By Russell A. Kirk
And when they shall say unto you, Seek unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto wizards that peep, and that mutter: should not a people seek unto their God? for the living to the dead?
Having stared at the river for half an hour, Loring walked back across the great steel bridge and turned to the left. A little past eight he would have to be knocking at the Schumachers’.
In St. Louis they have pounded the Old Town into dust. All along the Mississippi, where the little city of the French and their American successors used to lie, now is a brick-strewn desolation—no building standing but the stiff old cathedral, grudgingly spared in the fiat which destined this belt of land for a memorial park. To the modern politician and planner, men are the flies of a summer, oblivious of their past, reckless of their future. Governmental contracts and newspaper publicity are concrete; the Old Town had been only a shabby slum to the politicians and planners of St. Louis, men not given to long views or to theory.
So Frank Loring thought as he strolled down one of those forlorn streets of condemned houses that cling to a brief reprieve on the edge of the bulldozed wilderness that once was an historic community. Loring was not progressive. Candidly, Loring told himself, he was a reactionary. Ecclesiastes was Bible enough for him. Though not yet forty, he had beheld nearly all things under the sun, he thought; and yesterday’s sun had been warmer than today’s. St. Louis being a progressive town, in which the air stank from the breweries and the government stank from other fermentation, Loring stopped there only when God and Mammon called him.
As traveler for a publishing firm, he could not keep away altogether from dingy St. Louis, with its vast stupid “civic center” and its decaying heart; but until this evening he had held the Gomorrah of a city at arm’s length, sticking chiefly to his hotel room in the grandiose late-Victorian railwaystation. Tonight, though, the past had claimed him.
For Professor Schumacher had found Loring. Professor Schumacher was Godfrey Schumacher, the husband of Mrs. Nancy Schumacher; and Nancy had been Nancy Birrell; and all this past decade Loring had not seen her, praise be. She was very lovable; and being no Stoic Frank Loring had chosen not to look upon her since she married. Ten years, all the same—some healing power, surely, in such a quarantine by time. Well, he would see her tonight beside her husband and talk of little things, and then plod back into apathy.
He had been sitting at a soda fountain with an instructor in literature when there came up Godfrey Schumacher, professor of Spanish, with whom he hadn’t spoken for ten years either; and Schumacher had shaken his hand and smiled his old lordly smile and asked him to come round for an evening with Nancy and himself. Loring must have shown his surprise. “Nancy hoped I’d be able to persuade you,” Schumacher said. “She speaks of you often.” And Schumacher had put a large, patronizing hand on Loring’s shoulder. “They told me in the dean’s office you were expected in town this week, Frank.”
Nancy hoped? Why? That was what Loring wanted to ask; but instead he had smiled and agreed and lamented the day’s heat, and complimented Schumacher on the grey suit he wore. Schumacher cut nearly as handsome a figure as he had a decade gone, and much of his past-president-of-fraternity air had survived, too. Mingled with it was a hint of something newer and perhaps deeper—a kind of frowning dignity, even an intensity. Again Loring was a trifle surprised, Schumacher not having been the sort of man one expects to ripen with the years. And somehow Loring relished these recent developments of Schumacher’s nature no more than he had liked the old Schumacher.
Schumacher wasn’t the man he’d spend an evening with if he hadn’t been cornered and almost bluffed into it. As for Nancy … What could she and Loring have to say now that wouldn’t hurt? Every smile must be a reflection of past folly, every civility a humiliation. And natty, broad-shouldered, merry-dog Schumacher there between them, now and to the end of time. Well, what did Nancy mean to say to him? For she must have been at the back of Schumacher’s invitation. They’d hardly known each other, Schumacher and he, back in those days before the Great Fact; and when they had met—a half-dozen times perhaps—there’d been no love lost. Twice a year, for five years now, Loring had been coming round to St. Louis, but Schumacher never once had sought him out.
Ah, that was Nancy’s doing, that impulsive little girl’s doing. Little girl? She must be thirty-five, nearly. Yet to his mind she was the wind-blown romp beside the lake in the pine woods, calling out “Frank! Frank! Do I look like Carmen?” And so she would stay for him always.
