A sense of reality and o.., p.10
A Sense of Reality: And Other Stories, p.10Graham Greene
He pleaded in an undertone beneath the trees, ‘There would be no danger to anyone at all, Herr Professor. I have always been a lonely man. I have no parents. My only sister died last year. I see no one, speak to no one except the clients in the bank. An occasional game of checkers in the café perhaps—that is all. I would cut myself off even further, Herr Professor, if you thought it wiser. As for the bank, I have always been in the habit of wearing gloves when I handle the notes—so many are filthy. I will take any precaution you suggest if you will go on treating me in private, Herr Professor. I am a law-abiding man, but surely the spirit is more important than the letter. I will abide by the spirit.’
The eagle gripped Prometheus with its unrelenting beak, and the patient said sadly as though to prevent the repetition of a phrase he could not bear to hear again, ‘I don’t like television, Herr Professor—it makes my eyes water, and I have never played golf.’
He halted under the trees, and a lump of snow from a burdened branch fell with a plomp upon his umbrella. It seemed very unlikely, but he thought that he heard strains of distant music borne on a gust of wind and borne away again. He even thought he recognized the melody, something from La Vie Parisienne, a waltz sounding for a moment from where the darkness and the snow lay all around. He had seen this place before only in daylight; the snow touched his face, and the stars crackled overhead between the firs; he felt as though he must have missed his path and entered a strange estate where perhaps a dance was in progress …
But when he reached the circular drive before the house he recognized the portico, the shape of the windows, the steep slope of the roof from which at intervals the snow slid with a crunch like the sound of a man eating apples. It was all that he could recognize, for he had never seen the house like this, ablaze with light and noisy with voices. Perhaps two neighbouring estates had been built by the same architect, and somehow in the wood he had taken the wrong turning. To make sure, he approached the windows, the hard snow breaking like biscuits under his goloshes.
Two young officers, who were obviously the worse for drink, staggered out from the open doorway. ‘I have been betrayed by nineteen,’ one of them said, ‘that confounded nineteen.’
‘And I by zero. I have been faithful to zero for an hour but not once …’
The first young man took a revolver from the holster at his side and waved it in the moonlight. ‘All that is required now,’ he said, ‘is a suicide. The atmosphere is imperfect without one.’
‘Be careful. It might be loaded.’
‘It is loaded. Who is that man ?’
‘I don’t know. The gardener probably. Don’t fool about with that thing.’
‘More bubbly is required,’ the first man said. He tried to put his revolver back into the holster, but it slid down into the snow and he carefully secured the empty holster. ‘More bubbly,’ he repeated, ‘before the dream fades.’ They moved erratically back into the house. The dark object made a pocket in the snow.
The patient went up to the window, which should, if he had taken the right path, have been the window of the Herr Professor’s study, but now he realized for certain that in the darkness he had come to the wrong house. Instead of a small square room with heavy desk and heavy bookcase and steel filing-cabinets was a long room brilliantly lit with cut-glass chandeliers, the walls hung with pictures of dubious taste—young women in diaphanous nightgowns leaning over waterfalls or paddling among water-lilies in a stooping position. A crowd of men wearing uniform and evening-dress swarmed around three roulette tables, and the croupiers’ cries came thinly out into the night, ‘Faites vos jeux, messieurs, faites vos jeux,’ while somewhere in the black garden an orchestra was playing ‘The Blue Danube’. The patient stood motionless in the snow, with his face pressed to the glass, and he thought, The wrong house? But this is not the wrong house; it is the wrong country. He felt that he could never find his way home from here—it was too far away.
At one of the tables, on the right of the croupier, sat the old man whom he had seen pass in the Mercedes. One hand was playing with his moustache, the other with a pile of tokens before him, counting and rearranging them while the ball span and jumped and span, and one foot beat in time to the tune from The Merry Widow. A champagne cork from the bar shot diagonally up and struck the chandelier while the croupiers cried again, ‘Faites vos jeux, messieurs,’ and the stem of a glass went crack in somebody’s fingers.
Then the patient saw the Herr Professor standing with his back to the window at the other end of the great room, beyond the second chandelier, and they regarded each other, with the laughter and cries and glitter of light between them.
The Herr Professor could not properly see the patient—only the outline of a face pressed to the exterior of the pane, but the patient could see the Herr Professor very clearly between the tables, in the light of the chandelier. He could even see his expression, the lost look on his face like that of someone who has come to the wrong party. The patient raised his hand, as though to indicate to the other that he was lost too, but of course the Herr Professor could not see the gesture in the dark. The patient realized quite clearly that, though they had once been well known to each other, it was quite impossible for them to meet, in this house to which they had both strayed by some strange accident. There was no consulting-room here, no file on his case, no desk, no Prometheus, no doctor even to whom he could appeal. ‘Faites vos jeux, messieurs,’ the croupiers cried, ‘faites vos jeux.’
