Thursday, October 29, 2020

Gene Wolfe / Kevin Malone


by Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe / Kevin Malone (A short story in English)

MARCELLA and I were married in April. I lost my position
with Ketterly, Bruce & Drake in June, and by August we
were desperate. We kept the apartment-I think we both
felt that if we lowered our standards there would be no
chance to raise them again-but the rent tore at our small
savings. All during July I had tried to get a job at another
brokerage firm, and by August I was calling fraternity broth-
ers I had not seen since graduation, and expressing an entire
willingness to work in whatever businesses their fathers
owned. One of them, I think, must have mailed us the ad-

Attractive young couple, well educated and well connected,
will receive free housing, generous living allowance for min-
imal services.

There was a telephone number, which I omit for reasons
that will become clear.

I showed the clipping to Marcella, who was lying with her
cocktail shaker on the chaise longue. She said, "Why not,"
and I dialed the number.

The telephone buzzed in my ear, paused, and buzzed
again. I allowed myself to go limp in my chair. It seemed
absurd to call at all; for the advertisement to have reached
us that day, it must have appeared no later than yesterday
morning. If the position were worth having-

"The Pines."

I pulled myself together. "You placed a classified ad. For
an attractive couple, well educated and the rest of it."

"I did not, sir. However, I believe my master did. I am
Priest, the butler."

I looked at Marcella, but her eyes were closed. "Do you
know, Priest, if the opening has been filled?"

"I think not, sir. May I ask your age?"

I told him. At his request, I also told him Marcella's (she
was two years younger than I), and gave him the names of
the schools we had attended, described our appearance, and
mentioned that my grandfather had been a governor of Vir-
ginia, and that Marcella's uncle had been ambassador to
France. I did not tell him that my father had shot himself
rather than face bankruptcy, or that Marcella's family had
disowned her-but I suspect he guessed well enough what
our situation was.

"You will forgive me, sir, for asking so many questions. We
are almost a half day's drive, and I would not wish you to be

I told him that I appreciated that, and we set a date-
Tuesday of the next week-on which Marcella and I were
to come out for an interview with "the master." Priest had
hung up before I realized that I had failed to learn his em-
ployer's name.

During the teens and twenties some very wealthy people
had designed estates in imitation of the palaces of the Italian
Renaissance. The Pines was one of them, and better pre-
served than most-the fountain in the courtyard still played,
the marbles were clean and unyellowed, and if no red-robed
cardinal descended the steps to a carriage blazoned with the
Borgia arms, one felt that he had only just gone. No doubt
the place had originally been called La Capanna or // Eremo,

A serious looking man in dark livery opened the door for
us. For a moment he stared at us across the threshold. "Very
well . . ." he said.

"I beg your pardon?"

"I said that you are looking very well." He nodded to each
of us in turn, and stood aside. "Sir. Madame. I am Priest."

"Will your master be able to see us?"

For a moment some exiled expression-it might have been
amusement-seemed to tug at his solemn face. "The music
room, perhaps, sir?"

I said I was sure that would be satisfactory, and followed
him. The music room held a Steinway, a harp, and a dozen
or so comfortable chairs; it overlooked a rose garden in which
old remontant varieties were beginning that second season
that is more opulent though less generous than the first. A
kneeling gardener was weeding one of the beds.

"This is a wonderful house," Marcella said. "I really didn't
think there was anything like it left. I told him you'd have a
John collins-all right? You were looking at the roses."

"Perhaps we ought to get the job first."

"I can't call him back now, and if we don't get it, at least
we'll have had the drinks."

I nodded to that. In five minutes they arrived, and we
drank them and smoked cigarettes we found in a humidor
-English cigarettes of strong Turkish tobacco. A maid came,
and said that Mr. Priest would be much obliged if we would
let him know when we would dine. I told her that we would
eat whenever it was convenient, and she dropped a little
curtsy and withdrew.

"At least," Marcella commented, "he's making us com-
fortable while we wait."

Dinner was lamb in aspic, and a salad, with a maid-an-
other maid-and a footman to serve while Priest stood by to
see that it was done properly. We ate at either side of a small
table on a terrace overlooking another garden, where antique
statues faded to white glimmerings as the sun set.

Priest came forward to light the candles. "Will you require
me after dinner, sir?"

"Will your employer require us; that's the question."

"Bateman can show you to your room, sir, when you are
ready to retire. Julia will see to madame."

