Eleanor Bourg Donlon
2 April 1902
My dear R.,
You well may wonder at my address!—especially since my last missive (which was of appalling length, I know) was sent to you from the fetid bosom of our revered island. Yes, my friend, I have fled sodden London and become, for the sake of my health, a temporary expatriate. I find the rest of the world as tedious as London can ever be, in season or out of season. I am not surprised. The world has been dull for as long as I have known it and I am not so arrogant as to suppose that it was not dull before I graced it with my presence.
“How goes your time abroad?”—that is the established question, and therefore you must ask it. I answer, “It is dull.” “How do you like Budapest?”—that is your next question (we shall obey the laws of polite society, not out of respect or devotion to their arbitrary rule, but because there are no original remarks left to us). I reply, “I do not like it.” “How long shall you be away?”—perhaps you may proffer this question next, as it is quite respectable and used in the best houses. “Forever,” is my response, “or, at least, until such time as I waste away from boredom.”
The city is dirty, the natives primitive, and the society nauseous. There is an English community, of course, and they might have been imported from one of our drawing rooms. Big-bosomed antique matrons with pale moustaches, timid, rabbit-brained daughters with no bosoms at all, manly sons with so much muscle that it takes up the cranial space usually allotted to brains, and ancient patriarchs who have been talking of the same things since the world began, who rely upon fashion to dictate their opinions. In sum, a tourist’s sample of the landed gentry, their tenacity of life and inability to live it. Immortal fathers who drag on their existences for the sole purpose of watching their sons suffer in penury. An age-old story, and one I know too well.
Even scandal has lost its power to entertain. Murder and mayhem could not rouse up interest in this jaded mind. A full-scale revolution might be the solution, especially if it brought motiveless and merciless violence. If a few of those matrons and their opinionated patriarchs were put to the sword, it might give us something interesting to look at in the streets. But who could have the energy to promote such an agenda? I am sure I do not. There are no men of spirit or soul amongst us anymore.
There is, of course, one advantage that Budapest can always boast over London. The city is refreshingly lacking in Magdalen Montagues. Yes, indeed, I flee my strange illness after the defection of that fascinating character, that woman who gathered up an ocean of artistic potential and squirreled it away to sacrilegious squander in a living tomb of virginal stagnancy. But enough of the lost M. I have come to recover from her descent into soulless mediocrity. “Why did I not come to you in Paris?” That will be your next question and I don’t quite know how to answer it. Perhaps I am enjoying the melodrama of the present moment—wandering aimlessly in miserable self-exile, the weary intellect pines for the woman he did not possess. Your recent letter scoffed at the purported power of MM. I expected it and valued the composing power of your scorn. Melodrama cannot touch, nor Papist incantations waver, your exquisitely self-possessed disgust. You have always maintained contemptuous tranquility better than I.
As for this traveling—well, at least it is something to do. I know you do not wonder at my world-weary indecision. It was you who first instructed me in the delights and the dullness of this aesthete existence.
Oh, I have not mentioned the boy. There has been one rather interesting meeting, one glimmer in this bleak sojourn. My hotel (with its amenities most foul) employs a seedy group of profligates—cleaning women who look as if they have never bothered to clean themselves, waiters who reek of the unswept streets, and a host of brainless young men so pock-faced as to startle the guests and make them (the guests) appreciate the squalor of their surroundings in contrast. Amongst this hoard of purposeless young dogs, there is one particularly repulsive young man who may have a spark of divine fire nestled behind his unprepossessing visage. He is so very ugly his face is almost beautiful—high cheekbones, a lean face, large, luminous, leering eyes, an abnormally large and flat nose, a wide, lipless mouth, and a bony, pointy chin. His name is Domokos Juhász and he is an orphan, or says he is. The incestuous progeny of Satan and his daughter Sin? He certainly looks the part.
Do not suppose I have any particular design on the boy. You know I have never inclined towards your favored breed of indulgence. I do not object to it, but neither am I drawn to it. Do as you will, as I know you certainly shall. But I am tempted to interest myself in young Domokos Juhász. His English as broken as his crooked, wicked-looking teeth, and when he speaks it seems as if the potential for exquisitely ugly blasphemy hovers all around us.
Each morning he greets me the same way.
“Jó reggelt, angolman,” he says to me in his broken English, “You go far today, igen?”
“All the way to nowhere,” I respond.
He laughs through his crooked teeth and smiles malevolently. “Yes, yes, Nowhere. Is a far place to go.”
Shall I corrupt him? He looks eminently corruptible. Shall I play Des Esseintes and instruct this youth in the arts of decadence? I fear not. Such an endeavor would require more energy than I have at present. But I mark him and find him curious. A budding young emissary for the demoniac sublime? Was not Satan himself captivating in all of his hideousness?