The Herr Colonel said, ‘My dear Herr Professor, after all, you are the host. You should at least lay one stake upon the table.’ He took the Herr Professor by his sleeve and led him to the board where the Herr General sat, beating tip, tap, tip to the music of Lehar.
‘The Herr Professor wishes to follow your fortune, Herr General.’
‘I have little luck tonight, but let him …’ and the General’s fingers wove a design over the cloth. ‘At the same time guard yourself with the zero.’
The ball span and jumped and span and came to rest. ‘Zero,’ the croupier announced and began to rake the other stakes in.
‘At least you have not lost, Herr Professor,’ the Herr General said. Somewhere far away behind the voices there was a faint explosion.
‘The corks are popping,’ the Herr Colonel said. ‘Another glass of champagne, Herr General?’
‘I had hoped it was a shot,’ the Herr General said with a rather freezing smile. ‘Ah, the old days … I remember once in Monte Carlo …’
The Herr Professor looked at the window, where he had thought a moment ago that someone looked in as lost as himself, but no one was there.
A DISCOVERY IN THE WOODS
The village lay among the great red rocks about a thousand feet up and five miles from the sea, which was reached by a path that wound along the contours of the hills. No one in Pete’s village had ever travelled further, though Pete’s father had once, while fishing, encountered men from another small village beyond the headland, which stabbed the sea twenty miles to the east. The children, when they didn’t accompany their fathers to the shingled cove in which the boats lay, would climb up higher for their games—of ‘Old Noh’ and ‘Ware that Cloud’—below the red rocks that dominated their home. Low scrub a few hundred feet up gave place to woodland: trees clung to the rock-face like climbers caught in an impossible situation, and among the trees were the bushes of blackberry, the biggest fruits always sheltered from the sun. In the right season the berries formed a tasty sharp dessert to the invariable diet of fish. It was, taking it all in all, a sparse and simple, yet a happy, life.
Pete’s mother was a little under five feet tall; she had a squint and she was inclined to stumble when she walked, but her movements to Pete seemed at their most uncertain the height of human grace, and when she told him stories, as she often did on the fifth day of the week, her stammer had for him the magical effect of music. There was one word in particular, ‘t-t-t-tree’, which fasci
Not that he was a stupid child unable to learn from experience. He could even with some difficulty look back into the past for four winters, but the furthest time he could remember was very like a sea-fog, which the wind may disperse for a moment from a rock or a group of trees, but it closes down again. His mother claimed that he was seven years old, but his father said that he was nine and that after one more winter he would be old enough to join the crew of the boat which his father shared with a relation (everybody in the village was in some way related). Perhaps his mother had deliberately distorted his age to postpone the time when he would have to go fishing with the men. It was not only the question of danger—though every winter brought a mortal casualty along with it, so that the size of the village hardly increased more than a colony of ants; it was also the fact that he was the only child. (There were two sets of parents in the village, the Torts and the Foxes, who had more than one child, and the Torts had triplets.) When the time came for Pete to join his father, his mother would have to depend on other people’s children for blackberries in the autumn, or just go without, and there was nothing she loved better than blackberries with a splash of goat’s milk.
So this, he believed, was to be the last autumn on land, and he was not much concerned about it. Perhaps his father was in the right about his age, for he had become aware that his position as leader of a special gang was now too incontestable: his muscles felt the need of strengthening against an opponent greater than himself. His gang consisted this October of four children, to three of whom he had allotted numbers, for this made his commands sound more abrupt and discipline so much the easier. The fourth member was a seven-year-old girl called Liz, unwillingly introduced for reasons of utility.
They met among the ruins at the edge of the village. The ruins had always been there, and at night the children, if not the adults too, believed them to be haunted by giants. Pete’s mother, who was far superior in knowledge to all the other women in the village, nobody knew why, said that her grandmother had spoken of a great catastrophe which thousands of years ago had involved a man called Noh—perhaps it was a thunderbolt from the sky, a huge wave (it would have needed a wave at least a thousand feet high to have extinguished this village), or maybe a plague, so some of the legends went, that had killed the inhabitants and left these ruins to the slow destruction of time. Whether the giants were the phantoms of the slayers or of the slain the children were never quite clear.
The blackberries this particular autumn were nearly over and in any case the bushes that grew within a mile of the village—which was called Bottom, perhaps because it lay at the foot of the red rocks—had been stripped bone-bare. When the gang had gathered at the rendezvous Pete made a revolutionary proposal—that they should enter a new territory in search of fruit.
Number One said disapprovingly, ‘We’ve never done that before.’ He was in all ways a conservative child. He had small deep-sunk eyes like holes in stone made by the dropping of water, and there was practically no hair on his head and that gave him the air of a shrivelled old man.
‘We’ll get into trouble,’ Liz said, ‘if we do.’
‘Nobody need know,’ Pete said, ‘so long as we take the oath.’
