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It was midday. Voldyrev, a tall, thick-set country gentleman with a cropped head and prominent eyes, took off his overcoat, mopped his brow with his silk handkerchief, and somewhat diffidently went into the government office. There they were scratching away. . . .
"Where can I make an inquiry here?" he said, addressing a porter who was bringing a trayful of glasses from the furthest recesses of the office. "I have to make an inquiry here and to take a copy of a resolution of the Council."
"That way please! To that one sitting near the window!" said the porter, indicating with the tray the furthest window. Voldyrev coughed and went towards the window; there, at a green table spotted like typhus, was sitting a young man with his hair standing up in four tufts on his head, with a long pimply nose, and a long faded uniform. He was writing, thrusting his long nose into the papers. A fly was walking about near his right nostril, and he was continually stretching out his lower lip and blowing under his nose, which gave his face an extremely care-worn expression.
"May I make an inquiry about my case here . . . of you? My name is Voldyrev, and, by the way, I have to take a copy of the resolution of the Council of the second of March."
The clerk dipped his pen in the ink and looked to see if he had got too much on it. Having satisfied himself that the pen would not make a blot, he began scribbling away. His lip was thrust out, but it was no longer necessary to blow: the fly had settled on his ear.
"Can I make an inquiry here?" Voldyrev repeated a minute later, "my name is Voldyrev, I am a landowner. . . ."
"Ivan Alexeitch!" the clerk shouted into the air as though he had not observed Voldyrev, "will you tell the merchant Yalikov when he comes to sign the copy of the complaint lodged with the police! I've told him a thousand times!"
"I have come in reference to my lawsuit with the heirs of Princess Gugulin," muttered Voldyrev. "The case is well known. I earnestly beg you to attend to me."
Still failing to observe Voldyrev, the clerk caught the fly on his lip, looked at it attentively and flung it away. The country gentleman coughed and blew his nose loudly on his checked pocket handkerchief. But this was no use either. He was still unheard. The silence lasted for two minutes. Voldyrev took a rouble note from his pocket and laid it on an open book before the clerk. The clerk wrinkled up his forehead, drew the book towards him with an anxious air and closed it.
"A little inquiry. . . . I want only to find out on what grounds the heirs of Princess Gugulin. . . . May I trouble you?"
The clerk, absorbed in his own thoughts, got up and, scratching his elbow, went to a cupboard for something. Returning a minute later to his table he became absorbed in the book again: another rouble note was lying upon it.
"I will trouble you for one minute only. . . . I have only to make an inquiry."
The clerk did not hear, he had begun copying something.
Voldyrev frowned and looked hopelessly at the whole scribbling brotherhood.
"They write!" he thought, sighing. "They write, the devil take them entirely!"
He walked away from the table and stopped in the middle of the room, his hands hanging hopelessly at his sides. The porter, passing again with glasses, probably noticed the helpless expression of his face, for he went close up to him and asked him in a low voice:
"Well? Have you inquired?"
"I've inquired, but he wouldn't speak to me."
"You give him three roubles," whispered the porter.
"I've given him two already."
"Give him another."
Voldyrev went back to the table and laid a green note on the open book.
The clerk drew the book towards him again and began turning over the leaves, and all at once, as though by chance, lifted his eyes to Voldyrev. His nose began to shine, turned red, and wrinkled up in a grin.
"Ah . . . what do you want?" he asked.
"I want to make an inquiry in reference to my case. . . . My name is Voldyrev."
"With pleasure! The Gugulin case, isn't it? Very good. What is it then exactly?"
Voldyrev explained his business.
The clerk became as lively as though he were whirled round by a hurricane. He gave the necessary information, arranged for a copy to be made, gave the petitioner a chair, and all in one instant. He even spoke about the weather and asked after the harvest. And when Voldyrev went away he accompanied him down the stairs, smiling affably and respectfully, and looking as though he were ready any minute to fall on his face before the gentleman. Voldyrev for some reason felt uncomfortable, and in obedience to some inward impulse he took a rouble out of his pocket and gave it to the clerk. And the latter kept bowing and smiling, and took the rouble like a conjuror, so that it seemed to flash through the air.
