The Mortal Feelings of W. Somerset Maugham
At ten to seven that night, Somerset could wait no longer, and he descended to the street to hire a fiacre. It was pleasantly warm, or warm compared to the previous days, and the city buzzed with life – people were shopping, gallivanting, off to dine, or just enjoying the air. True winter was no doubt camped with its armies around the city, and the forthcoming siege had people trying to enjoy the last remnants of the autumn.
Somerset’s heart pounded with excitement and fear. He had not eaten all day, his stomach tore loudly at itself, and his head was dizzy. The fiacre rumbled and creaked and banged beneath him, and he stared at the disheartening curve of the driver’s slumped, disappointed shoulders. Somerset was both so horribly sad and so electric with anticipation, that it felt like his body was being fought over by terrible raptors, their beaks made of loneliness and lust, wings beating, their eyes like black suns. Did Aarav make made his own way through the city now for their reunion?
How had all this started ? With breakfast in a café. And what of Mrs. Baxter and her threats? Had he betrayed England? He didn’t care. But – it had cost him nothing, so it had been easy. What would she do? What did she know?
To Hell with Mrs. Baxter.
The fiacre driver dropped him off in front of the cathedral. It was seven-thirty. People littered the street out front – a sign indicated that at 8:30pm there would be a solo musical performance by the famous pianist Witold Kamińska; following that Kamińska would be accompanied by a girl’s choirgirls’ choir from a nearby convent. Somerset knew he was early, but he looked about for Aarav anyway, who was nowhere to be seen. Somerset gazed down the streets and sidewalks – with every fiacre he saw, he imagined Aarav in it, gleaming like knight in armor, though he knew Aarav used the tram when he was alone. Somerset was surround by conversation, laughter. It was unbearable. The inchoate future tormented him. He would sell his soul for certainty.
He looked at his watch. Only five minutes had passed. He smoked a cigarette, though his throat was dry. It was done all too quick, and he cast its spent body into the street. He stepped back from the gutter quickly as he saw an automobile nearly run a carriage off the street. The automobile’s horn shrieked, and then the car peeled around the corner. He heard the people around him reacting with surprise, condemnation, and ridicule. What terrible machines, someone was saying, who can stand their smoke? And they were dangerous anyway! There should be a law against them.
Somerset looked at his watch again. Seventeen minutes until eight. He could wait that long. Aarav would be here soon. God, it was like he could feel Aarav emanating from across the city, the buildings vibrating as the thundering of Aarav’s magnificent heart pulsed through them. Ecstatic love, twisted by the voids of despair and fear, broke through his body, his fingers were shaking, he was amazed someone hadn’t noticed his condition and called for a doctor.
The street lamps flickered; traffic slowed on the street and conversation around him hesitated; a tenuous silence erupted, almost louder than the noise before. He could feel the presence of everyone around him, suspended in a moment of postponement and lack of things to say. Then the traffic picked up, and the din of the city punched through the transient silence.
Down the street, a column of schoolgirls in blue uniforms approached the cathedral two by two, led by a Mère préfète. They were singing softly, and the harmony seemed to tiptoe in like a surreptitious glance, their voices like tinkling bells. The girls looked happy and self-satisfied, smiling to themselves, confident. But, at the end of the column, there was a beautiful Indian girl, her hair black and straight as a sure, quick stroke of a fountain pen. She alone seemed to have sadness and disregard in her eyes, yet she sung none the same. She had an aquiline nose and full lips, her cheeks high and her neck long; she was taller than the other girls, her back straighter. Yet her arms hung limply at her sides, her feet took reluctant steps. She reminded Somerset of Aarav’s plight.
The girls and the Mère préfète filed into the church, and Somerset did not see them again.
Where was Aarav? Somerset peered down the streets. He shivered now; what had seemed like a warm night earlier now turned quite cold. He plunged his hands into his pockets, clutching them into fists, shuffling from foot to foot, his shoulders ached. He could wait in the cathedral… but then he would not see Aarav approaching. Dejection and gloom filled him until he was bursting; he had to see Aarav again, he just had to!
Up the street, from the opposite direction the choir came, Somerset heard something bumping and clanging, mixed with dissonant, frightened piano tones. Two rough looking men were pushing – shepherding, really – a piano towards the cathedral. The piano was covered with a thick blue blanket that’s use seemed more theoretical than practical, and the two workmen were accompanied by a gaunt, wispy-haired man in a black suit who was arguing vehemently with them in Polish. This must have been Witold Kamińska, famous Polish pianist, and he must have thought he was in charge, but the two workmen ignored him, speaking gruffly to each other in French. They were a humorous sight, and when Somerset checked his watch, he realized they were cutting things close – the performance was a short twenty minutes away. The trio reached the cathedral and all three were flabbergasted by the church steps, which none of them had apparently anticipated. A priest came out and started pointing around the back of the church to the workmen as Kamińska was even more incensed and theatrical. The workmen nodded, urged the piano to move again, and were followed around back by the ardent pianist.
Where was Aarav? Surely, he should have been here by now. It was almost 8:30pm, Aarav was late, maybe he had been detained, or the tram was slow. Maybe Aarav was racing here right now, flustered, everything standing between them. Somerset felt a drop of sweat trickle down his back, despite the frigid weather. His stomach spun, delirious with hunger and anxiety. His feet hurt.
