Winter. The green xebec whose figurehead was Astarte, goddess of sexual love, tacked slowly into the Grand Harbour. Yellow bastions, Moorish-looking city, rainy sky. What more on first glance? In his youth no one of those score or so other cities had ever shown old Stencil much in the way of Romance. But now as if making up for lost time his mind seemed to've gone rainy as the sky.
He kept near the stern, rained on, bird-frame wrapped in oilskin, sheltering his pipe's match from the wind. Overhead for a while hung Fort St. Angelo, dirty yellow and wrapped in a quiet not of this earth. Abeam gradually came H.M.S. Egmont, a few seamen on her decks like blue-and-white dolls shivering for the Harbour wind, holy stoning to work off this morning's chill. His cheeks hollowed and flattened as the xebec seemed to describe a plete circle and Grandmaster La Vallette's dream whirled away for Fort St. Elmo and the Mediterranean, which in their turn spun past into Ricasoli, Vittoriosa, the Dockyard. Mehemet the master swore at his helmsman, Astarte now leaned from the xebec's bowsprit toward the city as if it were male and asleep and she, inanimate figurehead, a succubus preparing to ravish. Mehemet approached him. "Mara lives in a strange house," said Stencil. Wind flapped one whitening forelock, rooted halfway back on his scalp. He said it for the city, not for Mehemet; but the master understood.
"Whenever we came to Malta," he said in some Levantine tongue, "I got the feeling. As if a great hush were on this sea and the island its heart. As if I'd e back to something my own heart needs as deeply as a heart can." He lit a cigarette from Stencil's pipe. "But it is a deception. She's an inconstant city. Be wary of her."
One hulking boy stood on the quay to receive their lines. He and Mehemet exchanged salaam aleikums. A pillar of cloud stood to the north behind Marsamuscetto, looking solid and about to topple; to crush the city. Mehemet wandered about kicking the crew. One by one they drifted below decks and began hauling the cargo topside: a few live goats, some sacks of sugar, dried tarragon from Sicily, salted pilchards in barrels, from Greece.
Stencil had his gear collected. The rain descended more quickly. He opened a great umbrella and stood under it watching the Dockyard country. Well, what am I waiting for, he wondered. The crew had retired below decks all sullen. Mehemet came squishing across the deck. "Fortune," he said.
"An inconstant goddess." The pier hand who'd taken their lines now sat on a piling, facing the water, hunched up like a bedraggled sea bird. "Island of sunshine?" Stencil laughed. His pipe was still lit. Among white fumes then he and Mehemet made farewell. He teetered across a single plank to shore, balancing a ditty bag on one shoulder, the umbrella looking like a tightrope-walker's parasol. Indeed, he thought. What safety, after all, on this shore. Ashore anywhere?
From the window of a cab, proceeding in the rain along Strada Reale, Stencil could detect none of the holiday one saw in other capitals of Europe. Perhaps it was only the rain. But wele relief surely. Stencil was fed to surfeit on songs, bunting, parades, promiscuous loves, uncouth noisemakings; all the normal responses of nonbatants-in-the-mass to Armistice or peace. Even in the normally sober offices in Whitehall, it had been impossible. Armistice, ha!
"I cannot understand your attitude," from Carruthers-Pillow, then Stencil's superior. "Armistice, ha, indeed."
Stencil muttered something about things not being stabilized. How could he tell Carruthers-Pillow of all people, who felt in the presence of the most inconsequential chit initialed by the Foreign Secretary much as Moses must have toward the Decalogue God blasted out for him on stone. Wasn't the Armistice signed by legally-constituted heads of government? How could there not be peace? It would never be worth the trouble arguing. So they'd stood that November morning, watching the lamplighter extinguish the lights in St. James's Park, as if having long ago passed through some quicksilver surface from when Viscount Grey had stood perhaps at the same window and made his famous remark about the lamps going out all over Europe. Stencil of course didn't see the difference between event and image, but saw no advantage in disturbing his chief's euphoria. Let the poor innocent sleep. Stencil had merely been dour, which in him passed for high celebration.
Lieutenant Mungo Sheaves, aide to the Officer Administrating Government on Malta, had set before Whitehall an architecture of discontent: among the police force, the University students, the civil service, the Dockyard workers. Behind it all lurked "the Doctor"; organizer, civil engineer: E. Mizzi. A bogeyman to Major General Hunter-Blair, the OAG, Stencil guessed; but found it took him an effort to see Mizzi as anything but a busy man-of-policy, agile, Machiavellian, a trifle old-fashioned, who'd managed to last as far as 1919. For a survival like that Stencil could only feel a wistful pride. His good friend Porpentine - twenty years ago in Egypt - hadn't he been the same sort? Belonged to a time where which side a man was on didn't matter: only the state of opposition itself, the tests of virtue, the cricket game? Stencil may have e in on the tail end.
It must be shock, fine: even Stencil could feel shock. Ten million dead and twice that wounded if nothing else. "But we reach a point," he'd thought of telling Carruthers-Pillow, "we old campaigners, when the habits of the past bee too strong. Where we can say, and believe, that this abattoir, but lately bankrupt, was fundamentally no different from the Franco-Prussian conflict, the Sudanese wars, even the Crimea. It is perhaps a delusion - say a convenience - necessary to our line of work. But more honorable surely than this loathsome weakness of retreat into dreams: pastel visions of disarmament, a League, a universal law. Ten million dead. Gas. Passchendaele. Let that be now a large figure, now a chemical formula, now an historical account. But dear lord, not the Nameless Horror, the sudden prodigy sprung on a world unaware. We all saw it. There was no innovation, no special breach of nature, or suspension of familiar principles. If it came as any surprise to the public then their own blindness is the Great Tragedy, hardly the war itself."
On route to Valletta - the steamer to Syracuse, the week of lying doggo in a waterfront tavern till Mehemet's xebec arrived; all the way across a Mediterranean whose teeming history and full depth he could not feel, nor try, nor afford to try to feel, old Stencil had had it out with himself. Mehemet had helped.
"You're old," the skipper mused over his nightly hashish. "I am old, the world is old; but the world changes always; we, only so far. It's no secret, what sort of change this is. Both the world and we, M. Stencil, began to die from the moment of birth. Your game is politics which I don't pretend to understand. But it seems that these -" he shrugged - "noisy attempts to devise political happiness: new forms of government, new ways to arrange the fields and workshops; aren't they like the sailor I saw off Bizerte in 1324." Stencil chuckled. Mehemet's recurring lament was for a world taken from him. He belonged to the trade routes of the Middle, Ages. According to the yarn he had in fact sailed the xebec through a rift in time's fabric, pursued then among the Aegean Islands by a Tuscan corsair which mysteriously dropped from sight. But it was the same sea and not until docking at Rhodes did Mehemet learn of his displacement. And since had forsaken land for a Mediterranean which thank Allah would never change. Whatever his true nostalgia he reckoned by the Moslem calendar not only in conversation but also in logs and account books; though the religion and perhaps the birthright he'd let pass years ago.
"Slung on a stage over the gunwale of an old felucca, the Peri. A storm had just passed, rushing away toward the land in a great slope of clouds; already turning yellowish from the desert. The sea there is the color of Damascus plums; and how quiet. Sun was going down; not a beautiful sunset, more a gradual darkening of the air and that storm's mountainside. The Peri had been damaged, we hove to alongside and hailed her master. No reply. Only the sailor - I never saw his face - one of your fellahin who abandon the land like a restless husband and then grumble for the rest of their term afloat. It's the strongest marriage in the world. This one wore a kind of loincloth and a rag round his head for the sun which was almost gone. After we'd shouted in every dialect we had among us, he replied in Tuareg: 'The master is gone, the crew is gone, I am here and I am painting the ship.' It was true: he was painting the ship. She'd been damaged, not a load line in sight, and a bad list. 'Come aboard,' we told him, 'night is nearly on us and you cannot swim to land.' He never answered, merely continued dipping the brush in his earthen jar and slapping it smoothly on the Peri's creaking sides. What color? It looked gray but the air was dark. This felucca would never again see the sun. Finally I told the helmsman to swing our ship round and continue on course. I watched the fellah until it was too dark: being smaller, inching closer to the sea with every swell but never slackening his pace. A peasant with all his uptorn roots showing, alone on the sea at nightfall, painting the side of a sinking ship."
