Tales of the Jazz Age, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Legend of Britomartis or of Chastity

It falls me here to write of Chastity.

The fayrest vertue, far above the rest. . . .

A sudden rush of feet on the stairs, a rusty swing-open of the thin door, and a man thrust himself into the room, a man without a jerkin, panting, sobbing, on the verge of collapse.

“Wessel,” words choked him, “stick me away somewhere, love of Our Lady!”

Caxter rose, carefully closing his book, and bolted the door in some concern.

“I’m pursued,” cried out Soft Shoes. “I vow there’s two short-witted blades trying to make me into mincemeat and near succeeding. They saw me hop the back wall!”

“It would need,” said Wessel, looking at him curiously, “several battalions armed with blunderbusses, and two or three Armadas, to keep you reasonably secure from the revenges of the world.”

Soft Shoes smiled with satisfaction. His sobbing gasps were giving way to quick, precise breathing; his hunted air had faded to a faintly perturbed irony.

“I feel little surprise,” continued Wessel.

“They were two such dreary apes.”

“Making a total of three.”

“Only two unless you stick me away. Man, man, come alive, they’ll be on the stairs in a spark’s age.”

Wessel took a dismantled pike-staff from the corner, and raising it to the high ceiling, dislodged a rough trap-door opening into a garret above.

“There’s no ladder.”

He moved a bench under the trap, upon which Soft Shoes mounted, crouched, hesitated, crouched again, and then leaped amazingly upward. He caught at the edge of the aperture and swung back and forth, for a moment, shifting his hold; finally doubled up and disappeared into the darkness above. There was a scurry, a migration of rats, as the trap-door was replaced; . . . silence.

Wessel returned to his reading-table, opened to the Legend of Britomartis or of Chastity — and waited. Almost a minute later there was a scramble on the stairs and an intolerable hammering at the door. Wessel sighed and, picking up his candle, rose.

“Who’s there?”

“Open the door!”

“Who’s there?”

An aching blow frightened the frail wood, splintered it around the edge. Wessel opened it a scarce three inches, and held the candle high. His was to play the timorous, the super-respectable citizen, disgracefully disturbed.

“One small hour of the night for rest. Is that too much to ask from every brawler and —-”

“Quiet, gossip! Have you seen a perspiring fellow?”

The shadows of two gallants fell in immense wavering outlines over the narrow stairs; by the light Wessel scrutinized them closely. Gentlemen, they were, hastily but richly dressed — one of them wounded severely in the hand, both radiating a sort of furious horror. Waving aside Wessel’s ready miscomprehension, they pushed by him into the room and with their swords went through the business of poking carefully into all suspected dark spots in the room, further extending their search to Wessel’s bedchamber.

“Is he hid here?” demanded the wounded man fiercely.

“Is who here?”

“Any man but you.”

“Only two others that I know of.”

For a second Wessel feared that he had been too damned funny, for the gallants made as though to prick him through.

“I heard a man on the stairs,” he said hastily, “full five minutes ago, it was. He most certainly failed to come up.”

He went on to explain his absorption in “The Faerie Queene” but, for the moment at least, his visitors, like the great saints, were anaesthetic to culture.

“What’s been done?” inquired Wessel.

“Violence!” said the man with the wounded hand. Wessel noticed that his eyes were quite wild. “My own sister. Oh, Christ in heaven, give us this man!”

Wessel winced.

“Who is the man?”

“God’s word! We know not even that. What’s that trap up there?” he added suddenly.

“It’s nailed down. It’s not been used for years.” He thought of the pole in the corner and quailed in his belly, but the utter despair of the two men dulled their astuteness.

“It would take a ladder for any one not a tumbler,” said the wounded man listlessly.

His companion broke into hysterical laughter.

“A tumbler. Oh, a tumbler. Oh —-”

Wessel stared at them in wonder.

“That appeals to my most tragic humor,” cried the man, “that no one — oh, no one — could get up there but a tumbler.”

The gallant with the wounded hand snapped his good fingers impatiently.

