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Title: Collected Stories
Author: Maurice Level
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0605951.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: August 2006
Date most recently updated: August 2006

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Collected Stories
Maurice Level

Table of Contents

The Last Kiss
Night and Silence
A Madman


"Forgive me... Forgive me."

His voice was less assured as he replied:

"Get up, dry your eyes. I, too, have a good deal to reproach myself

"No, no," she sobbed.

He shook his head.

"I ought never to have left you; you loved me. Just at first after it
all happened...when I could still feel the fire of the vitriol burning
my face, when I began to realize that I should never see again, that
all my life I should be a thing of horror, of Death, certainly I
wasn't able to think of it like that. It isn't possible to resign
oneself all at once to such a fate...But living in this eternal
darkness, a man's thoughts pierce far below the surface and grow quiet
like those of a person falling asleep, and gradually calm comes. To-
day, no longer able to use my eyes, I see with my imagination. I see
again our little house, our peaceful days, and your smile. I see your
poor little face the night I said that last good-bye."

"The judge couldn't imagine any of that, could he? And it was only
fair to try to explain, for they thought only of your action, the
action that made me into...what I am. They were going to send you to
prison where you would slowly have faded . . No years of such
punishment for you could have given me back my eyes...When you saw me
go into the witness-box you were afraid, weren't you? You believed
that I would charge you, have you condemned? No, I could never have
done that never..."

She was still crying. Her face buried in her hands.

"How good you are!..."

"I am just..."

In a voice that came in jerks she repeated:

"I repent, I repent; I have done the most awful thing to you that a
woman could do, and you---you begged for my acquittal! And now you can
even fid words of pity for me! What can I do to prove my sorrow? Oh,
you are wonderful...wonderful..."

He let her go on talking and weeping; his head thrown back, his hands
on the arms of his chair, he listened apparently without emotion. When
she was calm again, he asked:

"What are you going to do now?"

"I don't know...I shall rest for a few days...I am so tired hen I
shall go back to work. I shall try to find a place in a shop or as a

His voice was a little stifled as he asked:

"You are still as pretty as ever?"

She did not reply.

"I want to know if you are as pretty as you used to be?"

She remained silent. With a slight shiver, he murmured: "It is dark
now, isn't it? Turn on the light. Though I can no longer see, I like
to feel that there is light around me...Where are you?...Near the
mantelpiece?...Stretch out your hand. You will find the switch there."

No sense even of light could penetrate his eyelids, but from the
sudden sound of horror she stifled, he knew that the lamp was on. For
the first time she was able to see the result of her work, the
terrifying face streaked with white swellings, seamed with red
furrows, a narrow black band around the eyes. While he had pleaded for
her in court, she had crouched on her seat weeping, not daring to look
at him; now, before this abominable thing, she grew sick with a kind
of disgust. But it was without any anger that he murmured:

"I am very different from the man you knew in the old days--I horrify
you now, don't I? You shrink from me?..."

She tried to keep her voice steady.

"Certainly not. I am here, in the same place..."

"Yes, now...and I want you to come still nearer. If you knew how the
thought of your hands tempt me in my darkness. How I should love to
feel their softness once again. But I dare not...And yet that is what
I wanted to ask you: to let me feel your hand for a minute in mine.
We, the blind, can get such marvelous memories from just a touch."

Turning her head away, she held out her arm. Caressing her fingers, he

"Ah, how good. Don't tremble. Let me try to imagine we are lovers
again just as we used to be...but you are not wearing my ring. Why? I
have not taken yours oft. Do you remember? You said, 'It is our
wedding-ring. Why have you taken it off?"

"I dare not wear it..."

"You must put it on again. You will wear it? Promise me."

She stammered:

"I promise you."

He was silent for a little while; then in a calmer voice:

"It must be quite dark now. How cold I am! If you only knew how cold
it feels when one is blind. Your hands are warm; mine are frozen. I
have not yet developed the fuller sense of touch."

"It takes time, they say...At present I am like a little child

She let her fingers remain in his, sighing:

"Oh, Mon Dieu...Mon Dieu..."

Speaking like a man in a dream, he went on:

"How glad I am that you came. I wondered whether you would, and I felt
I wanted to keep you with me for a long, long time: always...But that
wouldn't be possible. Life with me would be too sad. You see, little
one, when people have memories like ours, they must be careful not to
spoil them, and it must be horrible to look at me now, isn't it?"

