Absalom, Absalom! Part 2

There was no snow on Shreve's arm now, no sleeve on his arm at all now: only the smooth cupid-fleshed forearm and hand coming back into the lamp and taking a pipe from the empty coffee can where he kept them, filling it and lighting it. So it is zero outside, Quentin thought; soon he will raise the window and do deep-breathing in it, clench-fisted and naked to the waist, in the warm and rosy orifice above the iron quad. But he had not done so yet, and now the moment, the thought, was an hour past and the pipe lay smoked out and overturned and cold, with a light sprinkling of ashes about it, on the table before Shreve's crossed pink bright-haired arms while he watched Quentin from behind the two opaque and lamp-glared moons of his spectacles. "So he just wanted a grandson," he said. "That was all he was after. Jesus, the South is fine, isn't it. It's better than the theatre, isn't it. It's better than Ben Hur, isn't it. No wonder you have to come away now and then, isn't it."

Quentin did not answer. He sat quite still, facing the table, his hands lying on either side of the open text book on which the letter rested: the rectangle of paper folded across the middle and now open, three quarters open, whose bulk had raised half itself by the leverage of the old crease in weightless and paradoxical levitation, lying at such an angle that he could not possibly have read it, deciphered it, even without this added distortion. Yet he seemed to be looking at it, or as near as Shreve could tell, he was, his face lowered a little, brooding, almost sullen. "He told Grandfather about it," he said. "That time when the architect escaped, tried to, tried to escape into the river bottom and go back to New Orleans or wherever it was, and he-" ("The demon, hey?" Shreve said. Quentin did not answer him, did not pause, his voice level, curious, a little dreamy yet still with that overtone of sullen bemus.e.m.e.nt, of smoldering outrage: so that Shreve, still too, resembling in his spectacles and nothing else (from the waist down the table concealed him; anyone entering the room would have taken him to be stark naked) a baroque effigy created out of colored cake dough by someone with a faintly nightmarish affinity for the perverse, watched him with thoughtful and intent curiosity.)"-sent word in to Grandfather and some others and got his dogs and his wild n.i.g.g.e.rs out and hunted the architect down and made him take earth in a cave under the river bank two days later. That was in the second summer, when they had finished all the brick and had the foundations laid and most of the big timbers cut and trimmed, and one day the architect couldn't stand it anymore or he was afraid he would starve or that the wild n.i.g.g.e.rs (and maybe Colonel Sutpen too) would run out of grub and eat him or maybe he got homesick or maybe he just had to go-" ("Maybe he had a girl," Shreve said. "Or maybe he just wanted a girl. You said the demon and the n.i.g.g.e.rs didn't have but two." Quentin did not answer this either; again he might not have heard, talking in that curious repressed calm voice as though to the table before him or the book upon it or the letter upon the book or his hands lying on either side of the book.) "-and so he went. He seemed to vanish in broad daylight, right out from the middle of twenty-one people. Or maybe it was just Sutpen's back that was turned, and that the n.i.g.g.e.rs saw him go and didn't think it needed mentioning; that being wild men they probably didn't know what Sutpen himself was up to and him naked in the mud with them all day. So I reckon they never did know what the architect was there for, supposed to do or had done or could do or was, so maybe they thought Sutpen had sent him, told him to go away and drown himself, go away and die, or maybe just go away. So he did, jumped up in broad daylight, in his embroidered vest and Fauntleroy tie and a hat like a Baptist congressman and probably carrying the hat in his hand, and ran into the swamp and the n.i.g.g.e.rs watched him out of sight and then went back to work and Sutpen didn't see it, didn't even miss him until night, suppertime probably, and the n.i.g.g.e.rs told him and he declared a holiday tomorrow because he would have to get out and borrow some dogs. Not that he would have needed dogs, with his n.i.g.g.e.rs to trail, but maybe he thought that the guests, the others, would not be used to trailing with n.i.g.g.e.rs and would expect dogs. And Grandfather (he was young then too) brought some champagne and some of the others brought whiskey and they began to gather out there a little after sundown, at his house that didn't even have walls yet, that wasn't anything yet but some lines of bricks sunk into the ground but that was all right because they didn't go to bed anyhow, Grandfather said, they just sat around the fire with the champagne and the whiskey and a quarter of the last venison he had killed, and about midnight the man with the dogs came. Then it was daylight and the dogs had a little trouble at first because some of the wild n.i.g.g.e.rs had run out about a mile of the trail just for fun. But they got the trail straightened out at last, the dogs and the n.i.g.g.e.rs in the bottom and most of the men riding along the edge of it where the going was good. But Grandfather and Colonel Sutpen went with the dogs and the n.i.g.g.e.rs because Sutpen was afraid the n.i.g.g.e.rs might catch the architect before he could reach them. He and Grandfather had to walk a good deal, sending one of the n.i.g.g.e.rs to lead the horses on around the bad places until they could ride again. Grandfather said it was fine weather and the trail lay pretty good but he said it would have been fine if the architect had just waited until October or November. And so he told Grandfather something about it.

