by Djuna Barnes
The fields about Louis-Georges' house grew green in early Spring, leaving the surrounding country in melancholy grey, for Louis-Georges was the only man who sowed his ground to rye.
Louis-Georges was of small stature. His face was oblong, too pale. A dry mouth lay crookedly beneath a nose ending in a slight bulb. His long animal-like arms swung half a rhythm ahead of his legs.
He prided himself on his farming, though he knew nothing about it. He surveyed the tender coming green with kindly good nature, his acres were always a month ahead of his neighbours'.
Sometimes standing in the doorway, breathing through the thick hair in his nostrils, stretching his gloves, he would look at the low-lying sheds and the stables and the dull brown patches of ploughed earth, and mutter, "Splendid, splendid!"
Finally he would stroll in among the cattle where, in dizzy circles, large coloured flies swayed, emitting a soft insistent drone, like taffeta rubbed against taffeta.
He liked to think that he knew a great deal about horses. He would look solemnly at the trainer and discuss length of neck, thinness and shape of flank by the hour, stroking the hocks of his pet racer. Sometimes he would say to Vera Sovna: "There's more real breeding in the rump of a mare than in all the crowned heads of England."
Sometimes he and Vera Sovna would play in the hay, and about the grain bins. She in her long flounces, leaping in and out, screaming and laughing, stamping her high heels, setting up a great commotion among her ruffles.
Once Louis-Georges caught a rat, bare-handed, and with such skill that it could not bite. He disguised his pride in showing it to her by pretending that he had done so to inform her of the rodent menace to Winter grain.
Vera Sovna was a tall creature with thin shoulders; she was always shrugging them as if her shoulder-blades were heavy. She dressed in black and laughed a good deal in a very high key.
She had been a great friend of Louis-Georges' mother, but since her death she had fallen into disrepute. It was hinted that she was "something" to Louis-Georges; and when the townsfolk and neighbouring landholders saw her enter the house they would not content themselves until they saw her leave it.
If she came out holding her skirts crookedly above her thin ankles, they would find the roofs of their mouths in sudden disapproval, while if she walked slowly, dragging her dress, they would say: "See what a dust Vera Sovna brings up in the driveway; she stamps as if she were a mare."
If she knew anything of this feeling, she never showed it. She would drive through the town and turn neither to right nor left until she passed the markets with their bright yellow gourds and squashes, their rosy apples and their splendid tomatoes, exhaling an odour of decaying sunlight. On the rare occasions when Louis-Georges accompanied her, she would cross her legs at the knee, leaning forward, pointing a finger at him, shaking her head, laughing.
Sometimes she would go into the maids' quarters to play with Leah's child, a little creature with weak legs and neck, who always thrust out his stomach for her to pat.
The maids, Berthe and Leah, were well-built complacent women with serene blue eyes, quite far apart, and good mouths in which fine teeth grew gratefully and upon whom round ample busts flourished like plants. They went about their work singing or chewing long green salad leaves.
In her youth Leah had done something for which she prayed at intervals. Her memory was always taking her hastily away to kneel before the gaudy wax Christ that hung on a beam in the barn. Resting her head against the boards she would lift her work-worn hands, bosom-high, sighing, praying, murmuring.
Or she would help Berthe with the milking, throwing her thick ankles under the cow's udders, bringing down a sudden fury of milk, shining and splashing over her big clean knuckles, saying quietly, evenly:
"I think we will have rain before dawn."
And her sister would answer: "Yes, before dawn."
Leah would spend hours in the garden, her little one crawling after her, leaving childish smears on the dusty leaves of the growing corn, digging his hands into the vegetable tops, falling and pretending to have fallen on purpose; grinning up at the sun foolishly until his eyes watered.
These two women and Louis-Georges' valet, Vanka, made up the household, saving occasional visits from Louis-Georges' aunts, Myra and Ella.
This man Vanka was a mixture of Russian and Jew. He bit his nails, talked of the revolution, moved clumsily.
His clothes fitted him badly, he pomaded his hair, which was reddish yellow, pulled out the short hairs that tormented his throat, and from beneath his white brows distributed a kindly intelligent look. The most painful thing about him was his attempt to seem alert, his effort to keep pace with his master.
