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Full text of "The story of the siren"

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F774 st - 

THE STORY OF THE SIREN. 

BY JUM. FORSTER. 



Presented to the 
LIBRARY of the 

UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO 



Ontario 

Legislative 

Library 





THE STORY OF THE SIREN 
E. M. FORSTER 





] 



",'.,': I 



THE STORY OF 
THE SIREN 



BY 

E. M. FORSTER 



'Printed by Leonard & Virginia Woolf at 

The Hogarth Press, Paradise f ^oad^ Richmond 

1920 



THE STORY OF THE SIREN 

Few things have been more beautiful than my 
note book on the Deist Controversy as it fell down- 
ward through the waters of the Mediterranean. It dived, 
like a piece of black slate, but opened soon, disclosing 
leaves of pale green, which quivered into blue. Now it 
had vanished, now it was a piece of magical india rubber 
stretching out to infinity, now it was a book again, but 
bigger than the book of all knowledge. It grew more 
fantastic as it reached the bottom, where a puff of sand 
welcomed it and obscured it from view. But it reappear- 
ed, quite sane though a little tremulous, lying decently 
open on its back, while unseen fingers fidgeted among 
its leaves. 

"It is such a pity" said my aunt, "that you will 
not finish your work in the Hotel. Then you would 
be free to enjoy yourself and this would never have 
happened." 

"Nothing of it but will change into something rich 
and strange," warbled the chaplain, while his sister said 
"Why it's gone into the water. " As for the boatmen, 
one of them laughed, while the other, without a word 
of warning, stood up and began to take his clothes off. 

"Holy Moses ! " cried the Colonel. "Is the fellow 
mad?" 

(5) 



"Yes, thank him deaf," said my aunt : "that is to 
say tell him he is very kind, but perhaps another time. " 

"All the same I do want my book back/' 1 com- 
plained. "It's for my Fellowship Dissertation. There 
Won't be much left or it by another time. " 

"I have an idea," said some woman or other 
throngh her parasol. . "Let us leave this child of 
nature to dive for the book while we go on to the other 
grotto. We can land him either on this rock or on the 
ledge inside, and he will be ready when we return." 

The idea seemed good ; and I improved it by say- 
ing I would be left behind too, to lighten the boat. So 
the two of us were deposited outside the little grotto 
on a great sunlit rock that guarded the harmonies with- 
in. Let us call them blue, though they suggest rather 
the spirit of what* is clean, cleanliness passed from the 
domestic to the sublime, the cleanliness of all the sea 
gathered together and radiating light. The Blue Grotto 
at Capri contains only more blue water, not bluer water. 
That colour and that spirit is the heritage of every cave 
in the Mediterranean into which the sun can shine and 
the sea flow. 

As soon as the boat left I realised how imprudent 
I had been to trust myself on a sloping rock with an 
unknown Sicilian. With a jerk he became alive, seiz- 
ing my arm and saying " Go to the end of the Grotto 
and I will show you something beautiful. " 

He made me jump off the rock on to the ledge 
over a dazzling crack of sea, he drew me away from the 
light till I was standing on the tiny beach of sand which 
emerged like powdered turquoise at the further end, 
There he left me with his clothes, and returned swiftly 
to the summit of the entrance-rock. For a moment he 
stood naked in the brilliant sun, looking down at the 
spot where the book lay. Then he crossed himself, 
raised his hands above his head, and dived. 

(6) 



If the book was wonderful, the man is past all des- 
cription. His effect was that of a silver statue, alive 
beneath the sea, through whom life throbbed in blue 
and green. Something infinitely happy, infinitely wise 
but it was impossible that it should emerge from the 
depths sunburnt and dripping, holding the note book 
on the Deist Controversy between its teeth. 

A gratuity is generally expected by those who bathe. 
Whatever 1 offered, he was sure to want more, and I 
was disinclined for an argument in a place so beautiful 
and also so solitary. It was a relief that he should say 
in conversational tones " In a place like this one might 
see the Siren. " 

I was delighted with him for thus falling into the 
key of his surroundings. We had been left together 
in a magic world, apart from all the commonplaces that 
are called reality, a world of blue whose floor was the 
sea and whose walls and roof of rock trembled with the 
sea's reflections. Here, only the fantastic would be tol- 
erable, and it was in that spirit that I echoed his words. 
"One might easily see the Siren." 

