An April night, soft and delicious. The air was heavy with perfume from the pink and white chestnut blossoms. The roof dripped with moisture. Far down in the dark court the gas-jets flickered and flared.
The air was brisk; he buttoned his coat about him. Here and there a moonbeam touched the lapping edge of the water, or flashed out in the open stretch beyond the point of pines. High over the pines hung a cliff, blackening the water all around with fathomless shadow.
Paris lay sparkling under a cold, clear sky. The brilliant streets lay coiled along the Seine and stretched glittering from bank to bank, from boulevard to boulevard; cafés, brasseries, concert halls and theaters in the yellow blaze of gas and the white and violet of electricity.
Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink behind the lake,
The shadows lengthen
Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies,
But stranger still is
Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Song of my soul, my voice is dead,
Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
This is the thing that troubles me, for I cannot forget Carcosa where black stars hang in the heavens; where the shadows of men’s thoughts lengthen in the afternoon, when the twin suns sink into the lake of Hali; and my mind will bear for ever the memory of the Pallid Mask.
It is well known how the book spread like an infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred out here, confiscated there, denounced by Press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced of literary anarchists. No definite principles had been violated in those wicked pages, no doctrine promulgated, no convictions outraged. It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in The King in Yellow, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain, nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked. The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterward with more awful effect.
Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.
Cassilda: Indeed it’s time. We have all laid aside disguise but you.
Stranger: I wear no mask.
Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!
Feverishly I struggled to put it from me, but I saw the lake of Hali, thin and blank, without a ripple or wind to stir it, and I saw the towers of Carcosa behind the moon. Aldebaran, the Hyades, Alar, Hastur, glided through the cloud-rifts which fluttered and flapped as they passed like the scolloped tatters of the King in Yellow.
There are so many things which are impossible to explain! Why should certain chords in music make me think of the brown and golden tints of autumn foliage? Why should the Mass of Sainte Cécile bend my thoughts wandering among caverns whose walls blaze with ragged masses of virgin silver?
“Shall I tell you all about her, cat? She is very beautiful—your mistress,” he murmured drowsily, “and her hair is heavy as burnished gold. I could paint her,—not on canvas—for I should need shades and tones and hues and dyes more splendid than the iris of a splendid rainbow. I could only paint her with closed eyes, for in dreams alone can such colours as I need be found. For her eyes, I must have azure from skies untroubled by a cloud—the skies of dreamland. For her lips, roses from the palaces of slumberland, and for her brow, snow-drifts from mountains which tower in fantastic pinnacles to the moons;—oh, much higher than our moon here,—the crystal moons of dreamland. She is—very—beautiful, your mistress.”
That blue radiance which a starless sky sheds lighted her white shoulders; transparent shadow veiled the contour of neck and cheeks.
“But we are already there,” I stammered, turning my eyes fearfully; for the tall pines dwindled and clustered and rose again cool and gray in the morning air, all turned to stone, fretted and carved like lacework; and where the pines had faded, the twin towers of a cathedral loomed; and where the hills swept across the horizon, the roofs of a white city glimmered in the morning sun. Bridges and quays and streets and domes and the hum of traffic and rattle of arms; and over all, the veil of haze and the twin gray towers of Notre Dame!
“We ought to be so happy that I am beautiful!” she would say to me. “Just think, supposing I were not!”
We tried to smile, but our hearts were like lead.
Now the days began to run more swiftly than the tide along the tawny beach; and the nights, star-dusted and blue, came and vanished and returned, only to exhale at dawn like perfume from a violet.
The sea was a sheet of silver, tinged with pink. The tremendous arch of the sky was all shimmering and glimmering with the promise of the sun. Already the mist above, flecked with clustered clouds, flushed with rose colour and dull gold. I heard the low splash of the waves breaking and curling across the beach. A wandering breeze, fresh and fragrant, blew the curtains of my window. There was the scent of sweet bay in the room, and everywhere the subtile, nameless perfume of the sea.
Breezes blowing from beds of iris quickened her breath with their perfume; she saw the tufted lilacs sway in the wind, and the streamers of mauve-tinted wistaria swinging, all a-glisten with golden bees; she saw a crimson cardinal winging through the foliage, and amorous tanagers flashing like scarlet flames athwart the pines.
Toward dawn a fever of unrest drove her from her hot, crushed pillows to the cool of the open casements. The morning was dark and very still; no breeze stirred; a few big, widely scattered stars watched her. For a long while she stood there trying to quiet the rapid pulse and fast breathing; and at length, with an excited little laugh, she sank down among the cushions on the window-seat and lay back very still, her head, with its glossy, disordered hair, cradled in her arms.
It was almost mid-April; and still the silvery-green tassels on the wistaria showed no hint of the blue petals folded within; but the maples’ leafless symmetry was already veined with fire. Faint perfume from Long Island woodlands, wandering puffs of wind from salt meadows freshened the city streets; St. Felix Street boasted a lilac bush in leaf; Oxford Street was gay with hyacinths and a winter-battered butterfly; and in Fort Greene Place the grassy door-yards were exquisite with crocus bloom. Peace, good-will, and spring on earth; but in men’s souls a silence as of winter.
To Northland folk the unclosing buds of April brought no awakening; lethargy fettered all, arresting vigour, sapping desire. An immense inertia chained progress in its tracks, while overhead the gray storm-wrack fled away,—misty, monstrous, gale-driven before the coming hurricane.
[…] nor did they comprehend the ceaseless tremors of a land slowly crumbling under the subtle pressure—nor that at last the vast disintegration of the matrix would disclose the forming crystal of another nation cradled there, glittering, naming under the splendour of the Southern skies.
There was no hope for him. To let himself drift; to evoke in her, sometimes by hazard, at times with intent, the delicate response—faint echo—pale shadow of the virile emotions she evoked in him, that, too, was useless. He knew it, yet curious to try, intent on developing communication through those exquisite and impalpable lines that threaded the mystery from him to her—from her to him.
She drew a deep, sweet breath as she entered the leafy shade and looked up into the bluest of cloudless skies. Odors of syringa and lilac freshened her, cleansing her of the last lingering taint of joss-sticks. The cardinal birds were very busy in the scarlet masses of Japanese quince; orioles fluttered among golden Forsythia; here and there an exotic starling preened and peered at the burnished purple grackle, stalking solemnly through the tender grass.
For an hour she walked vigorously, enchanted with the sun and sky and living green, through arbors heavy with wistaria, iris hued and scented, through rambles under tall elms tufted with new leaves, past fountains splashing over, past lakes where water-fowl floated or stretched brilliant wings in the late afternoon sunlight.
For ten minutes, holding her by the arm, he pushed forward up the wooded slope. Then, when it was safe to do so, he halted, jerked her around to face him, and flashed his pocket torch. And he saw a handsome, perspiring, sullen girl, staring at him out of dark eyes dilated by terror or by fury—he was not quite sure which.
She wore the costume of a peasant of the canton bordering the wire; and she looked like that type of German-Swiss—handsome, sensual, bad-tempered, but not stupid.
When the news of a Hun atrocity committed on Swiss territory was flashed to Berne, the Federal Assembly instantly suppressed it and went into secret session. Followed another session, in camera, of the Federal Council, whose seven members sat all night long envisaging war with haggard faces. And something worse than war when they remembered the Forbidden Forest and the phantom Canton of Les Errues.
His cats had come out into the garden for “the cats’ hour”—that mysterious compromise between day and evening when all things feline awake and stretch and wander or sit motionless, alert, listening to occult things.