"His trouble was innocence. All of a sudden he discovered, not what he wanted to do but what he just had to do, had to do it whether he wanted to or not, because if he did not do it he knew that he could never live with himself for the rest of his life, never live with what all the men and women that had died to make him had left inside of him for him to pa.s.s on, with all the dead ones waiting and watching to see if he was going to do it right, fix things right so that he would be able to look in the face not only the old dead ones but all the living ones that would come after him when he would be one of the dead. And that at the very moment when he discovered what it was, he found out that this was the last thing in the world he was equipped to do because he not only had not known that he would have to do this, he did not even know that it existed to be wanted, to need to be done, until he was almost fourteen years old. Because he was born in West Virginia, in the mountains where-" ("Not in West Virginia," Shreve said. "-What?" Quentin said. "Not in West Virginia," Shreve said. "Because if he was twenty-five years old in Mississippi in 1833, he was born in 1808. And there wasn't any West Virginia in 1808 because-" "All right," Quentin said. "-West Virginia wasn't admitted-" "All right all right," Quentin said. "-into the United States until-" "All right all right all right," Quentin said.) "-where what few other people he knew lived in log cabins boiling with children like the one he was born in-men and grown boys who hunted or lay before the fire on the floor while the women and older girls stepped back and forth across them to reach the fire to cook, where the only colored people were Indians and you only looked down at them over your rifle sights, where he had never even heard of, never imagined, a place, a land divided neatly up and actually owned by men who did nothing but ride over it on fine horses or sit in fine clothes on the galleries of big houses while other people worked for them; he did not even imagine then that there was any such way to live or to want to live, or that there existed all the objects to be wanted which there were, or that the ones who owned the objects not only could look down on the ones that didn't, but could be supported in the down-looking not only by the others who owned objects too but by the very ones that were looked down on that didn't own objects and knew they never would. Because where he lived the land belonged to anybody and everybody and so the man who would go to the trouble and work to fence off a piece of it and say 'This is mine' was crazy; and as for objects, n.o.body had any more of them than you did because everybody had just what he was strong enough or energetic enough to take and keep, and only that crazy man would go to the trouble to take or even want more than he could eat or swap for powder and whiskey. So he didn't even know there was a country all divided and fixed and neat with a people living on it all divided and fixed and neat because of what color their skins happened to be and what they happened to own, and where a certain few men not only had the power of life and death and barter and sale over others, they had living human men to perform the endless repet.i.tive personal offices such as pouring the very whiskey from the jug and putting the gla.s.s into his hand or pulling off his boots for him to go to bed that all men have had to do for themselves since time began and would have to do until they died and which no man ever has or ever will like to do but which no man that he knew had ever anymore thought of evading than he had thought of evading the effort of chewing and swallowing and breathing. When he was a child he didn't listen to the vague and cloudy tales of Tidewater splendor that penetrated even his mountains because then he could not understand what the people meant, and when he became a boy he didn't listen to them because there was nothing in sight to compare and gauge the tales by and so give the words life and meaning, and no chance that he ever would (certainly no belief or thought that someday he might), and because he was too busy doing the things that boys do; and when he got to be a youth and curiosity itself exhumed the tales which he did not know he had heard and speculated about them, he was interested and would have liked to see the places once, but without envy or regret, because he just thought that some people were sp.a.w.ned in one place and some in another, some sp.a.w.ned rich (lucky, he may have called it: or maybe he called lucky, rich) and some not, and that (so he told Grandfather) the men themselves had little to do with the choosing and less of the regret because (he told Grandfather this too) it had never once occurred to him that any man should take any such blind accident as that as authority or warrant to look down at others, any others. So he had hardly heard of such a world until he fell into it.

"That's how it was. They fell into it, the whole family, returned to the coast from which the first Sutpen had come (when the ship from the Old Bailey reached Jamestown probably), tumbled head over heels back to Tidewater by sheer alt.i.tude, elevation and gravity, as if whatever slight hold the family had had (he said something to Grandfather about his mother dying about that time and how his pap said she was a fine wearying woman and that he would miss her; and something about how it was the wife that had got his father even that far West) on the mountain had broken and now the whole pa.s.sel of them from the father through the grown daughters down to one that couldn't even walk yet, sliding back down out of the mountains and skating in a kind of accelerating and sloven and inert coherence like a useless collection of flotsam on a flooded river moving by some perverse automotivation such as inanimate objects sometimes show, backward against the very current of the stream, across the Virginia plateau and into the slack lowlands about the mouth of the James River. He didn't know why they moved, or didn't remember the reason if he ever knew it-whether it was optimism, hope in his father's breast or nostalgia, since he didn't know just where his father had come from, whether the country to which they returned was it or not, or even if his father knew, remembered, wanted to remember and find it again;-whether somebody, some traveler, had told him of some easy place or time, some escape from the hardship of getting food and keeping warm in the mountain way, or if perhaps somebody his father knew once or who knew his father once and remembered him, happened to think about him, or someone kin to him who had tried to forget him and couldn't quite do it, had sent for him and he obeying, going not for the promised job but for the ease, having faith perhaps in the blood kinship to evade the labor if it was kinship, in his own inertia and in whatever G.o.ds had watched over him this far if it were not. But he-" ("The demon," Shreve said) "-didn't know, or remember, whether he had ever heard, been told, the reason or not. All he remembered was that one morning the father rose and told the older girls to pack what food they had, and somebody wrapped up the baby and somebody else threw water on the fire and they walked down the mountain to where roads existed. They had a lopsided two-wheeled cart and two spavined oxen now. He told Grandfather he did not remember just where nor when nor how his father had got it, and he (he was ten then; the two older boys had left home some time before and had not been heard of since) driving the oxen since almost as soon as they got the cart his father began the practice of accomplishing that part of the translation devoted to motion flat on his back in the cart, oblivious among the quilts and lanterns and well buckets and bundles of clothing and children, snoring with alcohol. That was how he told it. He didn't remember if it was weeks or months or a year they traveled (except that one of the older girls who had left the cabin unmarried was still unmarried when they finally stopped, though she had become a mother before they lost the last blue mountain range), whether it was that winter and then spring and then summer overtook and pa.s.sed them on the road or whether they overtook and pa.s.sed in slow succession the seasons as they descended or whether it was the descent itself that did it and they not progressing parallel in time but descending perpendicularly through temperature and climate-a (you couldn't call it a period because as he remembered it or as he told Grandfather he did, it didn't have either a definite beginning or a definite ending. Maybe attenuation is better)-an attenuation from a kind of furious inertness and patient immobility while they sat in the cart outside the doors of doggeries and taverns and waited for the father to drink himself insensible, to a sort of dreamy and destinationless locomotion after they had got the old man out of whatever shed or outhouse or barn or ditch and loaded him into the cart again and during which they did not seem to progress at all but just to hang suspended while the earth itself altered, flattened and broadened out of the mountain cove where they had all been born, mounting, rising about them like a tide in which the strange harsh rough faces about the doggery doors into which the old man was just entering or was just being carried or thrown out (and this one time by a huge bull of a n.i.g.g.e.r, the first black man, slave, they had ever seen, who emerged with the old man over his shoulder like a sack of meal and his-the n.i.g.g.e.r's-mouth loud with laughing and full of teeth like tombstones) swam up and vanished and were replaced; the earth, the world, rising about them and flowing past as if the cart moved on a treadmill (and it now spring and now summer and they still moving on toward a place they had never seen and had no conception of, let alone wanted to go to; and from a place, a little lost spot on the side of a hill back to which probably not one of them-excepting possibly the usually insensible father who made one stage of the journey accompanied by the raspberry-colored elephants and snakes which he seems to have been hunting for-could have led the way) bringing into and then removing from their sober static country astonishment the strange faces and places, both faces and places-doggeries and taverns now become hamlets, hamlets now become villages, villages now towns and the country flattened out now with good roads and fields and n.i.g.g.e.rs working in the fields while white men sat fine horses and watched them, and more fine horses and men in fine clothes, with a different look in the face from mountain men about the taverns where the old man was not even allowed to come in by the front door and from which his mountain drinking manners got him ejected before he would have time to get drunk good (so that now they began to make really pretty good time) and no laughter and jeers to the ejecting now, even if the laughter and jeers had been harsh and without much gentleness in them.