He watched me curiously while he dressed. I was 
parting the sticky leaves of the note book as I sat on 
the strip' of sand, 

"Ah ! " he said at last. "You may have read the 
little book that was printed last year. Who would have 
thought that our Siren would have given the foreigners 
pleasure ! " 

(I read it afterwards. Its account is, not unnatur- 
ally, incomplete, in spite of there being a woodcut of 
the young person, and -the words of her song.) 

"She comes out of this blue water, doesn't she," 
I suggested " and sits on the rock at the entrance, comb- 
ing her hair." 

I wanted to draw him out, for I was interested in 
his sudden gravity, and there was a suggestion of irony 

(7) 



in his last remark that puzzled me. 

"Have you ever seen her ?" 

"Often and often" 

"I never." 

"But you have heard her sing!" 

He put on his coat and said impatiently "How 
can she sing under the water ? Who could ? She some- 
times tries, but nothing comes from her but great 
bubbles." 

" She should climb on to the rock then. " 

"How can she?" he cried again, quite angry. 
" The priests have blessed the air, so she cannot breathe 
it, and blessed the rocks, so that she cannot sit on them. 
But the sea no man can bless, because it is too big, and 
always changing. Therefore she lives in the sea." 

I was silent. 

At this his face took a gentler expression. He 
looked at me as though something was on his mind, 
and going out to the entrance rock, gazed at the exter- 
nal blue. Then returning into our twilight he said "As 
a rule only good people see the Siren. " 

I made no comment. There was a pause, and he 
continued. " That is a very strange thing, and the priests 
do not know how to account for it ; for she of course 
is wicked. Not only those who fast and go to mass 
are in danger, but even those who are merely good in 
daily life. No one in the village had seen her for two 
generations. I am not surprised. We all cross our- 
selves before we enter the water, but it is unnecessary. 
Giuseppe, we thought, was safer than most. We loved 
him, and many of us he' loved : but that is a different 
thing to being good." 

I asked who Giuseppe was. 

"That day I was seventeen and my brother was 
twenty ancl a great deal stronger than I was and it was 
the year when the visitors, who have brought such pros- 

(8) 



perity and so many alterations into the village, first be- 

fan to come. One English lady in particular, of very 
igh birth, came, and has written a book about the place, 
and it was through her that the Improvement Syndicate 
was formed, which is about to connect the hotels with 
the station by means of a Funicular railway." 

"Don't tell me about that lady in here," I observed. 
"That day we took her and her friends to see the 
grottoes. As we rowed close under the cliffs I put out 
my hand, as one does, and caught a little crab, and having 
pulled off its claws offered it as a curiosity. The ladies 
groaned, but a gentleman was pleased, and held out 
money. Being inexperienced, I refused it, saying that 
his pleasure was sufficient reward! Giuseppe, who was 
rowing behind, was very angry with me and reached out 
with his hand and hit me on the side of the mouth, so 
that a tooth cut my lip, and I bled. I tried to hit him 
back, but he always was too quick for me, and as I 
stretched round he kicked me under the arm pit, so that 
for a moment I could not even row. There was a great 
noise among the ladies, and I heard afterwards that 
they were planning to take me away from my brother 
and train me as a waiter. That at all events never 
came to pass. 

"When we reached the grotto not here, but a 
larger one the gentleman was very anxious that one 
of us should dive for money, and the ladies consented, 
as they sometimes do. Giuseppe who had discovered 
how much pleasure it gives foreigners to see us in the 
water, refused to dive for anything but silver, and the 
gentleman threw in a two lira piece. 

