The Best Continental Short Stories of 1924-1925/Severus
VERY often, in different places, and in the presence of a variety of circumstances, have I had occasion to reflect upon the love between friend and friend, the love between lovers, and the love between husband and wife. There can be no doubt, because proofs of the fact are common, that man, and even the most inconceivably malicious of men, is at bottom so strange that he can really manifest genuine love. It is even true that he sometimes loves without asking anything whatever in return.
It is also an unquestionable fact that the soldiers of numberless armies, leaving for the front to encounter incredible sufferings, have been loved, every one, by some human soul. And from the vast assembly of human hearts who thus loved them has arisen to the skies, as it were, an immense cloud made up of prayers and wailing. In precisely the same way are beloved the infants who are born to swell the number of earth’s human beings, and those who quit the world and descend to the grave. As for us, as for you and me, we are just like every one else.
It was toward noon, at the moment when workmen whose work prevents them from going home to their meal are looking out for convenient stairways, lumber piles and heaps of bricks, where they may sit at ease and eat their lunch full in the public eye. Women workers make haste to eat before the food gets cold. They carefully steer their course through the throngs about them and bear with the greatest solicitude their lunch-baskets or napkins. Napkins are carried by their four corners and the women are very careful to avoid all awkwardness, to jostle nobody, to keep from slipping, and to maintain their soup, milk and coffee right side up.
One of these women is holding her child on one arm and her lunch-basket on the other. Today she has cooked for the meal the favorite dishes preferred by her husband. She is navigating her way more cautiously than a Hamburg pilot would do. Her skilled and diligent steering is finally rewarded. The vessel arrives in port without the least damage, bearing a full cargo. The husband who meets her takes the lunch-basket and sets it on the ground near by.
“Eat, don’t let it get cold.”
But the husband catches up the child and presses its cold little nose against his own face. As he holds it close, his eyes, bright with happiness, look before him into space. The sky is gray, the pavements wet, the vegetation leafless. The day is warm, for winter, winter is at the moment of snowless days, and the Christmas season has arrived.
The woman, looking at her child and husband, does not know which of the two she loves the more. She repeats, hesitating, “Eat, don’t let the food grow cold.”
This time, though, perhaps another woman is speaking, for, close beside our first group, there is another man who is clasping to his face another child, after having deposited, like the first man, a lunch-basket upon the ground. Still another meal is growing cold, and a third wife is looking on as a third husband presses a third child to his cheek. Like others, this woman also is at a loss to decide which one she loves the more dearly—her husband, or the child who is nipping his father’s ear with his little teeth.
“Eat, the child will keep for bye-and-bye.”
These three men were clad in furs, for they were accustomed to clasp and handle steel. They were all chauffeurs. They were gathered in the Square Vincelas, during the temperate period of the winter, and at Christmas time. They looked at each other with pride and joy, for each one—none more favored than another—was holding his child close to his face, each one’s wife was with him, and each one had a well-filled lunch-basket by his side. One cannot live unless he eats!
It isn’t always true, that. Some people prefer to leave the bread and butter and depend upon love. A fine and rare thing, love, the most powerful force in the world, and sometimes the only thing in the universe that counts. The love of lovers is sweet indeed. I know nothing about the love that exists between friends, but I am sure that the tenderest love of all is the love between husband and wife.
When Severus was still only a student, he appeared to have no special qualities at all. When he was still only a pale, obscure student, devoted to geography, to history, to geology, to natural science, to archeology and to anthropology, and when he sometimes won a prize or a traveling scholarship, nobody ever imagined that he was unusually faithful and conscientious in his labors.
Severus never fed his childish dreams with the strange and adventurous travels recounted by Jules Verne, yet, while still an industrious but unimportant young man, he took up riding and the use of firearms. What did he think he would gain from these pursuits? With whom did he imagine he would fight? Severus seemed decidedly satisfied not to become a soldier. He seemed bent on gaining time, somehow. When finished with his books, he promptly discarded his geography, history, geology, and all the rest, especially anthropology, of his unparalleled knowledge. He learned how to ride and how to shoot at a target, but was neither more nor less apt at these sports than any one else. He talked little about himself. Every one knew that he was absorbed in his studies, and that was all they associated with Severus. By virtue of his self-discipline and persistence, however, he obtained his doctorate while still very young; and, as soon as he had become a doctor, he immediately married a girl he loved. Her name was Edith.
He went away with her to Algeria. Africa had no terrors for him, for he was accompanied by Edith, the girl of his heart, now his beloved wife. So accompanied, who could fear earth’s remotest corner? Who would not be enchanted at the prospect of beginning life, with the woman adored above all, beneath the palm trees, to behold with her the magical Southern Cross, and to clasp her more closely at night when the jackals were yelping from the cemeteries and when Zouerah and Khtab l’Arait were frightening the natives? Edith was also happy, because she loved her young husband.