Louis-Georges would say, "Well now, Vanka, what did they do to you in Russia when you were a boy?"
"They shot my brother for a red," Vanka would answer, pulling the hairs. "They threw him into prison, and my sister took him his food. One day our father was also arrested, then she took two dinner pails instead of one. Once she heard a noise, it sounded like a shot, and our father returned her one of the pails. They say he looked up at her like a man who is gazed at over the shoulder." He had told the tale often, adding: "My sister became almost bald later on, yet she was a handsome woman; the students used to come to her chambers to hear her talk."
At such times Louis-Georges would excuse himself and shut himself up to write, in a large and scrawling hand, letters to his aunts with some of Vanka's phrases in them.
Sometimes Vera Sovna would come in to watch him, lifting her ruffles, raising her brows. Too, she would turn and look for a long time at Vanka who returned her look with cold persistence, the way of a man who is afraid, who does not approve, and yet who likes.
She would stand with her back to the fireplace, her high heels a little apart, tapping the stretched silk of her skirt, saying:
"You will ruin your eyes," adding: "Vanka, won't you stop him?"
She seldom got answers to her remarks. Louis-Georges would continue, grunting at her, to be sure, and smiling, but never lifting his eyes: and as for Vanka he would stand there, catching the sheets of paper as they were finished.
Finally Louis-Georges would push back his chair, saying: "Come, we will have tea."
In the end he fell into a slow illness. It attacked his limbs, he was forced to walk with a cane. He complained of his heart, but he persisted in going out to look at the horses, to the barn to amuse Vera Sovna, swaying a little as he watched the slow-circling flies, sniffing the pleasant odours of cow's milk and dung.
He still had plans for the haying season, for his crops, but he gave them over to his farm hands, who, left to themselves, wandered aimlessly home at odd hours.
About six months later he took to his bed.
His aunts came, testing with their withered noses the smell of decaying wood and paregoric, whispering that "he never used to get like this."
Raising their ample shoulders to ease the little black velvet straps that sunk into their flesh, they sat on either side of his bed.
They looked at each other in a pitifully surprised way. They had never seen illness, and death but once - a suicide, and this they understood: one has impulses, but not maladies.
They were afraid of meeting Vera Sovna. Their position was a difficult one; having been on friendly terms while Louis-Georges' mother lived, they had nevertheless to maintain a certain dignity and reserve when the very townsfolk had turned against her. Therefore they left her an hour in the evening to herself. She would come creeping in, saying:
"Oh, my dear," telling him long unheard stories about a week she had spent in London. A curious week, full of near adventure, with amusing tales of hotel keepers, nobility. And sometimes leaning close to him, that he might hear, he saw that she was weeping.
But in spite of this and of his illness and the new quality in the air, Vera Sovna was strangely gay.
During this illness the two girls served as nurses, changing the sheets, turning him over, rubbing him with alcohol, bringing him his soup, crossing themselves.
Vanka stood long hours by the bedside coughing. Sometimes he would fall off into sleep, at others he would try to talk of the revolution.
Vera Sovna had taken to dining in the kitchen, a long bare room that pleased her. From the window one could see the orchards and the pump and the long slope down to the edge of the meadow. And the room was pleasant to look upon. The table, like the earth itself, was simple and abundant. It might have been a meadow that Leah and Berthe browsed in, red-cheeked, gaining health, strength.
Great hams, smoked fowl with oddly taut legs hung from the beams, and under these the girls moved as if there were some bond between them.
They accepted Vera Sovna's company cheerfully, uncomplainingly, and when she went away they cleared up her crumbs, thinking and talking of other things, forgetting.
Nothing suffered on account of his illness. The household matters went smoothly, the crops ripened, the haying season passed, and the sod in the orchards sounded with the thud of ripe falling fruit. Louis-Georges suffered alone, detached, as if he had never been. Even about Vera Sovna there was a strange quiet brilliancy, the brilliancy of one who is about to receive something. She caressed the medicine bottles, tended the flowers.
Leah and Berthe were unperturbed, except from overwork; the face of Vanka alone changed.
He bore the expression at once of a man in pain and of a man who is about to come into peace. The flickering light in Louis-Georges' face cast its shadow on that of his valet.
