“My First Romance” by Lafcadio Hearn
There has been sent to me, across the world, a little book stamped, on its yellow cover, with names of Scandinavian publishers – names sounding of storm and strand and surge. And the sight of those names, worthy of Frost-Giants, evokes the vision of a face – simply because that face has long been associated, in my imagination, with legends and stories of the North – especially, I think, with the wonderful stories of Björnstjerne Björnson.
It is the face of a Norwegian peasant-girl of nineteen summers – fair and ruddy and strong. She wears her national costume: her eyes are grey like the sea, and her bright braided hair is tied with a blue ribbon. She is tall; and there is an appearance of strong grace about her, for which I can find no word. Her name I never learned, and never shall be able to learn; – and now it does not matter. By this time she may have grandchildren not a few. But for me she will always be the maiden of nineteen summers – fair and fresh from the land of the Hrimthursar – a daughter of gods and Vikings. From the moment of seeing her I wanted die for her; and I dreamed of Valkyrja and of Vala-maids, of Freyja and of Gerda. . . .
She is seated, facing me, in an American railroad-car – a third-class car, full of people whose forms have become indistinguishably dim in memory. She alone remains luminous, vivid: the rest have faded into shadow – all except a man, sitting beside me, whose dark Jewish face, homely and kindly, is still visible in profile. Through the window on our right she watches the strange new world through which we are passing: there is a trembling beneath us, and a rhythm of thunder, while the train sways like a ship in a storm.
An emigrant-train it is; and she, and I, and all those dim people are rushing westward, ever westward – through days and nights that seem preternaturally large – over distances that are monstrous. The light is of a summer day; and shadows slant to the east.
The man beside me says:
“She must leave us tomorrow; – she goes to Redwing, Minnesota. . . . You like her very much? – yes, she’s a fine girl. I think you wish that you were also going to Redwing, Minnesota?”
I do not answer. I am angry that he should know what I wish. And it is very rude of him, I think, to let me know that he knows.
Mischievously, he continues:
“If you like her so much, why don’t you talk to her? Tell me what you would like to say to her; and I’ll interpret for you. . . . Bah! you must not be afraid of the girls!”
Oh! – the idea of telling him what I should like to say to her! . . . Yet it is not possible to see him smile, and to remain vexed with him.
Anyhow, I do not feel inclined to talk. For thirty-eight hours I have not eaten anything; and my romantic dreams, nourished with tobacco-smoke only, are frequently interrupted by a sudden inner aching that makes me wonder how long I shall be able to remain without food. Three more days of railroad travel – and no money! . . . My neighbor yesterday asked me why I did not eat; – how quickly he changed the subject when I told him! Certainly I have no right to complain: there is no reason why he should feed me. And I reflect upon the folly of improvidence.
Then my reflection is interrupted by the apparition of a white hand holding out to me a very, very large slice of brown bread with an inch-thick cut of yellow cheese thereon; and I look up, hesitating, into the face of the Norwegian girl. Smiling, she says to me, in English, with a pretty, childish accent:
“Take it, and eat it.”
I take it, I devour it. Never before nor since did brown bread and cheese seem to me so good. Only after swallowing the very last crumb do I suddenly become aware that, in my surprise and hunger, I forgot to thank her. Impulsively, and at the wrong moment, I try to say some grateful words.
Instantly, and up to the roots of her hair, she flushes crimson: then, bending forward, she puts some question in a clear sharp tone that fills me with fear and shame. I do not understand the question: I understand only that she is angry; and for one cowering moment my instinct divines the power and the depth of Northern anger. My face burns; and her grey eyes, watching it burn, are grey steel; and her smile is the smile of a daughter of men who laugh when they are angry. And I wish myself under the train – under the earth – utterly out of sight forever. But my dark neighbor makes some low-voiced protest – assures her that I had only tried to thank her. Whereat the level brows relax, and she turns away, without a word, to watch the flying landscape; and the splendid flush fades from her cheek as swiftly as it came. But no one speaks: the train rushes into the dusk of five and thirty years ago . . . and that is all!
. . . What can she have imagined that I said? . . . My swarthy comrade would not tell me. Even now my face burns again at the thought of having caused a moment’s anger to the kind heart that pitied me – brought a blush to the cheek of the being for whose sake I would so gladly have given my life . . . But the shadow, the golden shadow of her, is always with me; and, because of her, even the name of the land from which she came is very, very dear to me.
“The Gilded Six-Bits” by Zora Neale Hurston
It was a Negro yard around a Negro house in a Negro settlement that looked to the payroll of the G. and G. Fertilizer works for its support.