The sidewalk was thinning out – people were going into the church or headed off elsewhere. Even the traffic on the street dissipated; the world was perched on the edge of the events of the evening, but Somerset was apart, forlorn, his rendezvous seeming increasingly improbable. If Aarav had been detained, and was not coming – don’t think it – it didn’t mean that all wasn’t well. Perhaps Aarav was just exhausted, or roped into something, and Somerset might receive an apology card in the morning, and they would reunite.
Perhaps Aarav had been arrested.
It was quiet again. He was alone on the street, shivering in the burning golden glow of the street lamps.
It was 8:30pm. The cathedral seemed to stand before him frozen in permanent movement, forever reaching for Heaven, but planted down in the Earth, eternally aspiring, but never realizing arrival in its lofty destination. To think – the years, decades, maybe generations it took to build the Cathedral de Saint-Pierre, those men waking every morning to labor on something whose completion they might never see – the cathedral seemed to embody that very idea, in a state of constantly taking flight, but never leaving the ground.
Someone pulled open the doors of the cathedral and music glided out like a votive flock of angels – Somerset recognized Erik Satie’s Gnossienne #1, the notes all the more exotic due to their slightly flat notes after the piano’s perilous quest to reach the cathedral. The sad, haunting melody sunk into his skin, then his muscles and organs, until prying its way into his very bones. He was overcome with sorrow. He knew Aarav wasn’t coming, that he would never see Aarav again. His heart fell down into his chest, down through his belly and groin, rushing through his legs and down into his feet, until it smashed into the ground, making him lose his balance. His knees went weak, the world around him became excruciating.
The door to the church sealed closed. The melody disappeared. He felt a tap on his shoulder, and hope fluttered explosively. Aarav! At last!
He turned. Mrs. Baxter stood in front of him – small, beautiful, her expression as cold as the weather. She was dressed in a fur shrug as though she was going to the opera, and her hands were folded together at her waist.
“You!” Exclaimed Somerset. “How?”
She pursed her lips and then smiled at him with a sort of annoyed pity. “You are not my only fox in the henhouse, Mr. Maugham.”
Somerset met Mrs. Baxter at the Café de Marais Perdu once more before he left Geneva. It was on an early evening in mid-December, and cold, very cold. Snow fell outside the café windows, sparkling in the lamp light like tiny, falling suns. Carriages and pedestrians flowed on the street; the city, the world, went on.
“To the best of our knowledge,” Mrs. Baxter said, “Chatto and Pradhan escaped Geneva, most probably by boat. Their plan was to obtain a coin die fabricated by a Swiss artisan to counterfeit gold sovereigns in India to destabilize the currency.”
Somerset let it sink in. Had that been Aarav’s plan all along, his real reason for being in Geneva? Had their sumptuous medley of days spent together all been a distraction, an entertainment to kill time? Is that what occupied Aarav’s mind when he had been reticent?
“It’s a bit of a scandal for Pradhan’s parents. They’ve been interviewed by the police.”
There was more than one India. For Aarav, all of them had become a gestalt that he would stop at nothing to bring forth from the realm of the ideal into the real world. Aarav had tried to tell him. He hadn’t listened.
They had loved each other. The things they had whispered. The caresses they had shared. Aarav had been distant, yes, but Somerset had revealed his soul. Had Aarav not liked what he saw?
“I am sure you wish you could have been more help,” Mrs. Baxter said poisonously. “But officials in India know to look out for the counterfeit coins, so it was all for naught, really. But we have another assignment for you now, in Marseille, something a little more… orderly.” She pauses for a second, thinking, and Somerset sees a rare moment of hesitation in Mrs. Baxter, a discomfort. “I wonder, Mr. Maugham,” she asked, “You and Pradhan… were you in love with him? Is that something men like you do?”
Somerset lowered his eyes to his shoes. “Does it matter?”
Mrs. Baxter sighed. “I suppose not. Time does not bless us all with wisdom. Will you be…all right?”
He didn’t know the answer to her simple question. What had the whims of history and serendipity done to him? He thought of his first night with Aarav, his warm skin in the carriage in the cool air, their lips moving together in ecstasy, the prelude to their imminent lovemaking. Had every action he had taken, every word he said, every decision he made, really led here, where he had nothing? Had anything changed? He was right back where he started, but now nursing a misery he had not imagined.
“Mr. Maugham? I asked if you are going to be all right.”
Somerset looked up at her and an arduous smile formed on his face. “Yes,” he told her. “I’ll be incredibly fine, darling.”
Good morning, people of Earth and all alien tyrants surreptitiously listening in. It’s Saturday here, and I’ve decided to take Sundays off my newsletter (though I’ll still be posting stories on various sites probably. I just need a little downtime after posting so much freaking crap.
A Great Assembly
So, I’m posting “A Great Assembly” on Medium in three parts. I’m making almost no changes, so if you read it before, don’t worry about it.
A Great Assembly on Medium by Matt Snee
He-Thing and the Cabal of the Cosmos
However, I also started posting He-Thing, and I am making a lot more changes to this and fixing some inconsistencies and continuity problems. Needless to say, this one is getting made up as it goes along.
He-Thing on Medium by Matt Snee
And that’s it for today! Take care!