All of this musing means little, of course. I haven’t the energy to be bothered about it all. Tonight I am to be amused by company…! I shall not stand it long. When oblivion appears less tedious than this torpid reality, I shall take advantage of some fine and delicate potions I have with me. This is not compulsive melodrama; you know I am too world-weary to bother with petty addiction. The only solace this world can afford to us suffering intellects is an opportunity to escape it.
With a theatrically arrogant sneer becoming
to one of my temperament and your tutelage,
Post script—give my questionable love to S. or M. or whatever the names of your assemblage currently may be. I am sure that Budapest will soon grow stale and I shall be with you again in your reveling throng of dullards. This time we must needs avoid the Rue M., for there can be no necessity for any sort of repetition that might seem to demonstrate a monogamic trend.
* * *
I must write. I run mad. I must tell you… I must tell someone. If I do not order this tumult in my brain, I shall, I shall truly run mad. I am confused. I don’t understand what this is. I cannot even articulate what it is that I am feeling. And yet it fills me with abject terror and dread.
I know you are amazed. Perhaps I do truly run mad. In any case, it should prove an interesting study. And entertaining. I should be heartily entertained. You must find entertainment, then. I cannot.
I am calm. I am collected. I shall start at the beginning, if there is one. Shall you like the role of a father confessor? Laugh, my friend, and I shall try to laugh with you. Melodrama will cause you no disquiet. And your composure shall serve mine, as it so often has.
The evening was young and I was on my way to boredom and thinking of soothing nothingness, of drowning in Lethean stupor. Perverse fancy took me. I would walk. It seemed I was of a mind to drift amongst the ebb and flow, the bustle, the fleeting and the infinite (as it has been said). I tried to rouse myself to become the quintessential man of the crowd, but disgust disarmed the impulse to marvel at the spectacle of men, and I desired nothing more than to be aloof from the petty hoard while in its very midst. I made my way through the city, wandering aimlessly and watching the people. Fat, ugly women, stupid, brutish men. All of them hustling and bustling as if their existence were of significance. A pageant of pathetic mediocrity. If I could but awaken sufficient interest and energy I might really be brought to despair of mankind.
I had passed the Palace (like most, a smorgasbord of uninspired artistic ambitions), and I must have walked quite a way, for I found myself in the midst of a square with the ostentatiously imposing Mátyás Templom before me. This gargantuan Papist thing is, I am told, officially associated with their Madonna. Politics will always win out over sentimentality and superstition—the church is known by the name of King someone-or-other who threw forint at the construction. I pointedly ignored the church. I deserted the comfort of a London season for this desert just so I might be spared the unsettling effect of Popery. Yes, it is unsettling. It must be that which so disturbs me. Even you must admit that there is something behind all of this.
But I was describing the square. In keeping with the self-important, gaudy grandeur of the place, there is a pretentiously opulent column in the square—a groveling tribute to a Papist triune God, constructed after a plague or a war or some such business. How apt the poor are to waste their gratitude on tawdry edifices they haven’t the wits to disdain! I disregarded the column altogether and went to admire the status of Pallas Athena which stands in one corner of the square. My attention could not remain there long. The goddess reminded me uncomfortably of the lost Magdalen.
I thought of Domokos Juhász, and wondered if I should forego the planned evening in favor of leading that willing young sinner astray. It could prove interesting. Perhaps the role of Des Esseintes attracted me after all.
Suddenly I found myself walking resolutely towards the monstrosity. What drew me? I did not and even now do not know. Startled and uneasy, I drew myself up and halted, irresolute, on the doorstep, before the ornately carved door. A strange piece of work. Hideous, and somehow wonderful. Like the leering Domokos.
Would I be frightened away by the sacred dust of theatrical priestcraft? My reason rebelled against the uncertainty or timidity of my stomach. Against my very will, with Pallas and Domokos almost forgotten, I opened the door and passed inside.
Can you feel the turmoil of the ages? Can you stand on the steps of a building and tremble at the rush of history? I tell you that as I stood there, I could hear the footsteps of a legion of pilgrims. Mindless sheep, herding eagerly into the sullen darkness. The clash of battle I heard too, and felt the Turkish dishonor as fresh as if they stood there before me, championing this strange space, this weighty darkness, for Mohammed. Rape, horror, death, and despair. And something else. Something strange and oppressive. Is it that which they call peace? I call it hell. An inferno of unreal atmosphere.
What was it that unsettled me so? I do not know. And yet, I think it was the very sameness of the place that unnerved me. So far from the hideous, heavy silence of the oratory in which I once stood, moments after leaving the Montague, and yet so very like. Could she be outside, then, waiting for me?