"Am I only getting old?" Stencil wondered. "Perhaps past the time I can change with the world."
"The only change is toward death," repeated Mehemet cheerfully. "Early and late we are in decay." The helmsman began to sing a monotonous, Levantine lanterloo. There were no stars and the sea was hushed. Stencil refused hashish and filled his pipe with a respectable English blend; lit up, puffed, began:
"Which way does it go? As a youth I believed in social progress because I saw chances for personal progress of my own. Today, at age sixty, having gone as far as I'm about to go, I see nothing but a dead end for myself, and if you're right, for my society as well. But then: suppose Sidney Stencil has remained constant after all - suppose instead sometime between 1859 and 1919, the world contracted a disease which no one ever took the trouble to diagnose because the symptoms were too subtle - blending in with the events of history, no different one by one but altogether fatal. This is how the public, you know, see the late war. As a new and rare disease which has now been cured and conquered for ever."
"Is old age a disease?" Mehemet asked. "The body slows down, machines wear out, planets falter and loop, sun and stars gutter and smoke. Why say a disease? Only to bring it down to a size you can look at and feel fortable?"
"Because we do paint the side of some Peri or other, don't we. We call it society. A new coat of paint; don't you see? She can't change her own color."
"No more than the pustules of smallpox have anything to do with death. A new plexion, a new coat of paint."
"Of course," said Stencil, thinking of something else, "of course we would all prefer to die of old age . . ."
The Armageddon had swept past, the professionals who'd survived had received no blessing, no gift of tongues. Despite all attempts to cut its career short the tough old earth would take its own time in dying and would die of old age.
Then Mehemet told him of Mara.
"Another of your women."
"Ha, ha. Indeed. Maltese for woman."
"She is - if you care for the word - a spirit, constrained to live in Xaghriet Mewwija. The inhabited plain; the peninsula whose tip is Valletta her domain. She nursed the shipwrecked St. Paul - as Nausicaa and Odysseus - taught love to every invader from Phoenician to French. Perhaps even to the English, though the legend loses respectability after Napoleon. She was from all evidence a perfectly historical personage, like St. Agatha, another of the island's minor saints.
"Now the Great Siege was after my time, but legend - one of them - says that she once had access to the entire island and the waters as far as the fishing banks off Lampedusa. The fishing fleets would always lie to there in the shape of a carob pod, her proper symbol. Early in your 1585, at any rate, two privateers, Giou and Romegas, captured a Turkish galleon belonging to the chief eunuch of the Imperial Seraglio. In retaliation Mara was taken prisoner on one of her jaunts to Lampedusa by the corsair Dragut, and brought back to Constantinople. Soon as the ship had passed the invisible circle centered at Xaghriet Mewwija with Lampedusa on the rim, she fell into a strange trance, from which neither caresses nor tortures could rouse her. At length, having lost their own figurehead in a collision with a Sicilian ragusy the week before, the Turks lashed Mara to the bowsprit and that was how she entered Constantinople: a living figurehead. On drawing near to that city, blinding yellow and dun under a clear sky, she was heard to awake and cry: "Lejl, hekk ikun." Night, so be it. The Turks thought she was raving. Or blind.
"They brought her to the serail into the presence of the Sultan. Now she never was pictured as a raving beauty. She shows up as a number of goddesses, minor deities. Disguise is one of her attributes. But one curious thing about those images: jar ornaments, friezes, sculptures, no matter: she's always tall, slim, small-breasted and bellied. No matter what the prevalent fashion in females, she remains constant. In her face is always a slight bow to the nose, a wide spacing of the eyes, which are small. No one you'd turn to watch on the street. But she was a teacher of love after all. Only pupils of love need be beautiful.
"She pleased the Sultan. Perhaps she made the effort. But was installed somehow as a concubine about the time La Vallette back on her island was blocking the creek between Senglea and St. Angelo with an iron chain and poisoning the springs in the Marsa plain with hemp and arsenic. Once in the seraglio she proceeded to raise hell. She'd always been attributed magical talents. Perhaps the carob pod - she's often depicted holding one - had something to do with it. Wand, scepter. Perhaps too, some kind of fertility goddess - do I embarrass your Anglo-Saxon nerves? - though it is a quaint, hermaphrodite sort of deity.
"Soon - a matter of weeks - the Sultan noticed a certain coldness infecting each of his nightly panions; a reluctance, a lack of talent. Also a change in attitude among the eunuchs. Almost - how to say it - smug and keeping a bad secret of it. Nothing he could establish definitely; and so like most unreasonable men with suspicions he had certain girls and eunuchs tortured horribly. All protested innocence, showed honest fear to the last twist of the neck, the last upward thrust of the iron spike. And yet it progressed. Spies reported that shy concubines who had once paced with ladylike steps - limited by a slim chain between the ankles - and downcast eyes now smiled and flirted promiscuously with the eunuchs, and the eunuchs - horror! - flirted back. Girls left to themselves would suddenly leap on one another with fierce caresses; on occasion make loud abandoned love before the scandalized eyes of the Sultan's agents.
"At length it occurred to His Ghostly Magnificence, nearly out of his mind with jealousy, to call in the sorceress Mara. Standing before him in a shift fashioned of tigermoth wings she faced the Imperial dais with a wicked smile. The Imperial retainers were charmed.
"'Woman,' began the Sultan.
"She raised a hand, 'I have done it all,' she recited sweetly: 'taught your wives to love their own bodies, showed them the luxury of a woman's love; restored potency to your eunuchs so that they may enjoy one another as well as the three hundred perfumed, female beasts of your harem.'
"Bewildered at such ready confession, his tender Moslem sensibilities outraged by the epidemic of perversion she'd unleashed upon his domestic repose, the Sultan made what is a fatal mistake with any woman: he decided to argue. Jolted into a rare sarcasm he explained to her, as to an idiot, why eunuchs cannot have sexual intercourse.
"Her smile never fading, her voice placid as before, Mara replied: 'I have provided them with the means."
"So confidently did she speak that the Sultan began to feel the first groundswell of an atavistic terror. Oh, at last he knew: he was in the presence of a witch.
"Back home the Turks, led by Dragut and the pashas Piali and Mustafa, had laid siege to Malta. You know generally how it went. They occupied Xaghriet Mewwija, took Fort St. Elmo, and began their assault on Notabile, Borgo - today that's Vittoriosa - and Senglea, where La Vallette and the Knights were making their final stand.
"Now after St. Elmo had fallen, Mustafa (possibly in sorrow for Dragut, killed in that encounter by a stone cannonball) had also launched a grisly offensive on the morale of the Knights. He beheaded their slaughtered brethren, tied the corpses to planks and floated them into the Grand Harbour. Imagine being on sunrise watch and seeing the dawn touch those ex-rades-in-arms, belly up and crowding the water: death's flotilla.
"One of the great mysteries about the Siege is why, when the Turks outnumbered the invested Knights, when the days of the besieged were numbered on a single hand, when Borgo and thus Malta were almost in the same hand - Mustafa's - why should they suddenly pull up and retreat, hoist anchor and leave the island?
"History says because of a rumor. Don Garcia de Toledo, viceroy of Sicily, was on route with forty-eight galleys. Pompeo Colonna and twelve hundred men, sent by the Pope to relieve La Vallette, eventually reached Gozo. But somehow the Turks got hold of intelligence that twenty thousand troops had landed at Melleha Bay and were on route to Notabile. General retreat was ordered; church bells all over Xaghriet Mewwija began to ring; the people thronged the streets, cheering. The Turks fled, embarked and sailed away to the southeast forever. History attributes it all to bad reconnaissance.
"But the truth is this: the words were spoken directly to Mustafa by the head of the Sultan himself. The witch Mara had sent him into a kind of mesmeric trance; detached his head and put it into the Dardanelles, where some miraculous set and drift - who knows all the currents, all the things which happen in this sea? - sent it on a collision course with Malta. There is a song written by a latter-day jongleur named Falconiere. No Renaissance had ever touched him; he resided at the Auberge of Aragon, Catalonia and Navarre at the time of the Siege. You know the sort of poet who can fall into belief in any fashionable cult, current philosophy, new-found foreign superstition. This one fell into belief and possibly love for Mara. Even distinguished himself on the ramparts of Borgo, braining four Janissaries with his lute before someone handed him a sword. She was, you see, his Lady."
