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A Grotesque Tragedy
I had not gone ten paces when I caught sight of a strange-looking object, and went nearer to know what it might be. I found it a mouldering carriage of ancient form, ruinous but still upright on its heavy wheels. On each side of the pole, still in its place, lay the skeleton of a horse; from their two grim white heads ascended the shrivelled reins to the hand of the skeleton-coachman seated on his tattered hammer-cloth; both doors had fallen away; within sat two skeletons, each leaning back in its corner.
Even as I looked, they started awake, and with a cracking rattle of bones, each leaped from the door next it. One fell and lay; the other stood a moment, its structure shaking perilously; then with difficulty, for its joints were stiff, crept, holding by the back of the carriage, to the opposite side, the thin leg-bones seeming hardly strong enough to carry its weight, where, kneeling by the other, it sought to raise it, almost falling itself again in the endeavour.
The prostrate one rose at length, as by a sudden effort, to the sitting posture. For a few moments it turned its yellowish skull to this side and that; then, heedless of its neighbour, got upon its feet by grasping the spokes of the hind wheel. Half erected thus, it stood with its back to the other, both hands holding one of its knee-joints. With little less difficulty and not a few contortions, the kneeling one rose next, and addressed its companion.
“Have you hurt yourself, my lord?” it said, in a voice that sounded far-off, and ill-articulated as if blown aside by some spectral wind.
“Yes, I have,” answered the other, in like but rougher tone. “You would do nothing to help me, and this cursed knee is out!”
“I did my best, my lord.”
“No doubt, my lady, for it was bad! I thought I should never find my feet again!—But, bless my soul, madam! are you out in your bones?”
She cast a look at herself.
“I have nothing else to be out in,” she returned; “—and you at least cannot complain! But what on earth does it mean? Am I dreaming?”
“You may be dreaming, madam—I cannot tell; but this knee of mine forbids me the grateful illusion.—Ha! I too, I perceive, have nothing to walk in but bones!—Not so unbecoming to a man, however! I trust to goodness they are not my bones! every one aches worse than another, and this loose knee worst of all! The bed must have been damp—and I too drunk to know it!”
“Probably, my lord of Cokayne!”
“What! what!—You make me think I too am dreaming—aches and all! How do you know the title my roistering bullies give me? I don’t remember you!—Anyhow, you have no right to take liberties! My name is—I am lord——tut, tut! What do you call me when I’m—I mean when you are sober? I cannot—at the moment,—Why, what is my name?—I must have been very drunk when I went to bed! I often am!”
“You come so seldom to mine, that I do not know, my lord; but I may take your word for that!”
“I hope so!”
“—if for nothing else!”
“Hoity toity! I never told you a lie in my life!”
“You never told me anything but lies.”
“Upon my honour!—Why, I never saw the woman before!”
“You knew me well enough to lie to, my lord!”
“I do seem to begin to dream I have met you before, but, upon my oath, there is nothing to know you by! Out of your clothes, who is to tell who you may not be?—One thing I may swear—that I never saw you so much undressed before!—By heaven, I have no recollection of you!”
“I am glad to hear it: my recollections of you are the less distasteful!—Good morning, my lord!”
She turned away, hobbled, clacking, a few paces, and stood again.
“You are just as heartless as—as—any other woman, madam!—Where in this hell of a place shall I find my valet?—What was the cursed name I used to call the fool?”
He turned his bare noddle this way and that on its creaking pivot, still holding his knee with both hands.
“I will be your valet for once, my lord,” said the lady, turning once more to him. “—What can I do for you? It is not easy to tell!”
“Tie my leg on, of course, you fool! Can’t you see it is all but off? Heigho, my dancing days!”
She looked about with her eyeless sockets and found a piece of fibrous grass, with which she proceeded to bind together the adjoining parts that had formed the knee. When she had done, he gave one or two carefully tentative stamps.
“You used to stamp rather differently, my lord!” she said, as she rose from her knees.
“Eh? what!—Now I look at you again, it seems to me I used to hate you!—Eh?”
“Naturally, my lord! You hated a good many people!—your wife, of course, among the rest!”
“Ah, I begin, I be-gin——But—I must have been a long time somewhere!—I really forget!—There! your damned, miserable bit of grass is breaking!—We used to get on pretty well together—eh?”
“Not that I remember, my lord. The only happy moments I had in your company were scattered over the first week of our marriage.”
“Was that the way of it? Ha! ha!—Well, it’s over now, thank goodness!”
“I wish I could believe it! Why were we sitting there in that carriage together? It wakes apprehension!”
“I think we were divorced, my lady!”
“Hardly enough: we are still together!”
“A sad truth, but capable of remedy: the forest seems of some extent!”
“I doubt! I doubt!”
“I am sorry I cannot think of a compliment to pay you—without lying, that is. To judge by your figure and complexion you have lived hard since I saw you last! I cannot surely be quite so naked as your ladyship!—I beg your pardon, madam! I trust you will take it I am but jesting in a dream! It is of no consequence, however; dreaming or waking, all’s one—all merest appearance! You can’t be certain of anything, and that’s as good as knowing there is nothing! Life may teach any fool that!”
“It has taught me the fool I was to love you!”
“You were not the only fool to do that! Women had a trick of falling in love with me:—I had forgotten that you were one of them!”
“I did love you, my lord—a little—at one time!”
“Ah, there was your mistake, my lady! You should have loved me much, loved me devotedly, loved me savagely—loved me eternally! Then I should have tired of you the sooner, and not hated you so much afterward!—But let bygones be bygones!—Where are we? Locality is the question! To be or not to be, is not the question!”
“We are in the other world, I presume!”
“Granted!—but in which or what sort of other world? This can’t be hell!”