From this journey, Severus obtained the material for his “Contributions to the Ethnography of Southwestern Africa.” This first journey of his served as the foundation of later studies and for the work of his entire life. In Africa, though, Severus paid more attention to history than ethnography. He was strongly attracted by the shadowy past of this most obscure region of the earth. He undertook a series of travels which he embellished by important and celebrated discoveries. His wife Edith usually, but not invariably, shared his travels and his labors, accompanying him on his bold and perilous ventures into this dark country, as a loving wife cannot but desire to remain at her husband’s side throughout all the wanderings of his life.
The bright, early flower of their romance lost its first freshness after a time, as maturer days appeared. Severus’ labors had become more and more extensive and important, and now he was a man honored and considered everywhere. He was like a great hunter, or an inveterate seeker of gold, who possesses a divining rod which guides him, directs his suspicions and his guesses, and finally reveals the secrets concealed in shadows, buried in the earth, and lying lost and forgotten amid the silent dust of remotest ages. Oh, epochs of antiquity, have you left any traces which speak forth from human lips? For the antique peoples have been destroyed, annihilated, and swept from the surface of the earth. Their cities have been devastated, their tombs and graves have been effaced and leveled, their ashes have been thrown to the winds, and what remains to tell us of these our ancestors of the ancient world?
Severus was wholly consecrated to the discovery of these lost secrets, which he had the knack of a fine hunting-dog in scenting out. Were the bodies of those who, ages before, had traversed the waters seeking sites for their gardens and towns, still existent beneath the waves above them? Could traces of their language, could their faint, dim voices still be heard in the noonday silence, in the rustling of the thickets, or in the murmurs of the midnight wind? Who among the living is old enough to have memories of the old times? And still Severus never tired of seeking memories and traces of the years which had been buried deep, long centuries ago.
He loved this soil and these people, who were children of the ancient world perpetuated into modern times. Among these children of the past he found the scattering heritages of the long ago still surviving. He loved these strange regions and their primitive inhabitants so much that he felt as if he could live nowhere else in the world.
“I am sick at heart,” he said to his wife Edith. “I really suffer at being obliged to leave these places, full of joy and happiness, to return to countries of sadness and poverty, where life is only a wornout discipline and habitude, wholly automatic, where art is withering, where science, reduced to lifeless formulas, is drying up, and where, under the guise of policies and parties, everything has fallen to the ground. It all resembles a steady march toward the grave.”
But on repeated occasions Severus revisited the land of his joy and destiny. Edith accompanied him, though not on every journey. The two were united by the profound love of lovers and the profounder love of man and wife. Their love was unusually deep. “Whom could I possibly remember, if not yourself,” wrote Severus to her, “yourself, my tender comrade, my wife, always so extraordinarily anxious to sacrifice yourself, and always lighting for me, even when I must be separated from you, the road of my life. Ah, it is your smile of abnegation and your hopeful words which point the pilgrim’s pathway—that poor pilgrim who goes away again when he has scarcely come home! It is your dear smile which cheers my painful hours, and your sorrows are the greatest ones I ever know.”
The springtime of their love had passed, but their love remained ever the same, the great, changeless love of lovers and married people. Severus was making his last journey, which was his most famous one, and the one most fruitful in results. But this time he was not accompanied by his beloved Edith, as he set out on his quest for buried treasure.
Untold secrets are concealed within the language of old Ethiopia. Who will ever untangle its mysteries, that tongue so full of gossip and chatter, that speech which so jealously guards all it knows of our remote ancestry and which bestows upon humanity a heritage which must be preserved in divine silence?
Who can tell us the meaning of the outline of a ram, with a sun hanging at its neck, carved upon the ancient rocks? What did the sign of the carven buffalo convey? Scattered are now the graves of Itherene, whose name it were better not to speak aloud, but to whisper only with a tongue weighted with grains of wheat, for men must ever dread the divine curse hanging over him who traffics in blood. That divine malediction still persists, even though the pillared tombs of the Itherenians have vanished, even if that blond-haired, blue-eyed race have been absorbed into the mists of the past. That was a lofty race of hunters, whose prayers arose to Itherter, the Buffalo. That was a race foredoomed to death, living without prosperity and knowing no promised future.
The Kabyle hovels are now roofed with French tiles, and their roofs no longer the ancient inscriptions which could have borne witness had they been respected. These inscriptions no longer exist, even at Terroual, where the houses hide jealously Baerk, the secret of buried wealth which drives men underground. For such relics, one must go as far as the country of the Ait Bou Mahdi. Here, in the foundations of the dwellings, one may learn of a rich patrimony of secret history, establishing the existence, anciently, of a race living beneath the surface of the earth and coming out from their habitation when the world was created. This noble race emerged from the soil as did the ancient Buffalo, the great ancestor of those numberless animals which have fallen beneath the spears of the ancient, audacious hunters. So also did the mythological Sun-Ram rise from the dust, the Ram who ripens the nourishing grain and the fruitful crops, and whom, at a later time, the Egyptians well remembered in their representations of Amman, their sun god, whose head was the head of a ram.