Fleeing the mistral, fleeing the sun's hot lash,
Serene in scalloped waves, and sculptured sky
The head feels no rain, fears no pitchy night,
As o'er this ancient sea it races stars,
Empty but for a dozen fatal words,
Charmed by Mara, Mara my only love . . .
There follows an apostrophe to Mara."
Stencil nodded sagely, trying to fill in with Spanish cognates.
"Apparently," Mehemet concluded, "the head returned to Constantinople and its owner, the sly Mara meanwhile having slipped aboard a friendly galiot, disguised as a cabin boy. Back in Valletta at last she appeared in a vision to La Vallette, greeting him with the words "Shalom aleikum."
The joke being that shalom is Hebrew for peace and also the root for the Greek Salome, who beheaded St. John.
"Beware of Mara," the old sailor said then. "Guardian spirit of Xaghriet Mewwija. Whoever or whatever sees to such things condemned her to haunt the inhabited plain, as punishment for her show at Constantinople. About as useful as clapping any faithless wife in a chastity belt.
"She's restless. She will find ways to reach out from Valletta, a city named after a man, but of feminine gender, a peninsula shaped like the mons Veneris - you see? It is a chastity belt. But there are more ways than one to consummation, as she proved to the Sultan."
Now sprinting from the taxi through the rain to his hotel, Stencil did indeed feel a tug. Not so much at his loins - there had been pany enough in Syracuse to anaesthetize that for a while - as at the wizened adolescent he was always apt to turn into: A little later, scrunched. up in an undersize tub, Stencil sang. It was a tune, in fact, from his "music-hall" days before the war, and primarily a way to relax:
Every night to the Dog and Bell
Young Stencil loved to go
To dance on the tables and shout and sing
And give 'is pals a show.
His little wife would stay to home
'Er 'eart all filled wiv pain
But the next night sharp at a quarter to six
'E'd be down to the pub again. Until
That one fine evening in the monf of May
He announced to all as came wivin 'is sight
You must get along wivout me boys
I'm through wiv rowdiness and noise.
Cause Stencil's going 'ome tonight;
[In palmier days a chorus of junior F.O. operatives would enter here singing]:
'Ere, wot's this? Wot's the matter wiv Stencil?
Wot's the reason for such a change of 'eart?
[To which Stencil would answer]:
Gather round me closely lads
And I the most forlorn of cads
Will tell you all ere I depart:
I've just bee the father to a bouncing baby boy
And Herbert blithering Stencil is 'is name.
'E's a card And treats me wiv regard
Though I 'awe to change 'is nappies all the same.
I don't know where we got the time to make 'im,
Cause I've been ing 'ome drunk most every night,
But 'e's cute and fat as a kidney pie
And looks like 'is ma and that is why
Stencil's going 'ome tonight
(Just ask the milkman)
Stencil's going 'ome tonight.
Out of the tub, dry, back in tweeds, Stencil stood at the window, looking out idly at the night.
At length came a knock at the door. It would be Maijstral. A quick twitch of eyeballs about the room to check for loose papers, anything promising. Then to the door to admit the shipfitter who'd been described to him as looking like a stunted oak. Maijstral stood there neither aggressive nor humble, merely existing: whitening hair, unkempt mustaches. A nervous tic in the man's upper lip made the food particles trapped there vibrate disturbingly.
"He es of noble family," Mehemet had revealed sadly. Stencil fell into the trap, asking which family. "Della Torre," Mehemet replied. Delatore, informer.
"What of the Dockyard people," Stencil asked.
"They will attack the Chronicle." (A grievance stemming from the strike of 1917; the newspaper had published a letter condemning the strike, but had given no equal time for a reply.) "There was a meeting a few minutes ago." Maijstral gave him a brief digest. Stencil knew all the objections. Workers from England got a colonial allowance: local yardbirds received only normal wages. Most would like to emigrate, after hearing glowing reports from the Maltese Labour Carps and other crews from abroad of higher pay outside Malta. But the rumor had started, somehow, that the government was refusing passports to keep workers on the island, against any future requirement. "What else can they do but emigrate?" Maijstral digressed: "With the war the number of Dockyard workers swelled to three times what it was before. Now, with Armistice, they're already laying off. There are only so many jobs here outside the Dockyard. Not enough to keep everyone eating."
Stencil wanted to ask: if you sympathize, why inform? He had used informers as a journeyman his tools and had never tried to understand their motives. Usually he supposed it was no more than a personal grudge, a desire for revenge. But he'd seen them before, torn: mitted to some program or other, and still helping along its defeat. Would Maijstral be there in the van of the mob storming the Daily Malta Chronicle? Stencil did want to ask why, but could hardly. It being none of his affair.
Maijstral told him all he knew and left, expressionless as before. Stencil lit a pipe, consulted a map of Valletta, and five minutes later was strolling sprightly down Strada Reale, trailing Maijstral.
This was normal precaution. Of course, a certain double standard was at work; the feeling being "If he will inform for me he will also inform against me."
Ahead Maijstral now turned left, away from the lights of the main thoroughfare; down the hill toward Strada Stretta. Here were the borders of this city's Disreputable Quarter; Stencil looked around without much curiosity. It was all the same. What a warped idea of cities one got in this occupation! If no record of this century should survive except the personal logs of F.O. operatives, the historians of the future must reconstruct a curious landscape indeed.
Massive public buildings with characterless facades; networks of streets from which the civilian populace seems mysteriously absent. An aseptic administrative world, surrounded by an outlying vandal-country of twisting lanes, houses of prostitution, taverns; ill-lit except for rendezvous points, which stand out like sequins on an old and misused ball-gown.
"If there is any political moral to be found in this world," Stencil once wrote in his journal, "it is that we carry on the business of this century with an intolerable double vision. Right and Left; the hothouse and the street. The Right can only live and work hermetically, in the hothouse of the past, while outside the Left prosecute their affairs in the streets by manipulated mob violence. And cannot live but in the dreamscape of the future.
"What of the real present the men-of-no-politics, the once-respectable Golden Mean? Obsolete; in any case, lost sight of. In a West of such extremes we can expect, at the very least, a highly 'alienated' populace within not many more years."
Strada Stretta; Strait Street. A passage meant, one felt, to be choked with mobs. Such was nearly the case: early evening had brought to it sailors ashore from H.M.S. Egmont and smaller men-o-war; seamen from Greek, Italian and North African merchantmen; and a supporting cast of shoeshine boys, pimps, hawkers of trinkets, confections, dirty pictures. Such were the topological deformities of this street that one seemed to walk through a succession of musichall stages, each demarcated by a curve or slope, each with a different set and acting pany but all for the same low entertainment. Stencil, old soft-shoe artist, felt quite at home.
But he increased his pace through the thickening crowds; noticing with some anxiety that Maijstral had begun to disappear more and more frequently is the surgings of white and blue ahead.
To his right he became aware of a persistent image, flickering in and out of his field of vision. Tall, black, somehow conical. He risked a sidewise glance. What seemed to be a Greek pope or parish priest had been keeping abreast of him for some time. What was a man of God doing in this territory? Seeking perhaps to reclaim souls; but their glances touched and Stencil saw no merciful intention there.
"Chaire," muttered the priest.
"Chaire, Papa," said Stencil out of the side of his mouth, and tried to push ahead. He was restrained by the pope's ringed hand.
"One moment, Sidney," said the voice. "Come over here, out of this mob."
That voice was damned familiar. "Maijstral is going to the John Bull," said the pope. "We can catch up with him later." They proceeded down an alley to a small courtyard. In the center was a cistern, its rim adorned with a dark sunburst of sewage.
"Presto change-ho," and off came the holy man's black beard and calotte.
"Demivolt, you've grown crude in your old age. What sort of low edy is this? What's the matter with Whitehall?"
"They're all right," sang Demivolt, hopping clumsily about the courtyard. "You're as much a surprise to me, you know."