A scent brought back Loring from the lake in the woods, a dozen years lost, to the pavements of St. Louis and the present. To be detected through the air of downtown St. Louis, this scent must be a stench. Such it was, and it came from the doorways of the condemned houses past which Loring was sauntering. Their windows broken, their doors gone, their steps rotted, their chimneys fallen away, still these houses were inhabited in a sparse and furtive way. To this slum of slums crawled down the most pitiful and foul sweepings of the white populace of a great city: old men with no legs who played harmonicas outside the picture-houses at night; women wrecked by liquor; grown imbeciles subsisting on restaurant garbage; the torpid, the loathsome, the soddenly vicious. They lit fires on sheet-iron scrap in the bare rooms, and slept wrapped in newspapers or filthy old coats; they got water the devil knew where—from the river, perhaps. The stench of them and their litter, the remnants of their greasy suppers and their carpet of dust, swept sourly into the street.
Without plumbing, without heating, without lighting, they lived on in these wrecks of houses, while the plaster flaked away with damp and the rats gnawed the timbers. For condemned houses that were the last stand of the Old Town had this surpassing advantage: no one collected rent. Their site was the state’s, their walls were the wreckers’, and the police of St. Louis left the squatters in possession as creatures too unclean and too futile for touching.
These old houses were flush with the street, and alleys, courts, dead-end lanes opened from the sidewalk into the back recesses of the few doomed blocks—bad warrens to enter if you looked a bit under the weather and ripe for rolling. Loring quickened his pace, it being nearly dark now and the Schumachers’ address five or six blocks further. He stepped over the legs of a burly man who slouched immobile upon the steps of a tenement; and he noticed that though the fellow wore no shirt this summer evening, a thick woollen undershirt covered him from neck to wrists, and that the man’s head, nearly bald, had a great nasty protuberance, almost conical, on one side. Pleasant neighbors for the Schumachers, these squatters of the condemned streets.
A little further along he met an old, or at least haggard, man and woman lurching toward him, bleary and raucous. As they scurried past, the woman threw up a grimy hand like a witch’s right in his face, screeching out, “Ah there, lover!” And now Loring had found the house number Schumacher had given him: a square, bracketed house, decently kept, with a brick wall round it—the beginning of that mid-Victorian girdle which marched with the fringe of the older town.
In his diffident way, Loring went slowly up the walk, raised his hand to knock, and then lowered it. Who would answer? Would Nancy be face to face with him the second the door opened? But he did not have to knock, after all. Heavy footfalls came from somewhere inside, and a night-lock was turned; and there stood Schumacher with his vast confident smile.
“I heard you on the step, Frank.”
The incarnation of certitude, Schumacher, as in his younger days; but now he looked at you longer and more closely, absorbing rather than dismissing you. He took Loring’s hat as if confiscating it. “Nancy’s lying down in the living room,” Schumacher said. “This seems to be one of her bad evenings.”
“Bad evenings?” Loring hardly ever had known that little romp to be ill.
“Oh, your coming will help to bring her round,” Schumacher went on. “Yes, Frank, she’s not been well for some time. The doctor hasn’t a notion of the cause. But then, between you and me, what do M.D.’s know, eh? Not half what certain people I could name have got hold of—not a tenth!”
Yet Schumacher, when Loring had known him formerly, had been a complacent positivist. Changes in the fellow, yes—but the complacency remained. “You sound as if you’d been reading those Rosicrucian advertisements, Schumacher,” Loring commented, meaning to be jocular. But the jocosity was punctured by a long heavy look from Schumacher. Schumacher condescending to be resentful?
“I don’t mean quackery,” Schumacher said. “Well, we’ll go in to Nancy.” He rapped perfunctorily at a door and pushed it open.
Nancy—ah, Nancy. The girl by the lake was in her yet. She had lain on a chaise longue, her little feet bare, as had been her fashion; and in her light green summer frock, supple and poised, she was for the moment Madame Récamier. But she rose quickly, gliding into neat slippers, and reached out both hands: “Oh, Frank!”
Loring flushed, almost giddy, as he took her hands. His shy smile, which Nancy and a few others could evoke, betrayed, he supposed, the interminable dreary story of his past ten years. And Nancy apprehended at once, he could tell—how observant she always was, and how quick they both had been to grasp each other’s moods, back there before the Great Fact—yes, apprehended that he was notcured and had no hope of cure. She gave him a glance, quick and compassionate (was there something more than compassion in it?), and then swept her look on to her husband.
“We’ll pull up by the bay window, eh?” said Schumacher, easily. When Nancy turned toward a big armchair, Schumacher gave her his hand, and Loring understood with a sudden pain that she needed it. Below her blue eyes were faint circles, and she was slim, all too slim, though youthful and fine skinned still. Her eyes glowed tonight; but, despite that, she was pale, weak and pale. She put Loring upon a plump stool at one side of her—“You always used to choose the stool, Frank, at every party, and I’ve been saving this one for you”—and Schumacher in a chair on her other side. Thus they sat and talked, Frank and Nancy, and natty, broad-shouldered, merry-dog Schumacher.
