THE PREBOSTE TALE
A. J. Cronin
It was St. Silvester’s night – the eve of Scotland’s biggest festival – and a compact audience was getting ready, at the Levenford Philosophical Club, to see the New Year enter. The partners treated the guests without ceremony, and abandoning any and all thoughts of deep debates, consented to spend those hours in affable conversation. Many songs had been sung and many stories told, interspersed with spontaneous lectures, until, in the middle of the evening, a pause fell in the noisy and clear room. It’s just that John Leckie had started talking. Leckie had been preboste of the borough for more than thirty years, and was now a taciturn old man, of eighty years, only appearing in the club on solemn occasions, in order to honor him with his presence of oldest member. He then sat in his special corner, remaining silent, apparently distant. I would not stop talking, however, at the right time. Now, for example, interrupting a conversation that cursed the recent change in weather at Levenford, he said: – You are talking about the thaw. Well, I can tell you a story about a thaw that happened a long time ago. A helpful whisper of encouragement rose from the audience. Then he paused, removed the pipe from his lips, fixed a watery and evocative look on his listeners and kept them attentive as he spoke. – There are not many people here tonight who remember Marta Lang, but in my day no woman in this parish was better known. At the end of the last century, she owned a small tobacconist on the corner of Rua da Igreja and Rua Dobbie. This property was extinguished when the road was widened, in order to extend the trams further into the city – that thing twenty years ago. But in any case, it was where Marta kept her shop. Some called her “Marta Trigueira”; others, “Marta da Bíblia”; however, only on her back, because face to face, no one would dare take freedom with Marta Lang. If she looked like a shadow in the darkness of her store, that darkness was not something that hovered in her spirit. There was an expression on his narrow, pale face that hurt and stunned us – a kind of bitter, hard spark that came out like fire from his deep black eyes. Certain people were afraid of her, and others hated her, but everyone agreed that she was the right woman and the right one. Shop not very attractive there, no! The small window, with greenish-glass lattices, seemed too low to contain the image of a East Indian brig, which swayed over it, and all it supported were three vaults arranged in a solemn row. The hard door creaked as it opened. Windy interior. It looked like an apothecary’s shop, with its counter, its small metal scale and its row of blue and white jars; but there was a certain severe silence, being too cold in the winter and extremely hot in the summer. There was no point for us to linger, no. Wall and a half with the store was the kitchen of Marta’s house; he had a window that looked out on Rue Dobbie, not counting another in the dividing wall, a kind of hatch, so to speak, allowing the store to be seen from the kitchen and vice versa, as the case may be. At the time I am referring to, Marta’s husband had been lying dead and buried for fifteen years. A long time! She had stayed with a son, a boy named Geordie. When Marta was widowed, the child was three years old, and had to raise him alone. If you created it! The term “severe” is not enough to describe the way she treated him. Never did a flicker of human affection sparkle in those black eyes. For those who dared to blame her on this, Marta had a useful answer, throwing chapters and verses from Ecclesiastes at them. Yes, he was rude and harsh with his son, in everything and for everything. So Marta and her son were living there. By the time the horrible thing I am going to tell you happened, Geordie was eighteen years old. He was a robust young man, with broad shoulders, outstretched arms, shooting in large red hands. And what a pleasant and frank face! Still, a kind of simple, placid expression had settled on his face, as if the lump had been flayed from there when he was a child. He worked at the shipyard as an apprentice engineer. In the winter of 1895 a wild frost fell on the region. The roads were like iron, the dam had frozen, some nights it was 12 degrees below zero, in the morning there was a layer of ice in the jar and the porridge cooled before we took it. Two days before Christmas, I was at about six thirty in the afternoon at Marta’s store when Geordie came in from the kitchen. As soon as Marta caught sight of him, she clattered the jar and asked him, in her harsh manner: “Where are you going?” “I thought of going around the dam,” he replied, with his notorious humility, as he rocked his skates, holding them in his hand by the straps. – Didn’t you leave last night? She replied. – Can’t you find a more profitable job to entertain yourself? Geordie apologized, alluding to the advantage of exercising, but all the while she heard him without raising a frown. At last she looked up suddenly, and it was as if the sight of her son was taking her away. “Then try to get in before the clock strikes nine,” he declared dryly. – And be careful with the companies … As Geordie’s path coincided with mine, we went down the road together. Despite the cold, the night was excellent. The clanking of Geordie’s skates – they had been his father’s, imagine you, and that was the only way he could have them – produced a pleasant, clear clang. He was very fond