I looked at the footman, who was carrying in fruit on a

"No, sir. That is Carter. Bateman is your man."

"And Julia," Marcella put in, "is my maid, I suppose?"

"Precisely." Priest gave an almost inaudible cough. "Per-
haps, sir-and madame-you might find this useful." He
drew a photograph from an inner pocket and handed it to

It was a black and white snapshot, somewhat dog-eared.
Two dozen people, most of them in livery of one kind or
another, stood in brilliant sunshine on the steps at the front
of the house, men behind women. There were names in India
ink across the bottom of the picture: James Sutton, Edna
DeBuck, Lloyd Bateman . . .

"Our staff, sir."

I said, "Thank you, Priest. No, you needn't stay tonight."

The next morning Bateman shaved me in bed. He did it
very well, using a straight razor and scented soap applied
with a brush. I had heard of such things-I think my grand-
father's valet may have shaved him like that before the First
World War-but I had never guessed that anyone kept up
the tradition. Bateman did, and I found I enjoyed it. When
he had dressed me, he asked if I would breakfast in my room.

"I doubt it," I said. "Do you know my wife's plans?"

"I think it likely she will be on the South Terrace, sir. Julia
said something to that effect as I was bringing in your water."

"I'll join her then."

"Of course, sir." He hesitated.

"I don't think I'll require a guide, but you might tell my
wife I'll be with her in ten minutes or so."

Bateman repeated his, "Of course, sir," and went out. The
truth was that I wanted to assure myself that everything I
had carried in the pockets of my old suit-car keys, wallet,
and so on-had been transferred to the new one he had laid
out for me; and I did not want to insult him, if I could prevent
it, by doing it in front of him.

Everything was where it should be, and I had a clean hand-
kerchief in place of my own only slightly soiled one. I pulled
it out to look at (Irish linen) and a flutter of green came with
it-two bills, both fifties.

Over eggs Benedict I complimented Marcella on her new
dress, and asked if she had noticed where it had been made.

"Rowe's. It's a little shop on Fifth Avenue."

"You know it, then. Nothing unusual?"

She answered, "No, nothing unusual," more quickly than
she should have, and I knew that there had been money in
her new clothes too, and that she did not intend to tell me
about it.

"We'll be going home after this. I wonder if they'll want
me to give this jacket back."

"Going home?" She did not look up from her plate. "Why?
And who are 'they'?"

"Whoever owns this house."

"Yesterday you called him he. You said Priest talked about
the master, so that seemed logical enough. Today you're afraid
to deal with even presumptive masculinity."

I said nothing.

"You think he spent the night in my room-they separated
us, and you thought that was why, and you just waited
there-was it under a sheet?-for me to scream or some-
thing. And I didn't."

"I was hoping you had, and I hadn't heard you."

"Nothing happened, dammit! I went to bed and went to
sleep; but as for going home, you're out of your mind. Can't
you see we've got the job? Whoever he is-wherever he is-
he likes us. We're going to stay here and live like human
beings, at least for a while."

And so we did. That day we stayed on from hour to hour.
After that, from day to day; and at last from week to week.
I felt like Klipspringer, the man who was Jay Gatsby's guest
for so long that he had no other home-except that Klip-
springer, presumably, saw Gatsby from time to time, and no
doubt made agreeable conversation, and perhaps even
played the piano for him. Our Gatsby was absent. I do not
mean that we avoided him, or that he avoided us; there were
no rooms we were forbidden to enter, and no times when
the servants seemed eager that we should play golf or swim
or go riding. Before the good weather ended, we had two
couples up for a weekend; and when Bette Windgassen asked
if Marcella had inherited the place, and then if we were
renting it, Marcella said, "Oh, do you like it?" in such a way
that they left, I think, convinced that it was ours, or as good
as ours.

And so it was. We went away when we chose, which was
seldom, and returned when we chose, quickly. We ate on the
various terraces and balconies, and in the big, formal dining
room, and in our own bedrooms. We rode the horses, and
drove the Mercedes and the cranky, appealing old Jaguar as
though they were our own. We did everything, in fact, except
buy the groceries and pay the taxes and the servants; but
someone else was doing that; and every morning I found
one hundred dollars in the pockets of my clean clothes. If
summer had lasted forever, perhaps I would still be there.

The poplars lost their leaves in one October week; at the
end of it I fell asleep listening to the hum of the pump that
emptied the swimming pool. When the rain came, Marcella
turned sour and drank too much. One evening I made the
mistake of putting my arm about her shoulders as we sat
before the fire in the trophy room.