"Well, what people!" thought the country gentleman as he went out into the street, and he stopped and mopped his brow with his handkerchief.
was asked to sit on a bench in the corridor. At the end of the corridor there was a room. I was supposed to enter the room after someone came to fetch me. I was a little scared. Father told me to be calm and quiet. Mother said there was nothing to worry about. They both said everything will be fine after I answer the questions correctly. I had some vague idea what they would ask me. What I didn't know was the “correct” answer to that question.
After a long time, a lady came to me and asked me to follow her. I could see something in her eyes. Was it sympathy or pity? I didn’t know. As we approached the door, I could hear some voices; one was my mother’s second my father’s, there were few other unknown voices as well. As the lady opened the door, the room felt silent. Lady gestured me to enter and I did so. I was a little relieved to see my parents. They looked at me and remained silent. They were sitting on one side of a table and one man each were standing behind them and there was a third man who was sitting on the other side of the table.
The third man asked me to come and sit on the chair near to him. I did what I was told. He then started talking to me quite pleasantly. He said, “Hello son. I hope you know why you are here?” I nodded and he continued. “Then tell me with whom you want to be: your mother or your father?” I remained silent. He asked me again to answer. I still remained silent. He asked, ”why are you silent son? You must have a choice? Whom do you love more? With whom you would like to be for the rest of your life?” I remained silent. A little irritated he said, “Say something, anything? Tell me what you are thinking.”
Finally he asked something for which I had an answer. I said hesitantly, “I.....I am a little.... confused, sir.” I didn't know what to say further. I swallowed before I could gather my thoughts. My class teacher in kindergarten had taught me this....This had worked when I forgot the poem I was supposed to recite in annual day function last year. I took a deep breath, gathered my words and said. “I wonder what would be the 'correct' answer to this question...Sir. On my last birthday mom and dad took me to the Zoo. There were lots of animals... elephants, giraffes, and tiger too.” All the good memories of six months ago flashed in my mind. I could speak more freely and felt happy. “And there were lots of cages and dad held me up while showing me the animals over other people’s shoulders. Mom used to hold my hand while we walked from cage to cage.”
I almost didn't notice that the man in the black coat was getting irritated at my rant. “My child,” he said sternly, “I don’t wish to hear about your last birthday, just answer my question.” I had grown in confidence a little by the memories. I told him, “Sir, please...please let me say...it’s very important to me.” I saw his face soften a bit. He curtly said, “Go on son.”
I continued with renewed vigour. “We spent the whole day together. Mom gave us the sandwiches she had packed from home. Dad said we all can have ice creams after that. I love ice-cream, sir.”
“We all do son.” This time the man was more kind.
“But I always get confused between a vanilla ice cream and chocolate ice cream. I asked Mom and dad which one I should take. They helped me out with all the cones and bars and cups and I finally chose one.” He again got a bit impatient and asked, “Drive home your point, son.”
I swallowed again and said, “Sir, every time I chose my toys, my ice-cream, my dresses and even friends, I was always helped by either mom or dad.”
I paused as my voice choked, “But... But today sir... none of them told me whom to choose.....”
An illustration for the story An Idle Fellow by the author Kate Chopin
Vincent van Gogh, Roses, 1890
I am tired. At the end of these years I am very tired. I have been studying in books the languages of the living and those we call dead. Early in the fresh morning I have studied in books, and throughout the day when the sun was shining; and at night when there were stars, I have lighted my oil-lamp and studied in books. Now my brain is weary and I want rest.
I shall sit here on the door-step beside my friend Paul. He is an idle fellow with folded hands. He laughs when I upbraid him, and bids me, with a motion, hold my peace. He is listening to a thrush’s song that comes from the blur of yonder apple-tree. He tells me the thrush is singing a complaint. She wants her mate that was with her last blossom-time and builded a nest with her. She will have no other mate. She will call for him till she hears the notes of her beloved-one’s song coming swiftly towards her across forest and field.
Paul is a strange fellow. He gazed idly at a billowy white cloud that rolls lazily over and over along the edge of the blue sky.
He turns away from me and the words with which I would instruct him, to drink deep the scent of the clover-field and the thick perfume from the rose-hedge.
