And then a dreadful thing happened: really a very dreadful thing. Hannele read of it in the evening newspaper of the town — the Abendblatt. Mitchka came rushing up with the paper at ten o’clock at night, just when Hannele was going to bed.
Mrs Hepburn had fallen out of her bedroom window, from the third floor of the hotel, down on to the pavement below, and was killed. She was dressing for dinner. And apparently she had in the morning washed a certain little camisole, and put it on the window-sill to dry. She must have stood on a chair, reaching for it when she fell out of the window. Her husband, who was in the dressing-room, heard a queer little noise, a sort of choking cry, and came into her room to see what it was. And she wasn’t there. The window was open, and the chair by the window. He looked round, and thought she had left the room for a moment, so returned to his shaving. He was half-shaved when one of the maids rushed in. When he looked out of the window down into the street he fainted, and would have fallen too if the maid had not pulled him in in time.
The very next day the captain came back to his attic. Hannele did not know, until quite late at night when he tapped on her door. She knew his soft tap immediately.
‘Won’t you come over for a chat?’ he said.
She paused for some moments before she answered. And then perhaps surprise made her agree: surprise and curiosity.
‘Yes, in a minute,’ she said, closing her door in his face.
She found him sitting quite still, not even smoking, in his quiet attic. He did not rise, but just glanced round with a faint smile. And she thought his face seemed different, more flexible. But in the half-light she could not tell. She sat at some little distance from him.
‘I suppose you’ve heard,’ he said.
After a long pause, he resumed:
‘Yes. It seems an impossible thing to have happened. Yet it HAS happened.’
Hannele’s ears were sharp. But strain them as she might, she could not catch the meaning of his voice.
‘A terrible thing. A VERY terrible thing,’ she said.
‘Do you think she fell quite accidentally?’ she said.
‘Must have done. The maid was in just a minute before, and she seemed as happy as possible. I suppose reaching over that broad window-ledge, her brain must suddenly have turned. I can’t imagine why she didn’t call me. She could never bear even to look out of a high window. Turned her ill instantly if she saw a space below her. She used to say she couldn’t really look at the moon, it made her feel as if she would fall down a dreadful height. She never dared to more than glance at it. She always had the feeling, I suppose, of the awful space beneath her, if she were on the moon.’
Hannele was not listening to his words, but to his voice. There was something a little automatic in what he said. But then that is always so when people have had a shock.
‘It must have been terrible for you too,’ she said.
‘Ah, yes. At the time it was awful. Awful. I felt the smash right inside me, you know.’
‘Awful!’ she repeated.
‘But now,’ he said, ‘I feel very strangely happy about it. I feel happy about it. I feel happy for her sake, if you can understand that. I feel she has got out of some great tension. I feel she’s free now for the first time in her life. She was a gentle soul, and an original soul, but she was like a fairy who is condemned to live in houses and sit on furniture and all that, don’t you know. It was never her nature.’
‘No?’ said Hannele, herself sitting in blank amazement.
‘I always felt she was born in the wrong period — or on the wrong planet. Like some sort of delicate creature you take out of a tropical forest the moment it is born, and from the first moment teach it to perform tricks. You know what I mean. All her life she performed the tricks of life, clever little monkey she was at it too. Beat me into fits. But her own poor little soul, a sort of fairy soul, those queer Irish creatures, was cooped up inside her all her life, tombed in. There it was, tombed in, while she went through all the tricks of life that you have to go through if you are born today.’
‘But,’ stammered Hannele, ‘what would she have done if she HAD been free?’
‘Why, don’t you see, there IS nothing for her to do in the world today. Take her language, for instance. She never ought to have been speaking English. I don’t know what language she ought to have spoken. Because if you take the Irish language, they only learn it back from English. They think in English, and just put Irish words on top. But English was never her language. It bubbled off her lips, so to speak. And she had no other language. Like a starling that you’ve made talk from the very beginning, and so it can only shout these talking noises, don’t you know. It can’t whistle its own whistling to save its life. Couldn’t do it. It’s lost it. All its own natural mode of expressing itself has collapsed, and it can only be artificial.’
There was a long pause.
‘Would she have been wonderful, then, if she had been able to talk in some unknown language?’ said Hannele jealously.
