The Story of the Siren by E. M. Forster

Few things have been more beautiful than my note book on the Deist Controversy as it fell downward through the waters of the Mediterranean. It dived, like a piece of black slate, but opened soon, disclosing leaves of pale green, which quivered into blue. Now it had vanished, now it was a piece of magical india rubber stretching out to infinity, now it was a book again, but bigger than the book of all knowledge. It grew more fantastic as it reached the bottom, where a puff of sand welcomed it and obscured it from view. But it reappeared, quite sane though a little tremulous, lying decently open on its back, while unseen fingers fidgeted among its leaves.

“It is such a pity” said my aunt, “that you will not finish your work in the Hotel. Then you would be free to enjoy yourself and this would never have happened.”

“Nothing of it but will change into something rich and strange,” warbled the chaplain, while his sister said “Why it’s gone into the water.” As for the boatmen, one of them laughed, while the other, without a word of warning, stood up and began to take his clothes off.

“Holy Moses!” cried the Colonel. “Is the fellow mad?”

“Yes, thank him dear,” said my aunt: “that is to say tell him he is very kind, but perhaps another time.”

“All the same I do want my book back,” I complained. “It’s for my Fellowship Dissertation. There won’t be much left of it by another time.”

“I have an idea,” said some woman or other through her parasol. “Let us leave this child of nature to dive for the book while we go on to the other grotto. We can land him either on this rock or on the ledge inside, and he will be ready when we return.”

The idea seemed good; and I improved it by saying I would be left behind too, to lighten the boat. So the two of us were deposited outside the little grotto on a great sunlit rock that guarded the harmonies within. Let us call them blue, though they suggest rather the spirit of what is clean, cleanliness passed from the domestic to the sublime, the cleanliness of all the sea gathered together and radiating light. The Blue Grotto at Capri contains only more blue water, not bluer water. That colour and that spirit is the heritage of every cave in the Mediterranean into which the sun can shine and the sea flow.

As soon as the boat left I realised how imprudent I had been to trust myself on a sloping rock with an unknown Sicilian. With a jerk he became alive, seizing my arm and saying “Go to the end of the Grotto and I will show you something beautiful.”

He made me jump off the rock on to the ledge over a dazzling crack of sea, he drew me away from the light till I was standing on the tiny beach of sand which emerged like powdered turquoise at the further end. There he left me with his clothes, and returned swiftly to the summit of the entrance-rock. For a moment he stood naked in the brilliant sun, looking down at the spot where the book lay. Then he crossed himself, raised his hands above his head, and dived.

If the book was wonderful, the man is past all description. His effect was that of a silver statue, alive beneath the sea, through whom life throbbed in blue and green. Something infinitely happy, infinitely wise—but it was impossible that it should emerge from the depths sunburnt and dripping, holding the note book on the Deist Controversy between its teeth.

A gratuity is generally expected by those who bathe. Whatever I offered, he was sure to want more, and I was disinclined for an argument in a place so beautiful and also so solitary. It was a relief that he should say in conversational tones “In a place like this one might see the Siren.”

I was delighted with him for thus falling into the key of his surroundings. We had been left together in a magic world, apart from all the commonplaces that are called reality, a world of blue whose floor was the sea and whose walls and roof of rock trembled with the sea’s reflections. Here, only the fantastic would be tolerable, and it was in that spirit that I echoed his words. “One might easily see the Siren.”

He watched me curiously while he dressed. I was parting the sticky leaves of the note book as I sat on the strip of sand.

“Ah!” he said at last. “You may have read the little book that was printed last year. Who would have thought that our Siren would have given the foreigners pleasure!”

(I read it afterwards. Its account is, not unnaturally, incomplete, in spite of there being a woodcut of the young person, and the words of her song.)

“She comes out of this blue water, doesn’t she,” I suggested “and sits on the rock at the entrance, combing her hair.”

I wanted to draw him out, for I was interested in his sudden gravity, and there was a suggestion of irony in his last remark that puzzled me.

“Have you ever seen her?”

“Often and often.”

“I never.”

“But you have heard her sing!”

He put on his coat and said impatiently, “How can she sing under the water? Who could? She sometimes tries, but nothing comes from her but great bubbles.”

“She should climb on to the rock then.”

“How can she?” he cried again, quite angry. “The priests have blessed the air, so she cannot breathe it, and blessed the rocks, so that she cannot sit on them. But the sea no man can bless, because it is too big, and always changing. Therefore she lives in the sea.”

I was silent.

At this his face took a gentler expression. He looked at me as though something was on his mind, and going out to the entrance rock, gazed at the external blue. Then returning into our twilight he said “As a rule only good people see the Siren.”