I walked away from her ghost, and was lost in the flickering darkness of the empty church. I wandered into the medieval crypt and glanced into a highly decorated chapel. Dedicated to some timid boy martyr. All about me was darkness and that oppressive silence. I wandered in and about the arches and columns, through stark wooden benches where the credulous crowd congregates, glancing at artistic displays barely perceptible through the gloom.
The sacred box was there. The Tabernacle. The ark of the covenant. The gaudy idle of the ignorant poor, and the weapon of deluded princes. As I stood there, a feeling of gesamtkunstwerk overwhelmed me. As if I had stumbled upon an absolute synthesis I could not understand. It horrified me. I looked upon the strange, hideous prison, sick at the thought of what was contained inside it. Morbid Papists claim it holds the Divine physical. I know it to be worthless bread. But what if the doors were to open suddenly and inexplicably, drawn by the hand of the Magdalen, and the bloody limbs of the crucified were displayed? What if the sound in my ears was not the throbbing of my heart… but that of his?
I closed my eyes, but still I saw it. I stood, as if I had been turned to stone, trembling in the darkness of my closed eyes, powerless in the grasp of that basilisk vision. A strange, conflicted, trampled, bleeding mass. A bloody hand crushed, clutching against a scarlet thigh, the fingertips bruised, pressing into the flesh of the leg so fiercely that they left bloody indentations. The hand was pierced through, leaving a gaping hole so that stained bones were visible, and, from veins exposed and oozing, blood seeped out the open door. A shard of face, almost indistinguishable amidst the human wreckage. Was it a man? Was it real? Was it alive? This last question had a terrifying answer. Most horrible of all was that watchful, bloodshot eye, gazing fixedly, and with the vibrant gaze of a living being, upon me.
I should not have a stomach to turn sick at such a sight, imagined or truly seen. Have we not watched bull fights in Spain and delighted in the bloody wreckage of the field, whether bull or matador fell? Even so, I tell you that as I stared, appalled, through my mind’s eye, upon that hideous, contorted form, the misgiving in my heart turned to horror.
I was ill. I was mad. I turned from the sinister box, rushed back down through the columns, forced my way through the heavy doors, and hurried out into the refreshing coolness of the night. I could breathe again. There was no Magdalen on the steps, but I felt her penetrating gaze all around me and I ran from it.
You know I find life too pathetic to bother with reckless decadence. A life such as ours takes all the originality out of such encounters, exposing them for what they are—utilitarian animalism, to be had cheaply and valued not at all. But I tell you, I left that horrible place desperate for corporeal relief at its most puerile. I wanted flesh, and I wanted it quickly.
I found the girl on the street, as one does. Down by the Danube. I glanced into the ugly green depths of the river and thought of filth. And then I looked up and saw her. A miserable object, but well suited to my purpose. Blonde, with straggling hair, and small, dull eyes. Rather like that girl in Vienna. Do you remember her? She wept when we left, but I think it was because she had wanted more money.
We haggled over price. She did not seem to be especially interested in the negotiation, which also suited my sense of economy (which I do have, although you may scoff). I loathe the idea of paying exorbitant sums for such meager fare.
We wound together through dark, dirty streets. I did not bother to romance her, or even to touch her, and she did not seem to expect it.
The place we entered was tedious and familiar—like all those places are. And the room she showed me was a particularly disgusting specimen of its kind.
“Do move quickly,” I said with impatience. “I shall catch some foul disease if I stay here long.”
She could not understand me—her English was limited to the terms of bartering—but she began undressing mechanically. A familiar process, easily accomplished.
I watched, with little interest, glancing around the room to survey the filth and squalor, eager to have the thing done and be on my way. And then something caught my eye. There, entwined in the bars of the rickety little bed, was a worn, wooden string of beads. My blood ran cold. The throbbing heartbeat echoed once again in my ears, as if that box were hidden somewhere in the sparse, ugly room.
“Take that out,” I said angrily to the girl. “Out of the room.”
For the first time, she looked surprised. I thought she had not understood. I repeated myself, firmly, gesturing to show the object of my displeasure. I would not touch the thing itself. The girl’s filth I could endure as a disagreeable necessity. The taint of contact with that silent irritant I could avoid.
(Do not mock me or laugh at this careful reiteration of scene and dialogue. I know that the days of Clarissa are over, but you must be patient with me. Perhaps this retelling will free my mind from the confusion and distress that so completely overwhelm it now.)
The girl frowned and seemed to think—or to try to think. I don’t think she really could collect her perpetually scattered wits into anything like a coherent thought. Even so, after a time, she came to a conclusion. I stood there, shivering—the place was damp, as I said. The girl, half dressed as she was, crossed her arms gently, and slowly but definitely shook her head.
“I want it out!” I snapped. “Now! Throw it away! Out of the room! Into the hall. Into a corner. I don’t care. But get it out!”
She reached out for the beads, and held them for a moment, looking thoughtfully at the scratched, worn baubles in her hand, and then shook her head again.
