Falling from favor, or grace, some high artifice, down he dropped like a discredited predicate through what he called space (sometimes he called it time) and with an earsplitting crack splattered the base earth with his vital attributes. Oh, I’ve had a great fall, he thought as he lay there, numb with terror, trying desperately to pull himself together again. This time (or space) I’ve really done it! He had fallen before of course: short of expectations, into bad habits, out with his friends, upon evil days, foul of the law, in and out of love, down in the dumps—indeed, as though egged on by some malevolent metaphor generated by his own condition, he had always been falling, had he not?—but this was the most terrible fall of all. It was like the very fall of pride, of stars, of Babylon, of cradles and curtains and angels and rain, like the dread fall of silence, of sparrows, like the fall of doom.
“What Was It?”
Fitz James O’Brien
It is, I confess, with considerable diffidence, that I approach the strange narrative which I am about to relate. The events which I purpose detailing are of so extraordinary a character that I am quite prepared to meet with an unusual amount of incredulity and scorn. I accept all such beforehand. I have, I trust, the literary courage to face unbelief. I have, after mature consideration resolved to narrate, in as simple and straightforward a manner as I can compass, some facts that passed under my observation, in the month of July last, and which, in the annals of the mysteries of physical science, are wholly unparalleled.
I live at No. —— Twenty-sixth Street, in New York. The house is in some respects a curious one. It has enjoyed for the last two years the reputation of being haunted. It is a large and stately residence, surrounded by what was once a garden, but which is now only a green enclosure used for bleaching clothes. The dry basin of what has been a fountain, and a few fruit trees ragged and unpruned, indicate that this spot in past days was a pleasant, shady retreat, filled with fruits and flowers and the sweet murmur of waters.
The house is very spacious. A hall of noble size leads to a large spiral staircase winding through its center, while the various apartments are of imposing dimensions. It was built some fifteen or twenty years since by Mr. A——, the well-known New York merchant, who five years ago threw the commercial world into convulsions by a stupendous bank fraud. Mr. A——, as everyone knows, escaped to Europe, and died not long after, of a broken heart. Almost immediately after the news of his decease reached this country and was verified, the report spread in Twenty-sixth Street that No. —— was haunted. Legal measures had dispossessed the widow of its former owner, and it was inhabited merely by a caretaker and his wife, placed there by the house agent into whose hands it had passed for the purposes of renting or sale. These people declared that they were troubled with unnatural noises. Doors were opened without any visible agency. The remnants of furniture scattered through the various rooms were, during the night, piled one upon the other by unknown hands. Invisible feet passed up and down the stairs in broad daylight, accompanied by the rustle of unseen silk dresses, and the gliding of viewless hands along the massive balusters. The caretaker and his wife declared they would live there no longer. The house agent laughed, dismissed them, and put others in their place. The noises and supernatural manifestations continued. The neighborhood caught up the story, and the house remained untenanted for three years. Several persons negotiated for it; but, somehow, always before the bargain was closed they heard the unpleasant rumors and declined to treat any further. Continue reading ““What Was It?” — Fitz James O’Brien”
As we were leaving the tobacconist’s, my friend carefully separated his change; in the left pocket of his waistcoat he slipped small gold coins; in the right, small silver coins; in his left trouser pocket, a handful of pennies and, finally, in the right he put a silver two-franc piece that he had scrutinized with particular care.
“What a singularly minute distribution!” I said to myself.
We encountered a poor man who held out his cap with a trembling hand‹I know nothing more disquieting than the mute eloquence of those supplicating eyes that contain at once, for the sensitive man who knows how to read them, so much humility and so much reproach. He finds there something close to the depth of complicated feeling one sees in the tear-filled eyes of a dog being beaten.
My friend’s offering was considerably larger than mine, and I said to him: “You are right; next to the pleasure of feeling surprise, there is none greater than to cause a surprise.” “It was the counterfeit coin,” he calmly replied as though to justify himself for his prodigality.
But into my miserable brain, always concerned with looking for noon at two o’clock (what an exhausting faculty is nature’s gift to me!), there suddenly came the idea that such conduct on my friend’s part was excusable only by the desire to create an event in this poor devil’s life, perhaps even to learn the varied consequences, disastrous or otherwise, that a counterfeit coin in the hands of a beggar might engender. Might it not multiply into real coins? Could it not also lead him to prison? A tavern keeper, a baker, for example, was perhaps going to have him arrested as a counterfeiter or for passing counterfeit money. The counterfeit coin could just as well, perhaps, be the germ of several days’ wealth for a poor little speculator. And so my fancy went its course, lending wings to my friend’s mind and drawing all possible deductions from all possible hypotheses.