"What about Moffit," Stencil said. "As long as they're staging a reunion of the Florence crew."
"Moffit caught it in Belgrade. I thought you'd heard." Demivolt removed the soutane and rolled his paraphernalia in it. Underneath he wore a suit of English tweed. After quickly rebing his hair and twirling his mustache, he looked no different from the Demivolt Stencil had last seen in '99. Except for more gray in the hair, a few more lines in the face.
"God knows who all they've sent to Valletta," said Demivolt cheerfully, as they returned to the street. "I suspect it's only another fad - F.O. gets these fits, you know. Like a spa or watering place. The Fashionable Place To Go seems to be different every season."
"Don't look at me. I have only a hint what's up. The natives here are as we say, restless. This chap Fairing - R.C. priest, Jesuit I suspect - thinks there will be a blood bath before very long."
"Yes, I've seen Fairing. If his paycheck is ing out of the same pocket as ours, he shows it not."
"Oh I doubt, I doubt," Stencil said vaguely, wanting to talk about old times.
"Maijstral always sits out in front; we'll go across the street." They took seats at the Cafe Phoenicia, Stencil with his back to the street. Briefly, over Barcelona beer each filled the other in on the two decades between the Vheissu affair and here, voices monotone against the measured frenzy of the street.
"Odd how paths cross."
"Are we meant to keep tabs on one another? Or were we meant to meet."
"Meant?" too quickly. "By Whitehall, of course."
As we get older we skew more toward the past. Stencil had thus bee partially lost to the street and the yardbird across it. The ill-starred year in Florence - Demivolt having popped up again - now came back to him, each unpleasant detail quivering brightly in the dark room of his spy's memory. He hoped devoutly that Demivolt's appearance was merely chance; and not a signal for the reactivation of the same chaotic and Situational forces at work in Florence twenty years ago.
For Fairing's prediction of massacre, and its attendant politics, had all the earmarks of a Situation-in-the-process-of-being. He had changed none of his ideas on The Situation. Had even written an article, pseudonymous, and sent it to Punch: "The Situation as an N-Dimensional Mishmash." It was rejected.
"Short of examining the entire history of each individual participating;" Stencil wrote, "short of anatomizing each soul, what hope has anyone of understanding a Situation? It may be that the civil servants of the future will not be accredited unless they first receive a degree in brain surgery."
He indeed was visited by dreams in which he had shrunk to submicroscopic size and entered a brain, strolling in through some forehead's pore and into the cul-de-sac of a sweat gland. Struggling out of a jungle of capillaries there he would finally reach bone; down then through the skull, dura mater, arachnoid, pia mater to the fissure-floored sea of cerebrospinal fluid. And there he would float before final assault on the gray hemispheres: the soul.
Nodes of Ranvier, sheath of Schwann, vein of Galen; tiny Stencil wandered all night long among the silent, immense lightning bursts of nerve-impulses crossing a synapse; the waving dendrites, the nerve-autobahns chaining away to God knew where in receding clusters of end-bulbs. A stranger in this landscape, it never occurred to him to ask whose brain he was in. Perhaps his own. They were fever dreams: the kind where one is given an impossibly plex problem to solve, and keeps chasing dead ends, following random promises, frustrated at every turn, until the fever breaks.
Assume, then, a prospect of chaos in the streets, joined by every group on the island with a grudge. This would include nearly everyone but the OAG and his staff. Doubtless each would think only of his own immediate desires. But mob violence, like tourism, is a kind of munion. By its special magic a large number of lonely souls, however heterogeneous, can share the mon property of opposition to what is. And like an epidemic or earthquake the politics of the street can overtake even the most stable-appearing of governments; like death it cuts through and gathers in all ranks of society. -
> The poor would seek revenge against the millers, who allegedly profiteered in bread during the war. -
> The civil servants would be out looking for a fairer shake: advance notice of open petition, higher salaries, no more racial discrimination. -
> The tradesmen would want repeal of the Succession and Donation Duties Ordinance. This tax was meant to bring in 5000 pounds yearly; but the actual assessments amounted to 30,000 pounds. -
> Bolshevists among the yardbirds could only be satisfied with the abolition of all private property, sacred or profane. -
> The anti-colonial extremists would seek of course to sweep England from the Palace forever. Damn the consequences. Though probably Italy would enter on the next crest and be even harder to dislodge. There would be blood ties, then. -
> The Abstentionists wanted a new constitution. -
> The Mizzists - prising three clubs: Giovine Malta, Dante Alighieri, Il Comitato Patriottico - sought (a) Italian hegemony in Malta, (b) aggrandizement for the leader, Dr. Enrico Mizzi. -
> The Church - here perhaps Stencil's C. of E. stuffiness colored an otherwise objective view - wanted only what the Church always desires during times of political crisis. She awaited a Third Kingdom. Violent overthrow is a Christian phenomenon.
The matter of a Paraclete's ing, the forter, the dove; the tongues of flame, the gift of tongues: Pentecost. Third Person of the Trinity. None of it was implausible to Stencil. The Father had e and gone. In political terms, the Father was the Prince; the single leader, the dynamic figure whose virtu used to be a determinant of history. This had degenerated to the Son, genius of the liberal love-feast which had produced 1848 and lately the overthrow of the Czars. What next? What Apocalypse?
Especially on Malta, a matriarchal island. Would the Paraclete be also a mother? Comforter, true. But what gift of munication could ever e from a woman . . .
Enough, lad, he told himself. You're in dangerous waters. Come out, e out.
"Don't turn around now," Demivolt broke in conversationally, "but it's she. At Maijstral's table."
When Stencil did turn around he saw only a vague figure in an evening cape, her face shadowed by an elaborate, probably Parisian bonnet.
"That is Veronica Manganese."
"Gustavus V is ruler of Sweden. You are brimful of intelligence, aren't you."
Demivolt gave Stencil a thumbnail dossier on Veronica Manganese. Origins uncertain. She'd popped up in Malta at the beginning of the war, in the pany of one Sgherraccio, a Mizzist. She was now intimate with various renegade Italians, among them D'Annunzio the poet-militant, and one Mussolini, an active and troublesome anti-socialist. Her political sympathies weren't known; whatever they might be, Whitehall was less than amused. The woman was clearly a troublemaker. She was reputed to be wealthy; lived alone in a villa long abandoned by the baronage of Sant' Ugo di Tagliapiombo di Sammut, a nearly defunct branch of the Maltese nobility. The source of her ine was not apparent.
"He's a double agent, then."
"It would seem so."
"Why don't I go back to London. You seem to be doing quite well -"
"Negative, negative, Sidney. You do remember Florence."
A waiter materialized with more Barcelona beer. Stencil fumbled for his pipe. "This must be the worst brew in the Mediterranean. You deserve another, for that. Can't Vheissu ever be a dead file?"
"Call Vheissu a symptom. Symptoms like that are always alive, somewhere in the world."
"Sweet Christ, we've only now concluded one. Are they quite ready, do you think, to begin this foolishness again?"
"I don't think," Demivolt smiled grimly. "I try not to. Seriously, I believe all elaborate games of this sort arise from someone in the Office - high up, of course - getting a hunch. Saying to himself, 'Look here: something is wrong, you know.' He's usually right. In Florence he was right, again only as far as we're talking about symptoms and not about any acute case of whatever the disease is.
"Now you and I are only private-soldiers. For myself, I wouldn't presume. That manner of guesswork draws from a really first-rate intuitiveness. Oh we have our own minor hunches, of course: your following Maijstral tonight. But it's a matter of level. Level of pay-grade, level of elevation above the jumble, where one can see the long-term movements. We're in it, in the thick, after all."
"And so they want us together," Stencil murmured.
"As of now. Who knows what they'll want tomorrow?"
"And I wonder who else is here."
"Look sharp. There they go." They let the two across the street move off before they arose. "Like to see the island? They're probably on their way out to the Villa. Not that the rendezvous is apt to prove very exciting."
So they made their way down Strada Streeta, Demivolt looking like a jaunty anarchist with the black bundle under one arm.
"The roads are terrible," Demivolt admitted, "but we have an automobile."
"I'm frightened to death of automobiles."