of skating, you see, and he was an expert and hard skater. The truth was that at Levenford, no one matched him. At the corner of Rocio we said good night. There he went to the ice, and I headed for the fireplace. I didn’t see Geordie for two or three days. Christmas passed and the harsh winter continued all that time. The people said that this could not continue. While they talked briefly at the crossroads, they stamped their feet on the ground, asserting that the ice had to break without delay, as in other worse frosts. But it lasted! … It lasted fierce and hard, and in the middle of the week they sent word to Darroch that the bay was all frozen, something that had not happened in the last seven years. I was at Marta’s store earlier than usual, as I remember that the barracks trumpet had sounded five and a half hours. I had already taken my dose of tobacco, had already put it in my pocket and paid for it. He was just exchanging two prose fingers with Marta; not that I took great pleasure in it, but in my capacity as a foreman it was more convenient than ever to keep myself safe from Marta’s scathing tongue. She was behind the counter, handed over to her everlasting mail, and I remained standing in the far corner, when suddenly the door flew open and Geordie burst out. He was so worried about what he was going to say, that he didn’t even see me, and he shouted at once: “Mother, the bay is freezing over a huge expanse that goes all the way to Ardmurren Island.” – And what benefit does this have for me or for you? – she replied knitting, knitting endlessly. Geordie looked down at the boots, showing off. And he replied: – There will be a race! – Running! She repeated sharply, as if doubting her own ears. He dropped the knitting and gave his son a dark look. But Geordie went on, excited: – Well, don’t you know, Mother? Race to dispute the Winton trophy. They are waiting for me to participate. Don’t you mind that I take part? Now I knew what Geordie was up to. The race on top of the ice, leaving Markinch, bypassing Ardmurren Island and returning to the starting point. It was a historic race, given to the people of the region and instituted by the Earl of Winton a long time ago … some claimed that it had taken place for the first time when Rob Roy was in full swing … The Earl had offered a kind of trophy as a prize: a stuffed deer head, mounted on oak, on top of a silver shield. Although the race was rarely carried out, the old custom still remained, and some gave it great appreciation. Anyway, I could see that Marta was suspicious of what her son meant, because she glared at him and exclaimed: – Have you lost your mind? Geordie explained: – But they consider me the best in town, and it will be Saturday the day of São Silvestre, so that I won’t have to miss work. It will be … it will be an honor. – Honor, yes! Black dishonor should you say. Is he still a boy who doesn’t know what that means? A meeting point for the wicked in the immediate vicinity! Fights and drinking among corrupt and sinful men. And, above all, a race with iniquity contractors betting stupidly on the winner! I was concerned with that in my youth, before enjoying the divine grace. He made an effort and calmed down: – No, no! You will not take part in such a denial, in full light in the face of God! “But, Mom, I won’t bet a ceitil or drink a drop,” said Geordie. – All I want is just skating representing the city. – Do you think you can pick up tar without getting dirty? Geordie’s lip rolled down, like a child’s. And he grunted: – Why do you live like this to humiliate me? Treat me like a dog. Marta’s face tightened. – Go back inside! He shouted, pointing to the kitchen. – You will not go to any race! And cover him with fiery and disgraceful disgrace, since he dared to raise his voice against his mother! He gave her a rather dismayed look, and despite his size, he bowed his head and withdrew, as she had ordered, with a shrug. After her son left, Marta sucked in air through her teeth. His face was livid, though somewhat triumphant. The week continued, as did the excessive cold, which towards the end of the week seemed to stiffen its scythes, like the final trismus of an agonizing one. On the eve of São Silvestre some snowflakes fell, falling from a cloudy sky. People prophesied a snowy end of the year, but the morning of the last day broke clear, and all that remained of the snow was a remnant that sprinkled nooks and crannies, like sugar. The sun came up, round and red, as if ashamed to have been away so long. And as it went up in the sky, it became brighter and more vigorous. The race date has arrived. I had no great interest in the case, but the day was bright, the feeling of the change of year hanging in the air, and when the bailiff Weir invited me to follow him to Markinch, I easily agreed. So we left after lunch, and arrived in Markinch very early. The only street in the village – usually so empty that a dog could sleep in the middle of it with the utmost safety – was buzzing with people moving, laughing and heading together towards the hard white layer of ice that bordered the beach. In the vicinity of the frozen cove they had put up some tents, and the crowd was crowding around those tents, very lively. Almost two hundred people were grouped on top of the ice. When race time approached, general excitement increased. At three o’clock the competitors left their tent, heading for the clear space that formed the starting point. There were six young