Orpheus in Mayfair and Other Short Stories by Maurice Baring - HTML preview
Download the book in PDF, ePub, Kindle for a complete version.
The Doctor got up at dawn, as was his wont, and as soon as he was dressed he sat down at his desk in his library overlooking the sea, and immersed himself in the studies which were the lodestar of his existence. His hours were mapped out with rigid regularity like those of a school-boy, and his methodical life worked as though by clockwork. He rose at dawn and read without interruption until eight o'clock. He then partook of some light food (he was a strict vegetarian), after which he walked in the garden of his house, overlooking the Bay of Naples, until ten. From ten to twelve he received sick people, peasants from the village, or any visitors that needed his advice or his company. At twelve he ate a frugal meal. From one o'clock until three he enjoyed a siesta. At three he resumed his studies, which continued without interruption until six when he partook of a second meal. At seven he took another stroll in the village or by the seashore and remained out of doors until nine. He then withdrew into his study, and at midnight went to bed.
It was, perhaps, the extreme regularity of his life, combined with the strict diet which he observed, that accounted for his good health. This day was his seventieth birthday, and his body was as vigorous and his mind as alert as they had been in his fortieth year. His thick hair and beard were scarcely grey, and the wrinkles on his white, thoughtful face were rare. Yet the Doctor, when questioned as to the secret of his youthfulness, being like many learned men fond of a paradox, used to reply that diet and regularity had nothing to do with it, and that the Southern sun and the climate of the Neapolitan coast, which he had chosen among all places to be the abode of his old age, were in reality responsible for his excellent health.
"I lead a regular life," he used to say, "not in order to keep well, but in order to get through my work. Unless my hours were mapped out regularly I should be the prey of every idler in the place and I should never get any work done at all." On this day, as it was his seventieth birthday, the Doctor had asked a few friends to share his mid-day meal, and when he returned from his morning stroll he sent for his housekeeper to give her a few final instructions. The housekeeper, who was a voluble Italian peasant- woman, after receiving his orders, handed him a piece of paper on which a few words were scrawled in reddish-brown ink, saying it had been left by a Signore.
"What Signore?" asked the Doctor, as he perused the document, which consisted of words in the German tongue to the effect that the writer regretted his absence from the Doctor's feast, but would call at midnight. It was not signed. "He was a Signore, like all Signores," said the housekeeper; "he just left the letter and went away."
The Doctor was puzzled, and in spite of much cross-examination he was unable to extract anything more beyond the fact that he was a "Signore." "Shall I lay one place less?" asked the housekeeper.
"Certainly not," said the Doctor. "All my guests will be present." And he threw the piece of paper on the table.
The housekeeper left the room, but she had not been gone many minutes before she returned and said that Maria, the wife of the late Giovanni, the baker, wished to speak to him. The Doctor nodded, and Maria burst into the room, sobbing. When her tears had somewhat subsided she told her story in broken sentences. Her daughter, Margherita, who was seventeen years old, had been allowed to spend the summer at Sorrento with her late father's sister. There, it appeared, she had met a "Signore," who had given her jewels, made love to her, promised her marriage, and held clandestine meetings with her. Her aunt professed now to have been unaware of this; but Maria assured the Doctor that her sister-in-law, who had the evil eye and had more than once trafficked with Satan, must have had knowledge of the business, even if she were not directly responsible, which was highly probable. In the meantime Margherita's brother Anselmo had returned from the wars in the North, and, discovering the truth, had sworn to kill the Signore unless he married Margherita.
"And what do you wish me to do?" asked the Doctor, after he had listened to the story.
"Anything, anything," she answered, "only calm my son Anselmo or else there will be a disaster."
"Who is the Signore?" asked the Doctor.
"The Conte Guido da Siena," she answered.
The Doctor reflected a moment, and then said: "I will see what can be done. The matter can be arranged. Send your son to me later." And then, after scolding Maria for not having taken proper care of her daughter, he sent her away. As he did so he caught sight of the dirty piece of paper on his table. For one second he had the impression that the letters on it were written in blood, and he shivered, but the momentary hallucination and sense of discomfort passed immediately.
At mid-day the guests arrived. They consisted of Dr. Cornelius, Vienna's most learned scholar; Taddeo Mainardi, the painter; a Danish student from the University of Wittenberg; a young English nobleman, who was travelling in Italy; and Guido da Siena, philosopher and poet, who was said to be the handsomest man in Italy. The Doctor set before his guests a precious wine from Cyprus, in which he toasted them, although as a rule he drank only water. The meal was served in the cool loggia overlooking the bay, and the talk, which was of the men and books of many climes, flowed like a rippling stream on which the sunshine of laughter lightly played.