Indeed he was. On route to the villa Stencil clutched the Peugeot's seat, refusing to look at anything but the floorboards. Autos, balloons, aeroplanes; he'd have nothing to do with them.
"Isn't this rather crude," he gritted, huddled behind the windscreen as if expecting it to vanish at any moment. "There's no one else on the road."
"At the speed she's going she'll lose us soon enough," Demivolt chirruped, all breezy. "Relax, Sidney."
They moved southwest into Floriana. Ahead Veronica Manganese's Benz had vanished in a gale of cinders and exhaust. "Ambush," Stencil suggested.
"They're not that sort." After awhile Demivolt turned right. They worked their way thus round Marsamuscetto in near-darkness. Reeds whistled in the fens. Behind them the illuminated city seemed tilted toward them, like some display case in a poor souvenir shop. And how quiet was Malta's night. Approaching or leaving other capitals one always caught the sense of a great pulse or plexus whose energy reached one by induction; broadcasting its presence over whatever arete or sea's curve might be hiding it. But Valletta seemed serene in her own past, in the Mediterranean womb, in something so insulating that Zeus himself might once have quarantined her and her island for an old sin or an older pestilence. So at peace was Valletta that with the least distance she would deteriorate to' mere spectacle. She ceased to exist as anything quick or pulsed, and was assumed again into the textual stillness of her own history.
The Villa di Sammut lay past Sliema near the sea, elevated on a small prominence, facing out toward an invisible Continent. What Stencil could see of the building was conventional enough, as villas go: white walls, balconies, few windows on the landward side, stone satyrs chasing stone nymphs about dilapidated grounds; one great ceramic dolphin vomiting clear water into a pool. But the low wall surrounding the place drew his attention. Normally insensitive to the artistic or Baedeker aspect of any city he visited, Stencil was now ready to succumb to the feathery tentacles of a nostalgia which urged him gently back toward childhood; a childhood of gingerbread witches, enchanted parks, fantasy country. It was a dream-wall, swirling and curlicuing now in the light of a quarter moon, seeming no more solid than the decorative voids - some almost like leaves or petals, some almost like bodily organs not quite human - which pierced its streaked and cobbled substance.
"Where have we seen this before," he whispered.
One light in an upper story went out. "Come," said Demivolt. They vaulted the wall and crept round the villa peering in windows, listening at doors.
"Are we looking for anything particular," Stencil asked.
A lantern came on behind them and a voice said, "Turn round slowly. Hands away from your sides."
Stencil had a strong stomach and all the cynicism of a non-political career and an approaching second childhood. But the face above the lantern did give him a mild shock. It is too grotesque, too deliberately, preciously Gothic to be real, he protested to himself. The upper part of the nose seemed to have slid down, giving an exaggerated saddle-and-hump; the chin cut off at midpoint to slope concave back up the other side, pulling part of the lip up in a scarred half-smile. Just under the eye socket on the same side winked a roughly circular expanse of silver. The shadows thrown by the lantern made it worse. The other hand held a revolver.
"You are spies?" the voice inquired, an English voice twisted somehow by a mouth cavity one could only infer. "Let me see your faces." He moved the lantern closer and Stencil saw a change begin to grow in the eyes, all that had been human in the face to begin with.
"Both of you," the mouth said. "Both of you then." And tears began to squeeze from the eyes. "Then you know it is she, and why I am here." He repocketed the revolver, turned, slumped off toward the villa. Stencil started after him, but Demivolt put out an arm. At a door the man turned. "Can't you let us alone? Let her make her own peace? Let me be a simple caretaker? I want nothing more from England." The last words were spoken so weakly the sea wind nearly carried them off. The lantern and its holder vanished behind the door.
"Old running mate," Demivolt said, "there is a tremendous nostalgia about this show. Do you feel it? The pain of a return home."
"Was that in Florence?"
"The rest of us were. Why not?"
"I don't like duplication of effort."
"This occupation sees nothing else." The tone was grim.
"Oh hardly so soon. But give it twenty years."
Although Stencil had been face to face with her caretaker, this was the fast meeting: he must have reckoned it even then as a "first meeting." Suspecting anyway that Veronica Manganese and he had met before, why surely they would meet again.
But the second meeting had to wait on the ing of a kind of false spring, where smells of the Harbour drifted to the highest reaches of Valletta and flocks of sea birds consulted dispiritedly down in the Dockyard country, aping the actions of their human co-tenants.
There had been no attack on the Chronicle. On 3 February political censorship of the Maltese press was abolished. La Voce del Popolo, the Mizzist paper, promptly began agitating. Articles praising Italy and attacking Britain; excerpts copied from the foreign press, paring Malta to certain Italian provinces under a tyrannical Austrian rule. The vernacular press followed suit. None of it worried Stencil particularly. When the freedom to criticize a government had been suspended four years by the same government, a great deal of pent-up resentment would obviously be released in a voluminous - though not necessarily effective - torrent.
But three weeks later, a "National Assembly" met in Valletta to draft a request for a liberal constitution. All shades of political opinion - Abstentionists, Moderates, the Comitato Patriottico - were represented. The gathering met at the club Giovine Malta, which was Mizzist-controlled.
"Trouble," Demivolt said darkly.
"Not necessarily." Though Stencil knew the difference between "political gathering" and "mob" is fine indeed. Anything might touch it off.
The night before the meeting a play at the Manoel Theatre, dealing with Austrian oppression in Italy, worked the crowd into a gloriously foul humor. The actors tossed in several topical ad libs which did little to improve the general mood. Rollickers in the street sang La Bella Gigogin. Maijstral reported that a few Mizzists and Bolshevists were doing their best to drum up enthusiasm for a riot among the Dockyard workers. The extent of their success was doubtful. Maijstral shrugged. It might only be the weather. An unofficial notice had also gone out, advising merchants to close up their establishments.
"Considerate of them," Demivolt remarked next day as they strolled down Strada Reale. A few shops and cafes had been closed. A quick check revealed that the owners had Mizzist sympathies.
As the day progressed small bands of agitators, most of them with a holiday air (as if rioting were a healthy avocation like handicrafts or outdoor sports), roamed the streets, breaking windows, wrecking furniture, yelling at the merchants still open to close up their shops. But for some reason a spark was missing. Rain swept by in squalls at intervals throughout the day.
"Grasp this moment," Demivolt said, "hold it close, examine it, treasure it. It is one of those rare occasions on which advance intelligence has proved to be correct."
True: no one had been particularly excited. But Stencil wondered about that missing catalyst. Any minor accident: a break in the clouds, a catastrophic shivering at the first tentative blow to a shop window, the topology of an object of destruction (up a hill or down - it makes a difference) - anything might swell a merely mischievous humor to suddenly apocalyptic rage.
But all that came from the meeting was adoption of Mizzi's resolution calling for plete independence from Great Britain. La Voce del Popolo gibbered triumphantly. A new meeting of the Assembly was called for 7 June.
"Three and a half months," Stencil said. "It will be warmer then," Demivolt shrugged. Whereas Mizzi, an Extremist, had been secretary of the February meeting, one Dr. Mifsud, a Moderate, would be secretary next time. The Moderates wanted to sit down and discuss the constitutional question with Hunter-Blair and the Secretary of State for the Colonies, rather than make any total break with England. And the Moderates, e June, would be in the majority.
"It seems rather a good lookout," Demivolt protested. "If anything was going to happen, it would have happened while Mizzi was ascendant."
"It rained," said Stencil. "It was cold."
La Voce del Popolo and the Maltese-language papers continued their attacks on the government. Maijstral reported twice a week, giving a general picture of deepening discontent among the yardbirds, but they were afflicted by a soggy lethargy which must wait for the heat of summer to dry it, the spark of a leader, a Mizzi or equivalent, to touch it into anything more explosive. As the weeks passed Stencil came to know more about his double agent. It came out that Maijstral lived near the Dockyard with his young wife Carla. Carla was pregnant, the child was due in June.
"How does she feel," Stencil asked once with unaccustomed indiscretion, "about your being in this occupation."
"She will be a mother soon," Maijstral answered, gloomy. "That's all she thinks about or feels. You know what it is to be a mother on this island."
