The Marble Quilt

Contents

Crossing St. Gotthard

The Infection Scene

Route 80

Black Box

Speonk

The Scruff of the Neck

The List

Heaped Earth

The Marble Quilt

By the Same Author

Crossing St. Gotthard

It was the tunnel—its imminence—that all of them were contemplating that afternoon on the train, each in a different way; the tunnel, at nine miles the longest in the world, slicing under the gelid landscape of the St. Gotthard Pass. To Irene it was an object of dread. She feared enclosure in small spaces, had heard from Maisie Withers that during the crossing the carriage heated up to a boiling pitch. “I was as black as a nigger from the soot,” Maisie Withers said. “People have died.” “Never again,” Maisie Withers concluded, pouring lemonade in her sitting room in Hartford, and meaning never again the tunnel but also (Irene knew) never again Italy, never again Europe; for Maisie was a gullible woman, and during her tour had had her pocketbook stolen.

And it was not only Maisie Withers, Irene reflected now (watching, across the way, her son Grady, his nose flat against the glass), but also her own ancient terror of windowless rooms, of corners, that since their docking in Liverpool had brought the prospect of the tunnel looming before her, black as death itself (a being which, as she approached fifty, she was trying to muster the courage to meet eye to eye), until she found herself counting first the weeks, then the days, then the hours leading up to the inevitable reckoning: the train slipping into the dark, into the mountain. (It was half a mile deep, Grady kept reminding her, half a mile of solid rock separating earth from sky.) Irene remembered a ghost story she'd read as a girl—a man believed to be dead wakes in his coffin. Was it too late to hire a carriage, then, to go
over
the pass, as Toby had? But no. Winter had already started up there. Oh, if she'd had her way, they'd have taken a different route; only Grady would have been disappointed, and since his brother's death she dared not disappoint Grady. He longed for the tunnel as ardently as his mother
dreaded it.

“Mama, is it coming soon?”

“Yes, dear.”

“But you said half an hour.”

“Hush, Grady! I'm not a clock.”

“But you said—”

“Read your book, Grady,” Harold interrupted.

“I finished it.”

“Then do your puzzle.”

“I finished that, too.”

“Then look out the window.”

“Or just shut up,” added Stephen, his eyes sliding open.

“Stephen, you're not to talk to your brother that way.”

“He's a pest. Can't a fellow get some sleep?”

Stephen's eyes slid shut, and Grady turned to examine the view. Though nearly fourteen, he was still a child. His leg shook. With his breath he fogged shapes onto the glass.

“Did I tell you it's the longest in the world? Did I tell you—”

“Yes, Grady. Now please hush.”

They didn't understand. They were always telling him to hush. Well, all right, he would hush. He would never again utter a single word, and show them all.

Irene sneezed.

“Excuse me,” she said to the red-nosed lady sitting next to her.

“Heavens! You needn't apologize to
me
.”

“It's getting cold rather early this year,” Irene ventured, relieved beyond measure to discover that her neighbor spoke English.

“Indeed it is. It gets cold earlier every year, I find. Judgment Day must be nigh!”

Irene laughed. They started chatting. She was elegantly got up, this red-nosed lady. She knitted with her gloves on. From her hat extended a fanciful aigrette that danced and bobbed. Grady watched it, watched the moving mountains outside the window. (Some were already capped with snow.) Then the train turned, the sun came blazing into the compartment so sharply that the red-nosed lady murmured, “Goodness me,” shielded her eyes, pulled the curtain shut against it.

Well, that did it for Grady. After all, hadn't they just told him to look at the view? No one cared. He had finished his book. He had finished his puzzle. The tunnel would never arrive.

Snorting, he thrust his head behind the curtain.

“Grady, don't be rude.”

He didn't answer. And really, behind the curtain it was a different world. He could feel warmth on his face. He could revel in the delicious sensation of apartness that the gold-lit curtain bestowed, and that only the chatter of women interrupted. But it was rude.

“Oh, I know, I know!” (Whose voice was that? The red-nosed lady's?) “Oh yes, I know!” (Women always said that. They always knew.)

Harold had his face in a book. Stephen was a bully.

“Oh dear, yes!”

Whoever was talking, her voice was loud. His mother's voice he could not make out. His mother's voice was high but not loud, unless she shouted, which she tended to do lately. Outside the window an Alpine landscape spread out: fir groves, steep-rooted wooden houses, fields of dead sunflowers to which the stuffy compartment with its scratched mahogany paneling bore no discernible relation. This first-class compartment belonged to the gaslit ambience of stations and station hotels. It was a bubble of metropolitan, semipublic space sent out into the wide world, and from the confines of which its inmates could regard the uncouth spectacle of nature as a kind of
tableau vivant
. Still, the trappings of luxury did little to mask its fundamental discomforts: seats that pained the back, fetid air, dirty carpets.

They were on their way to Italy, Irene told Mrs. Warshaw (for this was the red-nosed lady's name). They were on their way to Italy for a tour—Milan, Venice, Verona, Florence, Rome (Irene counted off on her fingers), then a villa in Naples for the winter months—because her sons ought to see the world, she felt; American boys knew so little; they had studied French but could hardly speak a word. (Mrs. Warshaw, nodding fervently, agreed it was a shame.)

“And this will be your first trip to Italy?”

“The first time I've been abroad, actually, although my brother, Toby, came twenty years ago. He wrote some lovely letters for the
Hartford Evening Post
.”