"Just before my brother sprang off he caught sight 
of me holding my bruise, and crying, for I could not 
help it. He laughed and said c this time, at all events, 
I shall not see the Siren ! ' and went into the blue water 
without crossing himself. But he saw her. " 

(9) 



,< 






He broke off, and accepted a cigarette. I watched 
the golden entrance rock and the quivering walls, and 
the magic water through which great bubbles constantly 
rose. At last he dropped his hot ash into the ripples 
and turned his head away, and said 

"He came up without the coin. We pulled him 
into the boat, and he was so large that he seemed to fill 
it, and so wet that we could not dress him. I have 
never seen a man so wet. I and the gentleman rowed 
back, and we covered Giuseppe with sacking and 
propped him up in the stern." 

"He was drowned, then ?" I murmured, supposing 
that to be the point. 

"He was not" he cried angrily. "He saw the 
Siren. I told you. " 

I was silenced again. 

"We put him to bed, though he was not ill. The 
doctor came, and took money, and the priest came and 
took more and smothered him with incense and spatter- 
ed him with holy water. But it was no good. He was 
too big like a piece of the sea. He kissed the thumb- 
bones of San Biagio and they never dried till evening. " 

"What did he look like ?" I ventured. 

"Like anyone who has seen the Siren. If you 
have seen her 'often and often* how is it you do not 
know ? Unhappy, unhappy, unhappy because he knew 
everything. Every living thing made him unhappy 
because he knew it would die. And all he cared to do 
was to sleep. " 

I bent over my note book. 

" He did no work, he forgot to eat, he forgot 
whether he had his clothes on. All the work fell on 
me, and my sister had to go out to service. We tried 
to make him into a beggar, but he was too robust to 
inspire pity, and as for an idiot, he had not the right 
look in his eyes. He would stand in the street look- 

(10) 



ing at people, and the more he looked at them the more 
unhappy he became. When a child was born lie would 
cover his face with his hands. If anyone was married 
he was terrible then, and would frighten them as they 
came out of church. Who would have believed he 
would marry himself! I caused that, I. I was read- 
ing out of the paper how a girl at Ragusa had 'gone 
mad through bathing in the sea. ' Giuseppe got up, 
and in a week he and that girl came in together. 

"He never told me anything, but it seems that he 
went straight to her house, broke into her room, and 
carried her off. She was the daughter of a rich mine- 
owner, so you may imagine our peril. Her father came 
down, with a clever lawyer, but they could do no more 
than I. They argued and they threatened, but at last 
they had to go back and we lost nothing that is to say, 
no money. We took Giuseppe and Maria to the Church 
and had them married. Ugh ! that wedding ! The 
priest made no jokes afterwards and coming out the 
children threw stones. ... I think I would have died 
to make her happy ; but as always happens, one could 
do nothing." 

"Were they unhappy together then?" 

"They loved each other, but love is not happi- 
ness. We can all get love. Love is nothing. Love 
is everywhere since the death of Jesus Christ. I had 
two people to work for now, for she was like him in 
everything one never knew which of them was speak- 
ing. I had to sell our own boat and work under the 
bad old man you have to-day. Worst of all, people 
began to hate us. The children first everything be- 
gins with them and then the women and last of all 
the men. For the cause of every misfortune was you 
will not betray me?" 

I promised good faith, and immediately he burst 
into the frantic blasphemy of one who has escaped from 

('0 



supervision, cursing the priests, the lying filthy cheating 
immoral priests who had ruined his life, who had mur- 
dered his brother and the girl, whom he dared not mur- 
der back because they held the key of heaven and could 
ruin him in the next life too. "Thus are we tricked !" 
was his cry and he stood up and kicked at the azure 
ripples with his feet, till he had obscured them with a 
cloud of sand. 

I too was moved. The story of Giuseppe, for all 
its absurdity and superstition, came nearer to reality than 
anything I had known before. I don't know why, but 
it filled me with desire to help others the greatest of 
all our desires I suppose, and the most fruitless. The 
desire soon passed. 

" She was about to have a child. That was the end 
of everything. People said tome * When will your 
charming nephew be born ? What a cheerful attractive 
child he will be, with such a father and mother ! ' I 
kept my face steady and replied C I think he may be. 
Out of sadness shall come gladness * it is one of our 
proverbs. And my answer frightened them very much ? 
and they told the priests, who were frightened too. Then 
the whisper started that the child would be Anti-Christ : 
you need not be afraid : he was never born. 