I made no comment. There was a pause, and he continued. “That is a very strange thing, and the priests do not know how to account for it; for she of course is wicked. Not only those who fast and go to mass are in danger, but even those who are merely good in daily life. No one in the village had seen her for two generations. I am not surprised. We all cross ourselves before we enter the water, but it is unnecessary. Giuseppe, we thought, was safer than most. We loved him, and many of us he loved: but that is a different thing to being good.”

I asked who Giuseppe was.

“That day—I was seventeen and my brother was twenty and a great deal stronger than I was and it was the year when the visitors, who have brought such prosperity and so many alterations into the village, first began to come. One English lady in particular, of very high birth, came, and has written a book about the place, and it was through her that the Improvement Syndicate was formed, which is about to connect the hotels with the station by means of a Funicular railway.”

“Don’t tell me about that lady in here,” I observed.

“That day we took her and her friends to see the grottoes. As we rowed close under the cliffs I put out my hand, as one does, and caught a little crab, and having pulled off its claws offered it as a curiosity. The ladies groaned, but a gentleman was pleased, and held out money. Being inexperienced, I refused it, saying that his pleasure was sufficient reward! Giuseppe, who was rowing behind, was very angry with me and reached out with his hand and hit me on the side of the mouth, so that a tooth cut my lip, and I bled. I tried to hit him back, but he always was too quick for me, and as I stretched round he kicked me under the arm pit, so that for a moment I could not even row. There was a great noise among the ladies, and I heard afterwards that they were planning to take me away from my brother and train me as a waiter. That at all events never came to pass.

“When we reached the grotto—not here, but a larger one—the gentleman was very anxious that one of us should dive for money, and the ladies consented, as they sometimes do. Giuseppe who had discovered how much pleasure it gives foreigners to see us in the water, refused to dive for anything but silver, and the gentleman threw in a two lira piece.

“Just before my brother sprang off he caught sight of me holding my bruise, and crying, for I could not help it. He laughed and said ‘this time, at all events, I shall not see the Siren!’ and went into the blue water without crossing himself. But he saw her.”

He broke off, and accepted a cigarette. I watched the golden entrance rock and the quivering walls, and the magic water through which great bubbles constantly rose. At last he dropped his hot ash into the ripples and turned his head away, and said:

“He came up without the coin. We pulled him into the boat, and he was so large that he seemed to fill it, and so wet that we could not dress him. I have never seen a man so wet. I and the gentleman rowed back, and we covered Giuseppe with sacking and propped him up in the stern.”

“He was drowned, then?” I murmured, supposing that to be the point.

“He was not” he cried angrily. “He saw the Siren. I told you.”

I was silenced again.

“We put him to bed, though he was not ill. The doctor came, and took money, and the priest came and took more and smothered him with incense and spattered him with holy water. But it was no good. He was too big—like a piece of the sea. He kissed the thumb-bones of San Biagio and they never dried till evening.”

“What did he look like?” I ventured.

“Like anyone who has seen the Siren. If you have seen her ‘often and often’ how is it you do not know? Unhappy, unhappy, unhappy because he knew everything. Every living thing made him unhappy because he knew it would die. And all he cared to do was to sleep.”

I bent over my note book.

“He did no work, he forgot to eat, he forgot whether he had his clothes on. All the work fell on me, and my sister had to go out to service. We tried to make him into a beggar, but he was too robust to inspire pity, and as for an idiot, he had not the right look in his eyes. He would stand in the street looking at people, and the more he looked at them the more unhappy he became. When a child was born he would cover his face with his hands. If anyone was married—he was terrible then, and would frighten them as they came out of church. Who would have believed he would marry himself! I caused that, I. I was reading out of the paper how a girl at Ragusa had ‘gone mad through bathing in the sea.’ Giuseppe got up, and in a week he and that girl came in together.

“He never told me anything, but it seems that he went straight to her house, broke into her room, and carried her off. She was the daughter of a rich mine-owner, so you may imagine our peril. Her father came down, with a clever lawyer, but they could do no more than I. They argued and they threatened, but at last they had to go back and we lost nothing—that is to say, no money. We took Giuseppe and Maria to the Church and had them married. Ugh! that wedding! The priest made no jokes afterwards and coming out the children threw stones…. I think I would have died to make her happy; but as always happens, one could do nothing.”

“Were they unhappy together then?”

“They loved each other, but love is not happiness. We can all get love. Love is nothing. Love is everywhere since the death of Jesus Christ. I had two people to work for now, for she was like him in everything—one never knew which of them was speaking. I had to sell our own boat and work under the bad old man you have to-day. Worst of all, people began to hate us. The children first—everything begins with them—and then the women and last of all the men. For the cause of every misfortune was—you will not betray me?”