She tried to protest; what might have been a smile passed over his

"Why lie? I remember I once saw a man whose mistress had thrown
vitriol over him. His face was not human. Women turned their heads
away as they passed, while he, not being able to see and so not
knowing, went on talking to the people who were shrinking away from
him. I must be, I am like that poet wretch, am I not? Even you who
knew me as I used to be, you tremble with disgust; I can feel it. For
a long time you will be haunted by the remembrance of my
will come in between you and everything else...How the thought
hurts...but don't let us go on talking about me...You said just now
that you were going back to work. Tell me your plans; come nearer, I
don't hear as well as I used to...Well?"

Their two armchairs were almost touching. She was silent. He sighed:

"Ah, I can smell your scent! How I have longed for it. I bought a
bottle of the perfume you always used, but on me it didn't smell the
same. From you it comes mixed with the scent of your skin and hair.
Come nearer, let me drink it in...You are going away, you will never
come back again; let me draw in for the last time as much of you as I
can...You I then so horrible?"

She stammered:." is cold..."

"Why are you so lightly dressed? I don't believe you brought a cloak.
In November, too. It must be damp and dreary in the streets. How you
tremble! How warm and comfortable it was in our little you
remember? You used to lay your face on my shoulder, and I used to hold
you close to me. Who would want to sleep in my arms now? Come nearer.
Give me your hand...There...What did you think when your lawyer told
you I had asked to see you?"

"I thought I ought to come."

"Do you still love me?"

Her voice was only a breath:


Very slowly, his voice full of supplication, he said:

"I want to kiss you for the last time. I know it will be almost
torture for you...Afterwards I Won't ask anything more. You can
go...May I?...Will you let me?..."

Involuntarily she shrank back; then, moved by shame and pity, not
daring to refuse a joy to the poor wretch, she laid her head on his
shoulder, held up her mouth and shut her eyes. He pressed her gently
to him, silent, prolonging the happy moment. She opened her eyes, and
seeing the terrible face so near, almost touching her own, for the
second time she shivered with disgust and would have drawn sharply
away. But he pressed her closer to him, passionately.

"You would go away so soon?...Stay a little longer...You haven't seen
enough of me...Look at me...and give me your mouth again...more of it
than that...It is horrible, isn't it?"

She moaned:

"You hurt me..."

"Oh, no," he sneered, "I frighten you."

She struggled.

"You hurt me! You hurt me!"

In a low voice he said:

"Sh-h. No noise; be quiet. I've got you now and I'll keep you. For how
many days have I waited for this moment...Keep still, I say, keep
still! No nonsense! You know I am much stronger than you."

He seized both her hands in one of his, took a little bottle from the
pocket of his coat, drew out the stopper with his teeth, and went on
in the same quiet voice:

"Yes, it is vitriol; bend your head...there...You will see; we are
going to be incomparable lovers, made for each other...Ah, you
tremble? Do you understand now why I had you acquitted, and why I made
you come here to-day? Your pretty face will be exactly like mine. You
will be a monstrous thing, and like me, blind!...Ah, yes, it hurts,
hurts terribly."

She opened her mouth to implore. He ordered:

"No! Not that! Shut your mouth! I don't want to kill you, that would
make it too easy for you."

Gripping her in the bend of his arm, he pressed his hand on her mouth
and poured the acid slowly over her forehead, her eyes, her cheeks.
She struggled desperately, but he held her too firmly and kept on
pouring as he talked:

"There...a little bite, but that's nothing...It hurts,
doesn't it? It is Hell. . ."

Suddenly he flung her away, crying:

"I am burning myself."

She fell writhing on the floor. Already her face was nothing but a red

Then he straightened himself, stumbled over her, felt about the wall
to find the switch, and put out the light. And round them, as in them,
was a great Darkness...


They were old, crippled, horrible. The woman hobbled about on two
crutches; one of the men, blind, walked with his eyes shut, his hands
outstretched, his fingers spread open; the other, a deaf-mute,
followed with his head lowered, rarely raising the sad, restless eyes
that were the only sign of life in his impassive face.

It was said that they were two brothers and a sister, and that they
were united by a savage affection. One was never seen without the
others; at the church doors they shrank back into the shadows, keeping
away from those professional beggars who stand boldly in the full
light so that passers-by may be ashamed to ignore their importunacy.
They did not ask for anything. Their appearance alone was a prayer for
help. As they moved silently through the narrow, gloomy streets, a
mysterious trio, they seemed to personify Age, Night, and Silence.

One evening, in their hovel near the gates of the city, the woman died
peacefully in their arms, without a cry, with just one long look of
distress which the deaf-mute saw, and one violent shudder which the
blind man felt because her hand clasped his wrist. Without a sound she
passed into eternal silence.

Next day, for the first time, the two men were seen without her. They
dragged about all day without even stopping at the baker's shop where
they usually received doles of bread. Toward dusk, when lights began
to twinkle at the dark crossroads, when the reflection of lamps gave
the houses the appearance of a smile, they bought with the few half-
pence they had received two poor little candles, and they returned to
the desolate hovel where the old sister lay on her pallet with no one
to watch or pray for her.