We rise from the door-step and walk together down the gentle slope of the hill; past the apple-tree, and the rose-hedge; and along the border of the field where wheat is growing. We walk down to the foot of the gentle slope where women and men and children are living.
Paul is a strange fellow. He looks into the faces of people who pass us by. He tells me that in their eyes he reads the story of their souls. He knows men and women and the little children, and why they look this way and that way. He knows the reasons that turn them to and fro and cause them to go and come. I think I shall walk a space through the world with my friend Paul. He is very wise, he knows the language of God which I have not learned.
Lazy and indifferent, shaking space easily from his wings, knowing his way, the heron passes over the church beneath the sky. White and distant, absorbed in itself, endlessly the sky covers and uncovers, moves and remains. A lake? Blot the shores of it out! A mountain? Oh, perfect the sun gold on its slopes. Down that falls. Ferns then, or white feathers, for ever and ever--
Desiring truth, awaiting it, laboriously distilling a few words, for ever desiring—(a cry starts to the left, another to the right. Wheels strike divergently. Omnibuses conglomerate in conflict)—for ever desiring—(the clock asseverates with twelve distinct strokes that it is midday; light sheds gold scales; children swarm)—for ever desiring truth. Red is the dome; coins hang on the trees; smoke trails from the chimneys; bark, shout, cry "Iron for sale"—and truth?
Radiating to a point men's feet and women's feet, black or gold-encrusted—(This foggy weather—Sugar? No, thank you—The commonwealth of the future)—the firelight darting and making the room red, save for the black figures and their bright eyes, while outside a van discharges, Miss Thingummy drinks tea at her desk, and plate-glass preserves fur coats——
Flaunted, leaf-light, drifting at corners, blown across the wheels, silver-splashed, home or not home, gathered, scattered, squandered in separate scales, swept up, down, torn, sunk, assembled-- and truth?
Now to recollect by the fireside on the white square of marble. From ivory depths words rising shed their blackness, blossom and penetrate. Fallen the book; in the flame, in the smoke, in the momentary sparks-- or now voyaging, the marble square pendant, minarets beneath and the Indian seas, while space rushes blue and stars glint truth? Or now, content with closeness?
Lazy and indifferent the heron returns; the sky veils her stars; then bares them.
It was quite by accident I discovered this incredible invasion of Earth by lifeforms from another planet. As yet, I haven’t done anything about it; I can’t think of anything to do. I wrote to the Government, and they sent back a pamphlet on the repair and maintenance of frame houses. Anyhow, the whole thing is known; I’m not the first to discover it. Maybe it’s even under control.
I was sitting in my easy-chair, idly turning the pages of a paperbacked book someone had left on the bus, when I came across the reference that first put me on the trail. For a moment I didn’t respond. It took some time for the full import to sink in. After I’d comprehended, it seemed odd I hadn’t noticed it right away.
The reference was clearly to a nonhuman species of incredible properties, not indigenous to Earth. A species, I hasten to point out, customarily masquerading as ordinary human beings. Their disguise, however, became transparent in the face of the following observations by the author. It was at once obvious the author knew everything. Knew everything—and was taking it in his stride. The line (and I tremble remembering it even now) read:
… his eyes slowly roved about the room.
Vague chills assailed me. I tried to picture the eyes. Did they roll like dimes? The passage indicated not; they seemed to move through the air, not over the surface. Rather rapidly, apparently. No one in the story was surprised. That’s what tipped me off. No sign of amazement at such an outrageous thing. Later the matter was amplified.
… his eyes moved from person to person.
There it was in a nutshell. The eyes had clearly come apart from the rest of him and were on their own. My heart pounded and my breath choked in my windpipe. I had stumbled on an accidental mention of a totally unfamiliar race. Obviously non-Terrestrial. Yet, to the characters in the book, it was perfectly natural—which suggested they belonged to the same species.
And the author? A slow suspicion burned in my mind. The author was taking it rather too easily in his stride. Evidently, he felt this was quite a usual thing. He made absolutely no attempt to conceal this knowledge. The story continued:
… presently his eyes fastened on Julia.