Stencil's boy-romanticism seized on this: perhaps there was more than a professional element to the nighttime meetings out at the Sammut villa. He was almost tempted to ask Maijstral to spy on Veronica Manganese; but Demivolt, the voice of reason, was reluctant.
"Tip our hand that way. We have an ear already in the villa. Dupiro, the ragman, who is quite genuinely in love with a kitchen maid there."
If the Dockyard were the only trouble spot to watch Stencil might have fallen into the same torpor that afflicted the yardbirds. But his other contact - Father Linus Fairing, S.J., the voice whose call for help had been heard among the mass mirth of November and set a-clattering the emotional and intuitive levers, pawls or ratchets to propel Stencil across a continent and sea for solid reasons as yet unclear to him - this Jesuit saw and heard (possibly did) enough to keep Stencil moderately hagridden.
"Being a Jesuit," said the priest, "of course there are certain attitudes . . . we do not control the world in secret, Stencil. We have no spy net, no political nerve-center at the Vatican." Oh, Stencil was unbiased enough. Though with his upbringing he could hardly have sidestepped exposure to a certain C. of E. leeriness toward the Society of Jesus. But he objected to Fairing's digressions; the fog of political opinion that crept in to warp what should have been cleareyed reporting. At their initial meeting - shortly after the first trip out to Veronica Manganese's villa - Fairing had made a poor first impression. He'd tried to be chummy, even - good God - to talk shop. Stencil was reminded of certain otherwise petent Anglo-Indians in the civil service. "We are discriminated against," seemed to be the plaint: "we are despised by white and Asian alike. Very well, we shall play to the hilt this false role popular prejudice believes us to play." How many deliberate heightenings of dialect, breaches of conversational taste, gaucheries at table had Stencil seen dedicated to that intention?
So with Fairing. "We are all spies in this together," that was the tack he took. Stencil had been interested only in information. He wasn't about to let personality enter the Situation; this would be courting chaos. Fairing realizing soon enough that Stencil was not, after all, a No Popery man, did give up this arrogant form of honesty far more exasperating behavior. Here, seemed to be his assumption, here is a spy who has risen above the political turmoil of his time. Here is Machiavelli on the rack, less concerned with immediacy than idea. Accordingly the subjective fog crept in to obscure his weekly reports.
"Any tug in the direction of anarchy is anti-Christian," he protested once, having sucked Stencil into confessing his theory of Paracletian politics. "The Church has matured, after all. Like a young person she has passed from promiscuity to authority. You are nearly two millennia out-of-date."
An old dame trying to cover up a flaming youth? Ha!
Actually Fairing, as a source, was ideal. Malta being, after all, a Roman Catholic island, the Father was in a position to e by enough information outside the confessional to clarify (at least) their picture of every disaffected group on the island. Though Stencil was less than happy over the quality of these reports, quantity was no problem. But what had provoked his plaint to Mungo Sheaves in the first place? What was the man afraid of?
For it was not mere love of politicking and intrigue. If he did believe in the authority of the Church, of institutions, then perhaps four years of sitting sequestered, outside the suspension of peace, which had lately convulsed the rest of the Old World, this quarantine might have brought him to some belief in Malta as a charmed circle, some stable domain of peace.
And then with Armistice to be exposed abruptly at every level to a daftness for overthrow among his parishioners . . . of course.
It was the Paraclete he feared. He was quite content with a Son grown to manhood.
Fairing, Maijstral, puzzlement over the identity of the hideous face above the lantern; these occupied Stencil well into March. Until one afternoon, arriving at the church early for a meeting, he saw Veronica Manganese emerge from the confessional, head bowed, face shadowed as he had seen her in Strada Stretta. She knelt at the altar rail and began to pray penance. Stencil half-knelt in the rear of the church, elbows hung over the back of the pew in front of him. Appearing to be a good Catholic, appearing to be carrying on an affair with Maijstral; nothing suspicious in either. But both at once and with (he imagined) scores of father-confessors in Valletta alone for her to choose from; it was as close to superstition as Stencil ever got. Now and again events would fall into ominous patterns.
Was Fairing too a double agent? If so then it was actually the woman who'd brought F.O. into this. What twisted Italian casuistry advised revealing any plot-in-mounting to one's enemies?
She arose and left the church, passing Stencil on route. Their eyes met. Demivolt's remark came back to him: "A tremendous nostalgia about this show."
Nostalgia and melancholy . . . Hadn't he bridged two worlds? The changes couldn't have been all in him. It must be an alien passion in Malta where all history seemed simultaneously present, where all streets were strait with ghosts, where in a sea whose uneasy floor made and unmade islands every year this stone fish and Ghaudex and the rocks called Cumin-seed and Peppercorn had remained fixed realities since time out of mind. In London were too many distractions. History there was the record of an evolution. One-way and ongoing. Monuments, buildings, plaques were remembrances only; but in Valletta remembrances seemed almost to live.
Stencil, at home everywhere in Europe, had thus e out of his element. Recognizing it was his first step down. A spy has no element to be out of, and not feeling "at home" is a sign of weakness.
F.O. continued to be unmunicative and unhelpful. Stencil raised the question to Demivolt: had they been turned out to pasture here?
"I've been afraid of that. We are old."
"It was different once," Stencil asked, "wasn't it?"
They went out that night and got maudlin-drunk. But nostalgic melancholy is a fine emotion, being blunted on alcohol. Stencil regretted the binge. He remembered rollicking down the hill to Strait Street, well past midnight, singing old vaudeville songs. What was happening?
There came, in time's fullness, One of Those Days. After a spring morning made horrible by another night of heavy drinking Stencil arrived at Fairing's church to learn the priest was being transferred.
"To America. There is nothing I can do." Again the old. fellow-professional smile.
Could Stencil have sneered "God's will"; not likely. His case wasn't yet that far advanced. The Church's will, certainly, and Fairing was the type to bow to Authority. Here was after all another Englishman. So they were, in a sense, brothers in exile.
"Hardly," the priest smiled. "In the matter of Caesar and God, a Jesuit need not be as flexible as you might think. There's no conflict of interests."
"As there is between Caesar and Fairing? Or Caesar and Stencil?"
"Something like that."
"Sahha, then. I suppose your relief . . ."
"Father Avalanche is younger. Don't lead him into bad habits."
Demivolt was out at Hamrun, conferring with agents among the millers. They were frightened. Had Fairing been too frightened to stay? Stencil had supper in his room. He'd drawn no more than a few times on his pipe when there was a timid knock.
"Oh, e. Come."
A girl, obviously pregnant, who stood, only watching him.
"Do you speak English, then."
"I do. I am Carla Maijstral." She remained erect, shoulderblades and buttocks touching the door.
"He will be killed, or hurt," she said. "In wartime a woman must expect to lose her husband. But now there is peace."
She wanted him sacked. Sack him? Why not. Double agents were dangerous. But now, having lost the priest . . . She couldn't know about La Manganese.
"Could you help, signor. Speak to him."
"How did you know? He didn't tell you."
"The workers know there is a spy among them. It has bee a favorite topic among all the wives. Which one of us? Of course, it is one of the bachelors, they say. A man with a wife, with children, could not take the chance." She was dry-eyed, her voice was steady.
"For God's sake," Stencil said irritably, "sit down."
Seated: "A wife knows things, especially one who will be a mother soon." She paused to smile down at her belly, which upset Stencil. Dislike for her grew as the moments passed. "I know only that something is wrong with Maijstral. In England I have heard that ladies are 'confined' months before the child is born. Here a woman works, and goes out in the street, as long as she can move about."
"And you came out looking for me."
"The priest told me."
Fairing. Who was working for whom? Caesar wasn't getting a fair shake. He tried sympathy. "Was it worrying you that much? That you had to bring it all into the confessional?"
"He used to stay home at night. It will be our first child, and a first child is the most important. It is his child, too. But we hardly speak any more. He es in late and I pretend to be asleep."
"But a child also must be fed, sheltered, protected more than a man or woman. And this requires money."
She grew angry. "Maratt the welder has seven children. He earns less than Fausto. None of them has ever gone without food, or clothing, or a home. We do not need your money."
