|In Broad Daylight ||Creative Writings
|I was sitting one evening after dinner at the San Stefano Casino at Ramleh. My friend Alexander A., who lived in the Casino, had invited me and another young man, a close friend of us both, to dine with him. As it was not an evening with music, very few people had come, and we three had the place to ourselves.
We talked of various things. Since none of us was very rich, the conversation turned naturally enough to money, to the independence and consequent pleasures it brings.
Our young friend said he would like to have three million francs and began to describe what he would do, and above all what he would stop doing, once in possession of this large sum.
I calculated, more modestly, that I could get along with twenty thousand francs a year.
Alexander A. said: “Had I wished, I should today be who knows how many times a millionaire¯but I didn’t dare.”
These were strange words, we thought. We knew our friend A.’s life thoroughly, and could not recall his ever being presented with an opportunity to become many times a millionaire. We supposed therefore that he had spoken lightly, that some joke would follow. But our friend’s face was grave, and we asked him to explain his enigmatic remark.
He hesitated a moment¯then said: “In other company¯for example among people who call themselves ‘evolved’¯I would not explain myself, because they’d laugh at me. We, though, consider ourselves a bit above these so-called ‘evolved’ people. That is, our perfect spiritual development has brought us round to simplicity again, but to a simplicity without ignorance. We’ve made full circle. So naturally we’ve returned to our point of departure. The others are only halfway. They can’t know or imagine where the roads ends.”
These words startled us not at all. Each of us had the highest regard for himself and the other two.
“Yes,” Alexander repeated, “had I dared, I should be a multimillionaire¯but I was afraid.
“The story goes back ten years. I hadn’t much money¯then as now¯or rather I had no money whatever; yet in one way or another I was getting ahead and living, on the whole, well enough. I was living in rue Chérif Pacha. The house belonged to an Italian widow. I had three nicely furnished rooms and my own servant, not counting the landlady who would have done anything for my comfort.
“One evening I had gone to Rossini’s. Having heard nonsense enough, I decided to break off and go home to sleep. I had to rise early the next morning, since I’d been invited on an excursion to Aboukir.
“Once in my room, I began as usual pacing about, thinking over the events of the day. But they were of no interest, drowsiness overtook me, and I lay down to sleep.
“I must have slept one and a half or two hours without dreaming, for I recall being awakened perhaps an hour after midnight by a noise in the street, and can remember no dream. I’d fallen asleep again at about one-thirty, and it then seemed to me that a man had entered my room of medium height, fortyish. He was wearing rather old black clothes and a straw hat. On his left hand he wore a ring set with a very large emerald. This struck me as out of key with the rest of his attire. He had a black, whitestreaked beard, and something peculiar in his glance, a look at once mocking and melancholy. All in all, though, a fairly ordinary type. The kind of man one sees over and over. I asked what he wanted of me. He didn’t answer straightway, but studied me a long minute as if suspiciously, or to make sure he’d not been mistaken. Then he spoke¯in a humble, servile tone of voice:
“‘You’re poor, I know that. I’ve come to tell you a way to get rich. Near Pompey’s Pillar I know a spot where a great treasure lies buried. I want no part of this treasure myself¯I’ll take only a little iron box, to be found at the very bottom. The rest, all of it, will be yours.’
“‘And of what does this great treasure consist?’ I asked.
“‘Of gold coin,’ he said, ‘but above all of precious stones. There are ten or twelve gold coffers filled with diamonds, with pearls, and I think’¯as if trying to remember¯‘with sapphires.’
“I wondered why he didn’t go alone to take what he wanted, and why he needed me. Before I could ask he answered: ‘I can read your thought. Why, you wonder, don’t I go to take what I want by myself? There is a reason, which I cannot tell you, and which prevents me. Some things even I cannot as yet perform.’ On the words ‘even I’ a kind of brilliance shone from his gaze, and for a second an awful grandeur transformed him. But at once he recovered his humble manner. ‘Thus you would do me a great favor by coming with me. I absolutely need somebody, and choose you because I wish you well. Meet me tomorrow. I shall wait for you from midday until four in the afternoon, in the Petite Place, at the café over by the blacksmiths’ shops.’