men, and they started skating around there, tracing circles and making short pitches across the track in order to untangle the limbs. I must tell you straight away that when I saw them my eyes almost fell out of my head, for I found Geordie between them. Incredible as it was, it was. Geordie Lang was there! There was a strange and nervous air about him, as if he were both happy and sad to be there. I have already told you that he was a tall, but placid boy, and now he was frightened and dizzy, as if he did not know how he came to be in Markinch. The truth is, the bailiff and I went over there and talked to Geordie. I hadn’t told Weir anything I knew, and besides, he wasn’t Marta’s customer. He asked, “So, how do you feel, Geordie?” – I feel in a good mood, thank you, Mister Weir. – How is it? Are you all excited and in order? Better day for that they couldn’t have. “Better or not, whatever, because I will never win,” said Geordie bleakly. “It is half a victory for you to have convinced your mother,” I said, patiently. – I was afraid she wouldn’t let you come. Geordie made no reply. He heard what I said, but he pretended he hadn’t. I noticed rapid movement in his red eyebrows. I realized then that he got out of gear, rocking to the race against his mother’s will. And that’s what happened, in fact. He had come straight from work, not going to the house for dinner. You can see how much Geordie liked skating. Good heavens, how much anguish I felt, thinking about the sadness he would have on returning home, whether he lost or won, entering with or without the trophy! Meanwhile, Weir continued to speak: – Take care when you are going around the island. Don’t turn too wide, otherwise you’ll lose distance, do you hear? And always stay in the middle. You will have the smoothest ice. Geordie nodded nonchalantly, as if to say, “Anyway, now I’m in it.” But what he said was: – I’m going to work hard. It’s the most I can do. – Good luck then, boy! Weir cried. The three of us looked at Ardmurren, which stood like a noisy hill on the wide, flat. It was three miles away, in the middle of the cove, but it was so clear, in the intense light, that we could see the scarlet races over the distant holly. The six lined up competitors were preparing for the match, in their straw-marked places. The crowd remained silent, but breathless. Geordie was leaning forward, his lips pursed, and I could see the cold sweat that clamped his forehead. With or without foundation, it made me shiver to look at him, but it was difficult for me to stop looking at him. Two of the other skaters I knew by name. The one in the middle, Big Callum, was an athlete who had won medals in mast throws at the Luss Games – which is not a small thing – and he seemed not even apprehensive. Next to him was Dewar, a reinforced big boy who tightened his belt and chewed tobacco in order to recover. The other three boys at the end of the line did not inspire much of a chance, but by their respective ways they gave the impression that they were going to try. After all, they were ready. Colquhoun, the guard, who was supposed to give the start signal, put the hunting rifle on his shoulder and raised his nose to the sky. The crowd held their breath. Colquhoun yelled: – Are you ready, boys? I saw Geordie clench her teeth, intertwine her huge red hands, and at that the shotgun fired, giving the start signal. The skates started to crush the ice. The gang left. The crowd shouted. The start was good, and the six boys charged down the flat track, over that expanse, flitting like a flock of birds through a sea of glass. The clang of his skates had such a whirring of wings that it sounded like a whistle. – Great, great match! There is nothing to criticize! Exclaimed someone. Nothing unusual happened in the first mile. Then, in a kind of gradual advantage, Callum started to stand out from the rest. He was not a graceful skater, but he was very vigorous and advanced with wild throws from his strong legs. – Callum up front! It was ten yards away! The guardian shouted, watching through binoculars. Callum’s name echoed in the air. – Dewar in second! The others make a mess! So they went on for another mile. Then they approached Ardmurren, heading there like an arc to a target. Now they were in a long column, and the six hid themselves from view as they skirted the island. A kind of sigh, like a gust of wind, erupted from the crowd as soon as the skaters were gone. Then there was a cry of encouragement when the first man reappeared. – Callum came around first! Callum comes first! Beside me, the bailiff Weir stood on tiptoe. In his good days he had been a blood man, and now he looked purple. He shouted at me: – Did you notice? Lang went right into the curve. Now come inside, as I advised. Far, far away, as I could see, Geordie came in third, behind Dewar and Callum. The speed was too much for the rest. They dragged themselves behind, a long distance away. But Geordie was doing very well, with easy momentum from her slender legs. There was no doubt that he was a graceful, splendid skater. All the while the crowd was in an uproar. But I, for one thing, was not excited. I weighed something. I couldn’t explain what it was or how I felt, but there was no doubt that there was some fear and some apprehension. There they came, getting closer and closer. Halfway up, you could see, even at a distance, that Callum was getting tired. Dewar had managed to force him, close to his heels, coming up with the short, fast