V, p.24

V., page 24

 

V.
 



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Evan released Victoria, moved to Godolphin. “Father,” he said, “Father, it’s our way only. It’s my fault, the joke. A trivial oaf’s joke. You know I’ll come with you.”

  “My fault,” the father said. “My oversight, I dare say, for not keeping up with the younger people. Imagine, something so simple as a way of speaking . . .”

  Evan let his hand rest splayed on Godolphin’s back. Neither moved for a moment. “On the barge,” Evan said, “there we’ll be able to talk.”

  The old man turned at last. “Time we got round to it.”

  “We will,” Evan said, trying to smile. “After all, here we’ve been, so many years, biffing about at opposite ends of the world.”

  The old man did not answer, but burrowed his face against Evan’s shoulder. Both felt slightly embarrassed. Victoria watched them for a moment, then turned away to gaze, placid, at the rioting. Shots began to ring out. Blood began to stain the pavements, screams to punctuate the singing of the Figli di Machiavelli. She saw a rioter in a shirt of motley, sprawled over the limb of a tree, being bayoneted again and again by two soldiers. She stood as still as she had at the crossroads waiting for Evan; her face betrayed no emotion. It was as if she saw herself embodying a feminine principle, acting as complement to all this bursting, explosive male energy. Inviolate and calm, she watched the spasms of wounded bodies, the fair of violent death, framed and staged, it seemed, for her alone in that tiny square. From her hair the heads of five crucified also looked on, no more expressive than she.

  Lugging the tree, Signor Mantissa and Cesare staggered through the “Ritratti diversi,” while the Gaucho guarded their rear. He’d already had to fire at two guards. “Hurry,” he said. “We must be out of here soon. They won’t be diverted for long.”

  Inside the Sala di Lorenzo Monaco Cesare unsheathed a razor-edged dagger and prepared to slice the Botticelli from its frame. Signor Mantissa gazed at her, at the asymmetric eyes, tilt of the frail head, streaming gold hair. He could not move; as if he were any gentle libertine before a lady he had writhed for years to possess, and now that the dream was about to be consummated he had been struck suddenly impotent. Cesare dug the knife into the canvas, began to saw downward. Light, shining in from the street, reflected from the blade, flickering from the lantern they had brought, danced over the painting’s gorgeous surface. Signor Mantissa watched its movement, a slow horror growing in him. In that instant he was reminded of Hugh Godolphin’s spider-monkey, still shimmering through crystal ice at the bottom of the world. The whole surface of the painting now seemed to move, to be flooded with color and motion. He thought, for the first time in years, of the blond seamstress in Lyons. She would drink absinthe at night and torture herself for it in the afternoon. God hated her, she said. At the same time she was finding it more difficult to believe in him. She wanted to go to Paris, she had a pleasant voice, did she not? She would go on the stage, it had been her dream since girlhood. Countless mornings, in the hours when passion’s inertia of motion had carried them along faster than sleep could overtake them, she had poured out to him schemes, despairs, all tiny, relevant loves.

  What sort of mistress, then, would Venus be? What outlying worlds would he conquer in their headlong, three-in-the-morning excursions away from the cities of sleep? What of her God, her voice, her dreams? She was already a goddess. She had no voice he could ever hear. And she herself (perhaps even her native demesne?) was only . . .

  A gaudy dream, a dream of annihilation. Was that what Godolphin had meant? Yet she was no less Rafael Mantissa’s entire love.

  “Aspetti,” he shouted, leaping forward to grab Cesare’s hand.

  “Sei pazzo?” Cesare snarled.

  “Guards coming this way,” the Gaucho announced from the entrance to the gallery. “An army of them. For God’s sake, hurry.”

  “You have come all this way,” Cesare protested, “and now you will leave her?”

  “Yes.”

  The Gaucho raised his head, suddenly alert. The rattle of gunfire came to him, faintly. With an angry motion he flung the grenade down the corridor; the approaching guards scattered and it went off with a roar in the “Ritratti diversi.” Signor Mantissa and Cesare, empty-handed, were at his back. “We must run for our lives,” the Gaucho said. “Have you got your lady with you?”

  “No,” Cesare said, disgusted. “Not even the damned tree.”