"That's the way he got it. He had learned the difference not only between white men and black ones, but he was learning that there was a difference between white men and white men not to be measured by lifting anvils or gouging eyes or how much whiskey you could drink then get up and walk out of the room. That is, he had begun to discern that without being aware of it yet. He still thought that that was just a matter of where you were sp.a.w.ned and how; lucky or not lucky; and that the lucky ones would be even slower and lother than the unlucky to take any advantage of it or credit for it, feel that it gave them anything more than the luck; that they would feel if anything more tender toward the unlucky than the unlucky would ever need to feel toward them. He was to find all that out later. He remembered when he did it, because that was the same second when he discovered the innocence. It was not the second, the moment, that he was long about: it was the getting to it: the moment when they must have realised, believed at last that they were no longer traveling, moving, going somewhere-not the being still at last and in a fashion settled, because they had done that before on the road; he remembered how one time the gradual difference in comfort between the presence and absence of shoes and warm clothing occurred in one place: a cowshed where the sister's baby was born and, as he told Grandfather, for all he could remember, locate in elapsed time, conceived too. Because they were stopped now at last. He didn't know where they were. For a time, during the first days or weeks or months, the woodsman's instinct which he had acquired from the environment where he grew up or maybe had been bequeathed him by the two brothers who had vanished, one of which had been as far West as the Mississippi River one time-bequeathed him along with the wornout buckskin garments and such which they left in the cabin when they departed the last time for good-and which he had sharpened by boy's practice at small game and such, kept him oriented so that he could have (so he said) found his way back to the mountain cabin in time. But that was past now, the moment when he last could have said exactly where he had been born now weeks and months (maybe a year, the year, since that was when he became confused about his age and was never able to straighten it out again, so that he told Grandfather that he did not know within a year on either side just how old he was) behind him. So he knew neither where he had come from nor where he was nor why. He was just there, surrounded by the faces, almost all the faces which he had ever known, always known (though the number of them, despite the efforts of the unmarried sister who pretty soon, so he told Grandfather, and still without any wedding had another baby, decreasing, thinning out, because of the climate, the warmth, the dampness) living in a cabin that was almost a replica of the mountain one except that it didn't sit up in the bright wind but sat instead beside a big flat river that sometimes showed no current at all and even sometimes ran backward, where his sisters and brothers seemed to take sick after supper and die before the next meal, where regiments of n.i.g.g.e.rs with white men watching them planted and raised things that he had never heard of (the old man did something too, something besides drink now. At least, he would leave the cabin after breakfast and return sober to supper, and he fed them somehow) and the man who owned all the land and the n.i.g.g.e.rs and apparently the white men who superintended the work, lived in the biggest house he had ever seen and spent most of the afternoon (he told how he would creep up among the tangled shrubbery of the lawn and lie hidden and watch the man) in a barrel stave hammock between two trees, with his shoes off and a n.i.g.g.e.r who wore every day better clothes than he or his father and sisters had ever owned and ever expected to, who did nothing else but fan him and bring him drinks; and he (he was eleven or twelve or thirteen now because this was where he realised that he had irrevocably lost count of his age) lying there all afternoon while the sisters would come from time to time to the door of the cabin two miles away and scream at him for wood or water, watching that man who not only had shoes in the summertime too, but didn't even have to wear them.

"But he still didn't envy the man he was watching. He coveted the shoes, and probably he would have liked for his father to have a broadcloth monkey to hand him the jug and to carry the wood and water into the cabin for his sisters to wash and cook with and keep the house warm so that he himself would not have to do it. Maybe he even realised, understood the pleasure it would have given his sisters for their neighbors (other whites like them, who lived in other cabins not quite as well built and not at all as well kept and preserved as the ones the n.i.g.g.e.r slaves lived in but still nimbused with freedom's bright aura, which the slave quarters were not for all their sound roofs and white wash) to see them being waited on. Because he had not only not lost the innocence yet, he had not yet discovered that he possessed it. He no more envied the man than he would have envied a mountain man who happened to own a fine rifle. He would have coveted the rifle, but he would himself have supported and confirmed the owner's pride and pleasure in its ownership because he could not have conceived of the owner taking such cra.s.s advantage of the luck which gave the rifle to him rather than to another as to say to other men: Because I own this rifle, my arms and legs and blood and bones are superior to yours except as the victorious outcome of a fight with rifles: and how in the world could a man fight another man with dressed-up n.i.g.g.e.rs and the fact that he could lie in a hammock all afternoon with his shoes off? and what in the world would he be fighting for if he did? He didn't even know he was innocent that day when his father sent him to the big house with the message. He didn't remember (or did not say) what the message was, apparently he still didn't know exactly just what his father did, what work (or maybe supposed to do) the old man had in relation to the plantation-a boy either thirteen or fourteen, he didn't know which, in garments his father had got from the plantation commissary and had worn out and which one of the sisters had patched and cut down to fit him and he no more conscious of his appearance in them or of the possibility that anyone else would be than he was of his skin, following the road and turning into the gate and following the drive up past where still more n.i.g.g.e.rs with nothing to do all day but plant flowers and trim gra.s.s were working, and so to the house, the portico, the front door, thinking how at last he was going to see the inside of it, see what else a man was bound to own who could have a special n.i.g.g.e.r to hand him his liquor and pull off his shoes that he didn't even need to wear, never for one moment thinking but what the man would be as pleased to show him the balance of his things as the mountain man would have been to show the powder horn and bullet mold that went with the rifle. Because he was still innocent. He knew it without being aware that he did; he told Grandfather how, before the monkey n.i.g.g.e.r who came to the door had finished saying what he did, he seemed to kind of dissolve and a part of him turn and rush back through the two years they had lived there like when you pa.s.s through a room fast and look at all the objects in it and you turn and go back through the room again and look at all the objects from the other side and you find out you had never seen them before, rushing