"I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than a poet can help the inspiration to sing."
Dr. H.H. Holmes, serial killer, 1896
It would appear that the shadow of my last novel, coming after me, is yet long indeed.
* * * * *
If I stretched I would be rewarded with a beautiful muscular pain which must be what all cats feel when they arch and curl their toes, but I was too lazy even to do that. Even through the glass I could hear the bees under full sail in the clover; the summer sun pressed warmly on my cheek as I shifted my head a fraction into the embrace of my arm. It was a rich, lazy summer day, a day of low, slow blood and limbs sprawling across a couch. For the better part of a half hour I had hovered in a doze, moon-facedly happy with life, and too lazy even to stretch a limb.
Save for the bees, it was very quiet. Badger was laid up in bed pretending to be an invalid after the extraction of a tooth. Mother and Father had gone off alone on horseback. It was only Bruin and myself this afternoon, silent and companionable, enthralled by the mellowing power of the summer warmth in the solarium.
I do not know why we chose the solarium. At high summer, with the room all windows and the bulk of it facing south, it was liable to be smothering hot. But thank God there was a wind that day which kept the worst edge off the warmth; and anyway, Bruin was writing and liked the best light possible. Like a cat I preferred to be near quiet people while I napped, and the couch in the solarium with its siren’s croon had been welcoming. I had succumbed to its embraces without resistance.
There was a soft rustle of paper. “Goddgofang,” said Bruin quietly: “are you awake?”
Too lazy to stretch, I was almost too lazy to speak. For a few moments I stared up the curve of my arm, up the back of the sofa into the white image of the sky out the window. “No,” I said at last.
There was a chitter of a chair’s legs on the stone floor. (The stones, too, helped keep the room from being unbearably warm.) “Yes, I thought so… I have been thinking,” he went on, “and would like, perhaps, another mind to help me.”
I roused myself to turn my head toward him. He sat in one of those rather uncomfortable straight-backed chairs—though, I admit, I have always been a bit free with my posture—poised lightly with one hand spread on his papers and the other crooked, holding a pen; his head, too, was turned at me, and there was a little thoughtful, patient smile on his face for he seemed to anticipate my sluggish blood and was ready to fight against my desire to go back to my cat-nap. Realizing he meant business, I blinked, cleared my sun-dazzled eyes, and gave him my attention.
“I am listening.”
He held my eye and did not look away. “I was speaking with Avery the other day about my books. He mentioned that he had just finished Scandalon and marked to me his own surprise in the apparent disparate natures of myself and my book. ‘One wouldn’t think it, to look at you,’ he said—I think he meant it kindly—‘that you had such a raw imagination.’ It puzzled me.” The puzzlement formed a darkness between his brows—Mother’s brows, I thought of a sudden. Odd how I had never noted that before.
“It puzzled you that there should seem to be such a difference between yourself and your works?” I prompted.
But he shook his head, smiling a little shyly. “Nay, not that. I am aware of that, and that, I think, is only natural in the writer… Nay, it was his underlying meaning. Perhaps it is best displayed in his non-verbal speech. He seemed abashed. I had one of those awful moments in which my mind ran back over all the uncomfortable scenes in the book and I had to stand there and act as sleek and cool as a cat knowing that we were both thinking the same thing. Yea,” Bruin suddenly laughed a little at his own expense, “if he was abashed, I was nigh embarrassed! But most of all I wondered why he did not understand me.”
My mind, too, travelled back across the pages of that book. A raw, unsettling novel: the story of a man on his merry way to heaven only to find, when he got there, that he was in hell. Avery was the sort of fellow who saw things in black and white—which was not bad, but the intricate patterns which black and white could make in life sometimes went overlooked by him and, when he found them, often mistook them for grey. Scandalon was not the sort of book he would have really liked. I was a bit sorry for that, and even found myself sore on Bruin’s account.
Bruin had turned away, back toward his manuscript, and was going on quietly as if to himself. “I become worried by this turn of events. Afterward I was able to think back over my novels, each at a time, and found each subsequent story a little harsher than the one before.”
I put out my leg on the arm of the sofa, bending my foot until the long lean muscles in my calf groaned with delight. “Hast only three,” I pointed out placidly.
He looked at me askance, and it was Mother’s face I saw. “A’come,” he said with the closest he came to roughness, “I am trying to explain myself.”
“I follow you. I just do not want you to outweigh yourself with plumage and feathering of importance. The book is a good book,” I added definitely. “So what is the trouble?”
“I am,” he replied with emphasis. “I am. I looked at him and he looked at me, and it was not that he thought there was such an apparent difference between myself and my novels, but that he feared there was no difference. I was of a sudden all the evil and villainy of my novel—none of the goodness of it,” he marked out: “people will forget that.”
A harsh, involuntary smile gripped my mouth. “They like to be mean-spirited.”
But he shrugged. “I do not know that Avery himself meant to be mean-spirited. It is perhaps that age-old disconnect between the writer and the reader.” Suddenly he waved one hand. “But that is not what I am talking of.” With both hands and an angry splatter of ink he gestured forcefully at the paper in front of him. “When I write, I write for people to see things—ordinary things which have always been there, but which people overlook—or do not see through overuse. I don’t believe it was so much the shock of Reynard winding up in hell instead of heaven that got to Avery. I think it was Reynard himself. I think it was the upending of his virtues. For some time Reynard comes across as an admirable gentleman. I found myself at turns watching him display virtues that I wish to possess. Then when we get to heaven—hell, that is, in this instance—it is like that ending passage of The Inferno in which the world is suddenly thrown over on its ear—quand’ io mi volsi, tu passasti ‘l punto al qual si traggon d’ogne parte i pesi—and everything you thought turns out to be quite the opposite of what it was. I think that shocks people: to see their virtues turned into vices. And I think it shocks people who know me to know I think about these things.”