The student asked the Doctor whether in Italy men of taste took any interest in the recent experiments of a French Huguenot, who professed to be able to send people into a trance. Moreover, the patient when in the trance, so it was alleged, was able to act as a bridge between the material and the spiritual worlds, and the dead could be summoned and made to speak through the unconscious patient. "We take no thought of such things here," said the Doctor. "In my youth, when I studied in the North, experiments of that nature exercised a powerful sway over my mind. I dabbled in alchemy; I tried and indeed considered that I succeeded in raising spirits and visions; but two things are necessary for such a study: youth, and the mists of the Northern country. Here the generous sun kills such phantasies. There are no phantoms here. Moreover, I am convinced that in all such experiments success depends on the state of mind of the inquirer, which not only persuades, but indeed compels itself by a strange magnetic quality to see the vision it desires. In my youth I considered that I had evoked visions of Satan and Helen of Troy, and what not--such things are fit for the young. We greybeards have more serious things to occupy us, and when a man has one foot in the grave, he has no time to waste."
"To my mind," said the painter, "this world has sufficient beauty and mystery to satisfy the most ardent inquirer."
"But," said the Englishman, "is not this world a phantom and a dream as insubstantial as the visions of the ardent mind?"
"Men and women are the only study fit for a man," interrupted Guido, "and as for the philosopher's stone I have found it. I found it some months ago in a garden at Sorrento. It is a pearl radiant with all the hues of the rainbow."
"With regard to that matter," said the Doctor, "we will have some talk later. The wench's brother has returned from the war. We must find her a husband." "You misunderstand me," said Guido. "You do not think I am going to throw my precious pearl to the swine? I have sworn to wed Margherita, and wed her I shall, and that swiftly."
"Such an act of folly would only lead," said the Doctor, "to your unhappiness and to hers. It is the selfish act of a fool. You must not think of it."
"Ah!" said Guido, "you are young at seventy, Doctor, but you were old at twentyfive, and you cannot know what these things mean."
"I was young in my day," said the Doctor, "and I found many such pearls; believe me, they are all very well in their native shell. To move them is to destroy their beauty."
"You do not understand," said Guido. "I have loved countless times; but she is different. You never felt the revelation of the real, true thing that is different from all the rest and transforms a man's life."
"No," said the Doctor, "I confess that to me it was always the same thing." And for the second time that day the Doctor shivered, he knew not why. Soon after the meal was over the guests departed, and although the Doctor detained Guido and endeavoured to persuade him to listen to the voice of reason and commonsense, his efforts were in vain. Guido had determined to wed Margherita.
"Besides which, if I left her now, I should bring shame and ruin on her," he said. The Doctor started--a familiar voice seemed to whisper in his ear: "She is not the first one." A strange shudder passed through him, and he distinctly heard a mocking voice laughing. "Go your way," he said, "but do not come and complain to me if you bring unhappiness on yourself and her."
Guido departed and the Doctor retired to enjoy his siesta.
For the first time during all the years he had lived at Naples the Doctor was not able to sleep. "This and the hallucinations I have suffered from to-day come from drinking that Cyprus wine," he said to himself.
He lay in the darkened room tossing uneasily on his bed and sleep would not come to him. Stranger still, before his eyes fiery letters seemed to dance before him in the air. At seven o'clock he went out into the garden. Never had he beheld a more glorious evening. He strolled down towards the seashore and watched the sunset. Mount Vesuvius seemed to have dissolved into a rosy haze; the waves of the sea were phosphorescent. A fisherman was singing in his boat. The sky was an apocalypse of glory and peace.
The Doctor sighed and watched the pageant of light until it faded and the stars lit up the magical blue darkness. Then out of the night came another song--a song which seemed familiar to the Doctor, although for the moment he could not place it, about a King in the Northern Country who was faithful to the grave and to whom his dying mistress a golden beaker gave.
"Strange," thought the Doctor, "it must come from some Northern fishing smack," and he went home.
He sat reading in his study until midnight, and for the first time in thirty years he could not fix his mind on his book. For the vision of the sunset and the song of the Northern fisherman, which in some unaccountable way brought back to him the days of his youth, kept on surging up in his mind.
Twelve o'clock struck. He rose to go to bed, and as he did so he heard a loud knock at the door.
"Come in," said the Doctor, but his voice faltered ("the Cyprus wine again!" he thought), and his heart beat loudly.
The door opened and an icy draught blew into the room. The visitor beckoned, but spoke no word, and Doctor Faust rose and followed him into the outer darkness.