style he had. Callum accelerated the momentum, but could not get rid of the other. Dewar and Callum erupted, almost parallel. Then Callum started to falter. The crowd was still feverish, half shouting Callum’s name and the other half instigating Dewar, so excited about both that he forgot about Geordie. But the magistrate was attentive to him. – Look at him, look at that! Is coming! Undoubtedly Geordie lengthened its already long legs, and came like a gust of wind. The people of Levenford, who wanted the victory of their representative, started to make a squeaky noise, shouting: – Geordie! Come on! Come on, Geordie! Of course, Geordie couldn’t hear them, but he was coming. And before he could blink, behold, he passed so quickly between Callum and Dewar, that they seemed to retreat. They were two, five, ten yards ahead of him. A mile from the finish, he was about twenty yards ahead. Geordie! Geordie Lang! The crowd roared, clapping and shouting and throwing caps in the air. As I told you, in the midst of all that shouting I felt an unpleasant oppression. The bigger the shouting, the worse my malaise. I can’t tell if it was due to Marta’s idea or the strange expression on Geordie’s face, but I was afraid that something awful might happen. It really happened. Half a mile from the finish, when Geordie was already well ahead of the others, suddenly, and without warning, there was a crash capable of paralyzing people’s hearts, a dreadful noise, similar to the doomsday burst, and which interrupted the noise as if cutting him off. God only knows the infinite number of stories about ice breaking and skating submersion. But it differs from everything else, as hell differs from heaven. I saw it with my eyes, and the memory still gives me chills. The ice broke, and Geordie penetrated the crack like a stone. A second before it flapped like a bird … in the second it was sipped by a hissing hole, which poured dark water like cancerous fluid. The others, who came after him, turned away like crazy things. Only Geordie was sipped. It all happened a second before we could breathe. A kind of gasp went up from the crowd, then a lament, and finally a hideous cry of horror. Weir’s bloody face went white as a sheet. – Almighty God! Shouted Colquhoun, who then threw the shotgun back and ran over the ice. A certain panic was established, there was a great rush by the beach, but some of us followed the guard. It was a terrible, horrendous affair! When we reached the site, there was no sign of Geordie. As we tried to get close to the broken shore, there was such a crackle that collapsing would terrify the most intrepid heart. People came from the village with ropes and a ladder, but we could not see even a hint of Geordie. Then Callum yanked the skates off. He knew Geordie very well, and was desperate for distress. He exclaimed: – I will take it off! I will take it out! They tied a rope around Callum, after which he slipped down the stairs and into the icy water. It was the most courageous thing I have ever seen. He went down once, twice, three times. And this last time, when he came up with a livid face, grinding his teeth, his hair matted over his forehead, he came with Geordie in his arms. You have never heard a cry like the one that arose then. And the most distressing thing was to be a useless cry! Geordie was dead. We try a lot of resources when we extend it on the dike. All things possible, for an hour. Everything was in vain. He must have ground his head against the block of ice, but whatever the cause, he lay there, cold and inert on the cove beach. It was a hideous business, and there was a terrible hustle and bustle. This one said one thing, that one proposed another. There was a great stir against Colquhoun, who was responsible for the preparations and arrangements and announced that the race was viable. The guard was very distressed, and he kept swearing before me that he had gone to Ardmurren twice that morning. True, yes. But you didn’t think to go around the island and go back in the middle, where the ice was thinner, understand? And the heat of the sun had taken him away. Now, what happened happened, there was no remedy. Much less had the time and place to throw nicknames. And I, as a candidate, had the right to give my opinion. I reduced them to silence, and the conclusion was that poor Geordie’s body was placed in a cart on the estate, covering it with due consideration. Then, with Weir’s cabriolet at the front, we started back to Levenford. Oh my God! Imagine our shaking path in the sunlight, and you will understand how exhausting and annoying our work was. The bailiff and I didn’t exchange a single word on the way back. We had to think about Marta now, and what she was going to tell us. Not that I feared his suffering, no. Today I am an elderly man, and I can speak frankly: what I feared was the unruly bitness of his tongue. Well, when we approached Levenford the sky was all cloudy, and a light rain attacked us. You must calculate that my mission was not to my liking at all. So that when we entered Rua da Igreja my eyes popped when I saw the parson walking slowly along the flagstones. It was exactly the usual time when on Saturdays he went to Marta’s tobacconist. I called him as soon as I saw him. The parish priest was a little man with glasses, a little hunchbacked, always around with his books, but an excellent creature, both in the pulpit and outside. He didn’t know how to quibble, and as soon as he saw that it was