Loudly, powerfully, speaks the voice of Fame! Enchanting is the sound of Fame’s trumpet! That divine breath which lifts Fame’s locks and stirs her white robe makes drunken the hearts of men. Severus is nearing his goal. He is standing at the threshold of ancient secrets whose mystery he is about to solve. To him is granted the power to gain the friendship of those who mistrust, the craft to urge on the courage of hesitant lips, the wit to find the meaning of the silent tongue. Mouths which the fear of betraying old secrets has sealed for all others in the world will now bestow their favors upon him.
Severus is always safe, death never threatens him, on those travels of his. He is bold, and he will never be sacrificed upon the dark soil which yields its secrets to his searching mind. That soil knows that Severus is no stranger, knows that Severus is its loving friend. Severus inclines his head to drink deep at the bosom of that somber land. And, as to her helpless but beloved child, that somber land, old Africa, talks low to Severus, and lulls him with her tales. The thirst within him is quenched as he listens. He is at the goal. The veil of Time’s long night will be rent before his glance, the ancient earth is half persuaded to reveal the symbols of a divine antiquity.
Severus strains his ear, astonished to behold the fulfilment of his life’s desire. And yet there ascends from the depths of his soul the memory of Edith, of his life’s dearest love, of his beloved wife, and he feels the memory flowing all through his being and rising clear before his eyes.
“May God bless all things which he hath created! Lovely are Cassay and Kordofan! All is beautiful in the great Soudan, all is noble among the Kabyles, between the Mandé and the Mossy, all is marvelous in the Sahel country! Haach! Dierra, Agada, Ganna, Silla! Haach! Fassa!”
Severus hearkens. The veil is vanishing from the lost secrets. An old man who remembers the traditions of his ancestors is speaking. He repeats the very words they used. He has put wheat grains on his tongue. Never could one whisper more low and softly than he now whispers, as he mouths the wheat grains. Never can softer words be spoken in the assemblies of men than are the words he utters, half smothered by the wheat grains. For he has found the gentlest voice on earth for telling of old mysteries. That voice no woman must ever hear. In that voice murmur the distant ages, in a majestic chant. Severus listens, and, listening, he feels his heart beat at the memory of Edith, his well-beloved, faithful wife.
“Haach! Dierra, Agada, Ganna, Silla! Haach! Fassa!”
What delight! The Ram and the Ox are living. The old races live again. In their legends appears the primitive imagination which lived in western Europe in prehistoric time. The formidable vision of the grandiose, immense prospects of the days of earth’s formative epochs began to revolve, unveiled. Severus had reached his ambition’s end. As he wondered at the revelation, he beheld among his fantasies the figure of his adored Edith. He saw her dear eyes and calm smile, he heard her deep, low voice. The whiteness of her skin dazzled him, the sound of her loved step rang out within his soul.
Brilliant is the sun of Africa, sweet are the eyes of the Kabyle women, graceful are the forms of the antelopes, shining are the thresholds of the land of Ophir, land of gold! What a miracle to see the glowing land of the antique fables, the lost continent of Atlantis! Severus is having his deep desire gratified. The somber land will tell him all it knows. And yet his heart demands Edith. He must have the love that Edith bears him. As Fame and Triumph now call, beckoning, how glad and free his soul! Yet he longs for Edith. He wonders if she is tranquil, if she is well, if some dread thing has not befallen her, if death could have come upon her! He fears for that calm, familiar smile, for that dear voice, and he trembles with his love, but also shivers with anguish for his loved one’s life.
“Haach! Dierra, Agada, Ganna, Silla! Haach! Fassa!”
Severus is coming home. Behind him lies the land of mystery. The country of his destiny has spoken. It has given into his keeping its secret of secrets. Severus now knows all against which he has bruised his baffled spirit time and time again. He knows all that he ever desired to know. But one thing he does not know, and his heart tremulously laments his lack. He cannot yet be fully sure that Edith is really well. He cannot say with confidence, “She is alive!” Ah, his eyes, dim with gazing into the depths of the centuries, long to rest on Edith!
Severus arrives. It is June. The cherry trees no longer bloom. A cool wind stirs the treetops, the nodding wheat is murmuring in the breeze. The train speeds through interminable forests, across unending prairies. Everything is sparkling. In the sky, the fleecy clouds float by before the winds.
She is waiting for him. Edith, his wife, is here! She lives. The two stretch out to each other their eager arms. She is wearing a plaid skirt, her hat has a blue ribbon on it, the sleeves of her jacket are rustling at her movements. Severus sees her still youthful beauty reflected from every line and curve. His eyes stray over her dear, shining eyes, linger at her smile. Again he hears that sweet, deep voice. She is there.
His dear, beloved wife is there. In the garden, the half-open roses offer a caress. Flowers of the summertime and of joy are all a-bloom. Severus comes back into the house. Beside him walks Edith. Still does he possess her smile, her voice, her love. His breast swells with his supreme felicity. A tremor runs throughout his being. He recalls, in a sudden flash of recognition, the goodness of God; and, from the depths of his heart, he renders thanks and homage.