back through those two years and seeing a dozen things that had happened and he hadn't even seen them before: a certain flat level silent way his older sisters and the other white women of their kind had of looking at n.i.g.g.e.rs, not with fear or dread but with a kind of speculative antagonism not because of any known fact or reason but inherited by both white and black, the sense, effluvium of it pa.s.sing between the white women in the doors of the sagging cabins and the n.i.g.g.e.rs in the road and which was not quite explainable by the fact that the n.i.g.g.e.rs had better clothes, and which the n.i.g.g.e.rs did not return as antagonism or in any sense of dare or taunt but through the very fact that they were apparently oblivious of it, too oblivious of it (you knew that you could hit them, he told Grandfather, and they would not hit back or even resist. But you did not want to, because they (the n.i.g.g.e.rs) were not it, not what you wanted to hit; that when you hit them you would just be hitting a child's toy balloon with a face painted on it, a face slick and smooth and distended and about to burst into laughing and so you did not dare strike it because it would merely burst and you would rather let it walk on out of your sight than to have stood there in the loud laughing)-of talk at night before the fire when they had company or had themselves gone visiting after supper to another cabin, the voices of the women sober enough, even calm, yet filled with a quality dark and sullen and only some man, usually his father in drink, to break out into harsh recapitulation of his own worth, the respect which his own physical prowess commanded from his fellows, and the boy of either thirteen or fourteen or maybe twelve knowing that the men and the women were talking about the same thing though it had never once been mentioned by name, like when people talk about privation without mentioning the siege, about sickness without ever naming the epidemic;-of one afternoon when he and his sister were walking along the road and he heard the carriage coming up behind them and stepped off the road and then realised that his sister was not going to give way to it, that she still walked in the middle of the road with a sort of sullen implacability in the very angle of her head and he shouted at her: and then it was all dust and rearing horses and glinting harness buckles and wheel spokes; he saw two parasols in the carriage and the n.i.g.g.e.r coachman in a plug hat shouting: 'Hoo dar, gal! Git outen de way dar!' and then it was over, gone: the carriage and the dust, the two faces beneath the parasols glaring down at his sister: then he was throwing vain clods of dirt after the dust as it spun on, knowing now, while the monkey-dressed n.i.g.g.e.r butler kept the door barred with his body while he spoke, that it had not been the n.i.g.g.e.r coachman that he threw at at all, that it was the actual dust raised by the proud delicate wheels, and just that vain;-of one night late when his father came home, blundered into the cabin; he could smell the whiskey even while still dulled with broken sleep, hearing that same fierce exultation, vindication, in his father's voice: 'We whupped one of Pettibone's n.i.g.g.e.rs tonight' and he roused at that, waked at that, asking which one of Pettibone's n.i.g.g.e.rs and his father said he did not know, had never seen the n.i.g.g.e.r before: and he asked what the n.i.g.g.e.r had done and his father said, 'h.e.l.l fire, that G.o.dd.a.m.n son of a b.i.t.c.h Pettibone's n.i.g.g.e.r.'-how, without knowing it then since he had not yet discovered innocence, he must have meant the question the same way his father meant the answer: no actual n.i.g.g.e.r, living creature, living flesh to feel pain and writhe and cry out. He could even seem to see them: the torch-disturbed darkness among trees, the fierce hysterical faces of the white men, the balloon face of the n.i.g.g.e.r. Maybe the n.i.g.g.e.r's hands would be tied or held but that would be all right because they were not the hands with which the balloon face would struggle and writhe for freedom, not the balloon face: it was just poised among them, levitative and slick with paper-thin distension. Then someone would strike the balloon one single desperate and despairing blow and then he would seem to see them fleeing, running, with all about them, overtaking them and pa.s.sing and going on and then returning to overwhelm them again, the roaring waves of mellow laughter meaningless and terrifying and loud. And now he stood there before that white door with the monkey n.i.g.g.e.r barring it and looking down at him in his patched made-over jeans clothes and no shoes and I dont reckon he had even ever experimented with a comb because that would be one of the things that his sisters would keep hidden good-who had never thought about his own hair or clothes or anybody else's hair or clothes until he saw that monkey n.i.g.g.e.r, who through no doing of his own happened to have had the felicity of being housebred in Richmond maybe, looking-" ("Or maybe even in Charleston," Shreve breathed.) "-at them and he never even remembered what the n.i.g.g.e.r said, how it was the n.i.g.g.e.r told him, even before he had had time to say what he came for, never to come to that front door again but to go around to the back.

"He didn't even remember leaving. All of a sudden he found himself running and already some distance from the house, and not toward home. He was not crying, he said. He wasn't even mad. He just had to think, so he was going to where he could be quiet and think, and he knew where that place was. He went into the woods. He says he did not tell himself where to go: that his body, his feet, just went there-a place where a game trail entered a cane brake and an oak tree had fallen across it and made a kind of cave where he kept an iron griddle that he would cook small game on sometimes. He said he crawled back into the cave and sat with his back against the uptorn roots, and thought. Because he couldn't get it straight yet. He couldn't even realise yet that his trouble, his impediment, was innocence because he would not be able to realise that until he got it straight. So he was seeking among what little he had to call experience for something to measure it by, and he couldn't find anything. He had been told to go around to the back door even before he could state his errand, who had sprung from a people whose houses didn't have back doors but only windows and anyone entering or leaving by a window would be either hiding or escaping, neither of which he was doing. In fact, he had actually come on business, in the good faith of business which he had believed that all men accepted. Of course he had not expected to be invited in to eat a meal since time, the distance from one cooking pot to the next, did not need to be measured in hours or days; perhaps he had not expected to be asked into the house at all. But he did expect to be listened to because he had come, been sent, on some business which, even though he didn't remember what it was and maybe at the time (he said) he might not even have comprehended, was certainly connected somehow with the plantation that supported and endured that smooth white house and that smooth white bra.s.s-decorated door and the very broadcloth and linen and silk stockings the monkey n.i.g.g.e.r stood in to tell him to go around to the back before he could even state the business. It was like he might have been sent with a lump of lead or even a few molded bullets so that the man who owned the fine rifle could shoot it, and the man came to the door and told him to leave the bullets on a stump at the edge of the woods, not even letting him come close enough to look at the rifle.