"Get your filthy hands off me," she said. "I don't belong
to you.

"Priest, look here. He hasn't said an intelligent word to me
all day or done a decent thing, and now he wants to paw me
all night."

Priest pretended, of course, that he had not heard her.

"Look over here! Damn it, you're a human being, aren't

He did not ignore that. "Yes, madame, I am a human

"I'll say you are. You're more of a man than he is. This is
your place, and you're keeping us for pets-is it me you want?
Or him? You sent us the ad, didn't you? He thinks you go
into my room at night, or he says he does. Maybe you really
come to his-is that it?"

Priest did not answer. I said, "For God's sake, Marcella."

"Even if you're old, Priest, I think you're too much of a
man for that." She stood up, tottering on her long legs and
holding on to the stonework of the fireplace. "If you want
me, take me. If this house is yours, you can have me. We'll
send him to Vegas-or throw him on the dump."

In a much softer tone than he usually used. Priest said, "I
don't want either of you, madame."

I stood up then, and caught him by the shoulders. I had
been drinking too, though only half or a quarter as much as
Marcella; but I think it was more than that-it was the ac-
cumulated frustration of all the days since Jim Bruce told
me I was finished. I outweighed Priest by at least forty
pounds, and I was twenty years younger. I said: "I want to

"Release me, sir, please."

"I want to know who it is; I want to know now. Do you see
that fire? Tell me, Priest, or I swear I'll throw you in it."

His face tightened at that. "Yes," he whispered, and I let
go of his shoulders. "It was not the lady, sir. It was you. I
want that understood this time."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"I'm not doing this because of what she said."

"You aren't the master, are you? For God's sake tell the

"I have always told the truth, sir. No, I am not the master.
Do you remember the picture I gave you?"

I nodded.

"You discarded it. I took the liberty, sir, of rescuing it from
the wastecan in your bathroom. I have it here." He reached
into his coat and pulled it out, just as he had on the first day,
and handed it to me.

"It's one of these? One of the servants?"

Priest nodded and pointed with an impeccably manicured
forefinger to the figure at the extreme right of the second
row. The name beneath it was Kevin Malone.


Silently, Priest nodded again.

I had examined the picture on the night he had given it
to me, but I had never paid special attention to that particular
half-inch-high image. The person it represented might have^
been a gardener, a man of middle age, short and perhaps
stocky. A soft, sweat-stained hat cast a shadow on his face.

"I want to see him." I looked toward Marcella, still leaning
against the stonework of the mantel. "We want to see him."

"Are you certain, sir?"

"Damn you, get him!"

Priest remained where he was, staring at me; I was so
furious that I think I might have seized him as I had threat-
ened and pushed him into the fire.

Then the French windows opened, and there came a gust
of wind. For an instant I think I expected a ghost, or some
turbulent elemental spirit. I felt that pricking at the neck that
comes when one reads Poe alone at night.

The man I had seen in the picture stepped into the room.
He was a small and very ordinary man in worn khaki, but
he left the windows wide behind him, so that the night en-
tered with him, and remained in the room for as long as we

"You own this house," I said. "You're Kevin Malone."

He shook his head. "I am Kevin Malone-this house owns

Marcella was standing straighter now, drunk, yet still at
that stage of drunkenness in which she was conscious of her
condition and could compensate for it. "It owns me too," she
said, and walking almost normally she crossed the room to
the baronial chair Malone had chosen, and managed to sit
down at his feet.

"My father was the man-of-all-work here. My mother was
the parlor maid. I grew up here, washing the cars and raking
leaves out of the fountains. Do you follow me? Where did
you grow up?"

I shrugged. "Various places. Richmond, New York, three
years in Paris. Until I was sent off to school we lived in hotels,

"You see, then. You can understand." Malone smiled for
a moment. "You're still re-creating the life you had as a child,
or trying to. Isn't that right? None of us can be happy any
other way, and few of us even want to try."

"Thomas Wolfe said you can't go home again," I ventured.

"That's right, you can't go home. There's one place where
we can never go-haven't you thought of that? We can dive
to the bottom of the sea and some day NASA will fly us to
the stars, and I have known men to plunge into the past-
or the future-and drown. But there's one place where we
can't go. We can't go where we are already. We can't go home,
because our minds, and our hearts, and our immortal souls
are already there."