I shifted my head so that I could watch my foot idly moving, stirred by thought. In the long silence I heard the bees and, presently, the scrape of a hoe in a garden. I reflected again that, unlike Badger, who was like me in forthrightness—and so, for that matter, rather like Mother—Bruin had inherited Father’s knack of saying many things and nothing at all, and hiding what he really meant behind his words. Over fifteen years of practice I had learned to pick apart my brother’s words and uproot what he meant. Sleepily stretching, I gently cursed his lack of glibness.
“You mean that you have to play the blackguard, and they do not like it.”
There was a momentary silence. “Yes. I suppose that is what I mean.”
I turned my head on my arm. “But, by the stars, man,” I said roughishly, “that is what makes you so fine a writer! ‘One would not think it to look at you’—by which he means, you’re a delicate-looking whelp and you smile like butter. But you have fangs in your mouth and you’re not afraid of biting down on the black-tasting aspects of life. How else could you write our enemies so well—which are ourselves—if you did not think like a villain? I ask you!” I finished, thrusting a hand out at him.
“Nay, then—I, too, hear you,” he said patiently, not looking at me.
I sighed. “Then may I go back to sleep?”
“That sleep which you were not in?”
“Yes. That sleep.”
He put his elbow upon the tabletop and laid his jaw in his palm, looking away from me toward the southern meads. The swimming light made a crown of gold around his young head. The little fiend! I thought tenderly—and was not sure why I thought it.
“None so easy,” he said at length. “I know that, to craft a good villain, one must ‘play the blackguard,’ as you put it. At times it is…wildly pleasant. Exultant, in a way. Whether that is the thrill of making something well or the latent evil in one’s blood, I do not know. Perhaps that is why the question nags at me. I know I do well what I do. I just wish people would not look from my books to me in that manner. Truly,” he added, coming round with a suddenness unlike him, snatching, in the act, a book from the table and flinging it at me, “villainy runs in our veins!”
I caught the book and stumbled to a sitting position. It was an old book, yellowed and unruled, and full of Mother’s hand. I read a few passages and looked up, suspicious.
“This is Mother’s diary.”
“Yes, I know. She let me borrow it for research.”
I shut it again with as little quickness as I could for I did not want Bruin to know that I would rather not read those old accounts. I had lost my comfortable position and began rooting around in the cushions trying to find it, all the while taking the time to think.
He pre-empted me. “Do not think,” he said, “that I have some enormous psychosis which, Cervantes-like, drives me to imagine unreasonable and untenable suppositions. I am sound. It is only that I wish they knew that.” He laughed a little, softly. “I do not want a leper’s bells…”
“Tush, sirrah!” I said. He was really beginning to frighten me. I abandoned my attempts to be comfortable. “The proof is in the pudding. Yea, Scandalon itself is the best test of your mettle. How could you, being mad, write such a clear distinction between goodness and villainy? That is your strength,” I pushed, “that is your keenness. You see perhaps more clearly than others and are you to blame that your natural instinct prompts you to write the dichotomy? Did God, in his infinite wisdom, look into the thoughts of his own mind and see the beautiful starkness that lies between himself and all that is evil—and did he not subsequently write as such? How great the villainy—how great the conqueror! That is what you do, Bruin. That is what you write.” I dropped back off the lip of the sofa, breathing a little heavily. “And that is why books like Scandalon are perhaps so dismal: you know how to dream the nightmares that the wicked ones endure.”
He seemed unwilling to be overwon by me. For some time he sat quietly, moving only his left foot a little, turning it on the point of his boot as a dancer might, his unseeing eye roving over the lines of his manuscript. I could see that I had not adequately addressed his concerns, but how could I account for the peevish insinuations of a handful of readers when it was plain from the text that the author was standing on both feet?
“It is not our fault,” I pointed out flatly, “that people are stupid.”
This produced a momentary flash of laughter from him and set his mood in a better temper. “You are right.”
“Of course I am right,” I said, snapping up four fingers. “Now put your face into a better shape before I knock the horse out of it and get back to your villainizing. Nay—” I heard a door crash shut in the wind and twisted toward the peristyle. “Speak of the devil, the reprobates have returned.”
In a flurry of sunlight and wind, jerking a little forward, for the solarium door always caught a bit on a lip of stone, Mother pushed in, flushed and disreputable-looking. It seemed the only cool thing about her was her faintly supercilious brow and the press of her mouth which always gave one the impression that she was trying not to laugh.
“There you are,” she said in her warm, husky voice.
I emerged from the couch—the stone flags were deliciously cool underfoot—and stepped around an avalanche of ornamental pillows, bending down as she turned her cheek to accept my kiss. “Your hair is a mess, Mama. Did you have a good time?”
The sharp laughter stabbed at me from the corner-glance of her eyes. “You’re impertinent. How is Badger?”
I turned back on Bruin, at a sudden loss, and likewise his gaze met mine.
The poor beggar had not occurred to us.