Julia, being a lady, had at least the breeding to feel indignant. She is described as blushing and knitting her brows angrily. At this, I sighed with relief. They weren’t all non-Terrestrials. The narrative continues:
… slowly, calmly, his eyes examined every inch of her.
Great Scott! But here the girl turned and stomped off and the matter ended. I lay back in my chair gasping with horror. My wife and family regarded me in wonder.
“What’s wrong, dear?” my wife asked.
I couldn’t tell her. Knowledge like this was too much for the ordinary run-of-the-mill person. I had to keep it to myself. “Nothing,” I gasped. I leaped up, snatched the book, and hurried out of the room.
In the garage, I continued reading. There was more. Trembling, I read the next revealing passage:
… he put his arm around Julia. Presently she asked him if he would remove his arm. He immediately did so, with a smile.
It’s not said what was done with the arm after the fellow had removed it. Maybe it was left standing upright in the corner. Maybe it was thrown away. I don’t care. In any case, the full meaning was there, staring me right in the face.
Here was a race of creatures capable of removing portions of their anatomy at will. Eyes, arms—and maybe more. Without batting an eyelash. My knowledge of biology came in handy, at this point. Obviously they were simple beings, uni-cellular, some sort of primitive single-celled things. Beings no more developed than starfish. Starfish can do the same thing, you know.
I read on. And came to this incredible revelation, tossed off coolly by the author without the faintest tremor:
… outside the movie theater we split up. Part of us went inside, part over to the cafe for dinner.
Binary fission, obviously. Splitting in half and forming two entities. Probably each lower half went to the cafe, it being farther, and the upper halves to the movies. I read on, hands shaking. I had really stumbled onto something here. My mind reeled as I made out this passage:
… I’m afraid there’s no doubt about it. Poor Bibney has lost his head again.
Which was followed by:
… and Bob says he has utterly no guts.
Yet Bibney got around as well as the next person. The next person, however, was just as strange. He was soon described as:
… totally lacking in brains.
There was no doubt of the thing in the next passage. Julia, whom I had thought to be the one normal person, reveals herself as also being an alien life form, similar to the rest:
… quite deliberately, Julia had given her heart to the young man.
It didn’t relate what the final disposition of the organ was, but I didn’t really care. It was evident Julia had gone right on living in her usual manner, like all the others in the book. Without heart, arms, eyes, brains, viscera, dividing up in two when the occasion demanded. Without a qualm.
… thereupon she gave him her hand.
I sickened. The rascal now had her hand, as well as her heart. I shudder to think what he’s done with them, by this time.
… he took her arm.
Not content to wait, he had to start dismantling her on his own. Flushing crimson, I slammed the book shut and leaped to my feet. But not in time to escape one last reference to those carefree bits of anatomy whose travels had originally thrown me on the track:
… her eyes followed him all the way down the road and across the meadow.
I rushed from the garage and back inside the warm house, as if the accursed things were following me. My wife and children were playing Monopoly in the kitchen. I joined them and played with frantic fervor, brow feverish, teeth chattering.
I had had enough of the thing. I want to hear no more about it. Let them come on. Let them invade Earth. I don’t want to get mixed up in it.
THE LUFT BAD
I think it must be the umbrellas which make us look ridiculous.
When I was admitted into the enclosure for the first time, and saw my fellow-bathers walking about very nearly “in their nakeds,” it struck me that the umbrellas gave a distinctly “Little Black Sambo” touch.
Ridiculous dignity in holding over yourself a green cotton thing with a red parroquet handle when you are dressed in nothing larger than a handkerchief.
There are no trees in the “Luft Bad.” It boasts a collection of plain, wooden cells, a bath shelter, two swings and two odd clubs—one, presumably the lost property of Hercules or the German army, and the other to be used with safety in the cradle.
And there in all weathers we take the air—walking, or sitting in little companies talking over each other’s ailments and measurements and ills that flesh is heir to.
A high wooden wall compasses us all about; above it the pine-trees look down a little superciliously, nudging each other in a way that is peculiarly trying to a débutante. Over the wall, on the right side, is the men’s section. We hear them chopping down trees and sawing through planks, dashing heavy weights to the ground, and singing part songs. Yes, they take it far more seriously.
