F774 st -
THE STORY OF THE SIREN.
BY JUM. FORSTER.
Presented to the
LIBRARY of the
UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO
THE STORY OF THE SIREN
E. M. FORSTER
THE STORY OF
E. M. FORSTER
'Printed by Leonard & Virginia Woolf at
The Hogarth Press, Paradise f ^oad^ Richmond
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
"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
"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
"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.
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
in his last remark that puzzled me.
"Have you ever seen her ?"
"Often and often"
"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
" 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-
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. "
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-
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
"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
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
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
" < 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
"Why do you love him if he is wicked ?"
He laughed for the first time. That was his only
" Is that the end ?" I asked, feeling curiously asham-
"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
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.
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