  They dashed down a corridor smelling of burnt cordite. Signor Mantissa noticed that paintings in the “Ritratti diversi” had all been taken down for the redecorating. The grenade had harmed nothing except the walls and a few guards. It was a mad, all-out sprint, with the Gaucho taking pot-shots at guards, Cesare waving his knife, Signor Mantissa flapping his arms wildly. Miraculously they reached the entrance and half-ran, half-tumbled down 126 steps to the Piazza della Signoria. Evan and Godolphin joined them.

  “I must return to the battle,” the Gaucho said, breathless. He stood for a moment watching the carnage. “But don’t they look like apes, now, fighting over a female? Even if the female is named Liberty.” He drew a long pistol, checked the action. “There are nights,” he mused, “nights, alone, when I think we are apes in a circus, mocking the ways of men. Perhaps it is all a mockery, and the only condition we can ever bring to men a mockery of liberty, of dignity. But that cannot be. Or else I have lived . . .”

  Signor Mantissa grasped his hand. “Thank you,” he said.

  The Gaucho shook his head. “Per niente,” he muttered, then abruptly turned and made his way toward the riot in the square. Signor Mantissa watched him briefly. “Come,” he said at last.

  Evan looked over to where Victoria was standing enchanted. He seemed about to move, or call to her. Then he shrugged and turned away to follow the others. Perhaps he didn’t want to disturb her.

  Moffit, knocked sprawling by a not-so-rotten turnip, saw them. “They’re getting away,” he said. He got to his feet and began clawing his way through the rioters, expecting to be shot at any minute. “In the name of the Queen,” he cried. “Halt.” Someone careened into him.

  “I say,” said Moffit, “it’s Sidney.”

  “I’ve been looking all over for you,” Stencil said.

  “Not a mo too soon. They’re getting away.”

  “Forget it.”

  “Down that alley. Hurry.” He tugged at Stencil’s sleeve.

  “Forget it, Moffit. It’s off. The whole show.”

  “Why?”

  “Don’t ask why. It’s over.”

  “But.”

  “There was just a communiqué from London. From the Chief. He knows more than I do. He called it off. How should I know? No one ever tells me anything.”

  “Oh, my God.”

  They edged into a doorway. Stencil pulled out his pipe and lit it. The sounds of firing rose in a crescendo which it seemed would never stop. “Moffit,” Stencil said after a while, puffing meditatively, “if there is ever a plot to assassinate the Foreign Minister, I pray I never get assigned to the job of preventing it. Conflict of interest, you know.”

  They scurried down a narrow street to the Lungarno. There, after Cesare had removed two middle-aged ladies and a cab driver, they took possession of a fiacre and clattered off pell-mell for the Ponte San Trinità. The barge was waiting for them, dim amid the river’s shadows. The captain jumped to the quay. “Three of you,” he bellowed. “Our bargain included only one.” Signor Mantissa flew into a rage, leaped from the carriage, picked up the captain bodily and before anyone had time to register amazement, flung him into the Arno. “On board!” he cried. Evan and Godolphin jumped onto a cargo of crated Chianti flasks. Cesare moaned, thinking of how that trip would be.

  “Can anyone pilot a barge,” Signor Mantissa wondered.

  “It is like a man-o’-war,” Godolphin smiled, “only smaller and no sails. Son, would you cast off.”
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  “Aye, aye, sir.” In a moment they were free of the quay. Soon the barge was drifting off into the current which flows strong and steady toward Pisa and the sea. “Cesare,” they called, in what were already ghosts’ voices, “addio. A rivederla.”

  Cesare waved. “A rivederci.” Soon they had disappeared, dissolved in the darkness. Cesare put his hands in his pockets and started to stroll. He found a stone in the street and began to kick it aimlessly along the Lungarno. Soon, he thought, I will go and buy a liter fiasco of Chianti. As he passed the Palazzo Corsini, towering nebulous and fair above him, he thought: what an amusing world it still is, where things and people can be found in places where they do not belong. For example, out there on the river now with a thousand liters of wine are a man in love with Venus, and a sea captain, and his fat son. And back in the Uffizi . . . He roared aloud. In the room of Lorenzo Monaco, he remembered amazed, before Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, still blooming purple and gay, there is a hollow Judas tree.

  chapter eight

  In which Rachel gets her yo-yo

  back, Roony sings a song,

  and Stencil calls

  on Bloody

  Chiclitz

  V

  I

  Profane, sweating in April’s heat, sat on a bench in the little park behind the Public Library, swatting at flies with rolled-up pages of the Times classified. From mental cross-plotting he’d decided where he sat now was the geographical center of the midtown employment agency belt.