“Marvelous! And how lucky you are to have three handsome sons as escorts. I myself have only a daughter.”

“Oh, but Harold's not my son! Harold's my cousin Millie's boy. He's the tutor.”

“How nice.” Mrs. Warshaw smiled assessingly at Harold. Yes, she thought, tutor he
is, and tutor he will always be. He looked the part of the poor relation, no doubt expected to play the same role in the lady's life abroad that his mother played in her life at home: the companion to whom she could turn when she needed consolation, or someone to torture. (Mrs. Warshaw knew the ways of the world.)

As for the boys, the brothers: the older one looked different. Darker. Different fathers, perhaps?

But Irene thought: She's right. I do—
did
—have three sons.

And Harold tried to hide inside his book. Only he thought: They ought to treat me with more respect. The boys ought to call me Mr. Prescott, not Cousin Hal, for they hardly know me. Also, he smarted at the dismissive tone with which Aunt Irene enunciated the word
tutor
, as if he were something just one step above the level of a servant. He deserved better than that, deserved better than to be at the beck and call of boys in whom art, music, the classical world, inspired boredom at best, outright contempt at worst. For though Uncle George, God rest his soul, had financed his education, it was not Uncle George who had gotten the highest scores in the history of the Classics Department. It was not Uncle George whose translations of Cicero had won a prize. Harold had done all that himself.

On the other hand, goodness knew he could never have afforded Europe on his own. To his charges he owed the blessed image of his mother's backyard in St. Louis, his mother in her gardening gloves and hat, holding her shears over the roses while on the porch the old chair in which he habitually spent his summers reading, or sleeping, or cursing—my God, he wasn't in it! It was empty! To them he owed this miracle.

“And will your husband be joining you in Naples?”

“I'm afraid my husband passed away last winter.”

“Ah.”

Mrs. Warshaw dropped a stitch.

The overdecorated compartment in which these five people were sitting was small—four feet by six feet. Really, it had the look of a theater stall, Harold decided, with its maroon velvet seats, its window like a stage, its curtain—well, like a curtain. Above the stained headrests wrapped in slipcovers embellished with the crest of the railway hung six prints in reedy frames: three yellowed views of Rome—Trajan's Column (the glass cracked), the Pantheon, the Colosseum (over which Mrs. Warshaw's aigrette danced); and opposite, as if to echo the perpetual contempt with which the Christian world regards the pagan, three views of Florence—Santa Croce, the Duomo, the Palazzo Vecchio guarded by Michelangelo's immense nude David—none of which Harold, who reverenced the classical, could see. Instead, when he glanced up from his book, it was the interior of the Pantheon that met his gaze, the orifice at the center of the dome throwing against its coffered ceiling a coin of light.

He put down his book. (It was Ovid's
Metamorphoses
, in Latin.) Across from him, under the Pantheon, Stephen sprawled, his long legs in their loose flannel trousers spread wide but bent at the knees, because finally they were too long, those legs, for a compartment in which three people were expected to sit facing three people for hours at a time. He was asleep, or pretending to be asleep, so that Harold could drink in his beauty for once with
impunity, while Mrs. Warshaw knitted, and Grady's head bobbed behind the curtain, and Aunt Irene said she knew, she knew. Stephen was motionless. Stephen was inscrutable. Still, Harold could tell that he too was alert to the tunnel's imminence; he could tell because every few minutes his eyes slotted open, the way the eyes of a doll do when you tilt back its head: green and gold, those eyes, like the sun-mottled grass beneath a tree.

He rarely spoke, Stephen. His body had the elongated musculature of a harp. His face was elusive in its beauty, like those white masks the Venetians wear at Carnival. Only sometimes he shifted his legs, in those flannel trousers that were a chaos of folds, a mountain landscape, valleys, passes, peaks. Most, Harold knew, if you punched them down, would flatten; but one would grow heavy and warm at his touch.

And now Harold had to put his book on his lap. He had to. He was twenty-two years old, scrawny, with a constitution his doctor described as “delicate”; yet when he closed his eyes, he and Stephen wore togas and stood together in a square filled with rational light. Or Harold was a great warrior, and Stephen the beloved
eremenos
over whose gore-drenched body he scattered kisses at battle's end. Or they were training together, naked, in the gymnasium.

Shameful thoughts! He must cast them out of his mind. He must find a worthier object for his adoration than this stupid, vulgar boy, this boy who, for all his facile handsomeness, would have hardly raised an eyebrow in the age of Socrates.

“Not Captain Warshaw, though! The Captain had a stomach of iron.”

What were they talking about? The Channel crossing, no doubt. Aunt Irene never tired of describing her travel woes. She detested boats, detested hotel beds, hated tunnels.
Whereas Harold, if anyone had asked him, would have said that he looked forward to the tunnel not as an end in itself, the way Grady did, but because the tunnel meant the south, meant Italy. For though it did not literally link Switzerland with Italy, on one side the towns had German names—Göschenen, Andermatt, Hospenthal—while on the other they had Italian names—Airolo, Ambri, Lurengo—and this fact in itself was enough to intoxicate him.

Now Stephen stretched; the landscape of his trousers surged, earthquakes leveled the peaks, the rivers were rerouted, and the crust of the earth churned up. It was as if a capricious god, unsatisfied with his handiwork, had decided to forge the world anew.

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