God, she could blow the works. Could he tell her that even if he sacked her husband, there'd still be Veronica Manganese to keep him away nights? Only one answer: talk to the priest. "I promise you," he said, "I will do all I can. But the Situation is more plicated than you may realize."
"My father -" curious he'd not caught that flickering edge of hysteria in her voice till now - "when I was only five also began to stay away from home. I never found out why. But it killed my mother. I will not wait for it to kill me."
Threatening suicide? "Have you talked to your husband at all?"
"It isn't a wife's place."
Smiling: "Only to talk to his employer. Very well, Signora, I shall try. But I can guarantee nothing. My employer is England: the King." Which quieted her.
When she left, he began a bitter dialogue with himself. What had happened to diplomatic initiative? They - whoever "they" were - seemed to be calling the tune.
The Situation is always bigger than you, Sidney. It has like God its own logic and its own justification for being, and the best you can do is cope.
I'm not a marriage counselor, or a priest.
Don't act as if it were a conscious plot against you. Who knows how many thousand accidents - a variation in the weather, the availability of a ship, the failure of a crop - brought all these people, with their separate dreams and worries, here to this island and arranged them into this alignment? Any Situation takes shape from events much lower than the merely human.
Oh, of course: look at Florence. A random pattern of cold-air currents, some shifting of the pack ice, the deaths of a few ponies, these helped produce one Hugh Godolphin, as we saw him. Only by the merest happenstance did he escape the private logic of that ice-world.
The inert universe may have a quality we can call logic. But logic is a human attribute after all; so even at that it's a misnomer. What are real are the cross-purposes. We've dignified them with the words "profession" and "occupation." There is a certain cold fort in remembering that Manganese, Mizzi, Maijstral, Dupiro the ragman, that blasted face who caught us at the villa - also work at cross-purposes.
But what then does one do? Is there a way out?
There is always the way out that Carla Maijstral threatens to take.
His musings were interrupted by Demivolt, who came stumbling in the door. "There's trouble."
"Oh indeed. That's unusual."
"Dupiro the ragman."
Good things e in threes. "How."
"Drowned, in Marsamuscetto. Washed ashore downhill from Manderaggio. He had been mutilated." Stencil thought of the Great Siege and the Turkish atrocities: death's flotilla.
"It must have been I Banditti," Demivolt continued: "a gang of terrorists or professional assassins. They vie with one another in finding new and ingenious ways to murder. Poor Dupiro's genitals were found sewn in his mouth. Silk suturing worthy of a fine surgeon."
Stencil felt ill.
"We think they are connected somehow with the fasci di battimento who've organized last month in Italy, around Milan. The Manganese has been in intermittent contact with their leader Mussolini. "
"The tide could have carried him across."
"They wouldn't want it out to sea, you know. Craftsmanship of that order must have an audience or it's worthless."
What's happened, he asked his other half. The Situation used to be a civilized affair.
No time in Valletta. No history, all history at once . . .
"Sit down, Sidney. Here." A glass of brandy, a few slaps to the face.
"All right, all right. Ease off. It's been the weather." Demivolt waggled his eyebrows and retreated to the dead fireplace. "Now we have lost Fairing, as you know, and we may lose Maijstral." He summarized Carla's visit.
"What I thought. But we've had an ear lopped off out at the villa."
"Short of starting an affair, one of us, with La Manganese, I can't see any way to replace it."
"Perhaps she's not attracted to the mature sort."
"I didn't mean it seriously."
"She did give me a curious look. That day at the church."
"You old dog. You didn't say you'd been slipping out to secret trysts in a church." Attempting the light touch. But failing.
"It has deteriorated to the point where any move on our part would have to be bold."
"Perhaps foolish. But confronting her directly . . . I'm an optimist, as you know."
"I'm a pessimist. It keeps a certain balance. Perhaps I'm only tired. But I do think it is that desperate. Employing I Banditti indicates a larger move - by them - soon."
"Wait, in any event. Till we see what Fairing does."
Spring had descended with its own tongue of flame. Valletta seemed soul-kissed into drowsy plaisance as Stencil mounted the hill southeast of Strada Reale toward Fairing's church. The place was empty and its silence broken only by snores from the confessional. Stencil slipped into the other side on his knees and woke the priest rudely.
"She may violate the secrecy of this little box," Fairing replied, "but I cannot."
"You know what Maijstral is," Stencil said, angry, "and how many Caesars he serves. Can't you calm her? Don't they teach mesmerism at the Jesuit seminary?" He regretted the words immediately.
"Remember I am leaving," coldly: "speak to my successor, Father Avalanche. Perhaps you can teach him to betray God and the Church and this flock. You've failed with me. I must follow my conscience."
"What a damned enigma you are," Stencil burst out. "Your conscience is made of India rubber."
After a pause: "I can, of course, tell her that any drastic step she takes - threatening the welfare of the child, perhaps - is a mortal sin."
Anger had drained away. Remembering his "damned": "Forgive me, Father."
The priest chuckled. "I can't. You're an Anglican."
The woman had approached so quietly that both Stencil and Fairing jumped when she spoke.
"My opposite number."
The voice, the voice - of course he knew it. As the priest - flexible enough to betray no surprise-performed introductions, Stencil watched her face closely, as if waiting for it to reveal itself. But she wore an elaborate hat and veil; and the face was as generalized as that of any graceful woman seen in the street. One arm, sleeveless to the elbow, was gloved and nearly solid with bracelets.
So she had e to them. Stencil had kept his promise to Demivolt - had waited to see what Fairing would do.
"We have met, Signorina Manganese."
"In Florence," came the voice behind the veil. "Do you remember?" turning her head. In the hair visible below the hat was a carved ivory b, and five crucified faces, long-suffering beneath their helmets.
"I wore the b today. Knowing you would be here."
Whether or not he must now betray Demivolt, Stencil suspected he'd be little use henceforth in either preventing or manipulating for Whitehall's inscrutable purposes whatever would happen in June. What he had thought was an end had proved to be only a twenty-year stay. No use, he realized, asking if she'd followed him or if some third force had manipulated them toward meeting.
Riding out to the villa in her Benz, he showed none of the usual automobile-anxieties. What use? They'd e in, hadn't they, from their thousand separate streets. To enter, hand in hand, the hothouse of a Florentine spring once again; to be fayed and filleted hermetically into a square (interior? exterior?) where all art objects hover between inertia and waking, all shadows lengthen imperceptibly though night never falls, a total nostalgic hush rests on the heart's landscape. And all faces are blank masks; and spring is any drawn-out sense of exhaustion or a summer which like evening never es.
"We are on the same side, aren't we." She smiled. They'd been sitting idly in one darkened drawing room, watching nothing - night on the sea - from a seaward window. "Our ends are the same: to keep Italy out of Malta. It is a second front, which certain elements in Italy cannot afford to have opened, now."
This woman caused Dupiro the ragman, her servant's love, to be murdered terribly.
I am aware of that.
You are aware of nothing. Poor old man.
"But our means are different."
"Let the patient reach a crisis," she said: "push him through the fever. End the malady as quickly as possible."
A hollow laugh: "One way or another."
"Your way would leave them strength to prolong it. My employers must move in a straight line. No sidetrackings. Annexationists are a minority in Italy, but bothersome."
"Absolute upheaval," a nostalgic smile: "that is your way, Victoria, of course." For in Florence, during the bloody demonstration before the Venezuelan Consulate, he had dragged her away from an unarmed policeman, whose face she was flaying with pointed fingernails. Hysterical girl, tattered velvet. Riot was her element, as surely as this dark room, almost creeping with amassed objects. The street and the hothouse; in V. were resolved, by some magic, the two extremes. She frightened him.
"Shall I tell you where I have been since our last closed room?"
"No. What need to tell me? No doubt I have passed and repassed you, or your work, in every city Whitehall has called me to." He chuckled fondly.
"How pleasant to watch Nothing." Her face (so rarely had he seen it that way!) was at peace, the live eye dead as the other, with the clock-iris. He'd not been surprised at the eye; no more than at the star sapphire sewn into her navel. There is surgery; and surgery. Even in Florence - the b, which she would never let him touch or remove - he had noted an obsession with bodily incorporating little bits of inert matter.
