Author of The Magical Mimics of Oz, The Shaggy Man of Oz, Spectral Snow, etc.
Originally published in Dark Music and Other Spectral Tales, 1947.
Let the Bodhisattva look upon all things as having the nature of space—as permanently equal to space; without essence, without substantiality.—Saddharma Pundarika.
Mr. Deeping halted before the window of the musty little antique shop almost as if he had glimpsed an old acquaintance’s face inside. The window was grimy though lined with trickling streaks of relative cleanliness produced by a recent shower. Deeping’s gaze remained fixed, his eyes held tight to one tiny object among the conglomerate heap that shouted and struggled for preeminence in their dreary glass cell. It was a cup—a tea cup. It lay in a corner close to a yellow, warped set of books; a candelabra with eight sticks and a mournfully rusted sword hilt.
Deeping squinted through the dust and lowering twi-light. Evidently the cup had figures on it, impossible to say what, for they were sadly obscured with thick grime. Unlovely and forlorn as was its appearance there was yet something about the tiny cup, something ephemeral, fragile that was thrillingly beautiful to Deeping. As he stood there he devoured its lines with his eyes. Thin as a leaf, delicate, bell-like he knew it would ring sweet and true if tapped. Like the tendril of a young green vine its slender handle leapt from the side and formed an oval scarcely large enough for the passage of a child’s little finger. It was like a dew drop crystallized and bestowed with immortality.
Deeping gazed a few minutes longer and then sighed with admiration and entered the shop where he purchased the cup for half a dollar and was in an agony of apprehen-sion lest the ancient who attended him would allow the prize to slip from his trembling fingers and smash on the floor.
Deeping left the shop and was filled with a pleasant sense of exaltation—as if he had captured something irre-sistible to him, something enticingly fleeting. He carried his treasure in his right hand. At times he smoothed the crinkled wrapping paper reassuringly over its graceful surface. The evening was warm and soft—like velvet and spangled with peering stars. People passed usually in little groups of two or three conversing quietly. They were dressed lightly and their soft-toned words floated over the warm hush of the evening like oil poured into a goblet of amber colored nectar.
But Deeping neither saw these ghostly humans nor heard their low babble. He carried his head erect so that his gaze just missed the tops of the buildings and went on up to the stars and moon. He was happy tonight, his work at the office was finished. Now he was free, he had found a treasure, there was a full moon and a chance for a long ramble tonight. Ah—why not be happy? His eyes were kind when he smiled.
Now he was ascending the steps of a large brick build-ing and making his way through dusky corridors to his rooms. They were in the far rear of the building where he could seclude himself with little or no danger of dis-turbance. And there were two windows free from the city’s skyline through which the dawn had more than once ebbed over the sill and painted the pages of Deeping’s book with grey fingers.
Deeping closed and locked the door and immediately unfolded the paper from the cup. He set about removing the grime from its surface—the task he had been antici-pating in every pleasurable manner at each step of his homeward journey. From the faucet he drew a basin of luke warm water and into this he placed the cup and pro-ceeded with elaborate care to rub the grease and dust from it by means of a soft bit of silk. Gently he bathed and polished. Finally the last clinging traces of grime had yielded to his persistence and he swathed the cup in a soft towel and dried it revelling the while in the deep lustre thus revealed. Sighing happily he seated himself at the table placing the cup before him and gazed voluptuously at it. It shone translucently with a thin bluish glow like the veins of the hand except where the painted figures occurred with their contrasting hues. And these figures— Deeping’s eyes glistened as he inspected them minutely for the first time. On one side of the cup appeared a huge scarlet blossom, a monster poppy, with a forest of tiny trees behind it. This was enough to absorb the most shrinking interest—this great six petalled staring flower with the background of pygmean giants; yet when Deep-ing turned the other side of the cup toward him he was even more intrigued and captivated. For on this side the flora representation had given way entirely to a swarm of fireflies—botaru.