I think I went quite mad then. Who cares for such a wretch? Have we ever felt anything so passionate as hatred for such a worthless object as a prostitute? But in that moment, I wanted very much to kill her. To batter her face into bloody nothingness. To tear that moment into shreds, and blind my soul to the memory. To silence the ceaseless throb of that demoniac heart.
I struck her once, hard. She fell in a heap on the ground, groveling, weeping, and clasping those damned beads to the reddening mark on her face.
I raised my hand to strike again. I would obliterate that mewling cow and rend the primitive necklace into a thousand pieces, scattering its false enchantment and ridding the room of that damned feeling.
And then it happened.
I tell you she was as unlike the Magdalen as she possibly could be—slight, blonde, waspish, and stupid. Soulless. Empty. Dead. And yet, as I stood there, staring at that trembling, revolting little object, I thought Magdalen Montague stood there before me, more horribly captivating and powerful in this wretched appearance than even my beleaguered memory presents her. Ever and ever, my brain shook with the report of the throbbing heartbeat. I moved away, and the vision shifted. The Magdalen merged with that appalling, bloody mass—that thing crammed into the box in that wretched church. The heartbeat mounted to a deafening pitch.
I felt dizzy. I was ill. I ran from the room and out into the night, like a mad animal.
I don’t know where I went. I wandered… I think I must have. I… was delirious, wandering… frightened even. Until that moment, I had not known what terror was. Everywhere I went, the Magdalen was there. Everywhere I went, the heartbeat echoed so loudly that my very soul shook with each throb.
I thought of death… freedom from this tedious world… escape from the hounding gaze of the Magdalen. Could I find peace… or silence at least… in annihilation?
Damn ellipses! I am driveling. And I blot my page like a clumsy schoolboy.
I could not bear nonexistence. To be nothing. To be nowhere. Do you understand? Can you understand? You have always called death a satire. You said a man could fear death or rule it, and you meant to rule it even to the point of deciding when you would die. When you were bored, you said. Bored of the world. But I cannot bear that. And I feared… I still fear that the thundering heartbeat would have no limits there. In Nowhere it would become absolute.
I cannot kill myself. Fear, as of a child contemplating his mortality for the first time, late at night, all alone—that fear stays my hand.
Perhaps I slept. If so, I dreamt of my father. Or perhaps he was there. But ever, ever, that horrible throbbing.
I awoke in a muddy ditch, somewhere in the countryside.
A man came. A farmer. Stolid, brainless fellow. The sort who has no soul to feel nor mind to endure. I tell you, in that moment, I truly envied him his brute peace. He brought me here. Domokos Juhász brought me in and forced me to rest. Or to go through the motions of rest. The ghost of the Montague with the pitiless sound of her God, vengeful in his approach, ceaseless in the throbbing of his heartbeat, has followed me.
Morning has come. It is bright and bustling; discordant and deafening. Like that accursed throbbing in my brain… in my very soul. I cannot sleep. I write like a madman. I made a pretense of composure in my opening. But I cannot maintain it now. I know I am exposed to the censorious critique of your mind. Your strength will not comprehend this… weakness of mine. I know you of old.
Damn the mongrel horde. They do not feel. They do not think. Why can they not be silent?
Domokos Juhász sits beside me, quietly watching, his wicked face darkened. What is he thinking? Is he thinking of me? Is he thinking I am mad? I wish I could describe him to you… describe him as he sits there. Watching. Watching.
Damn the Montague. What has she done to me? Must I go further to escape her? I don’t understand this. What strange power does she have over me?
Perhaps I shall travel. Where shall I go? Anywhere but here. Not back to London. Not to Paris. I could not bear your scornful repulse—and you would scorn me. You could not help it. You are ever true to yourself. It is I who waver. Or do I?
Shall I burn this? Am I mad? Elsewise the world is mad, and I the tortured sane trapped within it.
Domokos has left me. He has gone out, into the street. There is a man there. One of their priests. They are talking… there… in the street. I think they are speaking of me. What is Domokos saying? They have come in. They are downstairs.
If he comes to gloat over me, I shall not acknowledge him. I shall… I shall… Perhaps they will not come. Perhaps they will go to another… room.
I hear them in the hall. They are coming to me. Domokos Juhász has brought the priest, and they are approaching my door. I am weeping like a child. Damn.
* * *
I leave Budapest tomorrow.
Eleanor Bourg Donlon, a recent graduate of the University of Virginia (M.A., English 2007), is a freelance writer and editor based out of Charlottesville, VA. Her work has appeared in Dappled Things and The Saint Austin Review. Her first children’s book, “Benedict Percival Florens, III”, will be published by Catholic Kids Press in the fall of 2007. More of her work is available at eleanorbourgdonlon.com.