And every smile that Loring gave Nancy was a reflection of past folly; and every civility from her was an humiliation; and there was nothing they could say to each other that did not hurt. They talked of fripperies, college gossip, and sweltering summers and new books and tolerable restaurants. It was torment. Schumacher dominated—patronizing, self-satisfied, full of talk. Schumacher was no bore: he talked much better than Loring had expected, and he listened to you when you had something to say—at least, he watched you, meeting your eyes with an absorbed and absorbing stare. No longer content with a physical triumph, did Schumacher want to dominate your mind? Even his efforts to put you at ease were disconcerting. Or had the sight and sound of Nancy shaken Loring’s nerves?
To nerves, indeed, Schumacher presently led the conversation. Certainly no positivism remained in Schumacher. A startling blend of psychiatry and quasi-Yoga, spiced with something near to necromancy and perhaps a dash of Madame Blavatsky—this Schumacher’s new system appeared to be. And this emitted by a swaggering professor of Spanish, late a disciple of the mechanists! Well, the line of demarcation between the two cults perhaps was no more difficult to cross than the boundary between Fascism and Communism, Loring reflected—but kept the observation private. How was Schumacher fetching Nancy into all this? She had been leaning back in her chair with the polite air of a woman who has heard her husband too often on certain themes; but as Schumacher introduced her name, she sat up briskly, tucking her feet beneath her, and she listened with a fixity that set Loring wondering.
“… waves of mind,” Schumacher was saying. “Take Nancy: I’m sure no one suffers from a more subtle neurosis. It has to be the work of influences, waves of impulse, from origins and purposes we can only guess at—and not many of us are qualified to guess. Neurosis is an abused and misleading word, you understand, Frank. But there’s almost no physical cause for Nancy’s trouble—only physical effects. What’s the source, the impulse, eh? Where does it come from? What wills it?”
“The only trouble with me is, I’m sick,” declared Nancy, with that humorous defiance Loring had known so long ago. “Something just ails my insides, that’s all, Godfrey. I’m not the sort of girl that has the jitters, am I, Frank? I never was, was I?”
Swallowing, Loring said, “You were cool as the center seed of a cucumber, Nancy.” Did she want to make him cry?
“You’d best take the doctors’ word on that, hadn’t you, dear?” Schumacher interrupted. “Three doctors we’ve called in, Frank. And what did they say, Nancy?”
Nancy crossed her arms pertly:
“They cried in accents drear,
‘There’s nothing wrong with her!’”
“Well, not precisely that, dear,” Schumacher admonished her, “now was it? As a matter of fact, Frank, they had to admit they simply didn’t know. Loss of weight, loss of vitality, but no ascribable physical cause.” Schumacher seemed positively to relish their bafflement. “‘Waves of mind,’ I told them. They couldn’t follow me, of course—only M.D.’s. And they couldn’t account for Nancy’s dreams, either: a neurotic product quite outside their sphere, Loring—or Frank, that is. Tell Frank about your dreams, Nancy.”
“Oh, other people’s dreams are boring, aren’t they, Frank?” She waved a little red-nailed hand. “And these are boring even to me, in a way, after so many nights of them. I’d better let sleeping mares lie.”
“You can understand Nancy’s not going into detail, Frank,” said Schumacher, earnestly. “Dreadful sights, some of those visions of hers; glimpses that …”
Nancy cut him short, her full lips compressed in the imperious spirit Loring remembered too well: “My dreams, anyway, are my own, Godfrey. I hope you never have to share them. If you want an idea, a faint suggestion, of what they amount to, look at the pictures, Frank.”
Loring had been vaguely conscious of a series of medium-sized colored prints, handsomely framed—four hung on each wall of the room—but until now his eyes had been all for Nancy. He rose and glanced at them. They were good prints: Breughel and Bosch and Teniers and Botticelli and a pair that Loring did not recognize. They were paintings of hell, every one, prints of those exquisitely horrid Flemish and German and Italian medieval-renaissance hells, their multitudinous tiny insect-devils flaying their innumerable little damned souls, their miniature burghs belching fire, their allegories of sin and unending torment expressed in sixteen ingenious diableries.
“Deus misereatur!” murmured Loring, passing slowly from one picture to the next.
“Well, do you think my nerves have weakened with the years, Frank? Just how many wives could lie nearly all day in a room like this and not mind a bit?” She still had that naive conceit of her courage. “I asked Godfrey why he couldn’t let us have a touch of paradise, too; but no, he’s set on his red devils.”