"Because he was not mad. He insisted on that to Grandfather. He was just thinking, because he knew that something would have to be done about it; he would have to do something about it in order to live with himself for the rest of his life and he could not decide what it was because of that innocence which he had just discovered he had, which (the innocence, not the man, the tradition) he would have to compete with. He had nothing to compare and gauge it by but the rifle a.n.a.logy, and it would not make sense by that. He was quite calm about it, he said, sitting there with his arms around his knees in his little den beside the game trail where more than once when the wind was right he had seen deer pa.s.s within ten feet of him, arguing with himself quietly and calmly while both debaters agreed that if there were only someone else, some older and smarter person to ask. But there was not, there was only himself, the two of them inside that one body which was maybe thirteen or maybe fourteen or maybe was already fifteen but would never know it for certain forever more, arguing quiet and calm: But I can shoot him. (Not the monkey n.i.g.g.e.r. It was not the n.i.g.g.e.r anymore than it had been the n.i.g.g.e.r that his father had helped to whip that night. The n.i.g.g.e.r was just another balloon face slick and distended with that mellow loud and terrible laughing so that he did not dare to burst it, looking down at him from within the half closed door during that instant in which, before he knew it, something in him had escaped and-he unable to close the eyes of it-was looking out from within the balloon face just as the man who did not even have to wear the shoes he owned, whom the laughter which the balloon held barricaded and protected from such as he, looked out from whatever invisible place he (the man) happened to be at the moment, at the boy outside the barred door in his patched garments and splayed bare feet, looking through and beyond the boy, he himself seeing his own father and sisters and brothers as the owner, the rich man (not the n.i.g.g.e.r) must have been seeing them all the time-as cattle, creatures heavy and without grace, brutely evacuated into a world without hope or purpose for them, who would in turn sp.a.w.n with brutish and vicious prolixity, populate, double treble and compound, fill s.p.a.ce and earth with a race whose future would be a succession of cut-down and patched and made-over garments bought on exorbitant credit because they were white people, from stores where n.i.g.g.e.rs were given the garments free, with for sole heritage that expression on a balloon face bursting with laughter which had looked out at some unremembered and nameless progenitor who had knocked at a door when he was a little boy and had been told by a n.i.g.g.e.r to go around to the back.): But I can shoot him: and the other: No. That wouldn't do no good: and the first: What shall we do then? and the other: I dont know: and the first: But I can shoot him. I could slip right up there through them bushes and lay there until he come out to lay in the hammock and shoot him: and the other: No. That wouldn't do no good: and the first: Then what shall we do? and the other: I dont know.

"Now he was hungry. It was before dinner when he went to the big house, and now there was no sun at all where he crouched though he could still see sun in the tops of the trees around him. But his stomach had already told him it was late and that it would be later still when he reached home. And then he said he began to think Home. Home and that he thought at first that he was trying to laugh and that he kept on telling himself it was laughing even after he knew better; home, as he came out of the woods and approached it, still hidden yet, and looked at it-the rough partly rotten log walls, the sagging roof whose missing shingles they did not replace but just set pans and buckets under the leaks, the leanto room which they used for kitchen and which was all right because in good weather it didn't even matter that it had no chimney since they did not attempt to use it at all when it rained, and his sister pumping rhythmic up and down above a washtub in the yard, her back toward him, shapeless in a calico dress and a pair of the old man's shoes unlaced and flapping about her bare ankles and broad in the beam as a cow, the very labor she was doing brutish and stupidly out of all proportion to its reward: the very primary essence of labor, toil, reduced to its crude absolute which only a beast could and would endure; and now (he said) the thought striking him for the first time as to what he would tell his father when the old man asked him if he had delivered the message, whether he would lie or not, since if he did lie he would be found out maybe at once, since probably the man had already sent a n.i.g.g.e.r down to see why whatever it was his father had failed to do and had sent the excuse for was not done-granted that that was what his errand to the house had been, which (granted his old man) it probably was. But it didn't happen at once because his father was not at home yet. So it was only the sister, as if she had been waiting not for the wood but just for him to return, for the opportunity to use her vocal cords, nagging at him to fetch the wood and he not refusing, not objecting, just not hearing her, paying any attention to her because he was still thinking. Then the old man came and the sister told on him and the old man made him fetch the wood: and still nothing said about the errand while they ate supper nor when he went and lay down on the pallet where he slept and where he went to bed by just lying down, only not to sleep now, just lying there with his hands under his head and still nothing said about it and he still not knowing if he was going to lie or not. Because he said how the terrible part of it had not occurred to him yet, he just lay there while the two of them argued inside of him, speaking in orderly turn, both calm, even leaning backward to be calm and reasonable and unrancorous: But I can kill him.-No. That wouldn't do no good-Then what shall we do about it?-I dont know: and he just listening, not especially interested he said, hearing the two of them without listening. Because what he was thinking about now he hadn't asked for. It was just there, natural in a boy, a child, and he not paying any attention to it either because it was what a boy would have thought, and he knew that to do what he had to do in order to live with himself he would have to think it out straight as a man would, thinking The n.i.g.g.e.r never give me a chance to tell him what it was and so he (not the n.i.g.g.e.r now either) wont know it and whatever it is wont get done and he wont know it aint done until too late so he will get paid back that much for what he set that n.i.g.g.e.r to do and if it only was to tell him that the stable, the house, was on fire and the n.i.g.g.e.r wouldn't even let me tell him, warn him and then he said that all of a sudden it was not thinking, it was something shouting it almost loud enough for his sisters on the other pallet and his father in the bed with the two youngest and filling the room with alcohol snoring, to hear too: He never even give me a chance to say it. Not even to tell it, say it: it too fast, too mixed up to be thinking, it all kind of shouting at him at once, boiling out and over him like the n.i.g.g.e.r laughing: He never gave me a chance to say it and Pap never asked me if I told him or not and so he cant even know that Pap sent him any message and so whether he got it or not cant even matter, not even to Pap; I went up to that door for that n.i.g.g.e.r to tell me never to come to that front door again and I not only wasn't doing any good to him by telling it or any harm to him by not telling it, there aint any good or harm either in the living world that I can do to him. It was like that, he said, like an explosion-a bright glare that vanished and left nothing, no ashes nor refuse: just a limitless flat plain with the severe shape of his intact innocence rising from it like a monument; that innocence instructing him as calm as the others had ever spoken, using his own rifle a.n.a.logy to do it with, and when it said them in place of he or him, it meant more than all the human puny mortals under the sun that might lie in hammocks all afternoon with their shoes off: 'If you were fixing to combat them that had the fine rifles, the first thing you would do would be to get yourself the nearest thing to a fine rifle you could borrow or steal or make, wouldn't it?' and he said Yes. 'But this aint a question of rifles. So to combat them you have got to have what they have that made them do what he did. You got to have land and n.i.g.g.e.rs and a fine house to combat them with. You see?' and he said Yes again. He left that night. He waked before day and departed just like he went to bed: by rising from the pallet and tiptoeing out of the house. He never saw any of his family again.