“It must: there’s marriage in it! You and I are damned in each other.”
“Then I’m not like Othello, damned in a fair wife!—Oh, I remember my Shakspeare, madam!”
She picked up a broken branch that had fallen into a bush, and steadying herself with it, walked away, tossing her little skull.
“Give that stick to me,” cried her late husband; “I want it more than you.”
She returned him no answer.
“You mean to make me beg for it?”
“Not at all, my lord. I mean to keep it,” she replied, continuing her slow departure.
“Give it me at once; I mean to have it! I require it.”
“Unfortunately, I think I require it myself!” returned the lady, walking a little quicker, with a sharper cracking of her joints and clinking of her bones.
He started to follow her, but nearly fell: his knee-grass had burst, and with an oath he stopped, grasping his leg again.
“Come and tie it up properly!” he would have thundered, but he only piped and whistled!
She turned and looked at him.
“Come and tie it up instantly!” he repeated.
She walked a step or two farther from him.
“I swear I will not touch you!” he cried.
“Swear on, my lord! there is no one here to believe you. But, pray, do not lose your temper, or you will shake yourself to pieces, and where to find string enough to tie up all your crazy joints, is more than I can tell.”
She came back, and knelt once more at his side—first, however, laying the stick in dispute beyond his reach and within her own.
The instant she had finished retying the joint, he made a grab at her, thinking, apparently, to seize her by the hair; but his hard fingers slipped on the smooth poll.
“Disgusting!” he muttered, and laid hold of her upper arm-bone.
“You will break it!” she said, looking up from her knees.
“I will, then!” he answered, and began to strain at it.
“I shall not tie your leg again the next time it comes loose!” she threatened.
He gave her arm a vicious twist, but happily her bones were in better condition than his. She stretched her other hand toward the broken branch.
“That’s right: reach me the stick!” he grinned.
She brought it round with such a swing that one of the bones of the sounder leg snapped. He fell, choking with curses. The lady laughed.
“Now you will have to wear splints always!” she said; “such dry bones never mend!”
“You devil!” he cried.
“At your service, my lord! Shall I fetch you a couple of wheel-spokes? Neat—but heavy, I fear!”
He turned his bone-face aside, and did not answer, but lay and groaned. I marvelled he had not gone to pieces when he fell. The lady rose and walked away—not all ungracefully, I thought.
“What can come of it?” I said to myself. “These are too wretched for any world, and this cannot be hell, for the Little Ones are in it, and the sleepers too! What can it all mean? Can things ever come right for skeletons?”
“There are words too big for you and me: all is one of them, and ever is another,” said a voice near me which I knew.
I looked about, but could not see the speaker.
“You are not in hell,” it resumed. “Neither am I in hell. But those skeletons are in hell!”
Ere he ended I caught sight of the raven on the bough of a beech, right over my head. The same moment he left it, and alighting on the ground, stood there, the thin old man of the library, with long nose and long coat.
“The male was never a gentleman,” he went on, “and in the bony stage of retrogression, with his skeleton through his skin, and his character outside his manners, does not look like one. The female is less vulgar, and has a little heart. But, the restraints of society removed, you see them now just as they are and always were!”
“Tell me, Mr. Raven, what will become of them,” I said.
“We shall see,” he replied. “In their day they were the handsomest couple at court; and now, even in their dry bones, they seem to regard their former repute as an inalienable possession; to see their faces, however, may yet do something for them! They felt themselves rich too while they had pockets, but they have already begun to feel rather pinched! My lord used to regard my lady as a worthless encumbrance, for he was tired of her beauty and had spent her money; now he needs her to cobble his joints for him! These changes have roots of hope in them. Besides, they cannot now get far away from each other, and they see none else of their own kind: they must at last grow weary of their mutual repugnance, and begin to love one another! for love, not hate, is deepest in what Love ‘loved into being.’ ”
“I saw many more of their kind an hour ago, in the hall close by!” I said.
“Of their kind, but not of their sort,” he answered. “For many years these will see none such as you saw last night. Those are centuries in advance of these. You saw that those could even dress themselves a little! It is true they cannot yet retain their clothes so long as they would—only, at present, for a part of the night; but they are pretty steadily growing more capable, and will by and by develop faces; for every grain of truthfulness adds a fibre to the show of their humanity. Nothing but truth can appear; and whatever is must seem.”
“Are they upheld by this hope?” I asked.
“They are upheld by hope, but they do not in the least know their hope; to understand it, is yet immeasurably beyond them,” answered Mr. Raven.
His unexpected appearance had caused me no astonishment. I was like a child, constantly wondering, and surprised at nothing.
“Did you come to find me, sir?” I asked.
“Not at all,” he replied. “I have no anxiety about you. Such as you always come back to us.”
“Tell me, please, who am I such as?” I said.
“I cannot make my friend the subject of conversation,” he answered, with a smile.
“But when that friend is present!” I urged.
“I decline the more strongly,” he rejoined.
“But when that friend asks you!” I persisted.
“Then most positively I refuse,” he returned.
“Because he and I would be talking of two persons as if they were one and the same. Your consciousness of yourself and my knowledge of you are far apart!”
The lapels of his coat flew out, and the lappets lifted, and I thought the metamorphosis of homo to corvus was about to take place before my eyes. But the coat closed again in front of him, and he added, with seeming inconsequence, “In this world never trust a person who has once deceived you. Above all, never do anything such a one may ask you to do.”
“I will try to remember,” I answered; “—but I may forget!”
“Then some evil that is good for you will follow.”
“And if I remember?”
“Some evil that is not good for you, will not follow.”
The old man seemed to sink to the ground, and immediately I saw the raven several yards from me, flying low and fast.