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Title: Collected Stories Author: Maurice Level * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 0605951h.html Language: English Date first posted: August 2006 Date most recently updated: August 2006 This eBook was produced by: Richard Scott Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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Table of Contents
The Last Kiss
Night and Silence
"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 with."
"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 mannequin."
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 murmured:
"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."
"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 learning."
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 face.
"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 face...it 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 shiver...am I then so horrible?"
She stammered:."No...it 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 home...do 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?"
"You hurt me..."
"Oh, no," he sneered, "I frighten you."
"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 more...you 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 rag.
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, meditating...
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 himself.
"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 that...it was a noise I had never heard...What could it have been? No...it could not be..."
He bit his fists. An awful suspicion had come to him.
"Suppose...no, 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, "François!...quick! Help!...Look!..."
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 panic.
"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 breath.
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 route.
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 departed.
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