"He went to the West Indies." Quentin had not moved, not even to raise his head from its att.i.tude of brooding bemus.e.m.e.nt upon the open letter which lay on the open textbook, his hands lying on the table before him on either side of the book and the letter, one half of which slanted upward from the transverse crease without support, as if it had learned half the secret of levitation. "That was how he said it. He and Grandfather were sitting on a log now because the dogs had faulted. That is, they had treed-a tree from which he (the architect) could not have escaped yet which he had undoubtedly mounted because they found the sapling pole with his suspenders still knotted about one end of it that he had used to climb the tree though at first they could not understand why the suspenders and it was three hours before they comprehended that the architect had used architecture, physics, to elude them as a man always falls back upon what he knows best in a crisis-the murderer upon murder, the thief thieving, the liar lying. He (the architect) knew about the wild negroes even if he couldn't have known that Sutpen would get dogs; he had chosen that tree and hauled that pole up after him and calculated stress and distance and trajectory and had crossed a gap to the next nearest tree that a flying squirrel could not have crossed and traveled from there on from tree to tree for almost half a mile before he put foot on the ground again. It was three hours before one of the wild n.i.g.g.e.rs (the dogs wouldn't leave the tree; they said he was in it) found where he had come down. So he and Grandfather sat on the log and talked, and one of the wild n.i.g.g.e.rs went back to camp for grub and the rest of the whiskey and they blew the other men in with horns and they ate, and he told Grandfather some more of it while they waited.

"He went to the West Indies. That's how he said it: not how he managed to find where the West Indies were nor where ships departed from to go there, nor how he got to where the ships were and got in one nor how he liked the sea nor about the hardships of a sailor's life and it must have been hardship indeed for him, a boy of fourteen or fifteen who had never seen the ocean before, going to sea in 1823. He just said, 'So I went to the West Indies,' sitting there on the log with Grandfather while the dogs still bayed the tree where they believed the architect was because he would have to be there-saying it just like that day thirty years later when he sat in Grandfather's office (in his fine clothes now, even though they were a little soiled and worn with three years of war, with money to rattle in his pocket and his beard at its prime too: beard body and intellect at that peak which all the different parts that make a man reach, where he can say I did all that I set out to do and I could stop here if I wanted to and no man to chide me with sloth, not even myself-and maybe this the instant which Fate always picks out to blackjack you, only the peak feels so sound and stable that the beginning of the falling is hidden for a little while-with his head flung up a little in that att.i.tude that n.o.body ever knew exactly who he had aped it from or if he did not perhaps learn it too from the same book out of which he taught himself the words, the bombastic phrases with which Grandfather said he even asked you for a match for his cigar or offered you the cigar-and nothing of vanity, nothing comic in it either Grandfather said, because of that innocence which he had never lost because after it finally told him what to do that night he forgot about it and didn't know that he still had it) and told Grandfather-told him, mind; not excusing, asking for no pity; not explaining, asking for no exculpation: just told Grandfather how he had put his first wife aside like eleventh and twelfth century kings did: 'I found that she was not and could never be, through no fault of her own, adjunctive or incremental to the design which I had in mind, so I provided for her and put her aside.'-telling Grandfather in that same tone while they sat on the log waiting for the n.i.g.g.e.rs to come back with the other guests and the whiskey: 'So I went to the West Indies. I had had some schooling during a part of one winter, enough to have learned something about them, to realise that they would be most suitable to the expediency of my requirements.' He didn't remember how he came to go to the school. That is, why his father decided all of a sudden to send him, what nebulous vision or shape might have evolved out of the fog of alcohol and n.i.g.g.e.r-beating and scheming to avoid work which his old man called his mind-the image not of ambition nor glory, not to see his son better himself for his own sake, probably not even some blind instant of revolt against that same house whose roof had leaked on probably a hundred families like his which had come and lived beneath it and vanished and left no trace, nothing, not even rags and broken crockery, but was probably mere vindictive envy toward one or two men, planters, whom he had to see every now and then. Anyway, he was sent to school for about three months one winter-an adolescent boy of thirteen or fourteen in a room full of children three or four years younger than he and three or four years further advanced, and he not only probably bigger than the teacher (the kind of teacher that would be teaching a one-room country school in a nest of Tidewater plantations) but a good deal more of a man, who probably brought into the school with him along with his sober watchful mountain reserve a good deal of latent insubordination that he would not be aware of any more than he would be aware at first that the teacher was afraid of him. It would not be intractability and maybe you couldn't call it pride either, but maybe just the self reliance of mountains and solitude, since some of his blood at least (his mother was a mountain woman, a Scottish woman who, so he told Grandfather, never did quite learn to speak English) had been bred in mountains, but which, whatever it was, was that which forbade him to condescend to memorise dry sums and such but which did permit him to listen when the teacher read aloud.-Sent to school, 'where,' he told Grandfather, 'I learned little save that most of the deeds, good and bad both, incurring opprobrium or plaudits or reward either, within the scope of man's abilities, had already been performed and were to be learned about only from books. So I listened when he would read to us. I realise now that on most of these occasions he resorted to reading aloud only when he saw that the moment had come when his entire school was on the point of rising and leaving the room. But whatever the reason, he read to us and I anyway listened, though I did not know that in that listening I was equipping myself better for what I should later design to do than if I had learned all the addition and subtraction in the book. That was how I learned of the West Indies. Not where they were, though if I had known at the time that that knowledge would someday serve me, I would have learned that too. What I learned was that there was a place called the West Indies to which poor men went in ships and became rich, it didn't matter how, so long as that man was clever and courageous: the latter of which I believed that I possessed, the former of which I believed that, if it were to be learned by energy and will in the school of endeavor and experience, I should learn. I remember how I remained one afternoon when school was out and waited for the teacher, waylaid him (he was a smallish man who always looked dusty, as if he had been born and lived all his life in attics and store rooms) and stepped out. I recall how he started back when he saw me and how I thought at the time that if I were to strike him there would be no resulting outcry but merely the sound of the blow and a puff of dust in the air as when you strike a rug hanging from a line. I asked him if it were true, if what he had read us about the men who got rich in the West Indies were true. "Why not?" he answered, starting back. "Didn't you hear me read it from the book?"-"How do I know that what you read was in the book?" I said. I was that green, that countrified, you see. I had not then learned to read my own name; although I had been attending the school for almost three months, I daresay I knew no more than I did when I entered the schoolroom for the first time. But I had to know, you see. Perhaps a man builds for his future in more ways than one, builds not only toward the body which will be his tomorrow or next year, but toward actions and the subsequent irrevocable courses of resultant action which his weak senses and intellect cannot foresee but which ten or twenty or thirty years from now he will take, will have to take in order to survive the act. Perhaps it was that instinct and not I who grasped one of his arms as he drew back (I did not actually doubt him. I think that even then, even at my age, I realised that he could not have invented it, that he lacked that something which is necessary in a man to enable him to fool even a child by lying. But you see, I had to be sure, had to take whatever method that came to my hand to make sure. And there was nothing else to hand except him) glaring at me and beginning to struggle, and I holding him and saying-I was quite calm, quite calm; I just had to know-saying, "Suppose I went there and found out that it was not so?" and he shrieking now, shouting "Help! Help!" so that I let him go. So when the time came when I realised that to accomplish my design I should need first of all and above all things money in considerable quant.i.ties and in the quite immediate future, I remembered what he had read to us and I went to the West Indies.'