These marvelous little insects were done exquisitely, Deeping saw, by a hand that must have been unbelievably tiny and adept. Although they spread over the side of the cup like a living cloud their lights were represented as they should have been—some green, some pale tea colored, some blue, and some so brilliant as to be white. Deeping recalled a fragment of Japanese poetry. He whispered it softly to the bare room.
“For the willow tree the season of budding would seem to have returned in the dark—look at the fireflies!”
For many minutes he sat in content dreaming and weav-ing many fantasies about his treasure. He tried to count the fireflies but he soon grew bewildered and gave it up. It was like lying on one’s back and trying to number the stars of a clear night. He wondered at the disproportion between the flower and the forest of trees. Perhaps this was some struggling artist’s mode of expressing revolt. Turning the tables as it were. Certainly the flower grew resplendently and the trees almost cowered. Sometimes the soul of man is such a flower, thought Deeping, blos-soming out like a giant flora in the jungle, but usually it is so tiny, so fragile, so easily wilted—. Deeping paused in his fragmentary musing and listened to the clock strike ten.
Then he yawned and began the preparation of a bit of supper before bed. Cold meat he found in the refrigerator and tea was only the matter of a few minutes devoted to the heating of water. Presently his repast was before him. Cold beef, bread and butter and tea. He ate heartily, for so absorbed had he been in the allurements of the cup that he had entirely forgotten his evening meal. The tea tasted extraordinarily fine and Deeping was fond of it even at its worst. He had sipped two cups and was making ready to pour himself a third when a sudden forceful suggestion leapt at him, struck him, as confounding as it was startling. Certainly he had not thought of it—impossible. It came from somewhere else—somewhere outside. Like the pic-tures conjured by a caterwauling that breaks into one’s dreams and hurls them into the abyss of nightmares. It was blasphemous—it opposed all his ideals. Yet he was fasci-nated—powerless to resist. His hand was reaching slowly, as if by stealth to deceive his sensibilities, across the table toward the china cup. He grasped it, and lifted it toward him. His right hand had with a synchronizing movement raised the teapot and inclined it so that the spout was filled with the pale liquid. The cup was directly beneath the pot’s spout and with a groan Deeping felt his right hand tipping the pot still more. The pale tea flowed in a. clear stream until the cup was slightly over half full. Deeping replaced the tea pot and raised the cup to his lips. How exquisitely delicate was the sheer rim of the cup. Its pressure was scarcely perceptible to the lips. It was like drinking nectar that flowed from a faint pair of dream lips.
Deeping sipped in rapture for a moment and then as if finding the pleasure too great for him lowered the cup from his lips and gazed into it. And then he started and nearly dropped the cup from his trembling fingers. For gazing at him from the transparent yellow liquid was the image or reflection of a face not his own. He glanced about the room but he was alone. Trembling with the sudden shock he gazed again into the cup. It was the face of a girl—a beautiful girl and the reflection seemed to be that of a living face for the glow of life shone from the cheeks and the eyes were lighted with the flame of the spirit. Deeping’s emotions were curious. They passed analysis. He was frightened, bewildered, startled and thrilled. And none of these mental sensations predomi-nated. He was a prey to all their talons at once. Reason became chaos. Panic awaited only the slightest cranny through which to slip and prance with cloven hoof to its own wild tunes.
Deeping threw out the tea, rinsed the cup and poured fresh tea. The face smiled up at him in no wise perturbed by his rudeness. Was it merely an hallucination? Then by what induced? He lifted his hand to his forehead; he had no fever; nor did he feel ill. He never drank. Cautiously he glanced again into the cup of tea. The surface of the liquid was free from ripples. It lay glassy clear, and there as perfectly as that formed in a mirror was the reflection of the girl’s face. Deeping gazed at her intently. Finally he spoke to her and even motioned with his hands but she was entirely unaware of his efforts although at moments which sent a sharp thrill through Deeping their eyes met in a sudden instantaneous glance.
