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Storm Glass
 

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Storm Glass


  BOOKS BY JANE URQUHART

  FICTION

  The Whirlpool

  Storm Glass (short stories)

  Changing Heaven

  Away

  The Underpainter

  POETRY

  I Am Walking in the Garden of His Imaginary Palace

  False Shuffles

  The Little Flowers of Madame de Montespan

  This book is for Tony

  Contents

  Preface

  THE DEATH OF ROBERT BROWNING

  JOHN’S COTTAGE

  FIVE WHEELCHAIRS

  Shoes

  Dreams

  Charity

  Gift

  The Drawing Master

  SEVEN CONFESSIONS

  Merry-Go-Round with Approaching Storm

  Bossu

  Her Golden Curls

  The Boat

  Artificial Ice

  Venetian Glass

  Hotel Verbano

  FORBIDDEN DANCES

  ITALIAN POSTCARDS

  STORM GLASS

  Preface

  This collection of stories, written between 1979 and 1984 and originally published in 1986 by The Porcupine’s Quill, comprises some of my first pilgrimages into the world of fiction. I thought myself a poet at the time—I had always been in love with the musical rhythms of language—but I was fascinated by narrative as well, and my poetry was edging toward description of real or imaginary events combined with subtle explorations of character. As time went by and ideas, landscapes, and characters began to enter my mind, I found that there was not enough physical space in a single lyric poem for what I wanted to say, and not enough breadth for me to get to know what I needed to learn. I began to write poetic sequences. But although I was able to concentrate to a certain extent on action, I was unable—in that form—to develop a vehicle to examine the consequences of action. And so I turned toward short fiction.

  During my late twenties and early thirties, at the time that most of these stories were written, I was doing a great deal of travelling, and was living in places far from home for periods of up to a year. The wonderful thing about this was that I was able to see the changing world around me with the freshness of a first encounter, as well as look back at my homeland from a great enough distance to be able to experience it whole. With images, both natural and cultural, from the European and North American worlds flooding my psyche, I wrote a sequence called “Seven Confessions” in a kind of white heat, taking on the first person points of view of men, women, and children, and putting together a conglomeration of disparate periods and settings. Anything seemed possible, and I remember approaching the page each day with a combination of joy and hunger.

  The stories “John’s Cottage” and “Forbidden Dances” were written a year or two later when I was becoming interested in intermingling the past and the present in order to watch recurring patterns emerge. The same is true of “Italian Postcards,” except it is a single image—that of a preserved body in a glass case—that returns over and over again in the narrative, the same image that inspired me to write the story.

  It is a privilege for me to watch these stories being reborn in a brand new edition, and a pleasure to be able to spot and identify the seeds sown in this early work for one or two of my novels. And it is tremendously satisfying to be able to reacquaint myself with the young woman who wrote these tales, and to know that what was going on in her mind intrigues me still.

  Jane Urquhart

  February 2000

  THE DEATH OF ROBERT BROWNING

  In December of 1889, as he was returning by gondola from the general vicinity of the Palazzo Manzoni, it occurred to Robert Browning that he was more than likely going to die soon. This revelation had nothing to do with either his advanced years or the state of his health. He was seventy-seven, a reasonably advanced age, but his physical condition was described by most of his acquaintances as vigorous and robust. He took a cold bath each morning and every afternoon insisted on a three-mile walk during which he performed small errands from a list his sister had made earlier in the day. He drank moderately and ate well. His mind was as quick and alert as ever.

  Nevertheless, he knew he was going to die. He also had to admit that the idea had been with him for some time—two or three months at least. He was not a man to ignore symbols, especially when they carried personal messages. Now he had to acknowledge that the symbols were in the air as surely as winter. Perhaps, he speculated, a man carried the seeds of his death with him always, somewhere buried in his brain, like the face of a woman he is going to love. He leaned to one side, looked into the deep waters of the canal, and saw his own face reflected there. As broad and distinguished and cheerful as ever, health shining vigorously, robustly from his eyes—even in such a dark mirror.

  Empty Gothic and Renaissance palaces floated on either side of him like soiled pink dreams. Like sunsets with dirty faces, he mused, and then, pleased with the phrase, he reached into his jacket for his notebook, ink pot and pen. He had trouble recording the words, however, as the chill in the air had numbed his hands. Even the ink seemed affected by the cold, not flowing as smoothly as usual. He wrote slowly and deliberately, making sure to add the exact time and the location. Then he closed the book and returned it with the pen and pot to his pocket, where he curled and uncurled his right hand for some minutes until he felt the circulation return to normal. The celebrated Venetian dampness was much worse in winter, and Browning began to look forward to the fire at his son’s palazzo where they would be beginning to serve afternoon tea, perhaps, for his benefit, laced with rum.

