The Story of the Siren
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THE STORY OF THE SIREN
E. M. FORSTER
Printed by Leonard & Virginia Woolf at
The Hogarth Press, Paradise Road, Richmond
THE STORY OF THE SIREN
Few things have been more beautiful than mynote book on the Deist Controversy as it fell downwardthrough the waters of the Mediterranean. It dived,like a piece of black slate, but opened soon, disclosingleaves of pale green, which quivered into blue. Now ithad vanished, now it was a piece of magical india rubberstretching out to infinity, now it was a book again, butbigger than the book of all knowledge. It grew morefantastic as it reached the bottom, where a puff of sandwelcomed it and obscured it from view. But it reappeared,quite sane though a little tremulous, lying decentlyopen on its back, while unseen fingers fidgeted amongits leaves.
"It is such a pity" said my aunt, "that you willnot finish your work in the Hotel. Then you wouldbe free to enjoy yourself and this would never havehappened."
"Nothing of it but will change into something richand 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 wordof warning, stood up and began to take his clothes off.
"Holy Moses!" cried the Colonel. "Is the fellowmad?"
"Yes, thank him dear," said my aunt: "that is tosay tell him he is very kind, but perhaps another time."
"All the same I do want my book back," I complained."It's for my Fellowship Dissertation. Therewon't be much left of it by another time."
"I have an idea," said some woman or otherthrough her parasol. "Let us leave this child ofnature to dive for the book while we go on to the othergrotto. We can land him either on this rock or on theledge inside, and he will be ready when we return."
The idea seemed good; and I improved it by sayingI would be left behind too, to lighten the boat. Sothe two of us were deposited outside the little grottoon a great sunlit rock that guarded the harmonies within.Let us call them blue, though they suggest ratherthe spirit of what is clean, cleanliness passed from thedomestic to the sublime, the cleanliness of all the seagathered together and radiating light. The Blue Grottoat Capri contains only more blue water, not bluer water.That colour and that spirit is the heritage of every cavein the Mediterranean into which the sun can shine andthe sea flow.
As soon as the boat left I realised how imprudentI had been to trust myself on a sloping rock with anunknown Sicilian. With a jerk he became alive, seizingmy arm and saying "Go to the end of the Grottoand I will show you something beautiful."
He made me jump off the rock on to the ledgeover a dazzling crack of sea, he drew me away from thelight till I was standing on the tiny beach of sand whichemerged like powdered turquoise at the further end.There he left me with his clothes, and returned swiftlyto the summit of the entrance-rock. For a moment hestood naked in the brilliant sun, looking down at thespot 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 description.His effect was that of a silver statue, alivebeneath the sea, through whom life throbbed in blueand green. Something infinitely happy, infinitely wise—butit was impossible that it should emerge from thedepths sunburnt and dripping, holding the note bookon the Deist Controversy between its teeth.
A gratuity is generally expected by those who bathe.Whatever I offered, he was sure to want more, and Iwas disinclined for an argument in a place so beautifuland also so solitary. It was a relief that he should sayin conversational tones "In a place like this one mightsee the Siren."
I was delighted with him for thus falling into thekey of his surroundings. We had been left togetherin a magic world, apart from all the commonplaces thatare called reality, a world of blue whose floor was thesea and whose walls and roof of rock trembled with thesea's reflections. Here, only the fantastic would be tolerable,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 wasparting the sticky leaves of the note book as I sat onthe strip of sand.
"Ah!" he said at last. "You may have read thelittle book that was printed last year. Who would havethought that our Siren would have given the foreignerspleasure!"
(I read it afterwards. Its account is, not unnaturally,incomplete, in spite of there being a woodcut ofthe 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, combingher hair."
I wanted to draw him out, for I was interested inhis sudden gravity, and there was a suggestion of ironyin 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, "Howcan she sing under the water? Who could? She sometimestries, but nothing comes from her but greatbubbles."
"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 breatheit, and blessed the rocks, so that she cannot sit on them.But the sea no man can bless, because it is too big, andalways changing. Therefore she lives in the sea."
I was silent.
At this his face took a gentler expression. Helooked at me as though something was on his mind,and going out to the entrance rock, gazed at the externalblue. Then returning into our twilight he said "Asa rule only good people see the Siren."