"See my lovely shoes," as half an hour before he'd knelt to remove them. "I would so like to have an entire foot that way, a foot of amber and gold, with the veins, perhaps, in intaglio instead of bas-relief. How tiresome to have the same feet: one can only change one's shoes. But if a girl could have, oh, a lovely rainbow or wardrobe of different-hued, different-sized and -shaped feet . . ."
Girl? She was nearly forty. But then - aside from a body less alive, how much in fact had she changed? Wasn't she the same balloon-girl who'd seduced him on a leather couch in the Florence consulate twenty years ago?
"I must go," he told her.
"My caretaker will drive you back." As if conjured, the mutilated face appeared at the door. Whatever it felt at seeing them together didn't show in any change of expression. Perhaps it was too painful to change expression. The lantern that night had given an illusion of change: but Stencil saw now the face was fixed as any death-mask.
In the automobile, racketing back toward Valletta, neither spoke till they'd reached the city's verge.
"You must not hurt her, you know."
Stencil turned, struck by a thought. "You are young Gadrulfi - Godolphin - aren't you?"
"We both have an interest in her," Godolphin said. "I am her servant."
"I too, in a way. She will not be hurt. She cannot be."
Events began to shape themselves for June and the ing Assembly. If Demivolt detected any change in Stencil he gave no sign. Maijstral continued to report, and his wife kept silent; the child presumably growing inside her, also shaping itself for June.
Stencil and Veronica Manganese met often. It was hardly a matter of any mysterious "control"; she held no unspeakable secrets over his balding head, nor did she exert any particular sexual fascination. It could only be age's worst side-effect: nostalgia. A tilt toward the past so violent he found it increasingly more difficult to live in the real present he believed to be so politically crucial. The villa in Sliema became more and more a retreat into late-afternoon melancholy. His yarning with Mehemet, his sentimental drunks with Demivolt; these plus Fairing's protean finaglings and Carla Maijstral's inference to a humanitarian instinct he'd abandoned before entering the service, bined to undermine what virtu he'd brought through sixty years on the go, making him really no further use in Malta. Treacherous pasture, this island.
Veronica was kind. Her time with Stencil was entirely for him. No appointments, whispered conferences, hurried paper work: only resumption of their hothouse-time - as if it were marked by any old and overprecious clock which could be wound and set at will. For it came to that, finally: an alienation from time, much as Malta itself was alienated from any history in which cause precedes effect.
Carla did e to him again with unfaked tears this time; and pleading, not defiant.
"The priest is gone," she wept. "Whom else do I have? My husband and I are strangers. Is it another woman?"
He was tempted to tell her. But was restrained by the fine irony. He found himself hoping that there was indeed adultery between his old "love" and the shipfitter; if only to plete a circle begun in England eighteen years ago, a beginning kept forcibly from his thoughts for the same period of time.
Herbert would be eighteen. And probably helling it all about the dear old isles. What would he think of his father . . .
His father, ha.
"Signora," hastily, "I have been selfish. Everything I can do. My promise."
"We - my child and I: why should we continue to live?"
Why should any of us. He would send her husband back. With or without him the June Assembly would bee what it would: blood bath or calm negotiation, who could tell or shape events that closely? There were no more princes. Henceforth politics would bee progressively more democratized, more thrown into the hands of amateurs. The disease would progress. Stencil was nearly past caring.
Demivolt and he had it out the next evening.
"You're not helping, you know. I can't keep this thing, off by myself."
"We've lost our contacts. We've lost more than that . . ."
"What the hell is wrong, Sidney."
"Health, I suppose," Stencil lied.
"The students are upset, I've heard. Rumor that the University will be abolished. Conferment of Degrees law, 1915 - so that the graduating class this year is first to be affected."
Demivolt took it as Stencil had hoped: a sick man's attempt to be helpful. "Have a look into that," he muttered. They'd both known of the University unrest.
On 4 June the acting Police Commissioner requested a 25-man detachment from the Malta Composite Battalion to be quartered in the city. University students went on strike the same day, parading Strada Reale, throwing eggs at anti-Mizzists, breaking furniture, turning the street festive with a progress of decorated automobiles.
"We are for it," Demivolt announced that evening. "I'm off for the Palace." Soon after Godolphin called for Stencil in the Benz.
Out at the villa, the drawing room was lit with an unaccustomed brilliance, though occupied only by two people. Her panion was Maijstral. Others had obviously been there: cigarette stubs and teacups were scattered among the statues and old furniture.
Stencil smiled at Maijstral's confusion. "We are old friends," he said gently. From somewhere - bottom of the tank - came a last burst of duplicity and virtu. He forced himself into the real present, perhaps aware it would be his last time there. Placing a hand on the yardbird's shoulder: "Come. I have private instructions." He winked at the woman. "We're still nominally opponents, you see. There are the Rules."
Outside his smile faded. "Now quickly, Maijstral, don't interrupt. You are released. We have no further use for you. Your wife's time is close: go back to her."
"The signora -" jerking his head back toward the foyer - "still needs me. My wife has her child."
"It is an order: from both of us. I can add this: if you do not return to your wife she will destroy herself and the child."
"It is a sin."
"Which she will risk." But Maijstral still shuffled.
"Very well: if I see you again, here or in my woman's pany -" that had hit: a sly smile touched Maijstral's lips - "I turn your name over to your fellow workers. Do you know what they'll do to you, Maijstral? Of course you do. I can even call in the Banditti, if you prefer to die more picturesquely . . ." Maijstral stood for a moment, eyes going numb. Stencil let the magic spell "Banditti" work for an instant more, then flashed his best - and last - diplomatic smile: "Go. You and your woman and the young Maijstral. Stay out of the blood bath. Stay inside." Maijstral shrugged, turned and left. He did not look back; his trundling step was less sure.
Stencil made a short prayer: let him be less and less sure as he gathers years . . .
She smiled as he returned to the drawing room. "All done?"
He collapsed into a Louis Quinze chair whose two seraphim keened above a dark lawn of green velvet. "All done."
Tension grew through 6 June. Units of the civil police and military were alerted. Another unofficial notice went out, advising merchants to close up their shops.
At 3:30 P.M. on 7 June mobs began to collect in Strada Reale. For the next day and a half they owned Valletta's exterior spaces. They attacked not only the Chronicle (as promised) but also the Union Club, the Lyceum, the Palace, the houses of anti-Mizzist Members, the cafes and shops which had stayed open. Landing parties from H.M.S. Egmont, and detachments of Army and police joined the effort to keep order. Several times they formed ranks; once or twice they fired. Three civilians were killed by gunfire; seven wounded. Scores more were injured in the general rioting. Several buildings were set on fire. Two RAF lorries with machine guns dispersed an attack on the millers at Hamrun.
A minor eddy in the peaceful course of Maltese government, preserved today only in one Board of Inquiry report. Suddenly as they had begun, the June Disturbances (as they came to be called) ended. Nothing was settled. The primary question, that of self-rule, was as of 1956 still unresolved. Malta by then had only advanced as far as dyarchy, and if anything moved even closer to England in February, when the electorate voted three to one to put Maltese members in the British House of Commons.
Early on the morning of 10 June 1919, Mehemet's xebec set sail from Lascaris Wharf. Seated on its counter, like some obsolete nautical fixture, was Sidney Stencil. No one had e to see him off. Veronica Manganese had kept him only as long as she had to. His eyes kept dead astern.
But as the xebec was passing Fort St. Elmo or thereabouts, a shining Benz was observed to pull, up near the wharf and a black-liveried driver with a mutilated face to e to the harbor's edge and gaze out at the ship. After a moment he raised his hand; waved with a curiously sentimental, feminine motion of the wrist. He called something in English, which none of the observers understood. He was crying.
Draw a line from Malta to Lampedusa. Call it a radius. Somewhere in that circle, on the evening of the tenth, a waterspout appeared and lasted for fifteen minutes. Long enough to lift the xebec fifty feet, whirling, and creaking, Astarte's throat naked to the cloudless weather, and slam it down again into a piece of the Mediterranean whose subsequent surface phenomena - whitecaps, kelp islands, any of a million flatnesses which should catch thereafter part of the brute sun's spectrum-showed nothing at all of what came to lie beneath, that quiet June day.