“I didn’t know you cared for this period,” Loring observed to Schumacher.
Schumacher looked at him affably. “A man needs always to be growing, finding new interests, new fields, you know. Art of this sort is one of my new ones. Cooking’s another, by the way. What about it, dear?”
“I’m proud of Godfrey as a chef, since getting dinner became too much for me. He’s done splendidly.” Nancy spoke with a smiling seriousness. “Yes, you have, Godfrey.”
“Apropos of that, it’s time for coffee,” Schumacher announced. “Coffee is one thing that Nancy can take and like, Frank. Eh, Nancy? It puts life into her, even gives her some appetite. A good nervous tonic, coffee. I’ll have it ready in five minutes.” And he went down the long corridor toward the kitchen, closing the doors behind him.
They looked at each other almost without expression, Nancy and Loring, alone for the first time since the Great Fact. Then Nancy said, “Give me your hand, Frank, and I’ll show you something.” He took her fragile hand, and she rose, and they went to a door on the nearer side of the room, and Nancy led him in. In a little bedroom, a boy of five or six was sleeping with a smile. “I can’t remember when I slept like that,” said Nancy, impassively. The boy was like Nancy, even to the long lashes. After a long look, Loring turned back to the living room, averting his face from Nancy.
“Frank, what’s wrong?” she asked, with a tenderness that Loring had hoped to forget. He faced her, in an anger of sorts.
“You know, you know,” Loring said. “He might have been mine.”
She threw up her chin and looked him in the eyes, just the hint of tears above her lower lashes. “Yes”—defiantly—“and why not? Because you never really fought.”
“What should I have done?” he asked, with his slow, sad smile. “Kicked you downstairs or locked you in a closet? You were willful then.”
“Oh, I suppose there was nothing you could have done, Frank.” She spoke now without resentment. “You simply weren’t meant to win battles.”
“I don’t think I’m a coward, Nancy.”
“No, no—I mean that you’re too just and too slow. I like you for it, Frank; I love you for it; but it won’t do in this world. You never truly fought for me.”
“I’d fight now.”
“Yes, when the victor’s carried off the spoils. Frank, I’m glad you came, ever so glad; but what possessed you to come here?”
He was surprised. “Your husband said you wanted me.”
“Frank, I didn’t know you were coming until you knocked at this door; Godfrey never said he had asked you. I didn’t know whether you were alive.”
“I suppose he asked me to be polite,” Loring reflected, “or perhaps because he thought I might perk you up.”
“We always did make each other laugh, didn’t we, Frank? No, Godfrey’s thoughtful of me, but not in just that way; and he’s not a polite man. What got into him, Frank?”
“He said you spoke of me often.”
“Oh, I do, Frank! I’ve thought of you more as the years have slipped by, not less. I suppose I’ve spoken of you too often. Because Godfrey wouldn’t understand what you and I were to each other. He’s not made that way. He’s lucky not to have sensibilities of that sort, probably. He’s resented you, poor Godfrey. Now what’s at the back of his head? Does he want to see what you’re made of?”
“There’s no cause for him to be jealous of me, Nancy, if he’s thinking of the past. You never loved me as I hoped you might. But is he very jealous—in general?”
“Possessive is the better word for it. Oh, I shouldn’t tell you this, Frank, but I always used to tell you everything. Yes, possessive. We don’t see many people; he says he needs only me. Do you know, he doesn’t much like my little boy, though he pretends to, because Johnny owns part of me. Godfrey wants all my time now, and all my future. I guess I ought to be grateful that anyone cares so much for me. And Godfrey wants my past—that, too, Frank. He’s forever trying to assimilate my past, to take it away from me and make it his own. And I don’t intend him to succeed. You’re in my past, for one thing. He wants to know every little bit of it—when I had my first date, what boy was the first to kiss me. Poor Godfrey! He’s longing to know more about you, and he won’t believe there isn’t any more to tell except what he couldn’t understand. But he’s been patient, ever so patient, since I’ve been sick. He waits on me, he reads to me. He watches me all the time. He calls in different doctors. He asks everybody’s opinion of what ought to be done about me. Godfrey’s a perfect nuisance, but a woman wants her husband to be that.”
Loring shut his eyes, and said, “There’s more to Godfrey than I’d expected.”
“Meaning, for instance, these pictures on the wall.”
“Yes—don’t they give you the creeps, Frank? That’s not all: he reads the most curious things, like the Kabbala, and Satan’s Wonderful World Unveiled, and pamphlets on Cagliostro.”