But the latter suddenly shattered my reverie by repeating my own words: “Yes, you are right; there is no sweeter pleasure than to surprise a man by giving him more than he hopes for.”
I looked him squarely in the eyes and I was appalled to see that his eyes shone with unquestionable candor. I then saw clearly that his aim had been to do a good deed while at the same time making a good deal; to earn forty cents and the heart of God; to win paradise economically; in short, to pick up gratis the certificate of a charitable man. I could have almost forgiven him the desire for the criminal enjoyment of which a moment before I assumed him capable; I would have found something bizarre, singular in his amusing himself by compromising the poor; but I will never forgive him the ineptitude of his calculation. To be mean is never excusable, but there is some merit in knowing that one is; the most irreparable of vices is to do evil out of stupidity.
So, you’re probably aware that The New Yorker has opened up some of its archive for the summer.
I posted a reading list last month of some of my favorite short stories from the magazine (okay, favorite open stories), as well as a few I hadn’t read before, like pieces from Janet Frame and Annie Proulx.
Here’s another list, a baker’s dozen, including some stuff I hadn’t read before the archive opened, as well as suggestions offered by some folks on twitter:
“To the Measures Fall” by Richard Powers
First read-through: you are biking through the Cotswolds when you come across the thing. Spring of ’63. Twenty-one years old, in your junior year abroad at the University of York, after a spring term green with Chaucer, Milton, Byron, and Swinburne. (Remember Swinburne?) Year One of a life newly devoted to words. Your recent change, of course, has crushed your father. He long hoped that you would follow through on that Kennedy-inspired dream of community service. You, who might have become a first-rate social worker. You, who might have done good things for the species, or at least for the old neighborhood. But life will be books for you, from here on. Nothing has ever felt more preordained.
Term’s out, and it’s time to see every square mile of this island. Bicycle clips, a Blue Guide, a transistor radio, and skin-hugging rain. Villages slip past on valley roads as twisty as the clauses in Henry James. The book turns up in a junk shop in an old Saxon market town whose name you will remember as almost certainly having an “m” in it. Among the rusted baby buggies and ancient radios you find old cooking magazines, books on fly-tying and photography, late-fifties spy novels with cardboard covers worn as soft as felt.
The thing pops out at you: “To the Measures Fall,” by someone named Elton Wentworth. There’s nothing else like it in the shop. It’s a fat tome with rough-cut pages in a deluxe, tooled binding. The dust jacket has disappeared, but the front matter suggests that you know all about Mr. Wentworth already. Born in 1888, the author of twelve previous books and the winner of awards too numerous to mention.
The first line reads, “A freak snow hit late that year, two weeks after the sand martins returned to the gravel pits near the South Downs.” The next few paragraphs sketch out a hard-pressed town, Wotton-on-Wold, much like the one you are in, with the “m” in it. On page 3, the author reveals the date: 1913. On the last page, a village search party finds the body of a young amputee captain who served at the Somme lying at the bottom of said gravel pits. Only seven years have passed, but the lilting opening cadences have darkened into fragments from another world.
The book seems to be a sweeping portrait of rural England before and after the First World War. You check the title page: copyright 1948. Aside from two bold exclamation points at the end of Chapter 1, the pages are unblemished, perhaps unread.
Pencilled into the upper right hand of the inside front is a price: 10/6 d. Exorbitant. You draw seven pounds a week for student expenses. A three-course Chinese dinner on Station Road costs four shillings, and lunch in the canteen is half that. A 12-inch LP runs only a pound, and even a two-minute call to the States is cheaper than Mr. Wentworth’s book. Half a guinea for a used novel you’ve never heard of? Robbery. But something about that opening is too strange for you to resist. Besides, you’ve just devoted your life to literature. You graze the start of Chapter 2, in which Trevor, a spindly farmer’s son with Addison’s disease, baffles his parents by insisting on going to university. You need to know how this beginning can reach so macabre an end.
The shop’s owner is a beaked old man with a gray hairline like a cowl slipping off his head. It’s humiliating to bargain with him, but you’re desperate.
How much do you offer the junk-store owner for his used book?
You are, by the way, female. Lots of folks think you shouldn’t be out biking alone, even in the Cotswolds. See pages 214 to 223 of Mr. Wentworth’s epic.
How much would you have offered for the book had you been male?
As you, savvy reader, are undoubtedly already aware, The New Yorker has opened up some of its archive for the rest of the summer (to show off its website redesign, I guess).
Here’s a reading list of short fiction from the archives (admittedly, some of the stuff I wanted to put on here is still behind a paywall).
Some of the stories on the list are classics, some are pieces I’ve shared on this blog before, some are excerpts from longer works, and a few are stories I have yet to read myself.