Not knowing what to say, I nodded, and that seemed to
satisfy him. Priest looked as calm as ever, but he made no
move to shut the windows, and I sensed that he was somehow

"I was put into an orphanage when I was twelve, but I
never forgot The Pines. I used to tell the other kids about
it, and it got bigger and better every year; but I knew what
I said could never equal the reality."

He shifted in his seat, and the slight movement of his legs
sent Marcella sprawling, passed out. She retained a certain
grace still; I have always understood that it is the reward of
studying ballet as a child.

Malone continued to talk. "They'll tell you it's no longer
possible for a poor boy with a second-rate education to make
a fortune. Well, it takes luck; but I had it. It also takes the
willingness to risk it all. I had that too, because I knew that
for me anything under a fortune was nothing. I had to be
able to buy this place-to come back and buy The Pines, and
staff it and maintain it. That's what I wanted, and nothing
less would make any difference."

"You're to be congratulated," I said. "But why . . ."

He laughed. It was a deep laugh, but there was no humor
in it. "Why don't I wear a tie and eat my supper at the end
of the big table? I tried it. I tried it for nearly a year, and
every night I dreamed of home. That wasn't home, you see,
wasn't The Pines. Home is three rooms above the stables. I
live there now. I live at home, as a man should."

"It seems to me that it would have been a great deal simpler
for you to have applied for the job you fill now."

Malone shook his head impatiently. "That wouldn't have
done it at all. I had to have control. That's something I
learned in business-to have control. Another owner would
have wanted to change things, and maybe he would even
have sold out to a subdivider. No. Besides, when I was a boy
this estate belonged to a fashionable young couple. Suppose
a man of my age had bought it? Or a young woman, some
whore." His mouth tightened, then relaxed. "You and your
wife were ideal. Now I'll have to get somebody else, that's
all. You can stay the night, if you like. I'll have you driven
into the city tomorrow morning."

I ventured, "You needed us as stage properties, then. I'd
be willing to stay on those terms."

Malone shook his head again. "That's out of the question.
I don't need props, I need actors. In business I've put on
little shows for the competition, if you know what I mean,
and sometimes even for my own people. And I've learned
that the only actors who can really do justice to their parts
are the ones who don't know what they are."

"Really-" I began.

He cut me off with a look, and for a few seconds we
stared at one another. Something terrible lived behind
those eyes.

Frightened despite all reason could tell me, I said, "I un-
derstand," and stood up. There seemed to be nothing else
to do. "I'm glad, at least, that you don't hate us. With your
childhood it would be quite natural if you did. Will you ex-
plain things to Marcella in the morning? She'll throw herself
at you, no matter what I say."

He nodded absently.

"May I ask one question more? I wondered why you had
to leave and go into the orphanage. Did your parents die or
lose their places?"

Malone said, "Didn't you tell him, Priest? It's the local leg-
end. I thought everyone knew."

The butler cleared his throat. "The elder Mr. Malone-
he was the stableman here, sir, though it was before my time.
He murdered Betty Malone, who was one of the maids. Or
at least he was thought to have, sir. They never found the
body, and it's possible he was accused falsely."

"Buried her on the estate," Malone said. "They found
bloody rags and the hammer, and he hanged himself in the

"I'm sorry ... I didn't mean to pry."

The wind whipped the drapes like wine-red flags. They
knocked over a vase and Priest winced, but Malone did not
seem to notice. "She was twenty years younger and a tramp,"
he said. "Those things happen."

I said, "Yes, I know they do," and went up to bed.

I do not know where Marcella slept. Perhaps there on the
carpet, perhaps in the room that had been hers, perhaps
even in Malone's servants' flat over the stables. I breakfasted
alone on the terrace, then-without Bateman's assistance-
packed my bags.

I saw her only once more. She was wearing a black silk
dress; there were circles under her eyes and her head must
have been throbbing, but her hand was steady. As I walked
out of the house, she was going over the Sevres with a pea-
cock-feather duster. We did not speak.

I have sometimes wondered if I were wholly wrong in
anticipating a ghost when the French windows opened. How
did Malone know the time had come for him to appear?

Of course I have looked up the newspaper reports of the
murder. All the old papers are on microfilm at the library,
and I have a great deal of time.

There is no mention of a child. In fact, I get the impression
that the identical surnames of the murderer and his victim
were coincidental. Malone is a common enough one, and
there were a good many Irish servants then.

Sometimes I wonder if it is possible for a man-even a rich
man-to be possessed, and not to know it.


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