The village by long custom claimed that the land belonging to it extended in a semi-circle three miles deep from the last cottage—even though the last cottage was a ruin of which only the foundations remained. Of the sea too they reckoned to own the water for a larger, more ill-defined area that extended some twelve miles out to sea. This claim, on the occasion when they encountered the boats from beyond the headland, nearly caused a conflict. It was Pete’s father who made peace by pointing towards the clouds which had begun to mass over the horizon, one cloud in particular of enormous black menace, so that both parties turned in agreement towards the land, and the fishermen from the village beyond the headland never sailed again so far from their home. (Fishing was always done in grey overcast weather or in fine blue clear weather, or even during moonless nights, when the stars were sufficiently obscured; it was only when the shape of the clouds could be discerned that by general consent fishing stopped.)
‘But suppose we meet someone?’ Number Two asked.
‘How could we?’ Pete said.
‘There must be a reason,’ Liz said, ‘why they don’t want us to go.’
‘There’s no reason,’ Pete said, ‘except the law.’
‘Oh, if it’s only the law,’ Number Three said, and he kicked a stone to show how little he thought of the law.
‘Who does the land belong to?’ Liz asked.
‘To nobody,’ Pete said.
‘All the same nobody has rights,’ Number One said sententiously, looking inwards, with his watery sunk eyes.
‘You are right there,’ Pete said. ‘Nobody has.’
‘But I didn’t mean what you mean,’ Number One replied.
‘You think there are blackberries there, further up?’ Number Two asked. He was a reasonable child who only wanted to be assured that a risk was worth while.
‘There are bushes all the way up through the woods,’ Pete said.
‘How do you know?’
‘It stands to reason.’
It seemed odd to him that day how reluctant they were to take his advice. Why should the blackberry-bushes abruptly stop their growth on the border of their own territory? Blackberries were not created for the special use of Bottom. Pete said, ‘Don’t you want to pick them one time more before the winter comes?’ and they hung their heads, as though they were seeking a reply in the red earth where the ants made roads from stone to stone. At last Number One said, ‘Nobody’s been there before,’ as if that was the worst thing he could think of to say.
‘All the better blackberries,’ Pete replied.
Number Two said after consideration, ‘The wood looks deeper up there and blackberries like the shade.’
Number Three yawned. ‘Who cares about blackberries anyway? There’s other things to do than pick. It’s new ground, isn’t it? Let’s go and see. Who knows …?’
‘Who knows?’ Liz repeated in a frightened way and looked first at Pete and then at Number Three as though it were possible that perhaps they might.
‘Hold up your hands and vote,’ Pete said. He shot his own arm commandingly up and Number Three was only a second behind. After a little hesitation Number Two followed suit; then, seeing that there was a majority anyway for going further, Liz raised a cautious hand but with a backward glance at Number One. ‘So you’re for home?’ Pete said to Number One with scorn and relief.
‘He’ll have to take the oath anyway,’ Number Three said, ‘or else …’
‘I don’t have to take the oath if I’m going home.’
‘Of course you have to or else you’ll tell.’
‘What do I care about your silly oath? It doesn’t mean a thing. I can take it and tell just the same.’
There was a silence: the other three looked at Pete. The whole foundation of their mutual trust seemed to be endangered. No one had ever suggested breaking the oath before. At last Number Three said, ‘Let’s bash him.’
‘No,’ Pete said. Violence, he knew, was not the answer. Number One would run home just the same and tell everything. The whole blackberry-picking would be spoilt by the thought of the punishment to come.
‘Oh hell,’ Number Two said. ‘Let’s forget the blackberries and play Old Noh.’
Liz, like the girl she was, began to weep. ‘I want to pick blackberries.’
But Pete had been given time to reach his decision. He said, ‘He’s g
Number One tried to escape, but Number Two tripped him up. Liz bound his wrists with her hair-ribbon, pulling a hard knot which only she knew—it was for such special skills as this that she had gained her entry into the gang. Number One sat on a chunk of ruin and sneered at them. ‘How do I pick blackberries with my hands tied?’
‘You were greedy and ate them all. You brought none home. They’ll find the stains all over your clothes.’
‘Oh, he’ll get such a beating,’ Liz said with admiration. ‘I bet they’ll beat him bare.’
‘Four against one.’
‘Now you are going to take the oath,’ Pete said. He broke off two twigs and held them in the shape of a cross. Each of the other three members of the gang gathered saliva in the mouth and smeared the four ends of the cross. Then Pete thrust the sticky points of wood between the lips of Number One. Words were unnecessary: the same thought came inevitably to the mind of everyone with the act: ‘Strike me dead if I tell.’ After they had dealt forcibly with Number One each followed the same ritual. (Not one of them knew the origin of the oath; it had passed down through generations of such gangs. Once Pete—and perhaps all the others at one time or another had done the same in the darkness of bed—tried to explain to himself the ceremony of the oath: in sharing the spittle maybe they were sharing each other’s lives, like mixing blood, and the act was solemnized upon a cross because for some reason a cross always signified shameful death.)
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