But there was something happy about the place. The front yard was parted in the middle by a sidewalk from gate to doorstep, a sidewalk edged on either side by quart bottles driven neck down into the ground on a slant. A mess of homey flowers planted without a plan but blooming cheerily from their helter-skelter places. The fence and house were whitewashed. The porch and steps scrubbed white.
The front door stood open to the sunshine so that the floor of the front room could finish drying after its weekly scouring. It was Saturday. Everything clean from the front gate to the privy house. Yard raked so that the strokes of the rake would make a pattern. Fresh newspaper cut in fancy edge on the kitchen shelves.
Missie May was bathing herself in the galvanized washtub in the bedroom. Her dark-brown skin glistened under the soapsuds that skittered down from her washrag. Her stiff young breasts thrust forward aggressively, like broad-based cones with the tips lacquered in black.
She heard men’s voices in the distance and glanced at the dollar clock on the dresser.
“Humph! Ah’m way behind time t’day! Joe gointer be heah ‘fore Ah git mah clothes on if Ah don’t make haste.”
She grabbed the clean mealsack at hand and dried herself hurriedly and began to dress. But before she could tie her slippers, there came the ring of singing metal on wood. Nine times.
Missie May grinned with delight. She had not seen the big tall man come stealing in the gate and creep up the walk grinning happily at the joyful mischief he was about to commit. But she knew that it was her husband throwing silver dollars in the door for her to pick up and pile beside her plate at dinner. It was this way every Saturday afternoon. The nine dollars hurled into the open door, he scurried to a hiding place behind the Cape jasmine bush and waited.
“Desiree’s Baby” by Kate Chopin
As the day was pleasant, Madame Valmonde drove over to L’Abri to see Desiree and the baby.
It made her laugh to think of Desiree with a baby. Why, it seemed but yesterday that Desiree was little more than a baby herself; when Monsieur in riding through the gateway of Valmonde had found her lying asleep in the shadow of the big stone pillar.
The little one awoke in his arms and began to cry for “Dada.” That was as much as she could do or say. Some people thought she might have strayed there of her own accord, for she was of the toddling age. The prevailing belief was that she had been purposely left by a party of Texans, whose canvas-covered wagon, late in the day, had crossed the ferry that Coton Mais kept, just below the plantation. In time Madame Valmonde abandoned every speculation but the one that Desiree had been sent to her by a beneficent Providence to be the child of her affection, seeing that she was without child of the flesh. For the girl grew to be beautiful and gentle, affectionate and sincere – the idol of Valmonde.
It was no wonder, when she stood one day against the stone pillar in whose shadow she had lain asleep, eighteen years before, that Armand Aubigny riding by and seeing her there, had fallen in love with her. That was the way all the Aubignys fell in love, as if struck by a pistol shot. The wonder was that he had not loved her before; for he had known her since his father brought him home from Paris, a boy of eight, after his mother died there. The passion that awoke in him that day, when he saw her at the gate, swept along like an avalanche, or like a prairie fire, or like anything that drives headlong over all obstacles.
Monsieur Valmonde grew practical and wanted things well considered: that is, the girl’s obscure origin. Armand looked into her eyes and did not care. He was reminded that she was nameless. What did it matter about a name when he could give her one of the oldest and proudest in Louisiana? He ordered the corbeille from Paris, and contained himself with what patience he could until it arrived; then they were married.
“The Secretary” by Robert Walser
I had the audacity to write a book that caused quite a stir. As a consequence I was permitted to interact in a casual manner with people of substance. The doors of serious, elegant households were flung wide open to admit me, which was most certainly to my advantage. All I had to do was stroll right in and take care to behave in an agreeable manner as consistently as possible. Once I set foot in a gathering of at least forty full-blooded celebrities. Just imagine how glorious that was!
The commercial head of an association for practitioners of the fine arts one day invited me, after appropriate deliberation, to become his secretary. “I hope,” he said, “that you will prove just as capable of selling pictures as you are of publishing books!” The offer was too kind to be dismissed out of hand. Accepting this proposal, I resolved that from this moment on I would consider myself fairly remarkable. I felt obliged to remind myself that a person who, upon receiving support, neither feels gratified nor shows his pleasure and gives voice to his satisfaction insults the world at large.
Its plain to see: a keen mind, superior intelligence, a high or the highest level of education and culture should, if this is somehow conceivable, be expected of all secretaries. Even their external appearance must, it goes without saying, be proper and distinguished. One assumes them to be pliant and at the same time clever, suave, gallant and at the same time in every way resolved to achieve commercial success. Elegant manners and glossy social savoir faire number decisively among their inborn qualities.