They kissed the dead woman. The man came to put her in her coffin. The
deal boards were fastened down and the coffin was placed on two wooden
trestles; then, once more alone, the two brothers laid a sprig of
boxwood on a plate, lighted their candles, and sat down for the last
all-too--short vigil.

Outside, the cold wind played round the joints of the ill-fitting
door. Inside, the small trembling flames barely broke the darkness
with their yellow light...Not a sound...

For a long time they remained like this, praying, remembering,

Tired out with weeping, at last they fell asleep...

When they woke it was still night. The lights of the candles still
glimmered, but they were lower. The cold that is the precursor of dawn
made them shiver. But there was something else---what was it? They
leaned forward, the one trying to see, the other to hear. For some
time they remained motionless; then, there being no repetition of what
bad roused them, they lay down again and began to pray.

Suddenly, for the second time, they sat up. Had either of them been
alone, he would have thought himself the play-thing of some fugitive
hallucination. When one sees without hearing, or hears without seeing,
illusion is easily created. But something abnormal was taking place;
there could be no doubt about it since both were affected, since it
appealed both to eyes and ears at the same time; they were fully
conscious of this, but were unable to understand.

Between them they had the power of complete comprehension. Singly,
each had but a partial, agonizing conception.

The deaf-mute got up and walked about. Forgetting his brother's
infirmity, the blind man asked in a voice choked with fear, "What is
it? What's the matter? Why have you got up?"

He heard him moving, coming and going, stopping, starting off again,
and again stopping; and having nothing but these sounds to guide his
reason, his terror increased till his teeth began to chatter. He was
on the point of speaking again, but remembered, and relapsed into a
muttering, "What can he see? What is it?"

The deaf-mute took a few more steps, rubbed his eyes, and presumably,
reassured, went back to his mattress and fell asleep.

The blind man heaved a sigh of relief, and silence fell once more,
broken only by the prayers he mumbled in a monotonous undertone, his
soul benumbed by grief as he waited till sleep should come and pour
light into his darkness.

He was almost sleeping when the murmurs which had before made him
tremble, wrenched him from an uneasy doze.

It sounded like a soft scratching mingled with light blows on a plank.
curious rubbings, and stifled moans.

He leaped up. The deaf-mute had not moved. Feeling that the fear that
culminates in panic was threatening him, he strove to reason with

"Why should this noise terrify me?...The night is always full of
sounds...My brother is moving uneasily in his sleep...yes, that's
it...Just now I heard him walking up and down, and there was the same
noise...It must have been the wind...But I know the sound of the wind,
and it has never been like was a noise I had never
heard...What could it have been? could not be..."

He bit his fists. An awful suspicion had come to him.

", it's not possible...Suppose it was...there it is
again!...Again...louder and louder...some one is scratching,
scratching, knocking...My God! A voice...her voice! She is calling!
She is crying! Help, help!"

He threw himself out of bed and roared, "Franois!...quick!

He was half mad with fear. He tore wildly at his hair shouting
"Look!...You've got eyes, you, you can see!..."

The moans became louder, the raps firmer. Feeling his way, stumbling
against the walls, knocking against the packing-cases which served as
furniture, tripping in the hole in the floor, he staggered about
trying to find his sleeping brother.

He fell and got up again, bruised, covered with blood, sobbing, "I
have no eyes! I have no eyes!"

He had upset the plate on which lay the sprig of box, and the sound of
the earthenware breaking on the floor gave the finishing touch to his

"Help! What have I done? Help!"

The noises grew louder and more terrifying, and as an agonizing cry
sounded, his last doubts left him. Behind his empty eyes, he imagined
he saw the horrible thing...

He saw the old sister beating against the tightly-closed lid of her
coffin. He saw her super-human terror, her agony, a thousand times
worse than that of any other death...She was there, alive, yes alive,
a few steps away from him...but where? She heard his steps, his voice,
and he, blind, could do nothing to help her.

Where was his brother? Flinging his arms from right to left, he
knocked over the candles: the wax flowed over his fingers, hot, like
blood. The noise grew louder, more despairing; the voice was speaking,
saying words that died away in smothered groans...

"Courage!" he shrieked. "I'm here! I'm coming!"

He was now crawling along on his knees, and a sudden turn flung him
against a bed; he thrust out his arms, felt a body, seized it by the
shoulders, and shook it with all the strength that remained in him.