  A weird area it was. For a week now he’d sat patient in a dozen offices, filling out forms, having interviews and watching other people, especially girls. He had an interesting daydream all built up, which went: You’re jobless, I’m jobless, here we both are out of work, let’s screw. He was horny. What little money he’d saved from the sewer job had almost run out and here he was considering seduction. It kept the time moving right along.

  So far no agency he’d been to had sent him anywhere for a job interview. He had to agree with them. To amuse himself he’d looked in Help Wanted under S. Nobody wanted a schlemihl. Laborers were for out of the city: Profane wanted to stay in Manhattan, he’d had enough of wandering out in the suburbs. He wanted a single point, a base of operations, someplace to screw in private. It was difficult when you brought a girl to a flophouse. A young kid with a beard and old dungarees had tried that a few nights ago down where Profane was staying. The audience, winos and bums, had decided to serenade them after a few minutes of just watching. “Let me call you sweetheart,” they sang, all somehow on key. A few had fine voices, some sang harmony. It may have been like the bartender on upper Broadway who was nice to the girls and their customers. There is a way we behave around young people excited with each other, even if we haven’t been getting any for a while and aren’t likely to very soon. It is a little cynical, a little self-pitying, a little withdrawn; but at the same time a genuine desire to see young people get together. Though it springs from a self-centered concern, it is often as much as a young man like Profane ever does go out of himself and take an interest in human strangers. Which is better, one would suppose, than nothing at all.

  Profane sighed. The eyes of New York women do not see the wandering bums or the boys with no place to go. Material wealth and getting laid strolled arm-in-arm the midway of Profane’s mind. If he’d been the type who evolves theories of history for his own amusement, he might have said all political events: wars, governments and uprisings, have the desire to get laid as their roots; because history unfolds according to economic forces and the only reason anybody wants to get rich is so he can get laid steadily, with whomever he chooses. All he believed at this point, on the bench behind the Library, was that anybody who worked for inanimate money so he could buy more inanimate objects was out of his head. Inanimate money was to get animate warmth, dead fingernails in the living shoulderblades, quick cries against the pillow, tangled hair, lidded eyes, twisting loins. . . .

  He’d thought himself into an erection. He covered it with the Times classified and waited for it to subside. A few pigeons watched him, curious. It was shortly after noon and the sun was hot. I ought to keep looking, he thought, the day isn’t over. What was he going to do? He was, they told him, unspecialized. Everybody else was at peace with some machine or other. Not even a pick and shovel had been safe for Profane.

  He happened to look down. His erection had produced in the newspaper a crosswise fold, which moved line by line down the page as the swelling gradually diminished. It was a list of employment agencies. Okay, thought Profane, just for the heck of it I will close my eyes, count three and open them and whatever agency listing that fold is on I will go to them. It will be like flipping a coin: inanimate schmuck, inanimate paper, pure chance.

  He opened his eyes on Space/Time Employment Agency, down on lower Broadway, near Fulton Street. Bad choice, he thought. It meant 15 cents for the subway. But a deal was a deal. On the Lexington Avenue downtown he saw a bum lying across the aisle, diagonal on the seat. Nobody would sit near him. He was king of the subway. He must have been there all night, yo-yoing out to Brooklyn and back, tons of water swirling over his head and he perhaps dreaming his own submarine country, peopled by mermaids and deep-sea creatures all at peace among the rocks and sunken galleons; must have slept through rush hour, with all sorts of suit-wearers and high-heel dolls glaring at him because he was taking up three sitting spaces but none of them daring to wake him. If under the street and under the sea are the same then he was king of both. Profane remembered himself on the shuttle back in February, wondered how he’d looked to Kook, to Fina. Not like a king, he figured: more like a schlemihl, a follower.