“Are you afraid of him, Nancy?”
“Afraid? You know I’m not afraid of any man born of woman.” She reached out from her chair and gave Loring a playful push. “But men in dreams, now …”
“Still harping on dreams, you people?” Schumacher pushed through the doorway with a tray, and on it an oriental coffeepot of copper and little triangular sandwiches. “Dreams are manifestations of will. The dreamer’s will, or another’s. And if the will’s strong enough, who knows where substance begins and ends? Eh, Frank?”
“I never had enough strength of will to bother.”
“Is that really so?” Schumacher asked, with his stare of absorption. “You ought to exercise what will is in you, Frank, for you never can tell when it may have to put up a fight. Now here’s your coffee, dear, and there’s more where it came from. And yours, Lor—Frank. And mine with the cream in it.”
Strong, strong, that coffee, sweetish and thick, almost Turkish. “An interesting blend,” Loring remarked. “I think I like it. Your secret brew, Godfrey?”
“All in the grinding,” Schumacher told him, with a satisfied little smile. “We have our own little mill here; and like the gods’, it grinds slow and exceeding fine. Here, I’ll fill your cup again, Nancy. What, no more for you, Frank? Come on, old man—one more cup. I’ll be offended. That’s better. Nancy can drink this stuff all night; it seems to rouse her.”
So it did. With some of her old liveliness, Nancy stirred in her chair; her color heightened; she seemed the only cool thing in the hot night air. “I want to play matching lines,” she told them. “Remember how we used to play it when we made lemonade, Frank, and sat on the porch? But it’s always coffee for us now, even on nights like this: Godfrey’s so proud of his coffee. It is good, Godfrey. Well, let’s play. You won’t be so good at this as Frank and I, Godfrey, because you went to a progressive school and didn’t have to memorize. But you start, anyway.”
Schumacher did not hesitate long. With a kind of sneer at the whole affair:
“‘No longer mourn for me when I am dead …’”
“Oh, a Shakespearean sonnet!”—this from Nancy.
“‘Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world, with viler worms to dwell.’”
“Ugh!” cried Nancy. “I like the next better:
“‘Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it; for I love you so
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot
If thinking on me then should make you woe.’”
“The surly sullen bell,” Schumacher repeated, relishingly. “Not badly put—no, not bad. More coffee, Nancy, dear? Oh, yes—you need it.”
With her clever little head, Nancy won the match. “She laughs as she always laughed,” Loring thought, “no silly giggle.” And this night he must go from her, back to that narrow hotel room with its silence. That girl! Well, he’d best go now. “It’s been a good evening,” he said to Schumacher, rising. Despite everything, he had no need to tell Nancy so.
At the door, Nancy took his hands again. “How longwill it be before you come round, Frank?”
“You’ll come here every night you’re in town that week, won’t you?” She meant it.
“If you’ll have me.”
“That’s the old spirit!” Schumacher put in, loudly. He gripped Loring’s hand powerfully. “Don’t get lost on your way home, Frank. Sleep tight.”
When Loring turned the corner, they still were watching him from their lighted doorway—a high, arrogant head, a little dear one. Ah, Nancy. “I never fought,” Loring said, half-aloud.
* * *
Now that the intoxication of Nancy’s company ebbed away, Loring felt himself fallen into a solitude more oppressive than any grief he had known those past ten years. Quite literally the mood weighed upon him: his steps seemed weighted and painful, his eyes dim, his hearing dulled. He was aware of the fitful, warm night breeze only vaguely. And in this state Loring made his way through the district of ruined and ruinous old houses. Although he liked walking, tonight he would have whistled to a taxi, if any cab had passed; but it was late, and drivers knew they would have few fares in this slum.
Passing a building with its façade half battered in, so that broken plaster and lath were scattered over the ground by the slum children, Loring made out, a few yards ahead, another walker in this silent night, or rather morning. No third person appeared in the whole length of the street. A hulking figure, the other traveler’s, and yet elusive, slipping now and again into deep shadow. For the better part of a block the other man preceded Loring—and then was gone.
Loring blinked sleepily. Gone where? He came up to the spot where he had lost sight of the other walker, and observed a filthy little alley leading to the right. Acting upon some subtle impulse, Loring turned into the alley, and in a moment found himself at the entrance to a decrepit court, strewn with old tin cans and heaped cinders, and faced by the grim backs of four or five condemned houses. There was no one to be seen. And whatever was he doing here? Why had he left the road? Loring went back to the street, and a quarter of an hour later was unlocking the door of his hotel room.