On the first day I was conscious of my legs, and went back into my cell three times to look at my watch, but when a woman with whom I had played chess for three weeks cut me dead, I took heart and joined a circle.
We lay curled on the ground while a Hungarian lady of immense proportions told us what a beautiful tomb she had bought for her second husband.
“A vault it is,” she said, “with nice black railings. And so large that I can go down there and walk about. Both their photographs are there, with two very handsome wreaths sent me by my first husband’s brother. There is an enlargement of a family group photograph, too, and an illuminated address presented to my first husband on his marriage. I am often there; it makes such a pleasant excursion for a fine Saturday afternoon.”
She suddenly lay down flat on her back, took in six long breaths, and sat up again.
“The death agony was dreadful,” she said brightly; “of the second, I mean. The ‘first’ was run into by a furniture wagon, and had fifty marks stolen out of a new waistcoat pocket, but the ‘second’ was dying for sixty-seven hours. I never ceased crying once—not even to put the children to bed.”
A young Russian, with a “bang” curl on her forehead, turned to me.
“Can you do the ‘Salome’ dance?” she asked. “I can.”
“How delightful,” I said.
“Shall I do it now? Would you like to see me?”
She sprang to her feet, executed a series of amazing contortions for the next ten minutes, and then paused, panting, twisting her long hair.
“Isn’t that nice?” she said. “And now I am perspiring so splendidly. I shall go and take a bath.”
Opposite to me was the brownest woman I have ever seen, lying on her back, her arms clasped over her head.
“How long have you been here to-day?” she was asked.
“Oh, I spend the day here now,” she answered. “I am making my own ‘cure,’ and living entirely on raw vegetables and nuts, and each day I feel my spirit is stronger and purer. After all, what can you expect? The majority of us are walking about with pig corpuscles and oxen fragments in our brain. The wonder is the world is as good as it is. Now I live on the simple, provided food”—she pointed to a little bag beside her—“a lettuce, a carrot, a potato, and some nuts are ample, rational nourishment. I wash them under the tap and eat them raw, just as they come from the harmless earth—fresh and uncontaminated.”
“Do you take nothing else all day?” I cried.
“Water. And perhaps a banana if I wake in the night.” She turned round and leaned on one elbow. “You over-eat yourself dreadfully,” she said; “shamelessly! How can you expect the Flame of the Spirit to burn brightly under layers of superfluous flesh?”
I wished she would not stare at me, and thought of going to look at my watch again when a little girl wearing a string of coral beads joined us.
“The poor Frau Hauptmann cannot join us to-day,” she said; “she has come out in spots all over on account of her nerves. She was very excited yesterday after having written two post-cards.”
“A delicate woman,” volunteered the Hungarian, “but pleasant. Fancy, she has a separate plate for each of her front teeth! But she has no right to let her daughters wear such short sailor suits. They sit about on benches, crossing their legs in a most shameless manner. What are you going to do this afternoon, Fräulein Anna?”
“Oh,” said the Coral Necklace, “the Herr Oberleutnant has asked me to go with him to Landsdorf. He must buy some eggs there to take home to his mother. He saves a penny on eight eggs by knowing the right peasants to bargain with.”
“Are you an American?” said the Vegetable Lady, turning to me.
“Then you are an Englishwoman?”
“You must be one of the two; you cannot help it. I have seen you walking alone several times. You wear your—”
I got up and climbed on to the swing. The air was sweet and cool, rushing past my body. Above, white clouds trailed delicately through the blue sky. From the pine forest streamed a wild perfume, the branches swayed together, rhythmically, sonorously. I felt so light and free and happy—so childish! I wanted to poke my tongue out at the circle on the grass, who, drawing close together, were whispering meaningly.
“Perhaps you do not know,” cried a voice from one of the cells, “to swing is very upsetting for the stomach? A friend of mine could keep nothing down for three weeks after exciting herself so.”
I went to the bath shelter and was hosed.
As I dressed, someone tapped on the wall.
“Do you know,” said a voice, “there is a man who lives in the Luft Bad next door? He buries himself up to the armpits in mud and refuses to believe in the Trinity.”
The umbrellas are the saving grace of the Luft Bad. Now when I go, I take my husband’s “storm gamp” and sit in a corner, hiding behind it.