“With these words he vanished.
“The next morning when I woke, the dream had slipped completely out of my mind. But after I’d washed and sat down to breakfast, it returned, and seemed quite strange to me. ‘If only it had been real,’ I said to myself, then again forgot it.
“I joined the excursion to the countryside and had a very good time. We were a large party¯some thirty men and women, all in unusually high spirits. I shan’t give you details, for they don’t bear on our subject.”
Here my friend D. remarked: “And aren’t needed. Because I at least already know them. Unless I’m mistaken, I took part in that excursion.”
“You did? I don’t recall your being along.”
‘Wasn’t that the excursion Markos G. arranged, just before he went to England for good?”
“Yes, that was it. Then you remember what fun we had. A marvelous time. Or rather, a time long vanished. It’s the same thing. But back to my story¯I returned from our outing quite tired and quite late. I had scarcely time to change clothes and dine, before going off to some friends’ where a sort of family evening of cards was in progress, and where I stayed on, playing until half past two. I won a hundred and fifty francs and went home, more than pleased. I lay down with a light heart and instantly fell asleep, exhausted by the long day.
“But no sooner was I asleep than a strange thing occurred. I saw a light in the room, and was wondering why I’d not put it out before going to bed, when I saw emerging from the depths where the door was¯my room was quite large¯a man whom I recognized at once. He was wearing the same black clothes, the same old straw hat. He looked displeased, though, and said to me: ‘I waited for you from noon until four o’clock at the café. Why didn’t you come? I offer to make your fortune, and you don’t jump at it? I’ll expect you again at the café this afternoon, from noon to four. Be there without fail.’ Whereupon, as on the previous night, he disappeared.
“But this time I woke up in terror. The room was dark. I lit the lamp. The dream had been so real, so vivid, that it left me stunned, appalled. I couldn’t resist getting up to see if the door was locked. It was, as always. I looked at the clock; it said half past three. I had gone to bed at three.
“I will not conceal from you, nor am I in the least ashamed to admit, that I was very frightened. I feared to close my eyes lest, falling asleep, I see again my fantastic visitor. I sat up in a chair, all nerves. Around five, day began to break. I opened the window and watched the street gradually waking up. A few doors had opened, the first few milkmen were passing, and the first bakers’ carts. The light somehow calmed me, and I lay down once more, to sleep until nine.
“Waking then, and recalling my anxieties of the night, their impression began to lose much of its force. Indeed, I marveled at having worked myself into such a state. Everyone has nightmares¯I’d had many in my life. Besides, this was hardly a nightmare at all. True, I’d had the same dream twice. Which proved what? To begin with, did I in fact dream it twice? Mightn’t I have dreamed once of seeing the same man a second time? After examining my memory carefully, I dismissed this notion. I’d undoubtedly had the dream two nights earlier. Even so, why call that strange? The first dream would seem to have been a most vivid one, impressing me so strongly that I dreamed it again. Here, however, my logic was faltering a bit. For I did not recall that first dream having impressed me so. All through the following day I’d not for an instant thought of it. On the excursion, at the party that evening, everything conceivable passed through my mind, except the dream. Again, proving what? Don’t we often dream of persons neither seen nor thought of for many years? It appears that their image remains engraved somewhere within the spirit, to reemerge abruptly in a dream. What then was strange about my dreaming the same dream in the space of twenty-four hours, even if I hadn’t recalled it during the day? I further told myself that I’d perhaps read somewhere about a hidden treasure, which had worked upon my memory; but no amount of cogitation brought such a text to light.
“Finally, tired of thinking, I began to dress. I had to attend a wedding, and my haste and the question of what to wear soon drove the dream wholly from my mind. I then sat down to breakfast and, to pass the hour, read a periodical published in Germany¯Hesperus, I believe.