  A sudden wind scalloped the surface of the canal. Browning instinctively looked upwards. Some blue patches edged by ragged white clouds, behind them wisps of grey and then the solid dark strip of a storm front moving slowly up on the horizon. Such a disordered sky in this season. No solid, predictable blocks of weather with definite beginnings, definite endings. Every change in the atmosphere seemed an emotional response to something that had gone before. The light, too, harsh and metallic, not at all like the golden Venice of summer. There was something broken about all of it, torn. The sky, for instance, was like a damaged canvas. Pleased again by his own metaphorical thoughts, Browning considered reaching for the notebook. But the cold forced him to reject the idea before it had fully formed in his mind.

  Instead, his thoughts moved lazily back to the place they had been when the notion of death so rudely interrupted them; back to the building he had just visited. Palazzo Manzoni. Bello, bello Palazzo Manzoni! The colourful marble medallions rolled across Browning’s inner eye, detached from their home on the Renaissance façade, and he began, at once, to reconstruct for the thousandth time the imaginary windows and balconies he had planned for the building’s restoration. In his daydreams the old poet had walked over the palace’s swollen marble floors and slept beneath its frescoed ceilings, lit fires underneath its sculptured mantels and entertained guests by the light of its chandeliers. Surrounded by a small crowd of admirers he had read poetry aloud in the evenings, his voice echoing through the halls. No R.B. tonight, he had said to them, winking, Let’s have some real poetry. Then, moving modestly into the palace’s impressive library, he had selected a volume of Dante or Donne.

  But they had all discouraged him and it had never come to pass. Some of them said that the façade was seriously cracked and the foundations were far from sound. Others told him that the absentee owner would never part with it for anything resembling a fair price. Eventually, friends and family wore him down with their disapproval and, on their advice, he abandoned his daydream though he still made an effort to visit it, despite the fact that it was now damaged and empty and the glass in its windows was broken.

  It was the same kind of fru
stration and melancholy that he associated with his night dreams of Asolo, the little hill town he had first seen (and then only at a distance), when he was twenty-six years old. Since that time, and for no rational reason, it had appeared over and over in the poet’s dreams as a destination on the horizon, one that, due to a variety of circumstances, he was never able to reach. Either his companions in the dream would persuade him to take an alternate route, or the road would be impassable, or he would awaken just as the town gate came into view, frustrated and out of sorts. “I’ve had my old Asolo dream again,” he would tell his sister at breakfast, “and it has no doubt ruined my work for the whole day.”

  Then, just last summer, he had spent several months there at the home of a friend. The house was charming and the view of the valley delighted him. But, although he never once broke the well-established order that ruled the days of his life, a sense of unreality clouded his perceptions. He was visiting the memory of a dream with a major and important difference. He had reached the previously elusive hill town with practically no effort. Everything had proceeded according to plan. Thinking about this, under the December sky in Venice, Browning realized that he had known since then that it was only going to be a matter of time.

  The gondola bumped against the steps of his son’s palazzo.

  Robert Browning climbed onto the terrace, paid the gondolier, and walked briskly inside.

  Lying on the magnificent carved bed in his room, trying unsuccessfully to surrender himself to his regular pre-dinner nap, Robert Browning examined his knowledge like a stolen jewel he had coveted for years; turning it first this way, then that, imagining the reactions of his friends, what his future biographers would have to say about it all. He was pleased that he had prudently written his death poem at Asolo in direct response to having received a copy of Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” in the mail. How he detested that poem! What could Alfred have been thinking of when he wrote it? He had to admit, none the less, that to suggest that mourners restrain their sorrow, as Tennyson had, guarantees the floodgates of female tears will eventually burst open. His poem had, therefore, included similar sentiments, but without, he hoped, such obvious sentimentality. It was the final poem of his last manuscript which was now, mercifully, at the printers.

  Something for the biographers and for the weeping maidens; those who had wept so copiously for his dear departed, though soon to be reinstated wife. Surely it was not too much to ask that they might shed a few tears for him as well, even if it was a more ordinary death, following, he winced to have to add, a fairly conventional life.

  How had it all happened? He had placed himself in the centre of some of the world’s most exotic scenery and had then lived his life there with the regularity of a copy clerk. A time for everything, everything in its time. Even when hunting for lizards in Asolo, an occupation he considered slightly exotic, he found he could predict the moment of their appearance; as if they knew he was searching for them and assembled their modest population at the sound of his footsteps. Even so, he was able to flush out only six or seven from a hedge of considerable length and these were, more often than not, of the same type. Once he thought he had seen a particularly strange lizard, large and lumpy, but it had turned out to be merely two of the ordinary sort, copulating.

  Copulation. What sad dirge-like associations the word dredged up from the poet’s unconscious. All those Italians; those minstrels, dukes, princes, artists, and questionable monks whose voices had droned through Browning’s pen over the years. Why had they all been so endlessly obsessed with the subject? He could never understand or control it. And even now, one of them had appeared in full period costume in his imagination. A duke, no doubt, by the look of the yards of velvet which covered his person. He was reading a letter that was causing him a great deal of pain. Was it a letter from his mistress? A draught of poison waited on an intricately tooled small table to his left. Perhaps a pistol or a dagger as well, but in this light Browning could not quite tell. The man paced, paused, looked wistfully out the window as if waiting for someone he knew would never, ever appear. Very, very soon now he would begin to speak, to tell his story. His right hand passed nervously across his eyes. He turned to look directly at Robert Browning who, as always, was beginning to feel somewhat embarrassed. Then the duke began:

  At last to leave these darkening moments

  These rooms, these halls where once

  We stirred love’s poisoned potions

  The deepest of all slumbers,

  After this astounds the mummers

  I cannot express the smile that circled

  Round and round the week

  This room and all our days when morning

  Entered, soft, across her cheek.