Dreams came to him that night, a series of hopeless longings and dissolving frights impossible to recollect long after waking, but sufficient to rouse him, crying out, three times in the dark. And when he got out of bed in the morning, something was wrong: a complaint like acute rheumatism combined with extreme lethargy. Loring had to eat breakfast in his room, and the elevator boy saved him from slipping as he got heavily out upon the ground floor to go about his business. All day he was in some strong discomfort, and the next day, too, and in diminishing measure for three weeks after; but then he drifted back into his old careless good health. Ah, Nancy, Loring thought—what you do to me even now.
* * *
In February, St. Louis covers its snow with grime and dust, bad as tar and feathers. Underneath, that snow was nearly two feet deep when Loring went to make his call upon the Schumachers, for the seething heat of his last visit had given way to the rigor of a continental winter. Loring stamped his feet and pulled off his galoshes on Schumacher’s steps, and this brought Schumacher to the door without Loring’s having to knock.
“Nancy’s dozing,” said Schumacher, quietly. “We’ll sit in the living room—she’s there—and she’ll wake gradually. This is the only sort of sleep she gets now. Far gone, Frank, far gone: the doctors haven’t the ghost of a notion of what to do. Now and then her appetite returns, though. I watch her every moment I’m at home.” He stared at Loring as if challenging the sincerity of Loring’s condolences.
That bewitched and bewitching girl! Madame Récamier as before, she opened her eyes to Loring, smiled, and whispered, “Six months? I thought you had been away six centuries, Frank.” She did not attempt to rise, and she was pale, pale as paper and nearly as thin, though the loveliness had not gone out from her.
“I love you more than ever, Nancy,” was what Loring wished to say. Instead, he had to sit and talk follies with this shadow of the girl by the lake and with this elegant bull of a man. After a time, their conversation shifted somehow to Ends. Nancy was responsible for it, probably, and she said in her faint, piquant voice that she was inclined to believe the End was in another world altogether, this one being only a means of purging.
“Another world? Why, there’s your other world for almost everybody,” Schumacher broke in, gesturing toward the holy terrors on the wall. “Right there you can see both this life and the next. Only spiritual power can snatch you out of that trap. Not one man in a hundred thousand has that kind of power.”
“If you were right, then I’d see if I couldn’t leave behind me something decent to be remembered by, anyhow,” Loring retorted. “A name for honesty, or honest children.” Schumacher was vehemently contemptuous. “What’s the significance of a name when there’s no one to pat you on the back?”
Then what was Schumacher’s End? Loring inquired.
“Spiritual triumph.” Schumacher leaned forward with a glare of conviction that made Loring shift uneasily. “I don’t subscribe in the least to the Hebrew-Christian myth, you understand: I mean actuality, the exultation of battles won in the most dangerous of fields, the spirit plane. In the spirit realm there’s no time; the fight goes on forever; you must be always on guard; and you trample down the beaten. That’s what all this”—sweeping a hand toward St. Louis, outside in the dark—“is for, and all that,” motioning toward the Breughels and Bosches. “They’re both veils for the real plane of being. And in that hard reality you survive and progress by conquest. Oh, you can’t comprehend my meaning till you’ve reached that plane. You need to dominate, to crush …” Abruptly Schumacher became casual again. “Which reminds me, I’d better grind the coffee.” He went into the kitchen.
Nancy glanced up at Loring with a small smile, half-quizzical, half-appealing. “What do you make of Godfrey, Frank?”
An awkward question to answer. “I’d never have suspected him, in the old days, of a mystical turn.”
“It’s because he’s a disappointed man, Frank. He’s turned to these ideas since he realized he’s not going far in this world.” So faint, her voice, and yet so calm.
“Godfrey’s done well enough.”
“Frank, you don’t know him! He thought he was meant to be Alexander, and instead he’s a professor of languages. Godfrey’s ever so vain, or was. And yet he can’t even contrive to become a dean; and that’s no lofty triumph in these days, Lord knows. He’s big, he’s clever, he’s handsome, he works hard; but there’s not enough in him. He simply doesn’t get ahead; and in spite of all his efforts, not many people like him. He knows these things now. So he’s stopped trying in everyday life, Frank—‘in this plane,’ he’d say—and he’s seeing what will can do. He never loved anyone but himself, and now he detests the whole world because people won’t permit him to own them.”
“Does he hate you, Nancy?” It was all Loring could manage to force that question out.