“We must go next door — and then on —”

Helplessly they went as two walking under a dark and storm-swept sky.

Wessel closed and bolted the door and stood a moment by it, frowning in pity.

A low-breathed “Ha!” made him look up. Soft Shoes had already raised the trap and was looking down into the room, his rather elfish face squeezed into a grimace, half of distaste, half of sardonic amusement.

“They take off their heads with their helmets,” he remarked in a whisper, “but as for you and me, Wessel, we are two cunning men.”

“Now you be cursed,” cried Wessel vehemently. “I knew you for a dog, but when I hear even the half of a tale like this, I know you for such a dirty cur that I am minded to club your skull.”

Soft Shoes stared at him, blinking.

“At all events,” he replied finally, “I find dignity impossible in this position.”

With this he let his body through the trap, hung for an instant, and dropped the seven feet to the floor.

“There was a rat considered my ear with the air of a gourmet,” he continued, dusting his hands on his breeches. “I told him in the rat’s peculiar idiom that I was deadly poison, so he took himself off.”

“Let’s hear of this night’s lechery!” insisted Wessel angrily.

Soft Shoes touched his thumb to his nose and wiggled the fingers derisively at Wessel.

“Street gamin!” muttered Wessel.

“Have you any paper?” demanded Soft Shoes irrelevantly, and then rudely added, “or can you write?”

“Why should I give you paper?”

“You wanted to hear of the night’s entertainment. So you shall, an you give me pen, ink, a sheaf of paper, and a room to myself.”

Wessel hesitated.

“Get out!” he said finally.

“As you will. Yet you have missed a most intriguing story.”

Wessel wavered — he was soft as taffy, that man — gave in. Soft Shoes went into the adjoining room with the begrudged writing materials and precisely closed the door. Wessel grunted and returned to “The Faerie Queene”; so silence came once more upon the house.

II

Three o’clock went into four. The room paled, the dark outside was shot through with damp and chill, and Wessel, cupping his brain in his hands, bent low over his table, tracing through the pattern of knights and fairies and the harrowing distresses of many girls. There were dragons chortling along the narrow street outside; when the sleepy armorer’s boy began his work at half-past five the heavy clink and clank of plate and linked mail swelled to the echo of a marching cavalcade.

A fog shut down at the first flare of dawn, and the room was grayish yellow at six when Wessel tiptoed to his cupboard bedchamber and pulled open the door. His guest turned on him a face pale as parchment in which two distraught eyes burned like great red letters. He had drawn a chair close to Wessel’s prie-dieu which he was using as a desk; and on it was an amazing stack of closely written pages. With a long sigh Wessel withdrew and returned to his siren, calling himself fool for not claiming his bed here at dawn.

The dump of boots outside, the croaking of old beldames from attic to attic, the dull murmur of morning, unnerved him, and, dozing, he slumped in his chair, his brain, overladen with sound and color, working intolerably over the imagery that stacked it. In this restless dream of his he was one of a thousand groaning bodies crushed near the sun, a helpless bridge for the strong-eyed Apollo. The dream tore at him, scraped along his mind like a ragged knife. When a hot hand touched his shoulder, he awoke with what was nearly a scream to find the fog thick in the room and his guest, a gray ghost of misty stuff, beside him with a pile of paper in his hand.

“It should be a most intriguing tale, I believe, though it requires some going over. May I ask you to lock it away, and in God’s name let me sleep?”

He waited for no answer, but thrust the pile at Wessel, and literally poured himself like stuff from a suddenly inverted bottle upon a couch in the corner, slept, with his breathing regular, but his brow wrinkled in a curious and somewhat uncanny manner.

Wessel yawned sleepily and, glancing at the scrawled, uncertain first page, he began reading aloud very softly:

The Rape of Lucrece

“From the besieged Ardea all in post,

Borne by the trustless wings of false desire,

Lust-breathing Tarquin leaves the Roman host —”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/f/fitzgerald/f_scott/jazz/chapter9.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 19:06