his duty to accompany us to Marta’s house, he closed his jaws and followed us to the store. Now, I do not know how to pretend what I am not. He was overwhelmed with what he had seen on the beach, and he didn’t have the stomach to put up with more. When the parish priest and I entered that pharmacy, my heart hammered my ribs. Marta was inside, standing behind the counter, waiting for her son who had disobeyed her. You could tell by the look in her eyes that she was willing to punish him … not with children, but with scorpions. Before we could speak, she went out to meet us. Seeing us together, he suspected that we had come to intercede in favor of Geordie, for participating in the race. He immediately cried: – It is useless to come and beg me to forgive you. He traced his destiny himself! A chill ran through me when I heard those words. “Marta, listen, woman,” said the vicar, in a placid voice. – You must forgive your son. – I do not forgive him until he kneels … until I beg my forgiveness. Her eyes looked at him, daring. But the vicar did not hesitate. “I urge you to forgive your son,” he insisted. “Either try to do that now, or you’ll be sorry for the rest of your days.” A repel contracted Marta’s face, which replied vehemently: – Only after I have punished him for what he did. – Punish him, he will not do … because it’s all over. Then he told what had happened. There was a kind of constriction on Marta’s chin, which still said out loud: – I don’t believe it. You are lying, to scare me and free you. I will punish my son. As soon as these words came out of his mouth, the door opened. The men had arrived with the cart, and in the face of the crowd that had gathered there, in the rain and so many other things, they found it preferable to drop the cargo inside without delay. When they came in, staggering a little, because the weight was too much, and the ground was uneven, I looked as if I was struck, unable to take my eyes off Marta. In a glimpse she saw everything. Her face was like stone, her eyes looked sore in the midst of that strange lividness, and her expression was that of an astonished woman. It didn’t move. Absolutely! Even when they passed her in the direction of the kitchen, Marta remained stiff, frowning on the wall, as if struggling with her own breath. They were trying to get poor Geordie into the upstairs room, but they couldn’t quite get up the stairs. It was then that she suddenly parted her lips, saying out loud and pointing to the kitchen sofa: – Put him there. They put him where she ordered. “Now leave me alone,” he exclaimed, in a terrifying voice. – Leave me alone! Good heavens! I tell you how relieved I felt to be sailing out there. The vicar was the last to leave the store. He stood for a while, looking at her, raised his arm, then dropped it, started to speak, but remained silent. Finally he left. Whoever saw that Saint Sylvester in Levenford will not forget him until his last day. People walked the streets as if they were in the church, and spoke in a whisper. When they passed the store on Rua da Igreja, they did not dare to speak. At the Club that night, we were very few. As you know, it has always been a habit among members to attend the New Year’s entrance in a pompous way, as we are doing tonight. For once this custom was interrupted. The same happened in the city. When the clock struck twelve, expelling the Old Year, receiving the New Year, there was no other sound. No bells, no trumpets, no choir. Just deadly silence. And when the last chime died out, we all put on our three-flapped hoods and went to our homes. How much humidity, sadness and darkness! It was an endless thaw. As we jumped along the puddled street, we heard the water dripping from the eaves and the rain, like tears running down the windows. There were four or five of us, all following the same road, and when we passed the corner of Alley Dobbie, we saw a narrow bar of light emerging from the darkness. It was not a clear, warm light that could come from a happy and placid house, but a pale, loose light. Knowing that it emanated from Marta’s kitchen, made it more frightening. John Grierson was with us, a man who was not easily frightened, and somewhat sarcastic. Scandalous as it seemed, there was nothing to stop him from going to the window to have a look, to know what was going on inside. Much to our dismay, we peek out of that mysterious window. The kitchen was immersed in shadows, but the loose light of a candle allowed us to see Marta Lang walking from side to side, like a demented creature. His expression was helpless, and his hair had taken on the color of flaking snow. He wrung his hands, as if he were struggling with something, and all the while he was saying the name of his son Geordie with regrets. The Bible was open on the kitchen table, and once or twice she started to pick it up to read. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t, no! – Geordie! Geordie! – did not cease to exclaim loudly. Until suddenly he turned and dropped to his knees beside the low cot. He put an arm around the dead son’s neck, so that his head turned and hung like a child’s head on his mother’s chest; and with the other hand he began to caress her cold, hard face and smooth her hair. Marta started to rock back and forth, on her knees, desperate with distress: – Geordie! Geordie! I never came to know, as I know now, how much I loved you, my son! But I loved him always, always!
Author: A. J. Cronin Visual Production: Carlos Cunha