,’ and the doctor was arguing about organ music with the rector. There was a group of children playing ball. ‘Throw it here, Elsie! No, to me, Elsie, Elsie, Elsie!’ Then the rector appeared and pocketed the ball and said that it was Sunday; they should have remembered. When he was gone they made faces after him.

  Presently a stranger came up and asked permission to sit down beside Richard; they began to talk. The stranger had been to the church service and wished to discuss the sermon. The text had been the immortality of the soul: the last of a series of sermons that had begun at Easter. He said that he could not grant the preacher’s premiss that the soul is continually resident in the body. Why should this be so? What duty did the soul perform in the daily routine task of the body? The soul was neither the brain, nor the lungs, nor the stomach, nor the heart, nor the mind, nor the imagination. Surely it was a thing apart? Was it not indeed less likely to be resident in the body than outside the body? He had no proof one way or the other, but he would say: Birth and death are so odd a mystery that the principle of life may well lie outside the body which is the visible evidence of living. ‘We cannot,’ he said, ‘even tell to a nicety what are the moments of birth and death. Why, in Japan, where I have travelled, they reckon a man to be already one year old when he is born; and lately in Italy a dead man – but come and walk on the sand hills and let me tell you my conclusions. I find it easier to talk when I am walking.’

  Richard was frightened to hear this, and to see the man wipe his forehead with a black silk handkerchief. He stuttered out something. At this moment the children, who had crept up behind the cromlech, suddenly, at an agreed signal, shouted loud in the ears of the two men; and stood laughing. The stranger was startled into anger; he opened his mouth as if he were about to curse them, and bared his teeth to the gums. Three of the children screamed and ran off. But the one whom they called Elsie fell down in her fright and lay sobbing. The doctor, who was near, tried to comfort her. ‘He has a face like a devil,’ they heard the child say.

  The stranger smiled good-naturedly: ‘And a devil I was not so very long ago. That was in Northern Australia, where I lived with the black fellows for twenty years. “Devil” is the nearest English word for the position that they gave me in their tribe; and they also gave me an eighteenth-century British naval uniform to wear as my ceremonial dress. Come and walk with me in the sand hills and let me tell you the whole story. I have a passion for walking in the sand hills: that is why I came to this town… My name is Charles.’

  Richard said: ‘Thank you, but I must hurry home to my dinner.’

  ‘Nonsense,’ said Charles, ‘dinner can wait. Or, if you wish, I can come to dinner with you. By the way, I have had nothing to eat since Friday. I am without money.’

  Richard felt uneasy. He was afraid of Charles, and did not wish to bring him home to dinner because of the dream and the sand hills and the handkerchief: yet on the other hand the man was intelligent and quiet and decently dressed and had eaten nothing since Friday; if Rachel knew that he had refused him a meal, she would renew her taunts. When Rachel was out of sorts, her favourite complaint was that he was overcareful about money; though when she was at peace with him, she owned that he was the most generous man she knew, and that she did not mean what she said; when she was angry with him again, out came the taunt of stinginess: ‘Tenpence-halfpenny,’ she would say, ‘tenpence-halfpenny and threepence of that in stamps’; his ears would burn and he would want to hit her. So he said now: ‘By all means come along to dinner, but that little girl is still sobbing for fear of you. You ought to do something about it.’

  Charles beckoned her to him and said a single soft word; it was an Australian magic word, he afterwards told Richard, meaning Milk: immediately Elsie was comforted and came to sit on Charles’s knee and played with the buttons of his waistcoat for awhile until Charles sent her away.

  ‘You have strange powers, Mr Charles,’ Richard said.

  Charles answered: ‘I am fond of children, but the shout startled me; I am pleased that I did not do what, for a moment, I was tempted to do.’

  ‘What was that?’ asked Richard.

  ‘I might have shouted myself,’ said Charles.

  ‘Why,’ said Richard, ‘They would have liked that better. It would have been a great game for them. They probably expected it of you.’

  ‘If I had shouted,’ said Charles, ‘my shout would have either killed them outright or sent them mad. Probably it would have killed them, for they were standing close.’

  Richard smiled a little foolishly. He did not know whether or not he was expected to laugh, for Charles spoke so gravely and carefully. So he said: ‘Indeed, what sort of shout would that be? Let me hear you shout.’

  ‘It is not only children who would be hurt by my shout,’ Charles said. ‘Men can be sent raving mad by it; the strongest, even, would be flung to the ground. It is a magic shout that I learned from the chief devil of the Northern Territory. I took eighteen years to perfect it, and yet I have used it, in all, no more than five times.’

  Richard was so confused in his mind with the dream and the handkerchief and the word spoken to Elsie that he did not know what to say, so he muttered: ‘I’ll give you fifty pounds now to clear the cromlechs with a shout.’

  ‘I see that you do not believe me,’ Charles said. ‘Perhaps you have never before heard of the terror shout?’

  Richard considered and said: ‘Well, I have read of the hero shout which the ancient Irish warriors used, that would drive armies backwards; and did not Hector, the Trojan, have a terrible shout? And there were sudden shouts in the woods of Greece. They were ascribed to the god Pan and would infect men with a madness of fear; from this legend indeed the word “panic” has come into the English language. And I remember another shout in the Mabinogion, in the story of Lludd and Llevelys. It was a shriek that was heard on every May Eve and went through all hearts and so scared them that the men lost their hue and their strength and the women their children, and the youths and maidens their senses, and the animals and trees, the earth and the waters were left barren. But it was caused by a dragon.’

  ‘It must have been a British magician of the dragon clan,’ said Charles. ‘I belonged to the Kangaroos. Yes, that tallies. The effect is not exactly given, but near enough.’

  They reached the house at one o’clock, and Rachel was at the door, the dinner ready. ‘Rachel,’ said Richard, ‘here is Mr Charles to dinne
r; Mr Charles is a great traveller.’

  Rachel passed her hand over her eyes as if to dispel a cloud, but it may have been the sudden sunlight. Charles took her hand and kissed it, which surprised her. Rachel was graceful, small, with eyes unusually blue for the blackness of her hair, delicate in her movements, and with a voice rather low-pitched; she had a freakish sense of humour.

  (‘You would like Rachel,’ said Crossley, ‘she visits me here sometimes.’)

  Of Charles it would be difficult to say one thing or another: he was of middle age, and tall; his hair grey; his face never still for a moment; his eyes large and bright, sometimes yellow; sometimes brown, sometimes grey; his voice changed its tone and accent with the subject; his hands were brown and hairy at the back, his nails well cared for. Of Richard it is enough to say that he was a musician, not a strong man but a lucky one. Luck was his strength.

  After dinner Charles and Richard washed the dishes together, and Richard suddenly asked Charles if he would let him hear the shout: for he thought that he could not have peace of mind until he had heard it. So horrible a thing was, surely, worse to think about than to hear: for now he believed in the shout.

  Charles stopped washing up; mop in hand. ‘As you wish,’ said he, ‘but I have warned you what a shout it is. And if I shout it must be in a lonely place where nobody else can hear; and I shall not shout in the second degree, the degree which kills certainly, but in the first, which terrifies only, and when you want me to stop put your hands to your ears.’