“Yes; but more than ever he wants to possess me, absorb me, lose me in himself. He married the wrong sort of wife for that. He should have chosen a meek girl, submissive and infinitely loving, shouldn’t he? I’ve the love, perhaps, but not one ounce of meekness. I’d lose myself in him if I could, but it’s not my way: I’m too alive, Frank. Even now, a bag of bones, there’s too much life in me to be assimilated to Godfrey. He detests mebecause he can’t swallow me whole. I loved him ten years ago because he wanted to swallow me; while you hardly dared say ‘Boo!’ to Nancy. In a way, I love him now.”
Loring pulled his chair closer to the chaise longue. She always had been slim; and tonight it seemed as if the faintest breeze would sweep her up. “What are we going to do about you, Nancy?” Now that he saw her pale face so close, he bit his lip.
“Frank, you’re good. Don’t think I’m a shadow because I want to end everything: I’ve matters to live for. I don’t know what’s wrong and I suppose I never will know. The sun doesn’t help, or change of diet, or sleep—when I manage to sleep. Godfrey doesn’t spare money in trying to help me, you understand. He never was mean about anything, least of all his wife. It just seems to be destined, Frank. The end might come this hour, or it might be next year. I’m not afraid, either.”
“I’d be afraid, darling,” Loring told her. “Don’t speak to me of death.”
“Whom else am I to speak to? Whom did I always trust? I try to talk with Godfrey about—about my prospects; but he only laughs, to turn such talk away. Laughs at a dying woman! It’s hard to forgive him that opinion of my intelligence, for I know he tells everyone else about the dreadful shape I’m in. Gossip drifts back. I’m telling you, Frank, because this may be our last minute to ourselves. I want to say that I’m sorry I never was more to you. I’m sorry you see me like this, and not the way I used to be; but oh, I’m glad you came.”
Loring’s breath came hard. In the kitchen a cup fell and smashed; they could hear Schumacher rearranging the coffee—tray.
“And there’s one thing I ask you, Frank, though I have no right: look out for my little boy.”
“He has a father, Nancy girl.”
“I asked you to look out for my little boy, Frank.” She reached for his hand. “Johnny’s like me.”
“You know I will.” Then Loring bent and kissed her, and went in a daze to the window, with his back toward Nancy—and only just in time, if that, for Schumacher was entering with the coffee.
“There you are, Nancy dear—thick, the way you like it. Not too hot for you, is it, Frank? Don’t let it cool long: heat’s half the secret of flavor. There’s more as soon as you’ve drunk that.”
If conceivable, stronger and more like a syrup than it had been six months before, Schumacher’s coffee. “I prefer your coffee to your philosophy,” said Loring, huskily.
“What’s your objection?” Schumacher turned upon him that zealot’s stare.
“For one thing, your doctrine of ‘spiritual triumph’ is the rejection of morality.”
“Morality?” Schumacher waved a big hand. “Well, if we must bring the subject up, you’ve heard what William James said about morality: ‘So long as one poor cockroach feels the pangs of unrequited love, this world is not a moral world.’ Morality is the satisfaction of desire.”
“So the more successful the thief, the better man he is?” Loring asked.
Nancy, roused somewhat by the coffee, smiled her approval of Loring’s bluntness. “Morality’s restraint,” she said.
“No, restraint is for spiritual weaklings,” Schumacher insisted. “Strength is everything upon the physical plane, and that’s just as true, really, upon the spiritual—the moral—plane. Strength and appetite are the only tests. You’ll admit that soon enough, Loring.” He refilled Loring’s cup.
Loring hung on that night until he could not postpone, in decency, saying goodbye. When there was nothing else left to do, he took Nancy’s hand, and they two exchanged a long look. “Frank, remember me,” said pallid Nancy. Loring kept a grip upon himself.
She could not go with him to the door, but Schumacher did. They shook hands upon the steps. “You’ve seen her, Frank, so you know she hasn’t long.”Schumacher grimaced. “She might go tomorrow, or next week, for all we can tell. It’s best you came tonight.”
“I’ll come by tomorrow evening, too, if I may,” Loring answered.
“Tomorrow? Oh, yes—try to stop by, if you can.” Loring walked to the gate in the brick wall, opened it, began to turn into the street. At that instant he glimpsed Schumacher still watching him from the steps, staring intently, as if with his whole soul. His look was so fixed that Loring glared back. Then Schumacher, starting, jerked up his right hand in an awkward wave: “Well, goodbye … !” The words were bleated out in a high drawl. Loring left that big queer figure and went into the dark.