‘I don’t say she would have been wonderful. As a matter of fact, we think a talking starling is much more wonderful than an ordinary starling. I don’t myself, but most people do. And she would have been a sort of starling. And she would have had her own language and her own ways. As it was, poor thing, she was always arranging herself and fluttering and chattering inside a cage. And she never knew she was in the cage, any more than we know we are inside our own skins.’
‘But,’ said Hannele, with a touch of mockery, ‘how do you know you haven’t made it all up — just to console yourself?’
‘Oh, I’ve thought it long ago,’ he said.
‘Still,’ she blurted, ‘you may have invented it all — as a sort of consolation for — for — for your life.’
‘Yes, I may,’ he said. ‘But I don’t think so. It was her eyes. Did you ever notice her eyes? I often used to catch her eyes. And she’d be talking away, all the language bubbling off her lips. And her eyes were so clear and bright and different. Like a child’s that is listening to something, and is going to be frightened. She was always listening — and waiting — for something else. I tell you what, she was exactly like that fairy in the Scotch song, who is in love with a mortal, and sits by the high road in terror waiting for him to come, and hearing the plovers and the curlews. Only nowadays motor-lorries go along the moor roads and the poor thing is struck unconscious, and carried into our world in a state of unconsciousness, and when she comes round, she tries to talk our language and behave as we behave, and she can’t remember anything else, so she goes on and on, till she falls with a crash, back to her own world.’
Hannele was silent, and so was he.
‘You loved her then?’ she said at length.
‘Yes. But in this way. When I was a boy I caught a bird, a black-cap, and I put it in a cage. And I loved that bird. I don’t know why, but I loved it. I simply loved that bird. All the gorse, and the heather, and the rock, and the hot smell of yellow gorse blossom, and the sky that seemed to have no end to it, when I was a boy, everything that I almost was MAD with, as boys are, seemed to me to be in that little, fluttering black-cap. And it would peck its seed as if it didn’t quite know what else to do; and look round about, and begin to sing. But in quite a few days it turned its head aside and died. Yes, it died. I never had the feeling again that I got from that black-cap when I was a boy — not until I saw her. And then I felt it all again. I felt it all again. And it was the same feeling. I knew, quite soon I knew, that she would die. She would peck her seed and look round in the cage just the same. But she would die in the end. Only it would last much longer. But she would die in the cage, like the black-cap.’
‘But she loved the cage. She loved her clothes and her jewels. She must have loved her house and her furniture and all that with a perfect frenzy.’
‘She did. She did. But like a child with playthings. Only they were big, marvellous playthings to her. Oh yes, she was never away from them. She never forgot her things — her trinkets and her furs and her furniture. She never got away from them for a minute. And everything in her mind was mixed up with them.’
‘Dreadful!’ said Hannele.
‘Yes, it was dreadful,’ he answered.
‘Dreadful,’ repeated Hannele.
‘Yes, quite. Quite! And it got worse. And her way of talking got worse. As if it bubbled off her lips. But her eyes never lost their brightness, they never lost that faery look. Only I used to see fear in them. Fear of everything — even all the things she surrounded herself with. Just like my black-cap used to look out of his cage — so bright and sharp, and yet as if he didn’t know that it was just the cage that was between him and the outside. He thought it was inside himself, the barrier. He thought it was part of his own nature to be shut in. And she thought it was part of her own nature. And so they both died.’
‘What I can’t see,’ said Hannele, ‘is what she would have done outside her cage. What other life could she have, except her bibelots and her furniture, and her talk?’
‘Why, none. There IS no life outside for human beings.’
‘Then there’s nothing,’ said Hannele.
‘That’s true. In a great measure, there’s nothing.’
‘Thank you,’ said Hannele.
There was a long pause.
‘And perhaps I was to blame. Perhaps I ought to have made some sort of a move. But I didn’t know what to do. For my life, I didn’t know what to do, except try to make her happy. She had enough money — and I didn’t think it mattered if she shared it with me. I always had a garden — and the astronomy. It’s been an immense relief to me watching the moon. It’s been wonderful. Instead of looking inside the cage, as I did at my bird, or at her — I look right out — into freedom — into freedom.’
‘The moon, you mean?’ said Hannele.
‘Yes, the moon.’
‘And that’s your freedom?’
‘That’s where I’ve found the greatest sense of freedom,’ he said.
‘Well, I’m not going to be jealous of the moon,’ said Hannele at length.
‘Why should you? It’s not a thing to be jealous of.’
In a little while, she bade him good-night and left him.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57