"An old witch began to prophesy, and no one 
stopped her. Giuseppe and the girl, she said, had silent 
devils, who could do little harm. But the child would 
always be speaking and laughing and perverting, and 
last of all he would go into the sea and fetch up the 
Siren into the air and all the world would see her and 
hear her sing. As soon as she sang, the Seven Vials 
would be opened and the Pope would die and Mongi- 
bello flame, and th e veil of Santa Agata would be burnt. 
Then the boy and the Siren would marry, and together 
they would rule the world, for ever and ever. 

"The whole village was in tumult, and the hotel 

(12) 



keepers became alarmed, for the tourist season was just 
beginning. They met together and decided that Giu- 
seppe and the girl must be sent inland until the child 
was born, and they subscribed the money. The night 
before they were to start there was a full moon and wind 
from the east, and all along the coast the sea shot up 
over the cliffs in silver clouds. It is a wonderful sight, 
and Maria said she must see it once more. 

" * Do not go, ' I said. c I saw the priest go by, 
and someone with him. And the hotel keepers do not 
like you to be seen, and if we displease them also we 
shall starve/ 

" < I want to go, * she replied. < The sea is stormy, 
and I may never feel it again. * 

" * No, he is right ' said Giuseppe. c Do not go - 
or let one of us go with you. ' 

" ' I want to go alone/ she said ; and she went alone. 

" I tied up their luggage in a piece of cloth, and 
then I was so unhappy at thinking I should lose them 
that I went and sat down by my brother and put my 
arm round his neck, and he put his arm round me, which 
he had not done for more than a year, and we remained 
thus I don't remember how long. 

" Suddenly the door flew open and moon-light and 
wind came in together, and a child's voice said laughing 
4 They have pushed her over the cliffs into the sea. ' 

" I stepped to the drawer where I keep my knives, 
and the child ran away. 

" c Sit down again ' said Giuseppe Giuseppe of all 
people i * If she is dead, why should others die too ? ' 

'I guess who it is,' I cried, 'and I will kill him.' 

"I was almost out of the door but he tripped me up 
and kneeling upon me took hold of both my hands and 
sprained my wrists ; first my right one, then my left. No 
one but Giuseppe would have thought of such a thing. It 
hurt more than you would suppose, and I fainted. When 
I woke up, he was gone, and I have never seen him again 



But Giuseppe disgusted me. 

"I told you he was wicked," he said. "No one 
would have expected him to see the Siren.'* 

" How do you know he did see her then ? " 

" Because he did not see her c often and often ' but 
Once." 

"Why do you love him if he is wicked ?" 

He laughed for the first time. That was his only 
reply. 

" Is that the end ?" I asked, feeling curiously asham- 
ed. 

"I never killed her murderer, for by the time my 
wrists were well, he was in America; and one cannot 
kill a priest. As for Giuseppe, he went all over the 
world too, looking for someone else who has seen the 
Siren either a man, or, better still, a woman, for then 
the child might still have been born. At last he came 

O 

to Liverpool, is the district probable ? and there he 
began to cough, and spat blood until he died. 

" I do not suppose there is anyone living now who 
has seen her. There has seldom been more than one 
in a generation, and never in my life will there be both 
a man and a woman from whom that child can be born, 
who will fetch up the Siren from the sea, and destroy 
silence, and save the world!" 

" Save the world ?" I cried. "Did the prophecy 
end like that?" 

He leant back against the rock, breathing deep. 
Through all the blue-green reflections I saw him colour. 
I heard him say : " Silence and loneliness cannot last for 
ever. It may be a hundred or a thousand years, but the 
sea lasts longer, and she shall come out of it and sing." 
I would have asked him more, but at that moment the 
whole cave darkened, and there rode in through its 
narrow entrance the returning boat. 



THE HOGARTH PRESS 

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Reminiscences of Leo Nicolayevitch Tolstoi. By MAXIM 
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