"Then the other guests began to ride up, and after a while the n.i.g.g.e.rs came back with the coffee pot and a deer haunch and the whiskey (and one bottle of champagne which they had overlooked, Grandfather said) and he stopped talking for a while. He didn't tell anymore of it until they had eaten and were sitting around smoking while the n.i.g.g.e.rs and the dogs (they had to drag the dogs away from the tree, but especially away from the sapling pole with the architect's suspenders tied to it, as if it was not only that the pole was the last thing the architect had touched but it was the thing his exultation had touched when he saw another chance to elude them, and so it was not only the man but the exultation too which the dogs smelled that made them wild) made casts in all directions, getting further and further away until just before sundown one of the n.i.g.g.e.rs whooped and he (he hadn't spoken for some time, Grandfather said, lying there on one elbow, in the fine boots and the only pants he had and the shirt he had put on when he came out of the mud and washed himself off after he realised that he would have to hunt the architect down himself if he wanted him back alive probably, not talking himself and maybe not even listening while the men talked about cotton and politics, just smoking the cigar Grandfather had given him and looking at the fire embers and maybe making that West Indian voyage again that he had made when he was fourteen and didn't even know where he was going or if he would ever get there or not, no more way of knowing whether the men who said the ship was going there were lying or not than he had of knowing whether or not the school teacher was telling the truth about what was in the book. And he never told whether the voyage was hard or not, how much he must have had to endure to make it. Which of course he did have to endure, but then he believed that all necessary was courage and shrewdness and the one he knew he had and the other he believed he could learn if it were to be taught, and it probably the hardship of the voyage which comforted him that the men who said the ship was going to the West Indies had not lied to him because at that time, Grandfather said, he probably could not have believed in anything that was easy.)-he said, 'There it is' and got up and they all went on and found where the architect had come back to the ground again, with a gain of almost three hours. So they had to go fast now and there wasn't much time to talk, or at least, Grandfather said, he did not appear to intend to resume. Then the sun went down and the other men had to start back to town; they all went except Grandfather, because he wanted to listen some more. So he sent word in by one of the others (he was not married then either) that he would not be home, and he and Sutpen went on until the light failed. Two of the n.i.g.g.e.rs (they were thirteen miles from Sutpen's camp then) had already gone back to get blankets and more grub. Then it was dark and the n.i.g.g.e.rs began to light pine knots and they went on for a little while yet, gaining what they could now since they knew that the architect would have had to den soon after dark to keep from traveling in a circle. That was how Grandfather remembered it: he and Sutpen leading their horses (he would look back now and then and see the horses' eyes shining in the torch light and the horses' heads tossing and the shadows slipping along their shoulders and flanks) and the dogs and the n.i.g.g.e.rs (the n.i.g.g.e.rs mostly still naked except for a pair of pants here and there) with the pine torches smoking and flaring above them and the red light on their round heads and arms and the mud they wore in the swamp to keep the mosquitoes off dried hard and shiny, glinting like gla.s.s or china and the shadows they cast taller than they were at one moment then gone the next and even the trees and brakes and thickets there one moment and gone the next though you knew all the time that they were still there because you could feel them with your breathing, as though, invisible, they pressed down and condensed the invisible air you breathed. And he said how Sutpen was talking about it again, telling him again before he realised that this was some more of it, and he said how he thought how there was something about a man's destiny (or about the man) that caused the destiny to shape itself to him like his clothes did, like the same coat that new might have fitted a thousand men, yet after one man has worn it for a while it fits no one else and you can tell it anywhere you see it even if all you see is a sleeve or a lapel: so that his-" ("the demon's," Shreve said) "-destiny had fitted itself to him, to his innocence, his pristine apt.i.tude for platform drama and childlike heroic simplicity just as the fine broadcloth uniform which you could have seen on ten thousand men during those four years, which he wore when he came in the office on that afternoon thirty years later had fitted itself to the swaggering of all his gestures and to the forensic verbiage in which he stated calmly, with that frank innocence which we call 'of a child' except that a human child is the only living creature that is never either frank or innocent, the most simple and the most outrageous things. He was telling some more of it, already into what he was telling yet still without telling how he got to where he was nor even how what he was now involved in (obviously at least twenty years old now, crouching behind a window in the dark and firing the muskets through it which someone else loaded and handed to him) came to occur, getting himself and Grandfather both into that besieged Haitian room as simply as he got himself to the West Indies by saying that he decided to go to the West Indies and so he went there; this anecdote no deliberate continuation of the other one but merely called to his mind by the picture of the n.i.g.g.e.rs and torches in front of them; he not telling how he got there, what had happened during the six years between that day when he, a boy of fourteen who knew no tongue but English and not much of that, had decided to go to the West Indies and become rich, and this night when, overseer or foreman or something to a French sugar planter, he was barricade in the house with the planter's family (and now Grandfather said there was the first mention-a shadow that almost emerged for a moment and then faded again but not completely away-of the--" ("It's a girl," Shreve said. "Dont tell me. Just go on.") "--whom he was to tell Grandfather thirty years afterward he had found unsuitable to his purpose and so put aside, though providing for her) and a few frightened half-breed servants which he would have to turn from the window from time to time and kick and curse into helping the girl load the muskets which he and the planter fired through the windows, and I reckon Grandfather was saying 'Wait wait for G.o.d's sake wait' about like you are until he finally did stop and back up and start over again with at least some regard for cause and effect even if none for logical sequence and continuity. Or maybe it was the fact that they were sitting again now, having decided that they had gone far enough for that night, and the n.i.g.g.e.rs had made camp and cooked supper and they (he and Grandfather) drank some of the whiskey and ate and then sat before the fire drinking some more of the whiskey and he telling it all over and still it was not absolutely clear-the how and the why he was there and what he was-since he was not talking about himself. He was telling a story. He was not bragging about something he had done; he was just telling a story about something a man named Thomas Sutpen had experienced, which would still have been the same story if the man had had no name at all, if it had been told about any man or no man over whiskey at night.