“I went to the wedding, where all the best society of the town had gathered. In those days I had many connections, and so was obliged, after the ceremony, to repeat innumerable times that the bride was lovely, if a touch pale, that the groom was a fine young man, as well as rich, and so on and so forth. Around eleven-thirty the affair was over, and I went off to Bulkeley Station to see a house I’d been told about, for possible rental to a German family from Cairo, who planned to summer in Alexandria. The house was indeed airy and well arranged, but smaller than reported. Nonetheless I promised the owner to describe it as suitable. Thanking me profusely, and in order to touch my heart, this lady began relating all her misfortunes, how and when her blessed husband had died, how she had even been to Europe, how she was not the sort of woman who rents her house, how her father had been the doctor of I can’t now think which pasha, et cetera. This duty done, I returned to town. I reached my flat around one o’clock and ate a hearty lunch. After coffee, I went out to see a friend whose hotel was near the Café Paradiso, to arrange something for the afternoon. The month was August, and the sun blazing hot. I descended rue Chérif Pacha slowly to keep from perspiring. The street, as always at this hour, was deserted. I encountered only a lawyer, whom I’d asked to draw up the papers relating to the sale of a small lot at Moharrem Bey. It was the last piece of a fairly large property which I’d been selling bit by bit to cover some of my expenses. The lawyer, an honest man¯that’s why I chose him¯was also a great chatterbox. Much better to have been cheated a bit than bored witless by his nonsense. The slightest pretext launched him upon an interminable discourse¯he talked commercial law, Roman law, dragged in Justinian, cited the ancient cases he’d pled in Smyrna, praised himself, unraveled a thousand irrelevancies, and even took hold of my lapel, something I can’t abide. I put up with this fool’s babble because every so often, when his verbal powers failed, I could ask a question about that sale which so vitally concerned me. These efforts took me out of my way, but I stuck by him. Following the sidewalk of the Stock Exchange on the place des Consuls, we turned into the little street which joins with the Petite Place, on at last reaching whose center I had obtained all the information I needed, and the lawyer, recalling a nearby client to be visited, took his leave. I stood a moment watching him retreat, and cursed his blathering which in so much heat and sun had led my steps astray.
“I was about to retrace them in the direction of the Café Paradiso when all at once it struck me as odd that I should be here in the Petite Place. I asked myself why, then remembered my dream. ‘It’s here that the famous master of the treasure made our appointment,’ I thought, and smiled, and mechanically turned my head toward that side where the blacksmiths’ shops were.
“Horrors! There indeed was a little coffeehouse, and there indeed he sat. My first reaction was a kind of vertigo, I felt on the point of falling. I leaned against a merchant’s booth, and looked again. The same black clothes, the same straw hat, the same features, the same glance. And he, unblinking, was observing me. My nerves tensed as from a transfusion of liquid iron. The idea that it was high noon¯that people kept passing by unconcerned, as if nothing remarkable were happening, while I, I alone, knew that the most horrible thing was: that over there sat a specter endowed with who knew what powers and risen from what unknown sphere, what Inferno, what Erebos¯paralyzed me. I started to tremble. The specter’s gaze never flickered from me. Now terror overcame me lest he rise and approach¯speak to me¯take me with him! If it came to that, what help would any human force have been? I flung myself into a carriage, giving the driver some remote address I can’t remember.
“When I’d somewhat collected myself I saw that we’d nearly arrived at Sidi Gaber. Cooler now, I set about examining the matter. I ordered the coachman back to town. ‘I’m mad,’ I was thinking, ‘clearly I’ve deceived myself. It will have been somebody resembling the man in my dream. I must return to make sure. In all probability he’ll have left, which will prove that it wasn’t the same man¯because he had promised to wait until four.’
“With these reflections I reached the Zizinia Theatre; and here, summoning all my courage, told the driver to take me to the Petite Place. My heart was beating, was at breaking point I thought, as we approached the café. At a short distance from it, I had the driver stop, seizing his arm so violently that he nearly fell from his seat, for we were drawing very near¯too near¯the café; and because there, there sat the phantom still.