Deeping wondered if the girl would be visible to others. But he could not endure that. What if she were not? What if they laughed at him? He would be mad—they would tell him so. And how could he disbelieve? He sat thinking, turning his mind first this way and then that, until the grey, misty dawn began to flow into the sky and then he nodded and slept unhappily in his chair.
After a few hours he awoke stiff and ill. With deliberate aim he avoided both visual and physical contact with the cup while washing and making himself ready for work. He was halfway out the door when he turned and stole back into the room. He walked uncertainly to the table where he had left the cup the night before and gazed full into it. His face paled—there she was. Her face calm and white as alabaster, her black hair mantled and devised as if for a cloudy background for her somber beauty. Her eyebrows curved into her forehead like twin question marks. Her full, broad lips awaiting were slightly parted. Her eyes, thin and narrow, were closed and their lashes lay like the fringe of a coverlet over her cheeks. She was sleeping. Deeping stood for a moment in awed silence and then turned and as silently left the room.
The next several weeks of Deeping’s life were composed of flashes of half disclosed ecstasy and long hours of throb-bing, black misery. He had fallen in love. And it was with the image in the tea cup. His passionate, hopeless desire left him thin and wan and his eyes shone bright—. No longer did he seek to find a reason for or to explain away the image in the cup. He was not even disturbed nor surprised by it now. Such rational emotions were crowded from his mind by the glamor of love. He was cast about with a spell.
He purchased a little silver chest lined with silk and velvet and in this temple of idolatry he kept the cup. He found that the girl slept during his daytime and was awake at night; therefore, he reasoned, the original whose “pro-jection” this was must dwell on the other side of the world. She might as well have dwelt in a golden castle on the farther side of the moon. She was unreachable, unattainable. At moments he wept, begged and implored her to come from the cup and present herself to him. But she did not, and the very consideration of her doing so sent Deeping into a trembling ecstasy of contemplation.
Many of Deeping’s nights were sleepless; indeed, the majority of them were, and his days were filled with the automatic discharge of his office work. He was aware only of the intense fire that was burning within him, of his love, his desire and the allure of the image. He had arrived at the point where reality was beginning to shade off into dreams, there was a wildness, a vagueness about things that seemed only natural to him.
One evening quite late he was sitting at the table just as he had been the first time he had seen the reflection. The little china cup was filled with tea, the flower bloomed unwillingly, the fireflies gleamed in their nebulous flight unceasingly. The warm soft summer air crept over the window sills and barely rustled the thin draperies with its delicate intrusion. Outside the moon had begun wan-ing after the voluptuous fullness of the night before. People walked about on the pavements below and mut-tered. Occasionally one spoke louder than his companion and once someone shouted. Deeping stared haggardly into the cup. His lips moved and his tongue crept over them and in and out of his mouth. Suddenly his eyes gleamed like coals in a hot furnace; he leapt to his feet seizing the cup between his palms. His mouth twitched and his face blanched deathly white as he lifted the cup to his lips and drank its contents to the last drop. He stared into the cup. It was empty. He poured it full of tea. Only the thin depth of the pale liquid glimmered up at him. Deeping laughed, a queer strained laugh. His hair crept back on his scalp and he shivered as if chilled with a sudden spray. His face was grey and its lines drawn taut with emotion and desire pulling on one end and Reason struggling on the other. His laughter grew shriller—it convulsed him so that he shook and tottered under its weight. He tore off his cloth-ing and threw himself on the bed. He was laughing, sob-bing, the wild laughter of despair.
Sleep closed about him almost immediately. It was as if a greedy animal had devoured him, leaving him no time for the reflection that ordinarily precedes slumber. Then came oblivion—deep silence—oblivion and blackness. For ages endless and viewless he seemed to lie in blackness, lost and drenched in its murky waters. Gradually he rose to the surface. Was it quite blackness? Was not that a rift, a break? Ah! now it grew more distinct—a peculiar silver fluffiness. It was night, to be sure, and there were storm clouds and the sky was black as ink. Now it was breaking even more; near the center it seemed to be suffused with a dim nebulous glow; a ghostly light such as is cast into the sky of a clear night by the myriad pinpoint gleamings of the milky way. And there surrounded in this phantom light was a figure—a human figure. It was she. For the first time the beauty of her body was revealed to him. Supple and tender she was like the branch of a young green tree and full of grace and promise. He lifted his eyes to her face. It shone, gleamed like a star in the fury of its first fire. Her face was troubled and her lips moved as if she were speaking to him.