Lead was in Loring’s soles. What had come over him? He felt a touch of vertigo. Every step had become a distinct effort, every swing of his body an ache. The snow crunched beneath his galoshes. As he approached the broken tenements of the Old Town, fresh snow commenced to fall heavily; and the wind came up, wailing through the empty windows, obscuring the other side of the street with white scurries swept from loose drifts. His eyes were heavy, his pulse was distressing, his breathing difficult; and he was alone in the cold.
Alone except for the one who walked there ahead of him. Loring felt a dull necessity, in his oppressive state, to seek company;and yet something made him reluctant to overtake the fellow ahead. Anyway, the other walker seemed to be slowing his pace. Now Loring was close to him, though the other remained indistinct amid the snowflakes. They both were passing the house of the smashed facade; the other walked a mere dozen steps in the lead. A minute later, Loring came abreast of the other.
Loring glanced into his face: a large face, smiling. But after some fashion the face did not live. And it was Schumacher’s face.
Crying out, Loring leaped away from that face and blundered in an agony of confusion down the alley on the right. Slipping and reeling, he got through the drifts into the stinking little court of the condemned houses. He still had courage enough to look back, and there was nothing behind him. Recovered a bit, he crept up to the shelter of a house wall. But a face was peering from a window in the wall. It was Schumacher’s face.
At that, Loring fell forward in the snow, and for some time experienced nothing.
But though he lay with his face in the drift, oblivious of the court around him and of the conscious world, soon the horrors came to him. Dreams compounded of the vilest frights, visions of torment unceasing, ecstasies of revulsion, went round and round and round. And out of the chinks and corners of these arabesques peered the eyes of Schumacher. Lie still, said whatever was left of Loring: lie still, hiding yourself in blackness. Slowly the merciful blackness crept through Loring’s nerves. Through the grotesque terrors of his trance, some old Scottish epitaph pounded with lunatic insistency through his twilight consciousness:
“When the last trump shall sound,
And the dead shall rise,
Lie still, Red Rab,
If ye be wise.”
And still Loring would have lain. But presently other eyes emerged from behind the arabesques of damnation. And these other eyes were Nancy’s. “You never really fought, you never really fought.” The sentence flitted without meaning among the arabesques, and Schumacher’s eyes peeked out once more. Ah, to hide with Red Rab in the blackness! Yet something held him. With an immense effort, he compelled the arabesques to halt in their dance for a moment. In their place came a glimpse of Nancy, lying upon her couch. “My little boy …” The terrors thrust themselves back upon Loring; but a thought, a fragment of consciousness, had intruded among them. Some wild struggle of will, or wills, was fought out then, lasting only seconds, perhaps, but seeming aeons. And abruptly Frank Loring sat up in the snow.
He opened his eyes, the bravest act of his life. The shattered window of the tenement confronted him, and the face of Schumacher was in it still, and Loring wailed shrilly. Yet Loring stared on, and in time Schumacher’s face seemed to dissolve into its constituent atoms, and Loring was looking merely into an empty ruin.
Then Loring got up from the drift. He got up with strong pain and difficulty, for the sake of Nancy’s memory. “You never really fought.” He rose, his will awake, and groped along the brick walls to the street. “My little boy …” He had lain a long time in the snow, and seemed frozen.
And though he was weak as water, and giddy beyond belief, and incapable of speech, he lurched and crept four blocks to a police station. The few people he passed took him for a stumblebum. He pushed his way into the station; and there, in the overheated room, lounged four of the tough, weary policemen of St. Louis. One of these started to say, “Get the hell—.” Then, looking at Loring, he came forward to take his arm, and asked uncertainly, “What’s up, fellow?”
“I’ve been poisoned,” said Loring. He gave Schumacher’s name and address, and then fell, dead weight, into a sergeant’s arms.
* * *
When the police came to his door, Godfrey Schumacher went upstairs and shot himself, so thatno questions ever were asked of him. Downstairs at the time was a doctor, certifying that heart failure had been the cause of the death, that night, of Nancy Schumacher. Presently this verdict was altered to “poisoning from a strychnic preparation, administered in increasing quantities over a considerable period of time”—after Loring had talked with the coroner. But neither Loring nor the doctors ever knew more, and Loring suspected that their “strychnic” was little better than approximation.
“Frank, remember me.” Ay, thou pale ghost, while memory holds a seat. And looking upon the little boy, Loring saw the bones, the mouth, the impish eyes of her for whom he had not fought until the last second of her life.
This short story was first published in The London Mystery Magazine No. 7, December 1950–January 1951. © 1950 Russell A. Kirk