“I now made myself examine him attentively, hoping for some discrepancy between him and the man in my dream, as if who he was needed any further proof beyond the fact of my sitting in a carriage and staring at him with a gaze so penetrating that anyone else would have found it peculiar and demanded an explanation. Far from it: he returned my gaze with one equally penetrating, his expression full of concern for the choice facing me. It seemed that he was reading my thoughts, as he had read them in my dream, and to relieve me of any last doubt as to his identity, he shifted his left hand towards me, displaying¯so markedly, I feared the driver would take note¯the emerald ring that had struck me in my first dream.
“I cried out in terror and told the driver, who was by then concerned for his customer’s health, to take me to Ramleh Boulevard. My one aim was to get far away. At Ramleh Boulevard I told him to head for San Stefano, but when I saw the driver hesitating and mumbling to himself I got out and paid. I stopped another carriage and had it drive me to San Stefano.
“I arrived in a dreadful state. Entering the main room of the Casino, my face in the mirror appalled me¯pale as a corpse. Fortunately the room was empty. I fell onto a divan and tried to consider my next move. To return home was impossible. To reenter that room through which had glided, by night, like a supernatural shadow, the One I had just now seen sitting at an ordinary café under the guise of an ordinary human being, was out of the question. Bad logic on my part, for of course he had tbe power to track me down anywhere on earth. But for some time now I’d been thinking disconnectedly.
“At length I resolved to seek out my friend G.V. in Moharrem Bey.”
“Which G.V.?” I asked. “The eccentric one, who used to spend his time studying magic?”
“The same¯and this played a part in my choice. How I took the train, how I arrived at Moharrem Bey, staring right and left like a madman in dread lest the specter rise up again at my side, how I reached G.V.’s room, I can recall in a vague, jumbled way. My one clear memory is that, finding myself with him at last, I began weeping hysterically, trembling from head to foot, as I related my horrible experience. G.V. quieted me and, half-serious, half-joking, told me not to fear; that the specter would never dare to enter his house, and that if it did he would cast it out at once. He knew very well, he said, this type of supernatural apparition, and knew also the way to exorcize it. He further implored me to believe that I no longer had any reason to be afraid, because the specter had come to me for a particular purpose, to obtain the ‘little iron box’ which, apparently, it was unable to do without the presence and help of a mortal. This plan had failed; the specter would already have understood, from my terror, that it had no further hope of success. It would no doubt go on to persuade somebody else. V. regretted only that I hadn’t contacted him in time for him to go and see the specter, and speak with it, because, he explained, in the History of Specters the presence of these spirits or demons in broad daylight is most uncommon. All this failed to soothe me. I spent a very restless night and woke the next morning with a fever. The doctor’s ignorance and the excitation of my nervous system brought about a cerebral fever, from which I barely escaped dying. When somewhat recovered, I asked what day it was. I had fallen ill on August third, and fancied it would be the seventh or eighth. It was the second of September.
“A short trip to an island in the Aegean hastened and completed my convalescence. I spent the whole length of my illness at V.’s, who tended me with that kindheartedness you both know. He was vexed with himself for not having had character enough to dismiss the doctor, and to treat me through magic alone, which I believe would have cured me, in this case at least, every bit as quickly as the doctor did.
“There you are, my friends: my opportunity to have millions¯only I didn’t dare. I didn’t dare and I don’t regret it.”
Here Alexander fell silent. The utter conviction and simplicity of his narrative precluded any comment we might have made. Besides, it was now twenty-seven minutes past midnight. And since the last train for town left at twelve-thirty, we were obliged to say good night and be off in a great rush.
|Translated by James Merrill|
|(Translated by James Merrill. In Grand Street, Vol. 8, No. 3, Spring 1983, also published in James Merrill, Collected Poems, Knopf 2004) |