  Having sunk into self-pity he nearly missed the Fulton Street stop. Got the bottom edge of his suede jacket caught in the doors when they closed; was nearly carried that way out to Brooklyn. He found Space/Time Employment down the street and ten floors up. The waiting area was crowded when he got there. A quick check revealed no girls worth looking at, nobody in fact but a family who might have stepped through time’s hanging arras directly out of the Great Depression; journeyed to this city in an old Plymouth pickup from their land of dust: husband, wife and one mother-in-law, all yelling at each other, none but the old lady really caring about a job, so that she stood, legs braced, in the middle of the waiting area, telling them both how to make out their applications, a cigarette dangling from and about to burn her lipstick.

  Profane made out his application, dropped it on the receptionist’s desk and sat down to wait. Soon there came the hurried and sexy tap of high heels in the corridor outside. As if magnetized his head swiveled around and he saw coming in the door a tiny girl, lifted up to all of five foot one by her heels. Oboy, oboy, he thought: good stuff. She was not, however, an applicant: she belonged on the other side of the rail. Smiling and waving hello to everyone in her country, she clickety-clacked gracefully over to her desk. He could hear the quiet brush of her thighs, kissing each other in their nylon. Oh, oh, he thought, look at what I seem to be getting again. Go down, you bastard.

  Obstinate, it would not. The back of his neck began to grow heated and rosy. The receptionist, a slim girl who seemed to be all tight—tight underwear, stockings, ligaments, tendons, mouth, a true windup woman—moved precisely among the desks, depositing applications like an automatic card-dealing machine. Six interviewers, he counted. Six to one odds she drew me. Like Russian roulette. Why like that? Would she destroy him, she so frail-looking, such gentle, well-bred legs? She had her head down, studying the application in her hand. She looked up, he saw the eyes, both slanted the same way.

  “Profane,” she called. Looking at him with a little frown.

  Oh God, he thought, the loaded chamber. The luck of a schlemihl, who by common sense should lose at the game. Russian roulette is only one of its names, he groaned inside, and look: me with this hard-on. She called his name again. He stumbled up fro
m the chair, and proceeded with the Times over his groin and he bent at a 120 degree angle behind the rail and in to her own desk. The sign said: RACHEL OWLGLASS.

  He sat down quickly. She lit a cigarette and cased the upper half of his body. “It’s about time,” she said.

  He fumbled for a cigarette, nervous. She flicked over a pack of matches with a fingernail he could feel already gliding across his back, poised to dig in frenzied when she should come.

  And would she ever. Already they were in bed; he could see nothing but a new extemporized daydream in which no other face but this sad one with its brimming slash-slash of eyes tightened slowly in his own shadow, pale under him. God, she had him.

  Strangely then the tumescence began to subside, the flesh at his neck to pale. Any sovereign or broken yo-yo must feel like this after a short time of lying inert, rolling, falling: suddenly to have its own umbilical string reconnected, and know the other end is in hands it cannot escape. Hands it doesn’t want to escape. Know that the simple clockwork of itself has no more need for symptoms of inutility, lonesomeness, directionlessness, because now it has a path marked out for it over which it has no control. That’s what the feeling would be, if there were such things as animate yo-yos. Pending any such warp in the world Profane felt like the closest thing to one and above her eyes began to doubt his own animateness.

  “How about a night watchman,” she said at last. Over you? he wondered.

  “Where,” he said. She mentioned an address nearby in Maiden Lane. “Anthroresearch Associates.” He knew he couldn’t say it as fast. On the back of a card she scribbled the address and a name—Oley Bergomask. “He hires.” Handed it to him, a quick touch of fingernails. “Come back as soon as you find out. Bergomask will tell you right away; he doesn’t waste time. If it doesn’t work out we’ll see what else we have.”

  At the door he looked back. Was she blowing a kiss or yawning?

  II

  Winsome had left work early. When he got back to the apartment he found his wife, Mafia, sitting on the floor with Pig Bodine. They were drinking beer and discussing her Theory. Mafia was sitting crosslegged and wearing very tight Bermuda shorts. Pig stared captivated at her crotch. That fella irritates me, Winsome thought. He got beer and sat down next to them. He wondered idly if Pig were getting any off of his wife. But it was hard to say who was getting what off Mafia.

 

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