  She was my medallion, my caged dove,

  A trinket, a coin I carried warm,

  Against the skin inside my glove

  My favourite artwork was a kind of jail

  Our portrait permanent, imprinted by the moon

  Upon the ancient face of the canal.

  The man began to fade. Browning, who had not invited him into the room in the first place, was already bored. He therefore dismissed the crimson costume, the table, the potion housed in its delicate goblet of fine Venetian glass and began, quite inexplicably, to think about Percy Bysshe Shelley; about his life, and under the circumstances, more importantly, about his death.

  Dinner over, sister, son and daughter-in-law and friend all chatted with and later read to, Browning returned to his room with Shelley’s death hovering around him like an annoying, directionless wind. He doubted, as he put on his nightgown, that Shelley had ever worn one, particularly in those dramatic days preceding his early demise. In his night-cap he felt as ridiculous as a humorous political drawing for Punch magazine. And, as he lumbered into bed alone, he remembered that Shelley would have had Mary beside him and possibly Clare as well, their minds buzzing with nameless Gothic terrors. For a desperate moment or two Browning tried to conjure a Gothic terror but discovered, to his great disappointment, that the vague shape taking form in his mind was only his dreary Italian duke coming, predictably, once again into focus.

  Outside the ever calm waters of the canal licked the edge of the terrace in a rhythmic, sleep-inducing manner; a restful sound guaranteeing peace of mind. Browning knew, however, that during Shelley’s last days at Lerici, giant waves had crashed into the ground floor of Casa Magni, prefiguring the young poet’s violent death and causing his sleep to be riddled with wonderful nightmares. Therefore, the very lack of activity on the part of the water below irritated the old man. He began to pad around the room in his bare feet, oblivious of the cold marble floor and the dying embers in the fireplace. He peered through the windows into the night, hoping that he, like Shelley, might at least see his double there, or possibly Elizabeth’s ghost beckoning to him from the centre of the canal. He cursed softly as the night gazed back at him, serene and cold and entirely lacking in events—mysterious or otherwise.

  He returned to the bed and knelt by its edge in order to say his evening prayers. But he was completely unable to concentrate. Shelley’s last days were trapped in his brain like fish in a tank. He saw him surrounded by the sublime scenery of the Ligurian coast, searching the horizon for the boat that was to be his coffin. Then he saw him clinging desperately to the mast of that boat while lightning tore the sky in half and the ocean spilled across the hull. Finally, he saw Shelley’s horrifying corpse rolling on the shoreline, practically unidentifiable except for the copy of Keats’ poems housed in his breast pocket. Next to his heart, Byron had commented, just before he got to work on the funeral pyre.

  Browning abandoned God for the moment and climbed beneath the blankets.

  “I might at least have a nightmare,” he said petulantly to himself. Then he fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.

  Browning awakened the next morning with an itchy feeling in his throat and lines from Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound dancing in his head.


  “Oh, God,” he groaned inwardly, “now this. And I don’t even like Shelley’s poetry any more. Now I suppose I’m going to be plagued with it, day in, day out, until the instant of my imminent death.”

  How he wished he had never, ever, been fond of Shelley’s poems. Then, in his youth, he might have had the common sense not to read them compulsively to the point of total recall. But how could he have known in those early days that even though he would later come to reject both Shelley’s life and work as being too impossibly self-absorbed and emotional, some far corner of his brain would still retain every syllable the young man had committed to paper. He had memorized his life’s work. Shortly after Browning’s memory recited The crawling glaciers pierce me with spears / Of their moon freezing crystals, the bright chains / Eat with their burning cold into my bones, he began to cough, a spasm that lasted until his sister knocked discreetly on the door to announce that, since he had not appeared downstairs, his breakfast was waiting on a tray in the hall.

  While he was drinking his tea, the poem “Ozymandias” repeated itself four times in his mind except that, to his great annoyance, he found that he could not remember the last three lines and kept ending with Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair. He knew for certain that there were three more lines, but he was damned if he could recall even one of them. He thought of asking his sister but soon realized that, since she was familiar with his views on Shelley, he would be forced to answer a series of embarrassing questions about why he was thinking about the poem at all. Finally, he decided that Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair was a much more fitting ending to the poem and attributed his lack of recall to the supposition that the last three lines were either unsuitable or completely unimportant. That settled, he wolfed down his roll, donned his hat and coat, and departed for the streets in hopes that something, anything, might happen.

 
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