He strained his ears and listened intently. Her voice came to him from a remote distance; she might have stood in infinity—her words could have been no feebler nor thinner. He was tortured for fear he would lose them alto-gether; his effort to catch the faintest vibration was weak-ening, intense. And there were long spaces—pauses be-tween the words that caused him an agony of suspense.
She seemed to waver, to fade away and then return like a low nocturnal wind. At moments her form grew misty and dissolved almost completely away in the dark somber billows. Deeping’s brow was covered with perspiration.
“You have done a great wrong,” she said with infinite sadness and pity in her voice—pity for him. “You have swallowed my soul, my double that has lived and will live through all ages.” She hesitated, and Deeping was sud-denly seized with a nameless horror and dread of the pity and enigmatical tenderness of her face. “You must die,” she added softly, “by your own will. It is the only way my soul can be released.” She sobbed and Deeping saw tears of pity drop from her eyes like soft rain from the clouds.
She was gone. Only the black sky with its thick gloomy clouds remained. Deeping turned in his bed as if to shut out the sight of it and groaned.
The woman who cared for Deeping’s rooms came the next morning, letting herself in with her key and found Deeping fully dressed arid stretched on the floor dead. She did not lose her head nor behave foolishly as women generally do in the presence of unexpected and unac-counted for death but immediately summoned a doctor who could do no more than lay the death to mercurial poisoning. Evidently Deeping had awakened, dressed him-self and swallowed the mercury tablets during the night. His face was considerably distorted.
Since Deeping had no relations and apparently no close friends the landlady phoned Mr. Groves, Deeping’s super- ior at the office. Groves arrived a short time after he was called. The doctor had gone. He sat alone in the little room with the body. It had been laid on the bed and a
spread draped over it. Groves gazed at the white shape outlined on the bed with a melancholy fixity. He would miss Deeping but he felt no real grief or sorrow because j of his death. He had been a good worker, a capable I helper, but a man of little power, little personality. He might have been called timid. And certainly he should have had friends or someone to take charge in a case like this. Groves felt that this was slightly overstepping the bounds of business courtesy.
Groves sighed and began a minute inventory of the room’s furnishings. However, there was no great pleasure in checking and appraising so meanly fitted a, room as this. His gaze settled on the table by his chair where stood a teapot with a cup beside it. Groves poured himself a cup of the cold tea. After enjoying one or two sips of the liquid he lowered the cup and gazed in curiosity at its odd design.
But his curiosity changed to horror the next instant and the cup slipped from his fingers and smashed into frag-ments on the floor. For there glimmering up at him from the depths of the yellow liquid was the image of Deeping’s face and pressed close to his own their lips meeting in a passionate caress was that of a girl with black hair and high, thin eyebrows.
THE FORGETFUL POET
By Ruth Plumly Thompson
Originally published in the Philadelphia Public Ledger, June 13, 1920.
The Puzzle Corner
The nicknames for the people of the states mentioned last week were: Hoosiers, Indiana; Foxes, Maine; Tar Heels, North Carolina; Panhandlers, West Virginia; Web Feet, Oregon; Fly-Up-the-Creeks, Florida, and Beaneaters, Massachusetts.
The words omitted from the little verse about the Lizard—were Lizzie and all.
All campers are in need of it.
(A pet name for a cat?) Yes -----?
A vegetable and fowl ’twill take
To give this bird, and no mistake?
What language would a kitten speak if it talked?
For you to finish.
There once was a turtle named -----
Who managed the Meadowville ferry.
He never was late nor made customers -----
So he grew very rich and quite -----?
[Answers next time.]
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