I promised good faith, and immediately he burst into the frantic blasphemy of one who has escaped from supervision, cursing the priests, the lying filthy cheating immoral priests who had ruined his life, who had murdered his brother and the girl, whom he dared not murder back because they held the key of heaven and could ruin him in the next life too. “Thus are we tricked!” was his cry and he stood up and kicked at the azure ripples with his feet, till he had obscured them with a cloud of sand.

I too was moved. The story of Giuseppe, for all its absurdity and superstition, came nearer to reality than anything I had known before. I don’t know why, but it filled me with desire to help others—the greatest of all our desires I suppose, and the most fruitless. The desire soon passed.

“She was about to have a child. That was the end of everything. People said to me ‘When will your charming nephew be born? What a cheerful attractive child he will be, with such a father and mother!’ I kept my face steady and replied ‘I think he may be. Out of sadness shall come gladness’—it is one of our proverbs. And my answer frightened them very much, and they told the priests, who were frightened too. Then the whisper started that the child would be Anti-Christ: you need not be afraid: he was never born.

“An old witch began to prophesy, and no one stopped her. Giuseppe and the girl, she said, had silent devils, who could do little harm. But the child would always be speaking and laughing and perverting, and last of all he would go into the sea and fetch up the Siren into the air and all the world would see her and hear her sing. As soon as she sang, the Seven Vials would be opened and the Pope would die and Mongibello flame, and the veil of Santa Agata would be burnt. Then the boy and the Siren would marry, and together they would rule the world, for ever and ever.

“The whole village was in tumult, and the hotel keepers became alarmed, for the tourist season was just beginning. They met together and decided that Giuseppe and the girl must be sent inland until the child was born, and they subscribed the money. The night before they were to start there was a full moon and wind from the east, and all along the coast the sea shot up over the cliffs in silver clouds. It is a wonderful sight, and Maria said she must see it once more.

“‘Do not go,’ I said. ‘I saw the priest go by, and someone with him. And the hotel keepers do not like you to be seen, and if we displease them also we shall starve.’

“‘I want to go,’ she replied. ‘The sea is stormy, and I may never feel it again.’

“‘No, he is right’ said Giuseppe. ‘Do not go—or let one of us go with you.’

“‘I want to go alone,’ she said; and she went alone.

“I tied up their luggage in a piece of cloth, and then I was so unhappy at thinking I should lose them that I went and sat down by my brother and put my arm round his neck, and he put his arm round me, which he had not done for more than a year, and we remained thus I don’t remember how long.

“Suddenly the door flew open and moon-light and wind came in together, and a child’s voice said laughing ‘They have pushed her over the cliffs into the sea.’

“I stepped to the drawer where I keep my knives, and the child ran away.

“‘Sit down again’ said Giuseppe—Giuseppe of all people! ‘If she is dead, why should others die too?’

‘I guess who it is,’ I cried, ‘and I will kill him.’

“I was almost out of the door but he tripped me up and kneeling upon me took hold of both my hands and sprained my wrists; first my right one, then my left. No one but Giuseppe would have thought of such a thing. It hurt more than you would suppose, and I fainted. When I woke up, he was gone, and I have never seen him again.”

But Giuseppe disgusted me.

“I told you he was wicked,” he said. “No one would have expected him to see the Siren.”

“How do you know he did see her then?”

“Because he did not see her ‘often and often’ but once.”

“Why do you love him if he is wicked?”

He laughed for the first time. That was his only reply.

“Is that the end?” I asked, feeling curiously ashamed.

“I never killed her murderer, for by the time my wrists were well, he was in America; and one cannot kill a priest. As for Giuseppe, he went all over the world too, looking for someone else who has seen the Siren—either a man, or, better still, a woman, for then the child might still have been born. At last he came to Liverpool,—is the district probable?—and there he began to cough, and spat blood until he died.

“I do not suppose there is anyone living now who has seen her. There has seldom been more than one in a generation, and never in my life will there be both a man and a woman from whom that child can be born, who will fetch up the Siren from the sea, and destroy silence, and save the world!”

“Save the world?” I cried. “Did the prophecy end like that?”

He leant back against the rock, breathing deep. Through all the blue-green reflections I saw him colour. I heard him say: “Silence and loneliness cannot last for ever. It may be a hundred or a thousand years, but the sea lasts longer, and she shall come out of it and sing.” I would have asked him more, but at that moment the whole cave darkened, and there rode in through its narrow entrance the returning boat.

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