Myra and Ella became gradually excited. They kept brushing imaginary specks of dust from their shoulders and bodices, sending each other in to observe him. They comforted themselves looking at him, pretending each to the other that he was quite improved. It was not so much that they were sorry to have him die, as it was that they were not prepared to have him die.
When the doctor arrived they shifted their burden of worry. They bought medicine with great relish, hurriedly. Finally to lessen the torment they closed their eyes as they sat on either side of his bed, picturing him already dead, laid out, hands crossed, that they might gain comfort upon opening them, to find him still alive.
When they knew that he was really dying they could not keep from touching him. They tried to cover him up in those parts that exposed too plainly his illness: the thin throat, the damp pulsing spot in the neck. They fondled his hands, driving doctor and nurse into a passion.
At last, in desperation, Myra knelt by his bed, touched his face, stroked his cheeks, trying to break the monotonous calm of approaching death.
Death did not seem to be anywhere in him saving in his face ... it seemed to Myra that to drive it from his eyes would mean life. It was then that she and her sister were locked out, to wander up and down the hall, afraid to speak, afraid to weep, unless by that much they might hasten his death.
When he finally died, they had the problem of Vera Sovna.
But they soon forgot her, trying to follow the orders left by the dead man. Louis-Georges had been very careful to see to it that things should go on growing; he had given many orders, planned new seasons, talked of "next year," knowing that he would not be there.
The hens cackled with splendid performances, the stables resounded with the good spirits of the horses, the fields were all but shedding their very life on the earth as Vanka moved noiselessly about, folding the dead man's clothes.
When the undertaker arrived Vanka would not let him touch the body. He washed and dressed it to suit himself. It was he who laid Louis-Georges in the shiny coffin, it was he who arranged the flowers, and he who finally left the room on the flat of his whole noisy feet for the first time in years. He went to his own room overlooking the garden.
He paced the room. It seemed to him that he had left something undone. He had loved service and order; he did not know that he also loved Louis-Georges, who made service necessary and order desirable.
This distressed him, he rubbed his hands, holding them close to his mouth, as if by the sound of one hand passing over the other he might learn some secret in the stoppage of sound.
Leah had made a scene, he thought of that. A small enough scene, considering. She had brought her baby in, dropping him beside the body, giving the flat-voiced: "Now you can play with him a minute."
He had not interfered, the child had been too frightened to disturb the cold excellence of Louis-Georges' arrangement, and Leah had gone out soon enough in stolid silence. He could hear them descending the steps, her heavy slow tread followed by the quick uneven movements of the child.
Vanka could hear the rustling of the trees in the garden, the call of an owl from the barn; one of the mares whinnied and, stamping, fell off into silence.
He opened the window. He thought he caught the sound of feet on the pebbles that bordered the hydrangea bushes; a faint perfume, such as the flounces of Vera Sovna exhaled, came to him. Irritated, he turned away, when he heard her calling.
"Vanka, come, my foot is caught in the vine."
Her face, with wide hanging lips, came above the sill, and the same moment she jumped into the room.
They stood looking at each other. They had never been alone together before. He did not know what to do.
She was a little dishevelled, twigs from the shrubbery clung to the black flounces of her gown. She raised her thin shoulders once, twice, and sighed.
She reached out her arm, whispering:
He moved away from her, staring at her.
"Vanka," she repeated, and came close, leaning a little on him.
In a voice of command, she said simply, "You must tell me something."
"I will tell you," he answered, automatically.
"See, look at your hands - - " She kissed them suddenly, dropping her wet lips into the middle of the palms, making him start and shiver.
"Look at these eyes - ah, fortunate man," she continued, "most fortunate Vanka; he would let you touch him, close, near the heart, the skin. You could know what he looked like, how he stood, how his ankle went into his foot." He ceased to hear her.
"And his shoulders, how they set. You dressed and undressed him, knew him, all of him, for many years - you see, you understand? Tell me, tell me what he was like!"
He turned to her. "I will tell you," he said, "if you are still, if you will sit down, if you are quiet."
She sat down with another sigh, with a touch of her old gaiety; she raised her eyes, watching him.
"His arms were too long, you could tell that - but beautiful, and his back was thin, tapering - full of breeding - - "
End of The Valet by Djuna Barnes