Violently awakened, the deaf-mute sprang up uttering horrible cries
and trying to see, but now that the candles were out, he, too, was
plunged into night, the impenetrable darkness that held more terror
for him than for the blind man. Stupefied with sleep, he groped about
wildly with his hands, which closed in a vise-like grip on his
brother's throat, stifling cries of, "Look! Look!"

They rolled together on the floor, upsetting all that came in their
way, knotted together, ferociously tearing each other with tooth and
nail. In a very short time their hoarse breathing had died away. The
voice, so distant and yet so near, was cut short by a spasm...there
was a cracking noise...the imprisoned body was raising itself in one
last supreme effort for freedom...a grinding noise...sobs...again the
grinding noise...silence...

Outside, the trees shuddered as they bowed in the gale; the rain beat
against the walls. The late winter's dawn was still crouching on the
edge of the horizon. Inside the walls of the hovel, not a sound, not a


He was neither wicked nor cruel, but he hungered for the unexpected.
The theatre did not interest him, yet he attended often, hoping for
the outbreak of a fire. He went to the fair at Neuilly to see if
perhaps one of the menagerie animals might go wild and mangle its
trainer. Once he even visited the bullring, but its calculated
bloodshed was mundane, too controlled. Meaningless suffering revolted
him; he craved the thrill of sudden catastrophe.

Then, after ten years of waiting, fire indeed ravaged the Opera
Comique one night when he was there. He escaped uninjured, but soon
afterwards he saw the celebrated lion-tamer Frederick torn to pieces
by his cats. The madman was only a few feet away from the cage when it
happened. He lost interest in wild beast shows and the theatre and
fell into a deep depression.

But then one morning he saw a garish poster, one of many that covered
the walls of Paris.

Against a blue background, a peculiar slanted track descended, curled
itself into a circular loop and then plummeted straight down. The top
of the billboard depicted a tiny cyclist about to dare the dangerous

The newspapers ran a story explaining that the cyclist intended to
ride down just such a track.

"When I reach the loop," he told reporters, "you'll actually see me
round it upside down!" The press was invited to inspect the track and
the bicycle. "I use no mechanical trickery," the daredevil bragged,
"nothing but precise scientific calculation. That--and my ability to
keep up my nerve."

When the madman read the article, his good spirits returned. He
immediately went to buy a ticket. He did not want his attention
distracted when the rider looped the loop, so he purchased an entire
box of seats opposite the track and sat alone on opening night. After
a suspenseful wait, the cyclist appeared high above the audience at
the top of the ribbon of road. A moment of tense anticipation, then
down he sped. As promised, he circled the loop with head underneath
and feet in the air--and then it was all over.

The performance certainly thrilled the madman, but as he exited with
the crowd, he knew he might experience the same intense sensation once
or twice more and then, as always, the novelty would die.
Still...bicycles break, road surfaces wear out...and no man's nerve
holds out forever. Sooner or later, there must be an accident.

The cyclist was scheduled to perform for three months in Paris and
then tour the provinces.

The madman decided to go to every single performance, even if he had
to follow the show on its travels. He bought the same box for the
entire Parisian run and sat in the same seat night after night.

One evening two months later, the performance had just ended and the
madman was on his way out when he noticed the performer standing in
one of the corridors of the auditorium. He walked up to him, but
before he could utter a word, the cyclist greeted him affably.

"I know you. You come to my show every night."

"That's true. Your remarkable feat fascinates me. But who told you I'm
always here?"

"No one," the rider smiled. "I see you myself."

"But how can you, so high up? At such a moment, are you actually able
to study the audience?"

The cyclist laughed. "Hardly. It'd be dangerous for me to look at a
crowd shifting around and prattling. But confidentially, there's a
little trick involved in what I do."

"A trick?" The madman was surprised and dismayed.

"No, no, I don't mean a hoax. But there's something I do which the
public is unaware of." The cyclist winked. "This'll be our little
secret, yes? When I mount my bicycle and grasp the handlebars, I never
worry about my own strength and coordination, but the total
concentration the ride demands concerns me. It's almost impossible for
me to empty my mind of all but one idea. My greatest danger is that my
eyes may stray. But here's my trick--I find one spot in the auditorium
and focus all my attention on it. The first time I rode in this hall,
I spied you in your box and chose you as my spot. The next evening,
there you were again..."

The madman sat in his customary seat. The usual excited buzz filled
the hail. A hush fell when the rider made his entrance, a black speck
far overhead. Two men held his bicycle. The cyclist gripped the
handlebars, stared out over the heads of the crowd and shouted the
signal. The men gave the machine a shove.

At that instant, the madman rose and walked to the opposite side of
his box. The audience screamed as cycle and rider shot off the track
and plunged into the midst of the crowd.

The madman donned his coat, smoothed his hat against one sleeve and


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