I don’t know whether I did in fact display all the above-mentioned traits, but I do know that half the city came traipsing through my office. Persons of all dispositions, of every rank and station came barging more or less vigorously into the ministry, I mean headquarters: the cream of society, elegant agents, poor journeymen, sly Gypsies, unruly poets, alarmingly refined ladies, dour princes, strikingly handsome young officers, authors, actresses, sculptors, diplomats, politicians, critics, journalists, theater directors, virtuosos, celebrated scholars, publishers, and wizards in the field of finance. In and out went some who had long since arrived at the top, some who were still groping about the bottom, and others hoping to ascend–both radiantly luminous and somber, gloomy individuals. As in an odd masquerade there entered: young and old, poor and wealthy, healthy and frail, lofty and lowly, merry and morose, happy and unhappy, saucy and shy, cheerful and sad, attractive and hideous, polite and impolite, glorious and shabby, respected and despondent, the proud and the imploring, the famous and the unknown, along with faces, gestures, and figures of all genres.
Art exhibitions are known to have as their goal the advantageous display of works of art and the attracting of buyers. The secretary plays the role of intermediary or go-between, facilitating communication between artists and their extensive, art-infatuated public. It is his task to ensure that a goodly number of bargains are definitively struck, that pictures are industriously sent out the door to buyers. Persons expressing interest in these works might appear on the scene only to swiftly vanish from sight again, unfortunately for good. The secretary must be attentive, as the most unimposing man can unexpectedly prove to be a connoisseur and buyer.
For a time I imagined myself to be exceedingly skillful at the art trade. Unquestionably I was splendidly suited to taking leisurely hackney-cab rides upon pleasantly lively, bright, glittering streets and to spending half and whole hours merrily chatting with jolly artists’ wives. Spirited evenings at the club regularly showed me in top form. I was a master at passing about platters heaped with delicacies, and was a frequent and enthusiastic visitor to and encourager of female painters. In such and similar respects, I acquitted myself gloriously. After the fact, however, I reached the conclusion that I cannot have been a particularly valuable, clever, prudent, and successful secretary for paintings. Specialists in the field were on several occasions seen to shrug their shoulders at the extent of my accomplishments. The head of the firm seemed to find it appealing to speak with his functionary above all on the subject of poetry and the like.
A stately successor soon reduced me to a predecessor and provided me with an occasion to lay down my post, resign my position, delicately make way, and charmingly busy myself elsewhere. Thinking poorly of me or feeling resentful because he had made so bold as to presume talents in me that I did not in fact possess was something that would never have occurred to my benefactor. To demonstrate that he was still of a mind to remain well-disposed toward me, he invited me, with a turn of phrase both courteous and jovial, to join him for supper.
If some frail tubercular lady circus rider were to be driven in circles around and around the arena for months and months without interruption in front of a tireless public on a swaying horse by a merciless whip-wielding master of ceremonies, spinning on the horse, throwing kisses and swaying at the waist, and if this performance, amid the incessant roar of the orchestra and the ventilators, were to continue into the ever-expanding, gray future, accompanied by applause, which died down and then swelled up again, from hands which were really steam hammers, perhaps then a young visitor to the gallery might rush down the long stair case through all the levels, burst into the ring, and cry “Stop!” through the fanfares of the constantly adjusting orchestra.
But since things are not like that—since a beautiful woman, in white and red, flies in through curtains which proud men in livery open in front of her, since the director, devotedly seeking her eyes, breathes in her direction, behaving like an animal, and, as a precaution, lifts her up on the dapple-gray horse, as if she were his grand daughter, the one he loved more than anything else, as she starts a dangerous journey, but he cannot decide to give the signal with his whip and finally, controlling himself, gives it a crack, runs right beside the horse with his mouth open, follows the rider’s leaps with a sharp gaze, hardly capable of comprehending her skill, tries to warn her by calling out in English, furiously castigating the grooms holding hoops, telling them to pay the most scrupulous attention, and begs the orchestra, with upraised arms, to be quiet before the great jump, finally lifts the small woman down from the trembling horse, kisses her on both cheeks, considers no public tribute adequate, while she herself, leaning on him, high on the tips of her toes, with dust swirling around her, arms outstretched and head thrown back, wants to share her luck with the entire circus—since this is how things are, the visitor to the gallery puts his face on the railing and, sinking into the final march as if into a difficult dream, weeps, without realizing it.
“Up in the Gallery” by Franz Kafka