"That may have been what slowed him down. But it was not enough to clarify the story much. He still was not recounting to Grandfather the career of somebody named Thomas Sutpen. Grandfather said the only mention he ever made to those six or seven years which must have existed somewhere, must have actually occurred, was about the patois he had to learn in order to oversee the plantation, and the French he had to learn, maybe not to get engaged to be married, but which he would certainly need to be able to repudiate the wife after he had already got her-how, so he told Grandfather, he had believed that courage and shrewdness would be enough but found that he was wrong and how sorry he was that he had not taken the schooling along with the West Indian lore when he discovered that all people did not speak the same tongue and realised that he would not only need courage and skill, he would have to learn to speak a new language, else that design to which he had dedicated himself would die still-born. So he learned the language just like he learned to be a sailor I reckon, because Grandfather asked him why he didn't get himself a girl to live with and learn it the easy way and Grandfather said how he sat there with the firelight on his face and the beard and his eyes quiet and sort of bright, and said-and Grandfather said it was the only time he ever knew him to say anything quiet and simple: 'On this night I am speaking of (and until my first marriage, I might add) I was still a virgin. You will probably not believe that, and if I were to try to explain it you would disbelieve me more than ever. So I will only say that that too was a part of the design which I had in my mind' and Grandfather said, 'Why shouldn't I believe it?' and he looking at Grandfather still with that quiet bright expression about the eyes, saying, 'But do you? Surely you dont hold me in such small contempt as to believe that at twenty I could neither have suffered temptation nor offered it?' and Grandfather said, 'You're right. I shouldn't believe it. But I do.' So it was no tale about women, and certainly not about love: the woman, the girl, just that shadow which could load a musket but could not have been trusted to fire one out the window that night (or the seven or eight nights while they huddled in the dark and watched from the windows the barns or granaries or whatever it is you harvest sugar into, and the fields too, blazing and smoking: he said how you could smell it, you could smell nothing else, the rank sweet rich smell as if the hatred and the implacability, the thousand secret dark years which had created the hatred and implacability, had intensified the smell of the sugar: and Grandfather said how he remembered then that he had seen Sutpen each time decline sugar for his coffee and so he (Grandfather) knew why now but he asked anyway to be sure and Sutpen told him it was true; that he had not been afraid until after the fields and barns were all burned and they had even forgot about the smell of the burning sugar, but that he had never been able to bear sugar since)-the girl just emerging for a second of the telling, in a single word almost, so that Grandfather said it was like he had just seen her too for a second by the flash of one of the muskets-a bent face, a single cheek, a chin for an instant beyond a curtain of fallen hair, a white slender arm raised, a delicate hand clutching a ramrod, and that was all. No more detail and information about that than about how he got from the field, his overseeing, into the besieged house when the n.i.g.g.e.rs rushed at him with their machetes, than how he got from the rotting cabin in Virginia to the fields he oversaw: and this, Grandfather said, more incredible to him than the getting there from Virginia because that did infer time, a s.p.a.ce the getting across which did indicate something of leisureliness since time is longer than any distance, while the other, the getting from the fields into the barricaded house, seemed to have occurred with a sort of violent abrogation which must have been almost as short as his telling about it-a very condensation of time which was the gauge of its own violence, and he telling it in that pleasant faintly forensic anecdotal manner apparently just as he remembered it, was impressed by it through detached and impersonal interest and curiosity which even fear (that once when he mentioned fear by that same inverse process of speaking of a time when he was not afraid, before he became afraid, he put it) failed to leaven very much. Because he was not afraid until after it was all over, Grandfather said, because that was all it was to him-a spectacle, something to be watched because he might not have a chance to see such again, since his innocence still functioned and he not only did not know what fear was until afterward, he did not even know that at first he was not terrified; did not even know that he had found the place where money was to be had quick if you were courageous and shrewd (he did not mean shrewdness, Grandfather said. What he meant was unscrupulousness only he didn't know that word because it would not have been in the book from which the school teacher read. Or maybe that was what he meant by courage, Grandfather said) but where high mortality was concomitant with the money and the sheen on the dollars was not from gold but from blood-a spot of earth which might have been created and set aside by Heaven itself, Grandfather said, as a theatre for violence and injustice and bloodshed and all the Satanic l.u.s.ts of human greed and cruelty, for the last despairing fury of all the pariah-interdict and all the doomed-a little island set in a smiling and fury-lurked and incredible indigo sea, which was the halfway point between what we call the jungle and what we call civilization, halfway between the dark inscrutable continent from which the black blood, the black bones and flesh and thinking and remembering and hopes and desires, was ravished by violence, and the cold known land to which it was doomed, the civilised land and people which had expelled some of its own blood and thinking and desires that had become too cra.s.s to be faced and borne longer, and set it homeless and desperate on the lonely ocean-a little lost island in a lat.i.tude which would require ten thousand years of equatorial heritage

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