I made no comment. There was a pause, and hecontinued. "That is a very strange thing, and the priestsdo not know how to account for it; for she of courseis wicked. Not only those who fast and go to massare in danger, but even those who are merely good indaily life. No one in the village had seen her for twogenerations. I am not surprised. We all cross ourselvesbefore we enter the water, but it is unnecessary.Giuseppe, we thought, was safer than most. We lovedhim, and many of us he loved: but that is a differentthing to being good."
I asked who Giuseppe was.
"That day—I was seventeen and my brother wastwenty and a great deal stronger than I was and it wasthe year when the visitors, who have brought such prosperityand so many alterations into the village, first beganto come. One English lady in particular, of veryhigh birth, came, and has written a book about the place,and it was through her that the Improvement Syndicatewas formed, which is about to connect the hotels withthe 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 thegrottoes. As we rowed close under the cliffs I put outmy hand, as one does, and caught a little crab, and havingpulled off its claws offered it as a curiosity. The ladiesgroaned, but a gentleman was pleased, and held outmoney. Being inexperienced, I refused it, saying thathis pleasure was sufficient reward! Giuseppe, who wasrowing behind, was very angry with me and reached outwith his hand and hit me on the side of the mouth, sothat a tooth cut my lip, and I bled. I tried to hit himback, but he always was too quick for me, and as Istretched round he kicked me under the arm pit, so thatfor a moment I could not even row. There was a greatnoise among the ladies, and I heard afterwards thatthey were planning to take me away from my brotherand train me as a waiter. That at all events nevercame to pass.
"When we reached the grotto—not here, but alarger one—the gentleman was very anxious that oneof us should dive for money, and the ladies consented,as they sometimes do. Giuseppe who had discoveredhow much pleasure it gives foreigners to see us in thewater, refused to dive for anything but silver, and thegentleman threw in a two lira piece.
"Just before my brother sprang off he caught sightof me holding my bruise, and crying, for I could nothelp it. He laughed and said 'this time, at all events,I shall not see the Siren!' and went into the blue waterwithout crossing himself. But he saw her."
He broke off, and accepted a cigarette. I watchedthe golden entrance rock and the quivering walls, andthe magic water through which great bubbles constantlyrose. At last he dropped his hot ash into the ripplesand turned his head away, and said:
"He came up without the coin. We pulled himinto the boat, and he was so large that he seemed to fillit, and so wet that we could not dress him. I havenever seen a man so wet. I and the gentleman rowedback, and we covered Giuseppe with sacking andpropped him up in the stern."
"He was drowned, then?" I murmured, supposingthat to be the point.
"He was not" he cried angrily. "He saw theSiren. I told you."
I was silenced again.
"We put him to bed, though he was not ill. Thedoctor came, and took money, and the priest came andtook more and smothered him with incense and spatteredhim with holy water. But it was no good. He wastoo big—like a piece of the sea. He kissed the thumb-bonesof San Biagio and they never dried till evening."
"What did he look like?" I ventured.
"Like anyone who has seen the Siren. If youhave seen her 'often and often' how is it you do notknow? Unhappy, unhappy, unhappy because he kneweverything. Every living thing made him unhappybecause he knew it would die. And all he cared to dowas to sleep."
I bent over my note book.
"He did no work, he forgot to eat, he forgotwhether he had his clothes on. All the work fell onme, and my sister had to go out to service. We triedto make him into a beggar, but he was too robust toinspire pity, and as for an idiot, he had not the rightlook in his eyes. He would stand in the street lookingat people, and the more he looked at them the moreunhappy he became. When a child was born he wouldcover his face with his hands. If anyone was married—hewas terrible then, and would frighten them as theycame out of church. Who would have believed hewould marry himself! I caused that, I. I was readingout of the paper how a girl at Ragusa had 'gonemad 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 hewent straight to her house, broke into her room, andcarried her off. She was the daughter of a rich mine-owner,so you may imagine our peril. Her father camedown, with a clever lawyer, but they could do no morethan I. They argued and they threatened, but at lastthey had to go back and we lost nothing—that is to say,no money. We took Giuseppe and Maria to the Churchand had them married. Ugh! that wedding! Thepriest made no jokes afterwards and coming out thechildren threw stones.... I think I would have diedto make her happy; but as always happens, one coulddo nothing."
"Were they unhappy together then?"
"They loved each other, but love is not happiness.We can all get love. Love is nothing. Loveis everywhere since the death of Jesus Christ. I hadtwo people to work for now, for she was like him ineverything—one never knew which of them was speaking.I had to sell our own boat and work under